I have followed the media attention given to the Southern Baptists' recent decision to maintain their position that the Bible teaches that pastors should be men. This follows on last year's decision to maintain their position that wives are to submit, graciously, to their husbands. I understand these positions based on Scripture (primarily Paul's writings), and I further understand that these positions are not based on the idea that women are inferior to men. What I am not sure that I understand is how to factor in the context of history into which Paul's writings were penned when interpreting these Scriptures. Also, I've heard at least one non-Southern Baptist theologian state that the role of women described in Paul's writings is a "symbolic" mandate. That is, in the case of marriage between Christians, the marriage is symbolic of the relationship between Christ and His bride (the Church) and is to be a living testimony of this relationship to the world. For a wife to submit to her husband as to Christ, is an act of obedience to God, not just to her husband.


I should begin this answer by stating that there are a variety of opinions on these issues, not only in the church at-large, but also in the Reformed community of which I and Third Millennium are a part.

On the issue of women's ordination, we affirm only the ordination of men. We understand the argument that Paul's stance was culturally conditioned, and that ordination should not be prohibited to women in our culture. However, we believe that Paul's argument was not contingent on cultural standards, but on creational ordinances. Specifically, Paul argued against women's ordination on the bases that Adam was created before Eve, and that Eve was deceived (1 Tim. 2:12-14). We do not believe that Paul was suggesting that women were not able to learn as much as men, or that men would not be deceived or mislead in their studies. Rather, the issue was one of propriety in the eyes of God. God had established an order in creation, and the church was to respect and follow that order. Because creational ordinances do not change, the application that women should not be ordained also does not change. We believe that the Bible affirms women's participation in church services (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:5 assumes women will be praying and prophesying in church), and that it does not disallow women who teach under the authority of men (e.g. in Acts 18:26 Priscilla taught Apollos).

On the issue of a wife's submission to her husband, we believe that the Bible teaches a complex perspective. In the Lord, there must be mutual submission of the wife to her husband and of the husband to the wife, just as there is to be mutual submission of all believers to one another (Eph. 5:21). This is the same type of idea Paul expresses in various places when he speaks of the equality of all believers in Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:21-22; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:9-11). This is because in Christ all believers are equal, sharing Christ's status as a free male Jew (Gal. 3:26-28).

Nevertheless, our equality in Christ does not do away with the rest of God's requirements for the way human beings are to interact with one another. For example, the fact that there is neither slave nor free in Christ does not emancipate all slaves from their human masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; Philem. 10-16; 1 Pet. 2:18). In the same way, it does not permit women to be ordained (1 Tim. 2:12-14). So, even though husbands and wives are to be mutually submissive in the Lord, there are also other aspects of their relationship that impact submission issues. For example, Paul explicitly states that a wife has sexual authority over her husband's body, and that a husband has sexual authority over his wife's body. Neither the husband nor the wife has authority over his/her own body (1 Cor. 7:4). Moreover, each is obligated to fulfill his/her sexual obligations to the other (7:2-3). Husbands are also obliged to support their wives and families financially (1 Tim. 5:8). Husbands are also required to love their wives, and to treat them with great patience and respect (e.g. Eph. 5:25,28; Col. 3:19; 1 Pet. 3:7) -- if they fail to do so, God may disregard the husbands' prayers (1 Pet. 3:7).

Among these additional aspects, several times the Bible mentions that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:1). It would seem by the Bible's emphasis on this particular point that wives have a somewhat greater responsibility to submit to their husbands than their husbands have to submit to them, just as husbands have a greater responsibility to be gracious, patient and self-sacrificing toward their wives than wives have toward their husbands.

In this regard, it is worth turning again to the creation account. As Paul argued, God set up an order in creation that is to be normative for our behavior (1 Tim. 2:13-14). As part of that order, God first created Adam and gave him a special authority to name all the rest of the creatures (naming in the Bible is partly an act of exercising authority over the thing named). One of the things Adam had authority to name was his wife (Gen. 2:23; 3:20), indicating that he had some form of authority over her that she did not have over him. Nevertheless, in naming his wife, Adam did two things (one each time he gave her a name). Before the Fall he named her "woman" (Gen. 2:23), a name that demonstrated her equality with him (bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, "taken out of man"). That is, though he possessed a greater authority than she, he used that authority to declare her his equal (compare the equality Paul ascribes to the sexes through this creation event in 1 Cor. 11:11-12). When he named her "Eve" after the Fall, he used his authority to render honor to his wife as the mother of all the living, emphasizing her important role in the fulfilling God's command to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28).

Thus, in the Bible's complex perspective on the issue of submission, both husbands and wives are to be mutually submissive to one another, and while this mutual submission is equal in some areas, it is not precisely equal in all areas. Moreover, with the somewhat greater authority husbands hold, they bear a somewhat greater responsibility to be gracious and giving toward their wives. Also, they are to use their greater authority at least in part to raise up their wives and to honor them. Biblically, the somewhat greater authority husbands hold is not to be weilded over their wives, but rather to empower husbands to serve their wives. The biblical authors base their arguments in support of these points on things like believers' equality in Christ, Christ's relationship with the church, and the order of creation -- none of which depend on cultural norms. This is not to say that the particular ways in which husbands and wives need to demonstrate things like submission and love are not culturally influenced, but merely that the basic standards are not.

Finally, regarding the issue of the "symbolic mandate," this is similar to applications that both Paul and Peter mention (1 Cor. 11:2ff.; 1 Pet. 3:1). Paul argues that God is honored when wives honor their husbands in worship, and Peter argues that a wife's godly example of submission may be so respected by her unbelieving husband that he may actually come to faith through it. The symbol should not be pressed to far, though. Specifically, the authority aspect of the relationship between a husband and wife is not like the authority relationship between Christ and his church. First, the church has no reciprocal authority over Christ. Second, the authority men have over their wives is immeasurably inferior to that which Christ holds over the church. Additionally, it needs to be remembered that the symbol also applies to the husband's obligation to sacrifice himself for his wife, to honor her despite her imperfections, and to be exceedingly gracious and kind to her (Eph. 5:23-30). The blessings Christ bestows on the church far exceed the submission the church renders to him, and we ought not to ignore this when we think of marriage as a symbol of Christ's relationship with the church.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.