Tom Wright, bless his heart, has a habit of turning things on their heads, so that we see them at a completely different angle. Sometimes this is infuriating. But at other times it is fascinating and enlightening. So…
Much of the discussion about the Bible’s teaching on the relationships between men and women, between husbands and wives, has focused in recent years on the role and status of women. But this can disguise the fact that in our own day it’s harder than ever to be a boy. Within our supposedly civilised and sophisticated society that a whole generation of boys are disadvantaged simply because they are male. They have energy and drive, but no-one to help them to channel it in healthy and helpful directions. Often, they grow up on broken homes where a succession of adult men come and go, with none of them taking a real interest in them or providing a useful role model. The schools they attend (when they are not playing truant) are staffed mainly by female teachers. It is the girls who are getting their heads down, studying hard, giving themselves good employment prospects. It’s better to be a girl. Boys – and men – are a big part of what is wrong with the world.
Of course, there are exceptions on both sides. And broken homes affect girls as well as boys. But, in general, we see a reverse of the pattern that obtained in the world of the New Testament. Then, it was females who were the inferior sex, now it’s men who have to apologise for being male. And to read Paul’s words about wives being subject to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) seems ridiculous. Indeed, people who despise traditional morality suddenly become morally outraged that such an instruction might be read out in public, let alone be taken seriously.
But there are good reasons for taking Paul’s injunction seriously. For one thing, his role model for the husband is not your stereotypical bossy, domineering male, but Jesus himself. O course, Jesus wasn’t married(!), but Paul has been teaching that the church is his bride. He did not drag her off by force, but gave himself up willingly for her. He loved her to the uttermost. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her.
In Paul’s day, women were regarded not only as inferior, but (because of their body functions) also impure. But the husband, following the example of Christ, does not keep his wife at a distance, but rather nurtures and cherishes her at all times.
Paul assumes – as do most cultures – that there are significant differences between women and men. And these differences go far beyond reproductive function. Equality with regard to voting rights, employment rights, and so on, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the two sexes are not identical, but complementary. Paul’s guidance is clear: within marriage, the husband is to take the lead. Not in a bullying or arrogant way, but following the model of self-sacrifice that Christ has provided.
If Paul’s teaching seems outrageous to us today, we need to ask ourselves: Do we have something better to put in its place? We have a society that is littered with abusive relationships, broken families, and deep, deep unhappiness. Are we in a position to tell the rest of human history that we have finally got it right, that we have resolved the battle of the sexes?
Paul’s argument does not belong only to his own time and culture. It is rooted in the way God made things at the very beginning. The apostle quotes from Genesis 2:24, the passage about the man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife. But there, right at the beginning, before sin tainted the world, is a hint of God’s ultimate purpose. For his Son would leave the place where he was at home and go in search of a bride. Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 both fill out the glorious ‘leaving and cleaving’ which still today provides the best model – the only model – for husbands today.
Based on Paul for Everyone: the Prison Letters.