Equality is not the Goal
How to experience heaven on earth in your marriage
You probably know that I have written a book about women. You may be wondering about my agenda.
“What are Paul’s views on gender roles? Is he a complementarian or an egalitarian? Does he support traditional arrangements where the man is in charge or does he promote equality?”
Full disclosure: I believe in the equality of the new creation.
It is my conviction that if we are to return to God’s ways, and follow the example set by Jesus, equality and mutual respect are essential. Black or white, male or female – all are precious in God’s eyes. All are equal in grace.
But I am not a rabid egalitarian. Let me explain.
On the one hand, I am convinced that equality protects us from the abuses of hierarchy and the misuse of authority. But on the other, I fear the dogged pursuit of equality can hinder authentic relationships.
The name of the game is love
Like a referee, equality is essential, but it’s not the game. Jesus never said his disciples would be known for their equality and sense of fair play. We are to be known for the way we serve, respect, and prefer one another. If we settle for equality, there’s a danger we will fall short of all that God has in store for us, particularly in our marriages.
So even though I believe in treating everyone equally, let me say that equality is not the goal; love is. And true love is so other-focused, that equality doesn’t come into it.
In an essay entitled “Equality,” C.S. Lewis compared equality to medicine, which is good when we are ill, but is otherwise no good at all. As medicine is no substitute for nourishing food, equality is not the substance of love and life.
Have as much equality as you please—the more the better—in our marriage laws, but at some level consent to inequality, nay, delight in inequality, (as) an erotic necessity…. Let us wear equality; but let us undress every night.
A good marriage is a partnership between equals who ironically don’t see themselves as equal. The husband loves his wife more than his own life, and the wife submits to her husband as to the Lord. Each prefers the other to themselves.
In such a marriage, there is no score-keeping to ensure both partners are pulling their weight. Rather, each aspires to love at all times and excel in the gentle grace of giving.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)
Gender equality in the new creation
To see how well you’re getting this, let me ask one of the most provocative questions around: Should wives submit to their husbands? There are three ways to answer this question.
The traditional answer is that wives should always submit because “it’s commanded in scripture.”
However, this approach leads to imbalanced and unhappy marriages that are burdened with the heavy yoke of law. Even if the husband is a good leader and the wife a good follower, the pursuit of intimacy will be frustrated by the partitioning of the partnership.
How can they be truly together while he’s up there and she’s down here? The horns of hierarchy can only add discord to the marriage melody.
The egalitarian answer is that wives should never submit because doing so leads to abuse and the perpetuation of patriarchy.
However, the egalitarian response, like the traditional one, undermines a marriage for it replaces one law (submission) with another (equality), and any law will minister death.
This may come as a shock to those with an egalitarian mindset, but the pursuit of equality can shipwreck your marriage. A woman who is mindful of boundaries and maintaining her position may never experience abuse, but nor will she experience authentic love. How can she when her heart is constantly guarded?
The third and biblical answer to this question is that husbands and wives who freely submit to each other—who are tolerant, tender-hearted, kind and caring, always seeking to edify and serve the other—infuse their marriage with the sweet fragrance of Jesus. In their union, they experience heaven on earth.
Traditional and egalitarian marriages may get a taste, but they never enjoy the full riches of heavenly submission. How can they, when love is demanded rather than given?
A wife who demands respect from her husband denies him the joy of giving it, and in denying him that freedom, she undermines her marriage.
But a wife who dares to surrender, who gives respect and trusts her husband, will inspire him to joyfully go all in. Her vulnerability will empower him to love far more than he might have accomplished on his own because we this is what we were made for.
Equality is not the end game in the war on gender discrimination; it’s the starting point for the new creation.
Equality is a good thing, but what we do with it is far more important.
Image: Rebekah at the Well, by Michael Deas
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This, my friend, is excellent. Thank you for taking the time to get this hammered out and written down. I have struggled to communicate this idea and you have done it very well.
What does this say about our relationship with God in light of Isaiah 54:5?
“your Maker is your husband”
In matters of love and submission, Jesus leads the way. Jesus laid down his life for his bride. We can love because he first loved us.
The church I went to years ago would tell us your supply is in the joint; referencing Eph. 4:16. This was their Biblical foundation for telling us to submit to authority. I now believe this joint is love, not authority. Which I think is in line with the post. I also think as we discuss equality and the relationship between husband and wife, we can see how it mirrors our relationship with God. We are in Christ, in the Trinity, seated in heavenly places! Has He put us in a place of equality with Him? He did die for us, but regardless of the answer, we have a LOT of value. As we see this kind of value in our spouse, it becomes less likely we will see them as someone who should follow our orders.
I’m not Paul Ellis, but my take on that is that the word husband is being used as caretaker and provider. We do this when we speak of animal husbandry. I do not think this relates to marriage exactly, though there is some overlap.
Egalitarians do not believe that the woman should not submit – I think you might need to engage with some more Egalitarians on that. Rather they believe in mutual submission first and foremost as per Ephesians 5:21. So what you state as a third view is what Egalitarians would state as the Egalitarian view.
In my research for my book The Silent Queen, I found many egalitarian websites and position papers lacked the word submit. While some made a passing reference to mutual submission, it’s fair to say the emphasis was on roles and responsibilities within churches and families. Who could do what and that sort of thing. Equality, in other words. There was precious little emphasis, if any, on other-focused love.
In that case my concern would be that egalitarianism in ministry and egalitarianism in marriage are being conflated. I belong to a group on Facebook where the central topic is biblical egalitarianism, and many of the members there are theologians, scholars and writers in their own right and egalitarians at that and they all seem to agree that what you posit as the biblical view is in fact the Egalitarian view. If you would like a link to the group I would be happy to send it.
You evidently subscribe to the Biblical view of marriage, and I heartily commend you. I can only repeat that my research revealed that many (most?) egalitarians are far more concerned with equality than submission. Which is hardly surprising – it’s what the word egalitarian means. I could send you links too, quite a lot in fact, but I don’t think that would be productive.
I think we’re on the same page when it comes to love and marriage. But there’s no need to get your FB friends to bombard me with a repetition of your earlier point. To those who have repeated Leigh’s point or are tempted to, please see my response to Leigh above. Thanks.
Why talk about the wife’s submission as the closing story? Why not also pair it with how men dying to themselves will bring out the desire in women to love and respect their husbands more generously and freely?
I feel set up. “But in the end you need to respect the man in order to be loved.”
On my final read through I thought about putting “or husband” in brackets each time I wrote “wife”, but thought it made for clunky writing. I had hoped it was implied that love (and submission) is a two-way street. Evidently not. It’s true the Bible talks more about the husband’s submission than the wife’s, as I explain here and in my book. But there’s only so much I can cover in an 800-word article. That said, I’m not going to apologize for speaking to women as leaders in their marriage. Women need to know they have options, that they can lead the way, and that they don’t have to settle for mere equality when authentic love offers so much more.
I apologize for not being more generous. You are one of the few brave souls willing to tackle this subject. I understand that wasn’t your intent. I understand that equality is medicine for the sick and love is the true banquet – and I agree. Forgive me for taking offense. Earlier this week JP mentioned men who get respect from other women at work and not at home often fall into trouble. So, of course at the end of your piece I thought “great, here we go again”. It’s not that there isn’t some truth in what is being said – its just said to women inordinately more then men. I hear the words respect and submit over and over (even the grace kind). I rarely, actually, I’ve never heard a pastor mention (with examples – we always get examples – mostly passive) on how to die for their wives. Maybe I am looking for equality. More from the pulpit then in my own marriage (I am blessed with a husband that dies for me daily). So if my marriage is good, who cares, right?? I guess it’s that I know my freedom was bought for a price. Thank you for empowering women and encouraging their leadership!
Thank you, Denise. Yes it’s true women have historically heard an imbalanced message from the pulpit and I totally agree that we men can do more to take the lead in matters of love and submission.
Denise Kaitala, Love or be loved – In my estimation the word ‘love’, does not connote receiving from others but always points the doing for others; in spite of self. Unless we be born out of water, in to the Spirit of Messias__
Thx for your insight to the command to [do] respect yet, that does not equally mean that the man will always reciprocate with [the command of doing] love. In our members – sin in the flesh; even those who are (born-again) true Jesus Followers – often gets in the way of such selflessness on both our parts.
Paul Ellis, Two thoughts__ How can the equality of grace be equal? Are you speaking to God’s Grace or person to person grace?
How can anyone know what love truly is – with respect to the spiritual meaning? That of a World in Darkness cannot know but Earthly love. Unless one is born out of water & in to the Spirit of Messias… Can just anyone know the meaning of love that the writer of Eph4:2 was speaking to?Might this writer believed they were speaking to unbelievers – those not born-again? To speak these words per say to unbelievers; would they not simply be saying, Huh!?
Romans 5:5 answers your question: “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Every one of us was created with the need for love so that we might look to our heavenly Father who is the true source of love. When we allow the Holy Spirit to convince us about Jesus – who he is and what he has done for us – we receive the Father’s love.
Amen, Paul! The command to love one another, according to Jesus, trumps (and embodies at the same time) all others. And love, according to Paul’s characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13, says zero things about it seeking equality – quite the opposite. I am absolutely for treating all people with love the way Jesus and Paul outline it, which doesn’t in any way diminish my support of things like the BLM movement, women’s rights, gay rights, etc. Thank you for bringing this to light. I had never thought of love and equality in this way.
Hello! I agree that equality isn’t the end goal but it is a necessary condition for everything you are suggesting. Without equality, that submission will be taken advantage of, so it is not unreasonable for a woman to ask for a man to demonstrate an understanding of equality before she can trust him with fewer boundaries between them. Men tend to have a greater responsibility to demonstrate respect towards women because in our world currently there are a lot of unsafe men who do not respect women and will turn abusive as soon as they realise there are no consequences for violating a boundary. Of course submission is more important than equality in the same way that a sandwich is more important than the bread. But you still can’t have a sandwich without bread.
You are quite right, Sarah. True submission only works when you know you are equal in Christ – equally loved, equally valued, equally important. And yes, because of historic injustices, I believe men should lead the way. After all, the Apostle Paul spent more time talking about submission to husbands than to wives. That said, women do not need men to get with the program before they step up in these matters.
Thanks for your reply! I like your article on submission in marriage and it’s really encouraging to hear about other people in marriages based on mutual submission. I’m engaged myself and mutual submission is really important to my future husband and I.
I agree that women can and should step up and don’t need to wait for men to submit first or anything. But shouldn’t equality be established before anyone thinks about submitting? I know there is always a risk of being taken for granted with this stuff, but it seems to me that its not unreasonable to ask that someone at least acknowledges you as a person (shows the respect necessary for equality) before you open up to someone by submitting? Otherwise I would worry women (and men) could be putting themselves in danger if they submit first, then realise only later that their partner doesn’t see them as an equal and they are taken advantage of.
I believe love should be unconditional which means no waiting for your partner to figure out their part before you do your part. Yes, this is risky, but this is exactly the sort of risk Jesus took with us. He laid down his life for us while we were sinners. No, I’m not encouraging women to submit to abuse. Yes, I am encouraging men and women to sow what they want to reap. We love because he first loved us.
If you want to dig deeper, I encourage you to check out Esther’s story which, *cough,* I unpack in my book The Silent Queen. She is a model of a wife who submitted to a husband who was a jerk, and who through her submission brought about repentance in her husband while saving a nation. Unconditional love is winsome; boundary-keeping and guarding your rights is not.
“The egalitarian answer is that wives should never submit because doing so leads to abuse and the perpetuation of patriarchy.” This statement, and the argument which follows, is wholly inaccurate…
I appreciate there are some who identify themselves as egalitarian who subscribe to a biblical view of submission. Wonderful. So do I. However, many egalitarian societies do not subscribe to a biblical view of submission.
Thank you for your willingness to engage in challenging discussion. I am concerned about the idea that boundaries prevents a wife (or husband) from being truly loved. It is my experience that healthy boundaries are a component of the soil that encourages the growth of love and mutual submission.
I encourage you to consider research about domestic abuse and boundaries in your writing about marriage and our biblical identity as wives and husbands.
Thank you for your comment, Jenelle. As I’m sure you can appreciate, there is only so much ground I can cover in an 800-word article. My aim here is to inspire men and women to consider a biblical view of submission as an alternative to traditional and egalitarian perspectives. For an in-depth treatment of domestic abuse in the church and how to respond to it, I encourage you to check out my book The Silent Queen.
I’ve been in this general discussion for going on 4 decades now, and in all that time, I have not ever (that is to say I have not one single experience) heard a self-identified Egalitarian Christian say or put into print that a wife should “never submit.”
If you have any examples of that supposed teaching, do point me to them, so I can correct those folks alongside the ones on the far opposite isle who want their own Stepford wives.
You’re right that it’s not about Equality though…it’s about Mutuality. I’d also say it’s more likely to be about equity than equality, but most can’t discern the subtle differences between those two things, so I’ll just move on.
I live in one of the most egalitarian societies in the world (New Zealand). My wife comes from another egalitarian society (Denmark). I can assure you that in these types of countries, there is a strong emphasis on equality and boundaries and very little emphasis on the sort of submission Paul wrote about in Ephesians 5.
Yes, I am well aware that there are Christians who identify as egalitarian who also believe in biblical submission. I am one of them. But as I say above, equality is merely the starting point of the new creation. The ultimate goal is love.
Brother Paul, this article is very brave and well written! I love this bit you wrote: “However, the egalitarian response, like the traditional one, undermines a marriage for it replaces one law (submission) with another (equality), and any law will minister death.” It sums it up so well in light of the gospel – law kills but grace brings life and this is also true of our marriages. Keep up the sterling work, Paul!
Paul, this is very written to a point. In today’s society submission and respect in a marriage is seen as tradition and not of this generation. It is the main reason we see lots of couples divorcing because for them, submission is like put behind bars. There is this other thing called women emancipation which is promoting equality with no single knowledge of what they are proposing. When I know who I’m in Christ, I do not need to attend to a conference where a failure in marriage is sharing and making me to accept her stupid to make my marriage lived under law. I think when we see how Jesus lived His life and gave it on the cross for people who do not care is the same way we should live in our marriage. Unless we both learn a thing called death, it is going to so difficult to see true love in marriages.