Sex, Supper, Submission

Zach Lambert

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woman making dinner

woman making dinner

A few months after we said “I do,” my wife Amy and I attended a class for newly married couples at our local church. Each week, we were taught a different topic by a different teacher intended to help us grow in our marriage. One week the topic was “Women’s Roles.”

I remember sitting in that room like it was yesterday. The teacher walked into the room, strode up to the whiteboard, and wrote the following list:

SEX

SUPPER

SUBMISSION

Then she said, “Ladies, these three S’s are the best way to remember your role in marriage.”

I could feel Amy stiffen in anger next to me. I began laughing involuntarily. I assumed the statement was a misguided joke meant to alleviate the tension in the room. But after I got a “stop laughing, moron” look from the teacher, I realized something horribly tragic: this wasn’t a joke at all.

Oppression via Proof-Texts

Next came, “Turn with me in your Bibles to Colossians 3:18.”

I was stunned. Not only was this damaging message about to be taught to these impressionable new brides, the claim was being made that it was actually based on scripture.

“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Colossians 3:18

For the next hour, we sat through dangerous and misogynistic teaching that only existed because someone had decided to rip this verse out of its context and apply it to fit her purposes for marriage.

How can we prevent this kind of Biblical perversion? By more thoroughly studying the scriptures we claim to love so deeply.

Context Reveals Truth

Consider the context in which Paul wrote this letter. The Colossians were living in a totalitarian patriarchy, a sociological model that placed the male in complete and total control. For the most part, men were the only ones who could own property including slaves, concubines, children, and even wives. Women were possessions to be owned, not members of the family. The first-century male’s possessions existed solely to benefit him: slaves and children by working for the estate, concubines by meeting the man’s sexual desires, and the wife mostly by bearing male heirs.

This didn’t sit right with Paul. He realized that this totalitarian patriarchy was incongruent with the teachings and actions of Jesus. Consider these examples from the life of Christ:

  1. When religious leaders were ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus knelt down beside her, forgave her and rescued her. (John 8:2-11)
  2. Jesus commends Mary for “sitting at his feet” as he taught, a place reserved for male students; women were kept in a separate part of the home during times of teaching. (Luke 10:38-42)
  3. When everyone else avoided the woman at the well because of her reputation, Jesus goes out of his way to tell her about forgiveness and eternal life. (John 4:1-26)
  4. When a sinful woman interrupts Simon’s dinner party by pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet, he defends her, elevates her, and ultimately redeems her. (Luke 7:36-50)
  5. A woman, Mary Magdalene, is the first one at Jesus’ tomb and the first to be commissioned by him as a messenger of the resurrection. (John 20:1-2, 11-18)

Combating Misogyny

So how does Paul fight against this totalitarian patriarchy? By centering each person’s identity around who they are in Christ. In fact, he does this just seven verses prior to the teacher’s proof text in his letter to the Colossians:

There is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11

He says the same thing in his letter to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

In one sentence, Paul dismantles society’s hierarchies based around race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and gender.

The First Feminists

If we use the widely accepted definition of feminism— a movement to achieve political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women that are equal to those of men*—then Jesus and Paul were two of the very first feminists to walk this earth.

With that contextual background, let’s take another look at our often misused text from Colossians 3:

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Colossians 3:18-19

A deeper study of this passage reveals that the word translated as “love” in verse 19 is the word “agape.” There were many different words for “love” in Greek, the language used to write the New Testament. Some of them are for friendship, others for sexual passion, still others for love of self, but there is one “love” that stands above all the rest: agape.

Agape is a sacrificial love; one that puts others first. Agape love is the kind willing to lay down its life for the ones it loves. It’s the same word used in the Bible’s most popular verse: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Mutual Submission

Paul uses Colossians 3:18 and 19 as parallel commands: “lay everything down for each other, including your life.” Mutual submission and sacrifice is what the Bible teaches, not unilateral submission or the debased sexism that is taught in many churches today.

Secular culture, both then and now, tells us to always fight for power in our relationships, but God’s Word says the opposite. As society screams at us to keep the upper hand at all costs, Jesus is quietly whispering, “There is no greater love than to lay down your life.” (John 15:13)

This is backwards, this is opposite, this is counter-cultural. This is the Kingdom of God—an incredible place where we live, love, and serve as equals, no matter our gender.

Zach Lambert

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60 Comments

  • This is a great article! I feel very sorry for a woman who finds the sum total of her identity and self-worth in sex, supper, and submission.

    “And she did have the role of shield, protector and barrier from the serpent. And of course Jesus came so Eve could love Adam that way all over again.” The idea of Eve bearing the role of shield, protector, and barrier from the serpent is new to me. I will have to explore this further! And this statement is just wonderful: Jesus came so Eve could love Adam that way all over again. Thanks, Cheryel and Berenger2.

    Zach and Gail– you’ve done a great job moderating and responding to these comments. Thank you!

  • I’m curious as to why you stayed for the session. And I mean that sincerely because I’ve done the same. Why do we continue to sit under these teachings that we know have been perverted and taken out of context? I don’t any more. It’s too much like complicity. For years and years, I used to stay and try to have the conversation but I always got shut down in a very derogatory way. I think it’s because I was taught to be respectful, and old habits die hard. What was your response to this situation?

    • I’ve thought about that quite a bit. At the risk of sounding like I’m excusing myself, let me make a few excuses haha. First, I was 22 years old and had been married less than a year. As I listened to someone who was in their late 50s and had been married for 30+ years, part of me thought, “This sounds so wrong, but maybe I’m missing something.” I also didn’t have the words and understand I have now, 7 years later, to rebut her teaching in a coherent way.

      Second, I was an intern at the church and the teacher was a full-time staff person. Though not a “pastor” because she was a woman, she had been at the church for a long time and held enough influence to get my fired for challenging her teaching. Speaking up carried the risk of losing my job, which as my wife and I were both in grad school, served as our only income.

      All in all, I didn’t speak up because I was unsure and afraid. I’m certainly not proud of that, but I’m thankful that I get to speak about it now.

      I agree that many of us don’t speak up because we’ve been shutdown in a derogatory way or we fear being seen as disrespectful. But I think we have to remember, being gracious don’t mean letting everything go. It means doing what is best for the other person. The most gracious thing we can do in situations like this is speak the truth of Scripture and the freedom found in Jesus.

      • Zach,
        Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I, for one, am glad that you stayed, because it has helped someone like me to better understand the message some young couples in the church are getting from their leaders. And your experience has helped me to better face my internalized misogyny and understand its sources.

  • Hi Zach from across the Pond!

    It strikes me that the weakness in arguing that Paul’s instructions here can only be understood in the context of patriarchy is that unless you have knowledge of the society of the first century, you cannot understand him. He doesn’t mention the ‘secular’ family structures in the text itself. On the contrary, he tells wives their submission is ‘fitting in the Lord’. Doesn’t this and the expanded parallel in Eph 5 rule out culture?

    If wives had no choice to submit to their husbands due to culture, a command to do so is redundant.

    I agree with you these are parallel instructions, but what Paul instructs wives to do is for wives only, and – allow me to be consistent even if you don’t agree! – what he says to husbands is only for husbands. Husbands are nowhere told to submit to their wives, and by parity of argument, wives do not have to love in the sacrificial sense their husbands. The NT addresses far more to husbands than wives, and puts a greater responsibility on them before God.

    This concept of mutual submission doesn’t work if you apply it to church leaders and members, nor the relationship between citizen and government, and absolutely not in the case of Christ and the church, of which marriage is a pale copy.

    Pragmatically, someone has to carry the can in a marriage as well. I’m afraid I think this is hubby, like it or not!

    • Hey Ken! First, I want to say how much I appreciate the tone of your post. We may disagree on some things, but we are brothers in Christ and the spirit of your post reflects that.

      Second, I refute your assertion that the Bible doesn’t teach mutual submission. I’m glad you brought up Ephesians 5, because that’s exactly where the best example of this is found: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21

      As Christians, we are all called to “submit” to one another and to “love” one another (John 17, Colossians 3, John 13, 1 Corinthians 13, etc.) sacrificially. While I do appreciate the consistency of your argument, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that husbands aren’t required to submit or that wives aren’t required to love sacrificially when we see both commands given to all Christians, regardless of gender or marital status, throughout Scripture.

      • Hi Zach again.

        I agree with you on a general attitude of loving one anther a deference to each other amongst believers. Mutual respect. The problem with the ‘submitting yourselves to one another’ you quote from Eph 5 is that in all of the relationships Paul lists after that verse up to the spiritual armour passage in chapter 6 none of the relationships is mutual. It’s a case of some individuals or groups have to submit to others, not everyone to everyone.

        Try reading it with ‘some to others’ in mind and it makes perfect sense. I conclude from this there is an inequality of responsibility in marriage. What I do not agree with is when some complementarians massively exaggerate this as though husband is King and wife the kitchen maid’s assistent.

        In my own marriage, we started aware of this basic framework, but have never spent time agonising over who does what or what the Greek says, but simply got on with it! She’s still putting up with me after 32 years. I provided the money which she then purloined to ‘build the nest’ !!

        I wish Christians on both sides of this debate would lighten up about it a bit more, neither exaggerating nor negating differences.

        • Hey again Ken – we can probably just agree to disagree about the language in Ephesians 5. I love hearing your condemnation of complementarian exaggeration and the damage it so often causes. I’m also so glad that you and your wife have enjoyed 32 years of marriage! Amy and I are coming up on 8 and it’s still work in progress.

          Thanks again for your comments and the tone with which you write them. It’s important to have these conversations and to have them with civility. All the best, Ken!

  • Would you consider changing “many churches” to “some?” We seem to want to beat up THE church today and my experience is most churches now do not teach this mindset, but an equal partnership.

    • I understand where you’re coming from, but I have no intention of beating up the church. As a church planter and pastor, I have given much of my life to it. I disagree that most churches teach equal partnership, but I am so thankful that has been your experience. Every church, except one, that I have served or attended has taught complementarianism and more than half have taught some form of patriarchy.

      • I agree here Mindy. I’m afraid it is “most churches” not “some”. I have been in exactly one Church (and by Church I mean the local gathering of a community of believers, not The global Church and not denominations) where egalitarianism is taught,( and I’ve been around a long time 😉 )

  • EXCELLENT article, Zach. First time I’ve read your stuff! It makes me smile!

    Now that I’m older (70+), I think I would have spoken up in that classroom upon seeing the sex, supper, and submission words on the whiteboard. I might have said, “OK, I get it. That’s cool. But what’s in it for me?” I wonder what the reply would have been!

    • Thanks so much, Jo. I really wish you would have been in there with us to stand up and say that!

  • At my wedding in 1959 I had the pastor delete “to obey” from the vows. Being a preacher’s kid the criticism from other pastors didn’t bother me because I knew I was right but I wasn’t creative enough to rewrite the vows to agree completely with the Bible. The church I have been involved in for 46 years respects & honors women & stays close to the Word of God.

  • Thank you James – this is a wonderfully succinct look at a difficult, and often mis-interpreted, part of the New Testament. I still have horrible memories of having to do a study in my youth group at an Anglican (Episcopalian) church that essentially used the rape of Tamar as the basis for a range of “good young girls don’t…” statements (i.e. don’t dress provactively, put themselves in situations where men might take advantage of them, etc.). There were no equivalent teachings of “good young boys don’t…”!

    • I’m so sorry, Megan. That’s terrible. If we started teaching both genders to respect themselves and each other as children then we would be avoiding a lot of these issues.

  • Patriarchy was the result of the fall, Genesis 3: 16. Before that, Eve was created to be an ezar kenegdo (help mete) Kenegdo is Hebrew for equal weight, two equal halves of a sphere, a mirror image. Ezar isn’t the common word for help. It appears only 21 times in the OT, and applies only to God or appeals to God for help, except for the two times God applies it to Eve. It means divine help. It is also a Hebrew military word denoting a soldier surrounded in battle by the enemy, when a second soldier breaks through enemy lines, and rescues the first soldier. The ezar is the second soldier. An ezar is a rescuer and a divine helper. Eve was divinely appointed to help and rescue Adam from the Enemy. When she failed in her purpose, she was placed under Adam, which is in itself proof that she was equal to him before the fall. And so for millennia women were blamed for Sin entering the world. Even though the Bible only refers to Adam’s sin. Note that only Adam was exiled from the Garden, not Eve. She chose to come with him because her desire was now for him.
    But didn’t Jesus come to reverse the Curse of the Fall? I’ve heard many a male preacher claim that. I’ve just never heard them proclaim that women are once again equal to men. Jesus, by his very behavior toward, and treatment of women, showed that women are now equal in his kingdom. I believe the Bible proclaims mutual submission. And that men and women share equally in ministry.

    • That’s exactly why Jesus came – to restore all that was broken by the Fall. Thank you for this excellent comment, Cheryel.

    • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Cheryel. An amazing, illuminating comment. Yes she did follow Adam from the garden. And she did have the role of shield, protector and barrier from the serpent. And of course Jesus came so Eve could love Adam that way all over again. I’ll copy and paste this, or would you write it up for publication here?

      • “And of course Jesus came so Eve could love Adam that way all over again.” What a beautiful thought. I’ve never heard it expressed that way.

      • Berenger2: Thanks for your kind words and affirmation. This information is what I have learned in my biblical Hebrew studies. Feel free to share it, as I wish everyone everywhere knew it. I’m not sure what you mean by write it up for publishing. I’m not sure how to do that.

  • Always warms my heart to hear male pastors supporting egalitarianism in Christian marriage. Hoping these sentiments extend into your employment of female pastors on your staff, in the pulpit, and other areas of leadership. I pray we continue to find loving ways to subvert the messages you heard in that class and others like it to move forward into the New Creation, including living into the words expressed in Gal. 3:28.

    • Thank you, Patti. Yes, these sentiments carry over into every area of our church. We have female pastors on our staff, female elders, and the person who preaches the most (aside from myself) is a woman. When you realize that the Holy Spirit gives and empowers all gifts as treasures in jars of clay (2 Cor. 4), you understand that the gender of the jar of clay doesn’t change the gift at all.

  • Zach, I’m so impressed by this take on a really volatile subject. I’m reposting to Kyria. Thanks for such a sane and insightful perspective. I’m shocked about the lady teaching – and in the same way that FGM is mainly perpetuated by women, it’s clear to see the same in the church with this overwhelmingly disgusting teaching.

  • Good reminder that the first rule of hermeneutics is to interpret the part by the whole.

    J.I. Packer starts his article on interpretation this way: “The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity. The different items and the various kinds of material which make it up—laws, promises, liturgies, genealogies, arguments, narratives, meditations, visions, aphorisms, homilies, parables and the rest—do not stand in Scripture as isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole. The exposition of them, therefore, involves exhibiting them in right relation both to the whole and to each other. God’s Word is not presented in Scripture in the form of a theological system, but it admits of being stated in that form, and, indeed, requires to be so stated before we can properly grasp it—grasp it, that is, as a whole. Every text has its immediate context in the passage from which it comes, its broader context in the book to which it belongs, and its ultimate context in the Bible as a whole; and it needs to be rightly related to each of these contexts if its character, scope and significance is to be adequately understood.”

    For his whole article: http://www.bible-researcher.com/packer1.html

  • This article is validating. I have lived under this incorrect belief in churches of women’s roles. My former spouse and I received counsel in this manner and most Christian marriage books supported this proof-texted belief. It fueled abuse and insisted on my silence in it. I see you made reference to the secular manner of striving toward a position of power. As I read your article and consider my own journey under church counsel, the church’s position on these gender roles more aligns with a secular model than Christ’s model, and proponents of women’s role as sex, supper, & submission do not even realize they have fallen prey to the enemy’s tactics of power of men over women in destroying marriages and families. Thank you for using your voice as a male to speak for women.

    • “As I read your article and consider my own journey under church counsel, the church’s position on these gender roles more aligns with a secular model than Christ’s model…” This is so well put, Lynn. Thank you for your comment and I am so sorry about the abuse you’ve suffered due in part to this type of teaching.

  • Timely word…thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts here.

  • Zach,

    Thank you so much for this post. I have been taught a form of this heresy in my church. Because it came from leadership I respect, it gave me serious pause for thought. I attended a women’s Bible “study”* taught by the pastor’s wife to young women to find out what was likely being taught in my daughter’s Sunday School class taught by the same woman. It’s amazing that I

    1) didn’t walk into class the second week ripping the “study” book to shreds
    2) survived the entire class without losing my temper in class (my husband heard many laments…)
    3) never screamed at the teachers that they were lapping up poison by believing this fecal matter
    4) decided to attend online seminary as a result of such crap handling of Scripture.

    So, thank you. I love that you recognized the error of this teaching right away.

    Ellen

    *study is in quotes because, as my husband stated, the book “is not a study; it’s an agenda.”

    • You’re welcome, Ellen. Thank you for the encouragement and for continuing to stand up against erroneous teaching in your church.

  • Thanks for a good article. However, in point 4 you speak of a ‘prostitute’ who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, but the gospel does not say that about her! Rather, it is an erroneous conclusion drawn by the early (sadly, patriarchal) church and perpetuated in subsequent centuries. In John’s gospel the woman is actually identified as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who had not believed in Jesus’ power to resurrect her brother, and later came in contrition to minister to her Lord with love and faith.

    • You are exactly right, Patricia! As an admin I should have caught that in the editing process. It has been corrected – thank you!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Patricia. I believe the two events from Luke 7 and John 12 to be distinct dinners, although you are correct, this is a debated topic. You are also correct that the most accurate translation of ἁμαρτωλός is “sinful woman.” The cultural description calling her a “woman of the city” is what has led many scholars to believe that she was known to be promiscuous or possibly a prostitute.

  • Zach, I’m glad you could sit through that lesson in order to know how to address it. I’d have walked out.

      • Did you say anything to the instructor after? To challenge her interpretation? And if yes, what did she say in response? I hope she’s still not teaching that error.

  • Silly, misandric feminist gibberish. Somebody is reading Gloria Steinem and stapling across to it.

    Why in the world would anybody think following the secular immoral left and pretending it’s Christianity would be a good idea.

    The bra burning 1970s called and they want their worldview back.

    • Your comment is disturbingly dismissive of the authors points, yet completely lacking in any constructive criticism. It appears your only objective is to demean and dismiss.

      Are you advocating for the “three S’s” as described by the teacher? If so, could you support your argument?

    • James, please try to spend a bit of time outside the world of political tribalism. Try to understand the words that are being presented to you by this author in good faith. God is calling you to be stretched, and while the stretching process can be difficult, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t capable of developing or learning.

    • James, I don’t know why you even click on our posts, since you obviously don’t agree and continue to insult and demean our writers. In our Christian tradition of Wesleyan Holiness theology women have always had a place in proclaiming the gospel. God is no respecter of persons! This has nothing to do with modern day feminism, although we agree with that movement that women should have equal rights and representation. Your comments are no longer welcome here and will not be approved moving forward.

      • Hi Gail, I don’t have a problem with the comment by James Joseph, whom you have now banned. His comment is civil and not libelous — it is merely his opinion. There is nothing “insulting or demeaning” in what he says. I would think that you would want to encourage discussion here. While I don’t agree with his comment; nevertheless, I defend his right to state his opinion. You want only opinions that agree with yours? Uniformity is boring.

        • Violet, we encourage civil discussion. Calling someone’s writing “feminist misandric gibberish” and accusing them of being immoral is not helpful. And this is a pattern with that commenter, both here and on Facebook. He rarely engages with the actual ideas on the post.

    • Hey James. Did you have a chance to read the entire article? It seems like the word “feminist” may have triggered you and kept you from critically reading the entire post. But, to be honest, that was part of the point. We shouldn’t be more bothered by the use of that term, especially when it is clearly defined as full equality between the genders, than we are by the damaging ideology of patriarchy.

    • You know, troll comment aside (yes, that’s what you are doing, and normally I’d ignore it on principle), explain to me exactly what part of the statement “A woman’s sole purposes are to cook supper, have sex, and play doormat” *shouldn’t* rankle a man? Which part of that statement should one agree with? Would Jesus agree with? Forget the rest of the article for a minute and explain to me how the statement is in anyway Biblical or humanly decent? They write Criminal Minds episodes out of thought processes like that.

      • Kaci, we’ve banned James from the comments section so he won’t be responding, but your comment is in point! Blessings.

        • No worries. Thanks for letting me know, and for going ahead and posting it – I know it was a little terse. I’ve really enjoyed reading Junia Project; I just don’t comment very often. Thank you all for the work you do.

  • What Kelly nd of 1950’s Church was THAT? I’d draw a big wide circle around that one!

  • Oh, wow, this is so sad on so many levels (your post was similarly written by others many times over since I first read one in 1973!). . . .. . .yet, your restorative, historical, contextual post is so good and so true. … now, if we can only get rid of the “system” of the Church in regard to these same things about gender roles in the Church Body, it might be a step forward.

    • Thanks so much, Kathrine! I completely agree about getting rid of the “system” in the Church. We must continue keeping speaking out against it and showing people a better, more Christlike, way.

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