Tradition, Teaching and Women in the Church: Podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery

I recently spent an hour chatting with psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery and author Michele Cushatt about how each of us is personally navigating the things we face as women who have a leadership and teaching role in the church. In our Java with Juli podcast Tradition, Teaching and Women in the Church, we also look at the role tradition and culture have played in forming our understanding both of Scripture and of a woman’s place in the church. While you’re over at Authentic Intimacy, you might want to check out some of Juli’s other podcasts and articles that cover a wide range of subjects.

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Are Husbands Supposed to Get Their Wives Ready for Jesus?

A recent article on a very prominent Christian website argued that husbands have a unique responsibility to get their wives ready to meet Jesus. The author explained that he had recently been confronted with the fact that he didn’t challenge his wife enough. He went on to say, through Ephesians 5:25-26, that husbands are called to be “instruments of [God’s] sanctifying work in the lives of their wives.”[1]

I try to stay away from commenting on things I read that I disagree with, recognizing that there is a range of ideas on more than one topic that sincere believers adhere to.

But there are times when the potential harm overcomes my reservations.

This is one of those times.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was one of those unexpected, honest, and painful moments. During casual conversation with an older friend, we started talking about my marriage. I asked for his thoughts.

“Well, you don’t challenge your wife enough.”

I was completely caught off guard by his honesty. But he was right, and I knew it. Something had to change.

A Call to Correction

It’s crystal clear: God calls husbands to be instruments of his sanctifying work in the lives of our wives.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word. (Ephesians 5:25-26)

Just as Jesus set his church apart from sin through his sacrificial, loving death on the cross, husbands are to do everything in their power to promote their wives’ holiness.[2]

This can take many forms. We can pray for our wives, read the Bible with them, and make space for them to pursue meaningful spiritual friendships with other women.

At times, though, it will also include correction. We all still fight with sin. We all need to be progressively sanctified. Even the most Christlike wives will sometimes need an honest, loving word to get back on course.

By virtue of the closeness we share with our wives, husbands are uniquely positioned by God to play this role. This is much easier to do in theory than in practice.[3]

It very well may be that this man wasn’t speaking truth to his wife in the way he should have. Yes, all of us need correction at times. And, I’ll admit, that is a tricky process to live out within the confines of such an intimate relationship as marriage. We can tend to pull back and pretend everything is okay, due either to our own hesitation or the defensiveness of our spouse.

So I’m not saying he didn’t need to challenge his wife more. He may have. I can’t possibly know that.

What concerns me is the unilateral nature of what he describes and whether the Bible really teaches that husbands play a unique role in the sanctification of their wives. No doubt this husband also needs correction and challenge at times and his wife, having greater insight into his character than anyone else, will be the one to lovingly speak the truth.

The big questions here are: 1) whether this is what the Ephesians passage is saying; 2) who has a responsibility to bring correction; 3) and what is lost when we confuse the issue.

The Meaning of Ephesians 5:25-27

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Eph. 5:25-27)

A quick survey of 20 scholarly commentaries on the passage make it obvious that those who have committed their lives to the study of God’s word do not think these verses teach that husbands are to be instruments of God’s sanctifying work in their wives’ lives.[4] One after another they explain that in these verses Paul moves away from his discussion of human marriage to focus on what Christ has done for the church.[5]

The sanctifying work detailed from the end of v. 25 through v. 27 refers to what Jesus does, not the responsibility of a human husband. Making another person holy, washing them of their sins so that they are blameless, is not something a human husband can do for his bride, even through a very great and self-sacrificial love. As Clinton Arnold notes on vv. 26-27:

This, of course, far transcends what any other husband is able to accomplish for his bride and further confirms that this portion of the passage is solely a lesson on Christology.[6]

Frank Thielman discusses in more detail what these two verses are about, and it has nothing to do with human marriage.

The analogy between the love of husbands for their wives and the love of Christ for the church leads to a digression on the relationship between Christ and the church…This digression stretches from 5:26 to 5:27 and takes the form of two purpose clauses…The first clause states the purpose for which Christ gave himself for the church (that he might sanctify it), and the second clause states the purpose for which Christ sanctified the church (that he might present her to himself in splendor).[7]

Why did Jesus die for us? Why did he demonstrate his love for us in such an extreme manner? Jesus died so that the church might be made holy and therefore transformed into an appropriate “bride” for the Savior. The motivating force behind Jesus’ sacrifice was the goal of presenting his bride to himself. In other words, Jesus’ desire to be united with the object of his affection (his people) caused him to give himself on the cross.

This is the point of application to human marriage: a husband’s desire to be one with his wife, to be united with the one he has chosen, motivates him to love her self-sacrificially. His goal is the same as the goal of Paul’s marriage teaching: oneness.

Ernest Best explains it in simple terms: a husband should love his wife. Why? Because Christ loves him.

Best is careful to add that a human husband cannot imitate the things Christ does for his bride described in vv. 26-27.

The husband is not the savior of the wife as Christ is of him, and he cannot sanctify and purify her…In fact vv.26f move away from concern with the husband to deal exclusively with Christ’s relationship with the church.[8]

Lynn Cohick explains how the husband’s love differs from Christ’s.

While the husband is to love his wife as Christ does the church, the result of this love differs. The husband’s love is shown in the care given to his wife, while Christ’s love is redemptive and sanctifying. [9]

Ben Witherington III warns us not to take the analogy between husband and wife and Christ and the church too far, explaining that this is “not an identity statement” so “not everything predicated of Christ/church can be predicated of husband/wife.”[10]

Ephesians 5:25-27 is not a lesson on the husband’s responsibility to get his wife ready for Jesus.  The point of connection between the husband and Christ, what Paul is emphasizing here, is the self-sacrificial nature of Jesus’ love that is the example a Christian husband ought to follow.

Bringing Correction

Yet it is true that we all need correction at times. I agree that we all still fight with sin and need to continue to allow ourselves to be transformed. All of that is true.

My question is rather: Who has a responsibility to speak up when there’s something that needs to be said? How does that work in a Christian marriage and, by extension, in the Christian community in general?

The New Testament teaches that God’s word is a very important part of the process of correction.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Tim. 3:16)

The Bible, understood rightly, gives us the proper standards for Christian character and behavior. Kindness and generosity and purity and honesty and humility are a few.

But who has the duty to speak the truth to another believer through God’s word? Is that the particular job of husbands?

No, it is the responsibility of all believers. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we share the responsibility to both give and receive correction. The main word translated as “admonish, warn, instruct” in the New Testament is noutheteō. Here are a few examples of its usage.

I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. (Rom. 15:14)

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thess. 5:14)

Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer. (2 Thess. 3:14-15)

Do you see it? Did you notice who is supposed to do the instructing and warning and admonishing? In every case, correction is the responsibility of all, the assumption being that it is mutual and goes both ways as needed.

This idea of correcting or admonishing one another is also found in verses that do not contain noutheteō. Here are two examples from Ephesians 4, an important context for understanding the marriage teaching in Ephesians 5.[11]

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Eph. 4:14-15)

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Eph. 4:25)

The responsibility to correct and admonish – to lovingly speak truth to one another – belongs to all of us. None of us is off the hook. Each of us must stop pretending, stop fudging the truth, in our interactions with one another. And each of us must be prepared to receive the difficult words we need to hear.

The same concept surfaces in the letter to the Colossians. Just two verses before the marriage teaching Paul writes:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col. 3:16)

When it comes to explaining how correction works in the local church, Paul doesn’t wait two verses so he can tell husbands it’s their job to admonish their wives. Nor does he explain to wives that it’s their job to receive correction from their husbands. Instead, these duties belong to all members of the Christian community. Of course we need to use wisdom and discretion and kindness, but speaking truth is not a one-way street.

This is why, in Christian thinking, a church member can speak truth to a pastor and a child can speak truth to a parent and Paul could speak truth to Peter (Gal. 2:11-14).

So, it is not husbands who are called to be instruments of God’s sanctifying work in their wives. Rather, God wants to use all of us in this way. Mutual truth-speaking is one of the most important ways the church is to avoid the unhealthy power structures that plague our world. Without it, we spiral into all sorts of unethical and abusive patterns.

Yes, we need to hear the truth about our actions and attitudes at times. But this is a duty of Christians to one another, not a duty of husbands to wives.

What is Lost

Maybe you believe, like one of my former pastors, that husbands should receive their correction from other men.

Here’s how he put it: “Men, make sure you have guys in your life that can straighten you out. Otherwise your wives will have to do it.” This option wasn’t available to wives, however. We were never told, “Ladies, make sure you have women in your life who can straighten you out. Otherwise your husbands will have to do it.”

The assumption was that, of course, men ought to correct their wives. But wives should only correct their husbands in extreme cases.

It was a one-way street going nowhere.

It was going nowhere because it’s impossible to have a healthy and happy marriage without mutual truth-speaking. What I learned in all my years of trying to follow my pastor’s instruction was that it simply didn’t work. No one outside our marriage, not even our children who lived in our home, could see what I could see in my husband. And no one could see what my husband could see in me.

One-directional truth-speaking in any relationship will leave it floundering in immaturity.

Husbands continue in immaturity because the person uniquely positioned to help them is not free to so do. Wives continue in immaturity because they suppress the truth rather than facing their responsibility and speaking up.

Or it could go the other way.

It’s no better when a wife feels free to speak up but her husband doesn’t, perhaps because he hates the way it goes down when he tries to explain how her actions are impacting their children and their marriage.

Of course it goes both ways.

That’s the point.

We all bear some responsibility to help one another get ready to meet Jesus, not just husbands. And the closer the relationship, the greater the responsibility.

So, the first thing we lose is maturity, that very important Christian virtue.

Perhaps the greatest thing we lose, however, is marital intimacy. Truth that is controlled by a one-way sign pushes our spouse away, because they know it’s not the whole picture. It chips away at their heart, bit by bit, until there’s very little affection left.

Taking upon oneself the unique responsibility to correct one’s partner results not in a holier spouse, but in a brokenhearted one. One who wants to want to love you, who wants to want to spend time with you, but doesn’t.

One who looks at you with eyes of longing for what has been lost, for that deep affection that drew her to you in the first place. She wants to find it, but can’t. She wants to feel it, but can’t. She still loves you in the sense that she is committed to you and your marriage, but her heart’s not in it in the same way anymore.

Have you looked into her eyes recently? What do you see?

Maybe you’re on your way to losing the very thing Paul intended his marriage teaching to supply: closeness.

If that is the case, my friend, you are the biggest loser.

Your marriage matters. It matters to God, to you and, in some distant way, to me. I want you to flourish in your relationship with your spouse, to grow ever closer to the one you love, spending your years in an ever-deepening affection that grows impervious to the arrows that divide.

You’re never going to get there, however, if your focus is on “getting her ready for Jesus.”

There’s a better way: Love.

[1] Bryan Stoudt, “Husbands, Get Her Ready for Jesus,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/husbands-get-her-ready-for-jesus.

[2] Stoudt seems to have gotten his ideas from the ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 2272, that states in a note on Eph. 5:26-27: “The focus in these verses is on Christ, for husbands do not ‘sanctify’ their wives or ‘wash’ them of their sins, though they are to do all in their power to promote their wives’ holiness.”

[3] Stoudt.

[4] See Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 390; Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1974), 629; Ernest Best, Ephesians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2006), 539; F. F. Bruce, Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 387-91; Lynn Cohick, Ephesians (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 139; Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 188-90; Mark A. Holmes, Ephesians (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1997), 176; William W. Klein, “Ephesians,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition, vol. 12, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 152; Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians (Dallas: Word, 1990), 375; Ralph B. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta: John Knox, 1991), 70; Pheme Perkins, Ephesians (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 134; Claire M. Powell, “Ephesians,” in IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherin Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 2002), 704; Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 297-98; Charles H. Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 142; Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 382; Michael R. Weed, The Letters of Paul to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and Philemon (Austin: R. B. Sweet, 1971), 180; Peter S. Williamson, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 166; Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 324-25.

[5] Two of the 20 sources, however, hint that a husband has a unique role in preparing his wife for Jesus. As mentioned in an earlier footnote, the ESV Study Bible, 2272, states: “The focus in these verses is on Christ, for husbands do not ‘sanctify’ their wives or ‘wash’ them of their sins, though they are to do all in their power to promote their wives’ holiness.” And George W. Knight III, “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church: Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991/2006), 172, seems to tentatively suggest that a husband should imitate Christ’s sanctifying work in at least some ways: “Just as Christ works to present His church to Himself as a glorious bride in a glorious marriage, should not the husband work to make his wife glorious and their marriage glorious?”

[6] Arnold, Ephesians, 390.

[7] Thielman, Ephesians, 382.

[8] Best, Ephesians, 539.

[9] Cohick, Ephesians, 139.

[10] Witherington, Captivity Epistles, 324.

[11] When interpreting any passage it is essential to consider what is written before and after the text at hand.

How Manhood Teachings Harm Good Men

I used to be a big proponent of manhood studies, once even convincing my husband to undertake one with our son. Now, however, I wonder if there isn’t a dark side to our well-intentioned efforts to aid men in becoming who God intends them to be.

Christian manhood teachings increasingly stress the leadership role of men, telling guys they are the spiritual leader in their home charged with the task of leading family devotions, hearing from God, and making the final decisions. The burden of leadership is too great for women, so it goes, so men should humbly accept this God-ordained responsibility and get on with it. Continue reading

Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 1

Don’t have a heart attack. I have no plans to leave my church. But life throws its curve balls now and then and I have learned to be flexible. So if, for some unforeseen reason, I happened to be in the market for a new church or even just a new pastor, here are a couple of things I would look for in the person chosen to lead the flock. In my next two posts I will talk about two more. Continue reading

Pulling the Weeds I Had Planted in Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians

I enjoy weeding. Not that I like the leg cramps and backache that result from crouching down and poking a metal stick into the ground under the blazing Colorado sun that seems to radiate all the way through your clothing into your skin. No. It’s the feeling of satisfaction that comes from getting under the surface and pulling out the roots of all the noxious plants in my garden that I enjoy.

I feel the same way about comprehending Paul’s views on gender. If I can dig under the surface and pull out all my noxious interpretations that have taken root over the years, something beautiful may surface.

One part of Paul’s writings that was, for me, particularly overgrown with bindweed and purslane and Canada thistle is his correspondence to the Corinthians. I based my interpretation of these letters upon a few ideas I believed arose directly from the text. Now, though, I am convinced they are the tares among the wheat. Continue reading

Podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery: Women & the Tough Bible Verses

Here’s a link to my recent podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery of Authentic Intimacy. We talk about God’s purpose in creating male and female, some of those passages of Scripture that can make women feel like they are second-rate, and how knowing the context for the Bible’s marriage teaching changes everything. Check it out if you’re interested! And while you’re over at Authentic Intimacy, look around a bit. Juli does great work helping women experience health and wholeness in one of the most challenging parts of our lives: our sexuality.

Paul’s Theology of Gender Part 2: The First Reality

For the next few posts I’m going to focus on the overwhelming majority (96%) of what the Apostle Paul wrote that indicates he believed women and men are the same with respect to their full possession of the image of God. (If you haven’t read the first installment of this series, you may want to check it out before you read on.)

At this point in my life, I’m convinced that Paul believed women are fully and equally human, possessing the same essential human nature as men. I will explain why I believe this by walking you through the books of the New Testament that shed light on Paul’s thoughts, and when I’m finished you can decide if, as Ryan Lochte would say, I’m over-exaggerating. Continue reading