Updated: Jan 18, 2019
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, which HBO recently turned into a hit series, wrote an article explaining the inspiration for her novel. The Handmaid’s Tale describes a dystopian future where the United States ceases to exist. In its place, the, “Republic of Gilead” converts women into child-bearing slaves. The novel follows the struggles of one “handmaid” as she struggles to gain freedom from her husband and a tyrannical government which is meant to eerily resemble American Evangelicalism. In the article, Atwood described her thinking behind writing the dystopian novel:
"The deep foundation of the United States—so went my thinking—was the heavy-handed theocracy of Puritan New England—with its marked bias against women—which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself. Like the original theocracy, this one would select a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions, and it would lean heavily towards the Old Testament, not towards the New."
While the message of The Handmaid’s Tale grows in popularity, the #MeToo movement continues to expose male celebrities of sexual abuse. How men and women treat each other matters and can have horrific consequences in society.
So it should come as no surprise that Ephesians 5:22-33, which infamously starts with “women submit to your husbands” attracts so much controversy. Atheists attack the passage as proof of the moral illegitimacy of Christianity. Even modern pastors grow squeamish over the passage and try their best to explain it away. How should a religion based on love deal with a passage that seems so unloving? Here are three important keys to keep in mind:
1. Submit Does Not Mean “Blindly Obey”
When God calls women to submit to their husbands, he is calling them to “subject” themselves. “Subject” doesn’t mean blind obedience, but recognizing and supporting the other’s leadership role. It means caring for someone by considering them before oneself. In fact, this is exactly what Paul called all people to in the verse immediately before.
When a wife subjects to her husband, she is not renouncing her value or forfeiting her equality. She is supporting her husband in such a way that it emboldens him to lead. Subjection lowers oneself for the sake of the other. The difference between blind obedience and biblical subjection is that blind obedience enables people to abuse, but biblical subjection enables people to love.
2. Paul Isn’t Just Talking About Marriage
People tend to misunderstand the Bible because they experience it outside of context. Most of what people see from Scripture occurs on signs, gift shop coffee mugs, and Facebook posts. But there is no such thing as a single Bible verse. Every passage exists as a part of a larger written thought in Scripture.
For example, in the original text of Ephesians 5:22, the word “submit” never occurs. That’s because v. 22 is a continuation of v. 21. Paul begins by saying “everyone should submit to one another.” Then, to give an example of that command, he says, “wives, to your husbands...” Marriage, then, become more than just an ends unto itself, but a means to a greater purpose.
One of the most powerful ways to bring unity to a community is to bring unity to the marriages within that community. When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians (a divided group of Christians) he called for unison. Marriage offers an arena in which to achieve that goal. Marriage provides a daily training center to love, lead, and learn from someone else. People who thrive within a marriage tend to thrive outside of marriage. The opposite is not always true. Ephesians 5 does not just give a digression on marriage, but a powerful example of how marriage can build unity in the Church.
3. Marriage Calls for Submission from Both Sides
The Bible makes clear there should be equality between men and women. Any philosophy that tells a spouse to feel stronger by making the other one feel weaker is un-biblical. Yet the Bible still calls for distinction between the roles of men and women within marriage. After all, men and women are distinct! While God calls women to subject themselves to their husbands, and for husbands to love their wives, God calls both of them to humility.
True love is submissive. True submission is loving. The greatest example of submission came when Jesus loved the world by subjecting Himself to death—even death on a Cross. Christ made it clear that He desired not to be served, but to serve. Love that fails to submit to another is mere manipulation—good deeds in the hope of reward. If a man fails to love his wife in a submissive manner, He fails to love her the way Christ loved the Church.
Marriages thrive when both members recognize that they are secure in Jesus. A woman can support her husband, even if he fails, because she knows she is secure in the God who cannot fail. A man can love his wife, even if it goes unappreciated, because he knows his worth comes from the God who created him, Confidence in Christ emboldens a marriage to love.
Values become corrupted when applied outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. Charity without the Gospel becomes enablement. Love without redemption turns into tolerance. In the same way, when the world applies marriage principles found in Ephesians 5 outside of the Gospel, it turns from a doctrine of love to one of pride, greed, and abuse.
The American Church must combat the Handmaid’s Tale by loving the handmaid. It must combat the #MeToo movement by listening to its victims. But it must do all of this in a way that refuses to tolerate, and refuses to ignore truth, but instead sacrificially loves in a way that points to Jesus.
Resting In Him,