Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 17, 2010

The New Testament on Authority (Part 6: Authority in the House)

Before we began our study of authority in the New Testament, we undertook a lengthy study of gender.  The New Testament is heavily laden with imagery of believers as members of a household or family.  Every book of the New Testament, with the exception of Jude, employs the language of family.  Paul explicitly makes the connection in 1 Tim 3:5:  “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”  Today we’ll review some of the highlights of our gender theology and authority studies and examine some useful parallels applicable in the Christian home, particularly with regard to women.

We expect children to obey their parents during their childhood, but children are not meant to remain dependent upon their parents forever.  The parent-child relationship changes as the children attain maturity:  while they should still respect their parents, the expectation that they will obey no longer exists once they reach adulthood.  Eph 4 speaks of church leaders bringing believers to maturity, so they will “no longer be tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine.”  We have seen that Peter expects “the recently born” to submit to the elders in a way that is not expected of the mature (1 Pet 5:5).  1 Cor 12 describes everyone participating in the meeting, rather than the elders carrying everyone along.  Just like children, new believers are expected to mature to the point that they no longer require the perpetual protection and provision of the elders.

Just as God has distributed responsibility and accountability to both the leadership and directly to the congregation as a whole, He has also distributed authority to both the husband and the wife in the Christian family.  1 Cor 7 is the only passage in the New Testament in which exousia, “authority,” is used with respect to marriage partners, and it is clearly conferred upon the wife as well as the husband (7:4).  Both Peter (1 Pe 3:1) and Paul (1 Tim 5:14 & Titus 2:5, 10) explain that the reason wives were instructed to submit to their husbands was to avoid any obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel.  In light of the vastly improved status of women in this new sect compared with its cultural backdrop, it is not difficult to understand why such an admonition was necessary.  Similar consideration for cultural sensibilities may be seen in 1 Cor 14:33.  After acknowledging that women are free to pray and prophesy in church, Paul then enjoins, “women must be silent in the churches…for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”  If it were “shameful” in God’s sight, it would have made no sense for Paul to give instructions for women speaking in church.  This shame must, then, be a part of the local situation; Paul instructs believers to avoid acting in ways that would be considered an affront to the sensibilities of the larger community.  Similarly, even though Paul forcefully argues against circumcision in Galatians and elsewhere, the first thing he does after recruiting Timothy is have him circumcised (Acts 16:3).

An understanding of female submission to male authority as a cultural concession intended to eliminate an obstacle to evangelism offers multiple advantages.  First, plurality of leadership in the home is consistent with the pattern of plurality of leadership in the household of faith (Titus 1:5, e.g.).  Moreover, it is consistent with the distribution of authority by God directly to both marriage partners described in 1 Cor 7.   1 Tim 5:14 describes the wife as the oikodespotayn; according to Strong’s, the “head of the family” or “master of the house.”   It is interesting to note that when Paul wrote the “husband is the head of the wife” in Eph 5, he chose the present-active-indicative verb form, indicating punctilliar action; not the future-active-indicative form, which would have indicated ongoing action.  In other words, Paul’s statement described the situation as it was at the time he was writing; there is nothing in the grammar that indicates a mandate for future action.  Husbands did, in fact, wield a god-like power over their households in the culture in which the New Testament texts were penned.

Second, understanding female submission as a cultural concession is consistent with the New Testament writers’ preference for the use of influence rather than the wielding of authority within the household of faith.  Eph 5:21, for example, is very difficult to make sense of if authoritarian structures are implied by submission.  To help illustrate, consider the instruction “Everyone obey everyone else” in the context of the military, in which chains of authority are integral to the functioning of the organization:  the result would be anarchy.  Understanding submission in non-authoritarian terms of putting others first is consistent with the Greek phraseology as well as the immediate and larger context of Scripture (Phil 2:3, e.g.).

Third, the cultural concession view is consistent with the overarching theme that ties together all 66 books of the Bible; namely, God’s direct, personal, and miraculous intervention in human history to repair the effects of the Fall in order to restore us to fellowship with Himself and each other.  Additionally, it represents an integrated approach that is informed by the entire body of biblical texts touching not only on gender relations, but relationships between Christians and Christian maturity in general, rather than interpreting one passage in isolation (such as Eph 5) and then subordinating the others to that interpretation.  In fact, it is those who are preoccupied with rules that the New Testament depicts as weak:  “What can I eat?  What can’t I eat?  What day is special?  What days aren’t special?”  (Romans 14:1ff)  To this list we might add, “Whom do I have to obey?” and “Who has to obey me?”  Finally, for those who believe women are able to function as leaders in the church but remain subjugated at home, this interpretation eliminates that dichotomy.

At the very least, those who remain unconvinced that the egalitarian position is God’s ideal should consider that it might be appropriate to follow Paul’s example and make a cultural concession here.  Male authority is not an issue central to salvation; indeed, it is even farther removed from the central doctrine of salvation by grace through faith than the circumcision question.  Complementarians maintain that to take this approach destroys the marriage metaphor found in Scripture.  But when we look at complementarian marriages, the fruit is decidedly bitter:  millions of women have been murdered, maimed, and abused in the name of gender hierarchy; the overwhelming majority divorce or describe themselves as unhappy, male and female alike.  The truth is, the story of Christ and His Bride is not about the Groom wielding power over his Bride, but on her behalf.  It should come as no surprise, then, that gender hierarchy is a documented obstacle to serious consideration of the gospel for both women and men in modern western societies.  Just as Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to prevent anything from distracting from the proclamation of the gospel, perhaps conservative church leaders today should at least abandon their rigid interpretation of male authority as a spiritual litmus test, and stop blaming egalitarians for society’s problems.  Did Paul attack the character of people who needed to hear his message?  No, he said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”  (1 Cor 9:22).  If both marriage partners genuinely and actively “esteem the other as better” (Phil 2:3), how critical is it really that they concede that God has endowed the husband with all the power in the relationship?  Romans 14 gives us the answer:  stop “passing judgment on disputable matters…let each one be convinced in his own mind…and do so unto the Lord.”



  1. AMEN!

  2. Some will be suspicious of the “cultural concession view”. Those who read John Piper’s “The Momentary Marriage”, for example.

    He writes:

    It is a great sadness that in our society—even in the church—the dif­ferent and complementary roles of biblical headship for the husband and biblical submission for the wife are despised or simply passed over. Some people just write them off as sub-Christian cultural leftovers from the first century.

    I clipped this passage from where it was quoted by a 26 year old woman on a Christian Forum who appears to have already bitten the beautiful shiny fruit which delivers the deadly marriage killing poison of “husband rule”.

  3. We can throw that right back at Piper. I’ve seen video tapes of his teaching and I noticed that none of the ladies were wearing head coverings. So he has used his own best judgement to arrive at the conclusion that head coverings for women are a temporary mandate. But in direct contradiction of Romans 14, he withholds from other believers the privilege of interpreting the text and following the leading of the Holy Spirit at they understand it, and instead characterizes them as “despising,” “passing over,” or “writing off” the biblical text.

    This installment is merely a synopsis and conclusion of a more comprehensive study. My hope is that even though some might not agree with my conclusions, after reading the material in its entirety, they could at least agree that my approach has been rooted in a comprehensive and integrated survey of Scripture rather than some profound character flaw.

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