This week, the Adult Bible Study Guide assails the infamous “wives submit to your husbands” subtextual farce that has launched a thousand shifty sermons. Doing the bare moral minimum, the lesson marshals biblical passages and Ellen White quotes in support of gender equality in marriage. To its credit, in explaining Ephesians 5:21-33, the Bible study also utilizes a variety of metaphors to buttress an anti-abuse, mutual submission message. These include three-in-one trinitarian theological language, comparisons between ancient wedding ceremony traditions with the return of Jesus, and marital sexual union to describe divine-human relationship. But this gender/person equality—which extends from marriage all the way to the triune Godhead—somehow does not include ordained Seventh-day Adventist pastoral and administrative leadership.
The Teacher Comments explains that this entire section of Ephesians “is a profound Christological and ecclesiological discussion.” But its theology of the church is so superficial it becomes essentially tautological. Later in the same section it states that Paul “places his discussion of the family in the context of foundational Christian doctrines: God, Creation, Christ, salvation, and the church. In fact, here Paul does not use the family to illustrate these doctrines but, rather, uses these doctrines to illustrate the Christian family!” This interstice of metaphor and literalism, also known as the grammatical-historical hermeneutical method, devolves, at times, into a strained attempt to connect ancient practices to evangelistic goals. The premodern tradition of a bride cleaning herself with water for a special occasion becomes a metaphor for baptism. The patriarchal inequality of a dowry, or “bride price” as the lesson states, equates to the penal substitution theory of the atonement.
It could be worse. For example, a shared contribution by Clinton Whalen, associate director for the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference, to the North American Division’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report, draws on Ephesians 5 to defend male headship and female submission. Picking up on the (patriarchal) family as essential to understanding God’s relationship with humanity, Whalen writes, “The key role that Christianity accorded to the family, placing it at the heart of religious faith and worship, helps explain its explosive growth and rapid expansion throughout the ancient world.” I’m not sure of the difference between “explosive growth” and “rapid expansion,” but even more importantly, Whalen oversimplifies the role of the family. The first few generations of the Jesus movement undermined traditional family bonds. Neither Paul, nor Jesus—both at the heart of the Christian movement, one a divine being—married or were the head of a family. Whalen’s cobbled-together prooftexts that theologically prioritize a nuclear family and singular masculine authority are literally undermined by the lived examples in the biblical narrative.
San Diego State University’s Brad Kirkegaard puts the “Early Christian Family in its Roman Context” in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics,
Jesus predicted a world to come in which brother would stand against brother and woe to the woman who was in childbirth (Mark 13:12 and 17; Matt. 24:19; Luke 21:16) – not exactly an inspiration for a Norman Rockwell painting. The kingdom of God brought with it a redefined notion of family and constituted a fundamental challenge to the established social order of Jesus' times on many levels. This challenge to established family bonds in the light of a new passion to follow the way that Jesus set forth provided an ongoing motif in early Christianity. To put these changes in sociological terms, Christianity created a new fictive kinship group in contradistinction to the established kinship groups within its surrounding Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. In theological terms, Christianity with its radical and complex notions of the kingdom of God (whether future or realized) constructed a newly unified family comprised of children of God who were adopted as brothers and sisters of Christ under a divine father. Traditional familial ideas of hospitality, loyalty and shared work took on new valences within this redefined fictive kinship group.
This is far from Whalen’s headship power model that uses the nuclear patriarchal family to structure church. The headship absurdity becomes clear in endnote 137, in which Whalen, et al, explains that while Genesis 3 supports the rights of men to be first in the religio-political line, it also means that they must be “first to offer to take out the garbage and do other disagreeable jobs” (218). Talk about a low view of holy writ. Somehow the General Conference-approved historical-grammatical leads Whalen to figure out which gender God wants to hold the Glad bags. Should men be emptying all the office trash at the General Conference?
Spiritual depth includes critical engagement with history—ancient and modern. The fact is that headship and submission language used in the past to construct marital and ecclesiastical authority didn’t sound like it does these days. “The hard complementarian message today that argues women are ordained by God to be subordinate to men and that this excludes them from most leadership roles in churches (teaching, preaching, serving as deacons and elders, etc.) is different,” states Beth Allison Barr. professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, she adds, ”Yet it has so permeated evangelical culture—through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology that is so pervasive in seminary culture, through John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, through Desiring God podcasts, through the popularity of the Acts 29 movement, through Focus on the Family—that most Christians don’t even blink during a sermon on female submission and male headship.” This is overwhelmingly true for many Adventists in North America, and minus some of the people and organizations she mentions, the concept pervades the majority of Adventism around the world as well.
But a nuanced understanding is needed of how much of that concept lies in pre-missionary culture and how much is imposed. “To the extent that women were the majority of the converts to Christianity, missionaries may have conceived their role in the society to be submissive even though indigenous women protested against unfair authorities,” writes Chigemezi Nnadozie Wogu. In his 2020 article on “The Encounter of Seventh-day Adventist Missionaries with Indigenous Issues in Nigeria from 1900 to the 1940s,” he quotes from an Adventist missionary who was shocked and discouraged by the political expression of power by Nigerian Igbo women who had been “destroying the post office, looting the stores, releasing the prisoners, and destroying the houses of their chiefs.” A graduate of Babcock University and Theologische Hochschule Friedensau, Wogu earned his PhD from the Free University Amsterdam. He adds historical context:
When Jesse Clifford returned from furlough in England, the Adventist mission buildings in Aba were temporarily used to keep injured refugees as a result of the Women’s Riot that had just erupted in November of that year. The riots led by women were the first major challenge to British colonial authority in Nigeria and British West Africa. They began as anti-tax protests by women who were upset with the colonial authorities’ plans to impose direct taxes on Igbo market women.
Historical context is essential to understanding the submission language. Ephesians 5 is not primarily concerned with maintaining colonial order or focused on the nuclear family. Instead, it concerns the family that mattered to Jesus and Paul, the gathered kin-dom of God. “In fact, the New Testament view of the Christian family contrasts with the typical assumptions about headship as rulership,” writes Kendra Haloviak Valentine in her contribution to the NAD’s TOSC Report. The chair of the department of New Testament studies at the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University, she adds, “A top-down understanding of power and authority is not an adequate reflection of the meaning of particular words in these New Testament passages, nor of first-century house churches and the gifted men and women who led out in them (124).” Because the verb for “submit” is shared in Ephesians 5:21-22, the text itself articulates a model of mutual leadership that draws believers beyond state familial kinship to the cosmic community. This sub-liminal-mission is really about human relatedness and role responsibility as a heavenly family here and now. As such, the theological principle of divinely inspired submissional equality must start immediately and extend all the way to the top.
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: Souvenir of Queen Victoria and Her Family (1838-1840), Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Hamill and Barker (creative commons zero license).
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