Welcome to Week 6 of our devotional series on those common Christian beliefs that have been overlooked or misunderstood. A professor at my seminary was famous for one day yelling at Jesus, asking him why he couldn’t have picked just one woman to be a disciple. One out of twelve — is that asking too much?!?! Back then, we always laughed at that story, but her point was serious. The Bible is often seen as a book that views men as more important than women. By and large, men wrote the book. They’re the main characters in the story. All the Old Testament prophets are men. Jesus shows up as a man. The twelve disciples are men. Three women gloriously make it into Jesus’ lineage, only to suffer the shadow of literally dozens and dozens of men. Women are told to be silent, to submit, and to stay far away from the pulpit. This holy patriarchy seems to be the legacy of scripture — that is, until we dig a little deeper.
God who challenges and comforts — guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will we might truly discover peace. Amen.
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
“Build My Life” — Words and Music by Pat Barrett; performed by Housefires (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)
Worthy of every song we could ever sing
Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring
Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe
We live for you, oh, we live for you
Jesus, the Name above every other name
Jesus, the only One who could ever save (worthy...)
Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe
We live for you
Holy, there is no one like You
There is none beside You
Open up my eyes in wonder
Show me who You are and fill me
With Your heart and lead me
In your love to those around me
I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation
I will put my trust in You alone
And I will not be shaken (Repeat Bridge)
“END CHRISTIAN PATRIARCHY” is what the stack of stickers on my desk reads. They’re part of the advertising project for a new bombshell of a book called The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. My friend, Beth Allison Barr wrote it. We both served in the same youth ministry where her husband, Jeb, was the youth pastor — that is, until the day he was fired for recommending that the church consider letting women teach and maybe even preach.
Beth’s book is an engrossing mix of history and personal biography. In chapter two, she opens with a story about meeting with a student about her term paper. “It soon became clear that what she really wanted to discuss was her vocation,” Beth explains. “A recent conversation with her father had exasperated her. Anxious about her major, she asked him for advice. He tried to soothe her fears, suggesting her major didn’t matter that much since she would just get married and not work anyway. Shocked, she retorted, ‘Dad, are you really sending me to four years of college for me to never use my degree?’”
Baylor isn’t cheap, but I doubt that was the point Beth’s student was trying to make. She wanted to know why getting married and having children was the only thing that mattered. Why, as a Christian woman, was homemaking and mothering the one, great ideal? Why is it only Christian men who get to follow their passions and use their God-given skills?
Beth’s answer is simple: It’s not. And the Bible tells us so.
When the Apostle Paul describes the relationship between husband and wife in Ephesians 5, our eyes gravitate to that one line, “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and we immediately assume that Paul is teaching patriarchy. But, that’s not how his original hearers would have heard it. There was nothing new in those classical Roman times about patriarchy. It was ingrained everywhere. Women were required by law to submit to the male authority in their lives, whether it was their father, husband, or next closest male relative. They could not own property or run businesses outright, and any time they needed to conduct legal or financial transactions, they had to go through a male mediary. So, Paul writing that wives should be subject to their husbands wouldn’t have even moved the dial.
What would have, however, is what the apostle includes next: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Paul doesn’t restate the cultural attitudes of his day; he radically subverts them by telling men they should go way beyond submission. They must sacrifice their lives for their wives, because only then would they truly love as Christ loves. Beth Barr puts it this way, “Instead of focusing on wifely submission (everyone was doing that), [Paul demands] that the husband do exactly the opposite of what Roman law allowed: sacrificing his life for his wife instead of exercising power over her…This is what makes Christians differentfrom the world around us.” After all, that’s how this whole passage in Ephesians begins, with Paul telling us to be subject to each otherbecause that’s how we give reverence to Christ, the one who sacrificed everything for each and every one of us — Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.
Some of the most powerful parts of Beth’s book are her own stories, how she experienced Christian patriarchy the hard way and how she slowly realized that she, her church, and her fellow believers were living a sinful and harmful lie. This is a story more and more women are beginning to tell. To be sure, as a male who has only ever benefited from this system of oppression, it is impossible for me to understand fully how freeing a gospel of full female equality would feel. But I do have a daughter, and I want nothing more than to see her full and free and flourishing. That’s what is so good about the gospel of Jesus Christ, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection break the bonds of oppression and topple the hierarchies of power that rule over each and every one of us, even those “baptized” hierarchies within our own churches and traditions. Such subversive freedom is what Paul is preaching as much as any one else.
So, if you are struggling with passages like Ephesians 5 or have in the past and are now wondering if there’s full freedom out there, I encourage you to pick up Beth’s book. You can find it on Amazon. It will change your life, and it will change it for Christ, which is without a doubt for the better.
Holy Spirit, Comforting fire, Life of all creation. Anointing the sick, cleansing body and soul, fill this body! Holy Spirit, Sacred breath, Fire of love, Sweetest taste, Beautiful aroma, fill this heart! Holy Spirit, filling the world from the heights to the deep, raining from clouds, filling rivers and sea, fill this mind! Holy Spirit, forgiving and giving, uniting strangers, reconciling enemies, seeking the lost, and enfolding us together, fill these gathered here! Holy Spirit, bringing light into dark places, igniting praise, greatest gift, our Hope and Encourager, Holy Spirit of Christ, I praise you! Amen.
– Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179AD)
– Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021).
– Header image copyright of Brazos Press, 2021.