Last week, one of my college students mentioned that she and her husband had decided to take Ephesians 5 seriously. He would be the head of the household, and she would serve and honor him, following the example of Christ and the Church.
You should have seen the other girls—eyes rolling, trying not to laugh. I heard one of them mutter, “That fool’s not telling me what to do in my own house!”
I was tempted to open up the conversation, asking why the other married women found it so easy to dismiss a whole passage of the Bible, as if Paul, the same man who claimed that men and women were one in Christ, a person who celebrated the concept of unity in diversity, was also a domineering male-chauvinist, eager to keep these weaker vessels silent in the church and active in the kitchen.
But I moved on.
Humanity is flawed. If you’re a believer, you have to believe that. In a flawed world, we have a tendency to act like the so-called ruler of this world—self-oriented, self-promoting and self-defensive. Just selfish, really. So in a fallen world, how is any marriage supposed to work?
Take two self-oriented people. They are drawn to one another by forces like beauty, personality and a common vision. But once time has rubbed away the glint of curiosity and soaring hormones, what do you get? Daily battles about toothpaste tubes and toilet paper rolls.
In some societies, these kinds of battles would not be tolerated. Men are recognized as leaders of their families without question, and women are expected to support them. In a fallen world, this can quickly lead to relationships that looks a lot more like slavery than marriage, and can quickly slip into neglect, unfaithfulness and abuse.
No wonder so many women push back. Humans were not made to be treated like objects. If the Trinity is a free community of self-giving, self-revealing love, and humans were created in God’s image, anything less than this kind of relationship feels wrong and should be challenged.
Reversing Gender Stereotypes:
In a familiar stand-up routine, Steve Martin announces that he is the Incredible Shrinking Man. He tells the grinning audience to close their eyes, waiting for all the pupils to disappear, then raises the microphone about two feet. “Okay. Open your eyes.”
This is the kind of thing we do in America. If a social norm needs adjustment, let the media present a different perspective. In time, people will accept it. Show men sitting on the couch with beers in their hands surrounded by a bunch of morons. Show the wife asking about their family responsibilities with a patient, slightly-annoyed smile on her face.
Men have had their day. Look at an advertisement from the 50’s—women holding vacuum cleaners, men in suits holding newspapers with a cup of coffee in their hands. No. Not anymore. It’s time for the women to wear the suits and drink the coffee. Mr. Mom can stay home if he wants, but mom’s got it covered. She had an education, she has a good job, and she can do this alone if she has to.
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to leadership and earning power, women have proven themselves as smart and capable as men. But if our battle to balance the sexes leads to men feeling hesitant to take responsibility in their homes, as if leading their family is sexist and not loving, then we have simply reversed the problem rather than solving it.
Ignoring Gender Distinctions:
I was in a wedding last weekend. One of the groomsmen beside me was listening to the message about Eve being made as a helpmate for Adam, about how a wife is like the Church and a husband is like Christ, and he turned his head away in protest.
Later he told me how his Hebrew training showed him that Adam does not mean man as in male, but man as in humankind. God is a spirit, therefore without gender. If Adam was made in God’s image, he was also made without gender. Only after Adam’s loneliness was revealed and the animals had been paraded in front of him did God decide that he would split the sexes, making Adam male and Eve female.
I can understand why my friend would promote this point of view. Our society is extremely sensitive when it comes to gender. If God did not create a man first, telling him to rule the earth, then, like an afterthought, a woman, we would be able to squirm out from the idea that God values men over women.
Think about it. God is a spirit, but never takes a neutral pronoun—always masculine. When God incarnates, he does it as a man. Then he chooses 12 men to carry his movement forward. Sure there were important women along with way, Mary most prominently, but they still tend to be presented in a more supportive role.
Religious scholars are not the only ones trying to erase gender differences. It is very common these days for people to claim that there are actually no differences between male and female beyond the genitalia. All other differences are created by the norms of each society.
In theory, if you raise a boy in isolation, paint his room pink, surround him with dolls, put him in dresses, tell him how pretty he is, and keep him indoors, he’ll end up thinking and acting exactly like a girl raised in the same way. There is nothing in his mind that makes him male apart from social conditioning and the learned biases of his parents.
Celebrating Gender Roles:
However, I recently watched an episode of Brain Games that actually showed a neurological difference between men and women. They pitted husbands against their wives in games that exposed and illustrated these differences.
What I enjoyed most about the episode was that each neurological distinction was presented as a unique benefit to that person, and a contribution to the marriage as a whole. Sure, the women would high five each other when they won a game, and vice versa, but the celebrations did not seem arrogant. Each seemed fascinated by what the games revealed about themselves and their partners.
The apostle Paul was raised in a Jewish household and trained in the best schools of Jerusalem. And would have definitely disagreed with my groomsman friend:
“…man is made in God’s image and reflects God’s glory. And woman reflects man’s glory. For the first man didn’t come from woman, but the first woman came from man. And man was not made for woman, but woman was made for man.” I Cor. 11:7-9
So Paul affirms a belief that God originally made Adam as a male. Is he saying that women were not made in the image of God? Is he saying that women were created to be servants of men?
Before we get angsty, we should consider this important reality: God is a spirit, therefore gender is an invention.
If you imagine God as a man or a woman, you’re not thinking clearly. The same is true for angels. Gender is an invention for the earth, just like breathing and eating and sleeping. And just like breathing and eating and sleeping, these inventions are not made arbitrarily.
Think about food. From our perspective, food is just a basic, practical necessity. From God’s, it is an invention used to sustain a physical world, but also to express spiritual realities.
Jesus called himself true food in John 6:55. Then he told the people that they had to eat him if they wanted to share life with him and inherit the kingdom. Discerning people can understand that Jesus was not talking about cannibalism. They can understand symbols and analogies.
Jesus also claimed to be the true vine, and his followers were the branches. He was the head, they were the body. He was the bridegroom, they were his bride. Should we be offended by this last one? Is Jesus being sexist, saying that human males are like God, and human females are like sinful humanity?
If we insist on making everything physical and practical and personal, we’ll be just like all of those people that walked away from Jesus, shaking their heads, thinking that he was talking about cannibalism. If we can let a shadow be a shadow, we can start to celebrate the sexes as they were meant to be celebrated.
Take a step back and let the shadow take form. If God is like a man, he can love his bride, pursue her, expose himself to her, give his “life” to her, and the fruit of that union can be enjoyed forever. If humanity is like a woman, she can be pursued, taken in, filled with life, cared for and protected forever. Both honor one another. Both serve one another.
This is the perspective of Ephesians 5. Paul was not elevating men and degrading women. He was celebrating the mystery of Christ and the Church. Marriage, as it was invented, not only honors love, but exposes spiritual realities. But only if we humble ourselves, strain at the shadows and embrace the bigger picture.