What does the Bible really mean when it tells women to submit to their husbands and men to be the head of their homes? One of America's most popular pastors and his wife – Tim and Kathy Keller – have gone deep into the scriptures to reveal the truth that shows in no way is one spouse supposed to lord it over the other. In fact, the kind of leader God promotes is the one who'll be a servant first and foremost.
Authority Wrongly Used Just Oppresses
One can't deny Scriptures like Ephesians 5:22 exist: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord." But what does God actually expect of husbands and wives?
Tim Keller says God does give husbands authority, but here's how the New York City pastor said they can misinterpret that: "To think of authority as nothing but power, and almost selfish power," Tim commented. "One of the reasons that a lot of people are very negative about anyone speaking about male headship in a family is because they say, 'That's just going to oppress.'"
Christ Defined Authority: 'Strength used for Service'
Kathy Keller in Tim and Kathy's book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God writes, "I have seen Bible verses used as both weapons of oppression and rebellion" and also, "…every human culture has found a way to interpret male headship in a way that has marginalized and oppressed women."
But she continues, "I have also seen the healing and flourishing that can happen in a marriage where hot button words like 'headship' and 'submission' are understood correctly, with Jesus as the model for both."
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Tim added, this Christ who washed his disciples' feet defines authority like this: "'Strength used for service.' I mean, obviously, when you look at Jesus, He is our head. He is our authority. But He died for us."
Kathy chimed in, "Jesus talks to His disciples about who's the greatest, and He says the greatest is always the servant. As John 13:15 puts it, "Afterward Jesus directed His disciples, saying, "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."
Kathy summed up, "A woman can have no need to fear being submissive to a man whose idea of authority is to be a servant, to die for her."
Tim said the Gospels sum it up like this: "A husband's job is to serve his wife and to give his life for her."
A Wife is to be a Helper like God is Our Helper
Now as for women, Genesis 2:18 records "The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'"
Some feel that's putting women in a subservient role. But that changes when you hear the full dimensions of the Hebrew word for helper – 'ezer.'"
Kathy explained, "Most commonly that word has been used of God: 'O God Our Help' – somebody who brings qualities to a situation that you need…in that, that was usually a prayer: 'O God, Help Us! Be Our Helper.'"
In "The Meaning of Marriage," Kathy writes, "…'ezer' is almost always used in the Bible to describe God himself. Other times it is used to describe military help, such as reinforcements, without which a battle would be lost. To 'help' someone, then, is to make up what is lacking in him with your strength. Woman was made to be a 'strong helper.'"
Jesus Submitted to the Father's Headship 'With Free, Voluntary, & Joyful Eagerness'
Tim further defines "Ezer," saying, "'Supplementary strength,' strength that supports and doesn't undermine. Strength that promotes and lifts up rather than takes over."
Kathy continued, "The whole idea of being the helper, the help-mate…that doesn't mean you are the second string, doesn't mean you are the assistant, 'Santa's little helper.'"
She also pointed out Jesus Christ willingly laid down His divine privileges to submit as a human to God.
Kathy writes in their book, "The Son submits to the Father's headship with free, voluntary, and joyful eagerness, not out of coercion or inferiority."
In studying Christ's submitting, she continues, "I discovered here that my submission in marriage was a gift I offered, not a duty coerced from me."
Look at the Bible 'as the Ultimate Owner's Manual'
The loving strong helper and the servant leader can form a perfect union. An incorrect understanding of those roles can ruin that.
As Tim put it, "if you say, 'men are supposed to have all the power and women are supposed to be completely servile, submissive and never raise their voice,' then what you've actually done is you've alienated male and female."
Kathy stated to rise above such alienation, you have to understand how God designed male and female to interact. You can do that by looking at the Bible as the ultimate owner's manual…God's design for men and women. His making it possible for humans to multiply and fill the earth only if both male and female come together in loving union.
"If we don't want to be going against the grain of the universe, it would behoove us to find out how He organized the universe," she said.
Ignoring what He's ordained for men and women would be like buying a Lamborghini, but deciding to fill it with milk instead of gas."
Kathy asked, "Does it make any sense to buy a really expensive Lamborghini, drive it home and say 'Ya know, the gas they want me to put in this is so expensive, I think I'm going to use milk. Milk is much cheaper?' Yeah, but you're going to ruin the whole works. You have to operate something like that according to the manufacturer's instructions."
'Men & Women Were Created with Absolute Equality'
The Kellers sum it up in their book.
"Genesis shows us that men and women were created with absolute equality. Both are equally made in the image of God, equally blessed, and equally given 'dominion' over the earth," the couple wrote.
Kathy said, "Christian women, make sure you don't end up with some man who doesn't get that and will try to lord it over you."
She further stated of the marriage-minded single ladies, "They do not need to marry somebody who is completely clueless about these things. I mean, women say 'Oh, it'll be terrible!' Well, don't marry the guy if he doesn't get it. Marry somebody who really understands that they are a servant leader."
Someone who knows that just above the scripture "Wives, submit to your husbands," Ephesians 5:21 commands 'Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.'