One of the important questions to ask, however, is whether this exhortation to wifely submission was indeed to be universally unidirectional, or whether it held within it the trajectory to be mutual not only in attitude but in visible manifestation where context allowed. In other words, is there within Paul's teaching a trajectory toward mutual submission that could manifest itself in an increasingly visible manner both (1) as the couple in question lived by the love of Christ for one another and (2) as political, economic, and educational structures enabled such manifestations more and more.
I think we have good reason to believe that Ephesians 5 contains this trajectory within it (which is to say that it is not simply thrust upon it by contemporary moods). Even on a complimentarian's so-called "natural reading" the passage calls for the woman's submission only within the larger context of the mutual submission that comes out of reverence to Christ. (Please note that this is not merely a theological assertion, but is also the case grammatically. The verb "submit" does not appear in verse 22, but is imported by its connection with verse 21. The cutting off of verse 21 from what follows is perhaps the most unfortunate section-break in all English translation. See for yourself by clicking around here.)
But what about Colossians 3? Immediately following a beautiful passage in which Paul teaches the Christians at Collossae to "put on love" and "let the peace of Christ rule", he writes: "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord," and "husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them."
Again: (1) Is the wife's submission universally and naturally "fitting" (as in an abiding principle related to her gender) or is it "fitting in the Lord" (in the sense that a woman "in the Lord" is to continue to submit rather than to usurp or seek precedence over her husband). Also, (2) what is entailed in the love being called for by the husband?
We are nearly twenty centuries removed from that context, but that doesn't count for much. No doubt in modern Western society it is a little less immediately palpable to speak of the husband/wife relationship in terms of one-way submission based on gender alone. But this contemporary condition does not decide the case for us, since it is precisely this which causes some to balk and some to dig in their heels. Indeed, the passing of time doesn't necessarily equal progress any more than it necessarily equals regress.
Now, rather than do a complete textual or cultural analysis here, I want to share an excerpt from a sermon I ran across the other day which was preached chronologically and culturally nearer Paul's time than our own. I think it insightful no matter where one's prior convictions lie. On the face of it this sermon continues to offend some of our contemporary sensibilities, and yet in its grappling with the biblical text it gives fodder for a reading which sees a trajectory of mutual submission in the household codes here as well.
Consider with me for a moment the 4th century homily of Chrysostom, on Colossians 3:18-25.
Chrysostom begins by posing a question: Why do these household commands appear only in the epistles of Colossians, Ephesians, Timothy and Titus? Answer: In these city churches there had probably arisen dissension on these issues, which needed to be addressed. Chrysostom then tackles the verses as follows:
Ver. 18. "Wives, be in subjection to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord."That is, be subject for God's sake, because this adorneth you, he saith, not them. For I mean not that subjection which is due to a master, nor yet that alone which is of nature, but that for God's sake.
Three things to note: (1) Here we see Chrysostom differentiating submission that is for the sake of the persons submitting or being submitted to from the submission that is called for by Paul. Thus he finds within the exhortation something subversive of the cultural norm which places the woman under the service of the man for his benefit and, in those cultures, to her residual benefit as well. (2) Also, we see Chrysostom differentiating between submission as servitude and submission as it is enfolded within the purposes of God. (3) Finally, we see Chrysostom differentiating Paul's appeal from an appeal that is based on the nature of things. In other words, the wife submits not because it is in her created nature as a woman to do so, but because it is "fitting in the Lord". This will become an important point as we reflect on what Chrysostom is about to say.
Ver. 19. "Husbands love your wives, and be not bitter against them."See how again he has exhorted to reciprocity.... For it is possible for one who loves even to be bitter. What he saith is ... [that] the fightings which happen between beloved persons, these are bitter; and he shows that it ariseth from great bitterness, when, saith he, any one is at variance with his own number.
Okay, so far so good. A pretty obvious point. Although we do pause to note that Chrysostom is recognizing this as both a call to reciprocity and also to love that also transcends servitude (to God's command perhaps). It goes to the heart. Rather than have a false peace with his wife where he accepts her submission and gives her everything necessary to keep her happy, the husband is called to root out any seed of bitterness (or discord) that may present itself. The implication is that the exhortations to mutual forgiveness, encouragement, peace and reconciliation which fill the verses preceding are to carry over into the husband's relationship to his wife. This is after all not a relationship defined by the power structures of the world; the Chrisitan wife is of "his own number."
Of course, Chrysostom does go on to speak of this in terms of the societal structures and then-common understandings of gender. But notice in what follows how even in this Chrysostom charts a trajectory that has the persons reciprocating rather than staying fixed in roles:
To love therefore is the husband's part, to yield pertains to the other side. If then each one contributes his own part, all stands firm. From being loved, the wife too becomes loving; and from her being submissive, the husband becomes yielding. And see how in nature also it hath been so ordered, that the one should love, the other obey. For when the party governing loves the governed, everything stands fast. Love from the governed is not so requisite, as from the governing toward the governed; for from the other obedience is due.
Okay, that got a bit confusing. On the one hand he is illustrating from the observed nature of things that the man loves and the woman obeys; the one governs and the other is governed. Both give of self to the other, but just in different ways--quite naturally he says. But is this observation a principle of nature or is it an illustration that serves to underline Paul's exhortation? With the italicized ringing in my ears, I hear him saying that by coming together from either side of the cultural social arrangement the man and woman end up reciprocating love and submission to one another. Notice his argument: Even in the natural course of things is that when a woman submits and a man loves they end up giving themselves to each other. The implication of the biblical teaching then, for Chrysostom, is that this is actually the telos (or goal) of their unity. (Read the rest of Colossians 3 and see the kind of relationships are being recommended generally before these marital specifications are made). Chyrsostom continues:
For that the woman hath beauty, and the man desire, shows nothing else than that for the sake of love it hath been made so.
This is more illustration based on Chrysostom's observation of the nature of things, but I separate it out so that, reading it sympathetically, even the most ardent feminist among us might see in it the point that he is making. Even in desire this trajectory toward reciprocity often holds true in human experience. Though it is a generalization, sociologists note that generally speaking females tend to desire belonging and males beauty. In the worst case scenarios gets females into situations where they are used and males into situations where they are using. But by making this observation about beauty and desire Chrysostom takes an accepted generality and uses it to show that even this can bring people together if they have any interest at all in finding love that goes deeper than the simple attractions that first caused sparks to fly.
Do not therefore, because thy wife is subject to thee, act the despot; nor because thy husband loveth thee, be thou puffed up. Let neither the husband's love elate the wife, nor the wife's subjection puff up the husband. For this cause hath He subjected her to thee, that she may be loved the more. For this cause He hath made thee to be loved, O wife, that thou mayest easily bear thy subjection. Fear not in being a subject; for subjection to one that loveth thee hath no hardship. Fear not in loving, for thou hast her yielding. In no other way then could a bond have been. Thou hast then thine authority of necessity, proceeding from nature; maintain also the bond that proceedeth from love, for this alloweth the weaker to be endurable.
Having illustrated his point from the observation of the nature of things, Chrysostom is happy to build on these observations and say that this nature of things is the design of God. We might quibble over whether this is indeed the nature of things. Psychology, physiology, sociology, and biology have cause these illustrations from "nature" to weaken over the centuries, especially in recent decades. Intellectually, women who are afforded the opportunities of education are in every way a match for men, and so on. Even physically, where we would still say that generally men are stronger than women, I doubt anyone would say that all men are stronger than all women. No, of course not! There is overlap between the spectrums of physical strength within the genders (which means there are bound to be marriages where the man is not as physically strong as the woman). These are obvious points, but I make them in order for us to see both that Chrysostom's argument from the "nature of things" is less compelling to the contemporary mind than it once would have been, and yet that such a realization should not cause us to miss his point:
Even when it was thought that by nature the woman was subject to the man in a relation of governance, it was Chrysostom's thought that the one governing would be brought by Christ to love (i.e., give himself to) the governed willingly, and the one governed would be brought by Christ to submit (i.e., give herself to) the governing one willingly as well. In other words, even where societal structures and patriarchal notions of gender held sway, when it came to the Christian marriage especially, position or esteem would fall away in the face of mutual self-giving love.
She would have no fear of submitting to him because he was loving her fully. He would have no fear of loving her because she was not out to get him. In no other way could such a bond really work: It is brought to fruition where bitterness is done away with and submission is not done out of hierarchy or natural weakness but out of fittingness to the Lord. Such mutually trusting relationships were observably occurring even with those patriarchal societies, and we see them all over the place today as well. How much more should they be a matter of course in marriages that take place in the context of the kind of community which is fitting to the Lord!
What is fitting to the Lord? Colossians 3:9-17 has already described it (and it doesn't seem to have much to keep teaching and admonishment flowing only one way according to gender):
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.