In the book “Desiring God” complementarian John Piper claims that male leadership is “implied” by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (1996, p. 353).
Some Christians would agree with him. For complementarians, the notion that wives everywhere should be subject to male authority is viewed as “biblical.” Two Bible passages are often used to support this belief :
- “Wives be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22, NASB).
- “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:24, NASB).
I’ve quoted these passages as they appear in the New American Standard Bible. In both instances, the verses contain certain phrases in italics.
According to the notes for the NASB, however, the phrases are written in italics because they cannot be found in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. They have been added by the translators, who thought they needed clarification.
The Greek manuscripts used to translate the Bible into English contain neither of these commands.
Ephesians 5:22 is simply an extension of verse 21, which reads, “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (NASB).
Subjection, or submission as the word here is translated in many English Bibles, is not meant to go from wives to husbands only. Rather it is meant to go in two directions; it is an attitude of love and humility that we show one another. Similarly, in Ephesians 5:24, Greek manuscripts of the New Testament frame the submission of wives to husbands not as command, but as a description.
In the New Testament time period, wives were indeed “subject” to their husbands in all things. This notion was supported by household codes found in the writings of Greek philosophers and Jewish teachers alike. These popular codes, however, never dared to suggest that husbands should also submit to wives. The biblical concept of mutual submission was revolutionary.
The submissive service Paul calls husbands to demonstrate was modeled by Jesus himself.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, NASB).
Here Paul acknowledges that wives submitted to husbands in the culture of his day; he then requires that husbands also take upon themselves “the form of a servant,” just as Jesus did for the church (Philippians 2:7).
John Piper disagrees. In “Desiring God” he states, “Even while he was on his knees washing their feet, no one doubted who the leader was” (1996, p. 184). While this statement may sound logical, Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ act of foot-washing paints a different picture:
“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand’. ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet’.” (John 13:6-8a, NIV)
Peter knew that washing the grime from a traveller’s feet was a task performed by slaves. He was so staggered by what Jesus was planning to do that he initially refused. He permitted Jesus to perform this act of service only when Jesus explained, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8b, NIV).
Jesus prophesied that he would save humanity by becoming a slave.
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.” (Mark 10:42-45, NIV)
In John 19:11, Jesus acknowledges Pontius Pilate’s authority over him: “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (NASB). He truly took upon himself the form of a servant, and was obedient to the point of death, to deliver us from sin:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)
In this passage all Christians are called upon by the Apostle Paul to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” with “one another.” This is the same command that we find in Ephesians chapter 5, directed towards both husbands and wives, if the text is not altered by English translators.
In stating that the Bible “implies” male authority, Piper is making a common error in thinking.
He is confusing the act of “implying” (something done by the sender of a message) with the act of “inferring” (something done by the receiver of a message). An inference is a conclusion drawn by a reader that is not explicitly stated by an author. Inferences can be incorrect. They may be formed on the basis of assumptions or prejudices that we unknowingly hold to be true (see References).
Is male authority implied by the Bible? No. However, it can be wrongly inferred by some readers.
Graphic Credit: Kate Hickman
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