[The substantive content of this and the entire “The Change” series of podcast-episodes for Communion Sanctorum is indebted to the excellent book by Alvin J. Schmidt titled How Christianity Changed the World. ]

This episode continues our series examining the impact Christianity had on history & culture. Today we take a look at how the Faith impacted the world’s view of women.

Contemporary secular feminism came about because of the Christian Gospel’s elevation of women. As with so many other privileges and liberties, as well as the prosperity many in the Western world enjoy; they find their origin in a Biblical view of the world and Mankind’s place in it. But as secularism gained traction in the 20th C and God was increasingly pushed from the public square, privilege became entitlement, liberty devolved to license, and greed turned prosperity into massive debt. All because the moral base that made them possible was forfeited in favor of the fiction told by secularism.

Radical feminism is a grand case in point. Feminists would never have been able to mount their attack on what they deem the subjugation of women were it not for the Christian elevation of women in the first place. They never would have had the platform to make demands were it not for the Biblical worldview Christianity ensconced in Western civilization.

In Gal. 3:28 the Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Ephesians 5 where he defines the roles of husband & wife in marriage, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as they do themselves. Peter tells husbands to treat a wife tenderly & with great care as he would a delicate & precious vase. This seems like common sense, but ONLY because what Paul & Peter instruct has shaped our view of marriage and a husband’s duty to his wife. We don’t realize what an utterly radical assignment that was to men living in the 1st C.

At that time, Jewish men placed far less honor on women. One of the prayers some Jewish men prayed went, “Lord, I thank You I was not born a Gentile, a woman, or a dog.”  In the Greek and Roman world, wives were esteemed as little better than servants. A wife was a social convention by which a man raised legitimate heirs for the family name and fortune. But when it came to affection and pleasure, many men kept mistresses or visited temple prostitutes. Generally speaking, a wife had little honor in her husband’s esteem and had little claim on his attention or affections.[1]

When Paul told husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church in Ephesians 5, he elevated the wife to a place she’d not had before.

In 1 Peter 3:7 we read— “Husbands, dwell with your wife with understanding, giving honor to her, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.”

When Peter told a Christian husband to honor his wife as he would a precious and delicate vase, this was nothing less than radical social revolution. The idea that a man would take the time to understand his wife was new and novel. And it was precisely for values like this Christians were accused by their critics of upsetting the social order and turning the world upside down. [2]

Imagine that! Because Christian men loved and served their wives, they were hated and persecuted. Why? Because they were monkeying with a system that had been in place for hundreds of years. Who knows what chaos might ensue if men started honoring their wives!

Now, I know what some feminists would say at this point because I’ve already heard it; “What about Peter & Paul’s instruction that a wife is to submit to her husband? See?! They’re just misogynist keepers of the tradition of a male-dominated society.”

Not exactly. In fact, not even close. Just as both Peter & Paul defied all cultural sensitivities of their day by calling men to love their wives sacrificially, & seek daily to understand and honor them, what they said to women in their roles as wives was JUST as revolutionary. Let me explain . . .

In Ephesians 5:22-24 the Apostle Paul says a wife’s submission to her husband is patterned after her submission to Christ. In v24, he says she’s to submit “in everything,” meaning it’s more than mere outward compliance. It goes deeper than just a tight-lipped surrender.

All of us need to understand that submission deals more with the posture of our hearts than with our actions. Before Paul moves to the roles of wives & husbands in Eph. 5, he speaks of the principle of mutual submission all believers are to hold. He then goes on to describe how men are to submit to those God has placed in authority over them at work and in the government. [3]

A lot of people think submission merely means giving in outwardly while inwardly they harbor resentment and defiance toward the one they’re supposedly submitting to. Their attitude is, “Okay, I’ll do what you say—but I still think you’re a jerk.”

In order to understand what Paul meant when he wrote that a wife is to submit “in everything”, let’s think about the cultural setting in which Paul wrote this.

In the Greco-Roman world of the 1st C, it was universally accepted that wives submitted to their husbands. Men were the undisputed rulers of their homes.  Paul wrote this letter to the Church in the city of Ephesus governed by the Roman Law known as paterfamilias. This law gave the male head of household absolute authority over his wife, children and servants.  He could beat and even put them to death if he wished, and the law was loath to interfere.[4]

So why would Paul call wives to something that was already so much an accepted part of life? Telling a wife to submit to her husband was like telling her to breathe. It was that obviousness that would move them to look closer and realize what he was really saying.

The clue to what he means is in the grammar. The verb ‘submit’ is in the middle voice. Paul says a wife is to “place herself in submission.” What he calls for isn’t merely a resigned outward compliance because of force.  He calls for a heart attitude of godly deference. The wife is to submit to her husband on the inside as well as on the outside.

Please don’t miss this because it’s the key to understanding the mind-blowing revolution Paul brought. He’s saying to the women of his day, “You’ve been yielding outwardly because you had no choice. You have no power in society so you have to comply with your husband’s wishes. But now God gives you this voluntary choice, this act of will rather than legal requirement & forced compliance. You can submit from your heart too.”

This is what he means by “in everything” in verse 24.  “Submit in everything: in your actions, in your heart, in your speech, even you body language.”

Rather than seeing Paul as some kind of male chauvinist seeking to cruelly subjugate women, realize he was giving them a power they’d never known before. It was the power to choose for themselves. He was making decision-makers of those who had been forbidden to make real decisions before.

While this truth may have been obscured for modern readers of the Bible, it it was certainly not lost to the men & women of the 1st C who when they installed these things in their homes found a new level of life , meaning, purpose & joy they’d never known before. And it was the beauty & excellence of their lifestyle that was so attractive to their unbelieving peers & saw them come into the faith by the hundreds, then thousands. Even though persecution by hostile authorities was still a regular occurrence.

Simply put – search the annals of the Greeks & Romans and you will find nothing that comes close to this marital ethic, or any other culture of the ancient world. Honest secular historians admit that the arrival of Jesus was THE turning point in the history of women and that the Gospel marked a sea change in women’s status in society.

[1] John MacArthur, Jr., Different by Design, (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1994) 53

[2] Acts 17:6

[3] Ephesians 6 & Romans 13

[4] Paterfamilias • Originally called by the Latin title of paterfamilias, the father evolved into the patron of Roman Republican and early Imperial society. The father of the Roman family had the power over everyone and everything in the home. He could sell his wife or children into slavery and order their deaths at will. [© 1999-2002 Bible History Online (http://www.bible-history.com)]