Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

Ephesians 5:22-23 (NIV)

I cannot think of another verse in the Bible which causes as much of an uproar among Christians and non-Christians alike as this one. It reads like a textbook throwback to Biblical literalism, a classic case of the New Testament as a product of its times and proof that the entire thing is hopelessly out-of-date. A lot of Christians read it that way, too, and cast the entire chapter aside as irrelevant.

The clincher, of course, is that nasty word submit. When you punch that word up on Webster 1913, you see the following at the top of the list: "To yield, resign, or surrender to power, will, or authority." The immediate response, of course, is something like: "Yield? Resign? Surrender? How could you suggest such a thing as the will of God? Turning women into mindless slaves for their husbands is exactly the sort of thing modern society is supposed to etc. etc...."

When I hear this, I try to nudge people down the list of definitions to the following: "To yield one's opinion to the opinion of authority of another; to be subject; to acquiesce." This would mean that the wife should, according to Paul's letter, recognize her husband as the authority figure of the household, acknowledge his leadership, and not oppose it. "Mindless servitude" is neither implied nor intended.

Women, after all, had a surprisingly significant role in the New Testament despite the male-dominated culture they lived in. The twelve Apostles were all men mainly, I imagine, because male religious leaders were not just the norm, they were the law. But Jesus' mother Mary and Mary Magdalene were both significant in the story of the resurrection. Early churches in Rome placed women in roles of significant responsibility, according to Romans 16. Even the sometimes-famous Proverbs 31 wife is described as being independently capable with finances, wisdom, and providing for her family.

So why are women being told to "submit" to male authority without any other consideration? Well, the existing traditions of society may have been a factor. But I (and most modern theologians) believe that Paul was trying to maintain a structure in the home, placing husbands in authority over wives in the same way he places parents in authority over children and masters over slaves/servants in Ephesians 6. Earlier, in Ephesians 4:15-16, he placed Christ in authority over the whole church, which is to work together as a unified body with Jesus as the head. How could this be possible if there is no order, no structure, of instruction and obedience?

What Paul is advocating here is a hierarchy of authority and responsibility in the home. According to him, the husband is to lead the family, and the wife and children should all acknowledge his authority. Not mindlessly, but respectfully, the same way you would acknowledge the authority of your teachers in school or supervisors at work.

Some people have certain arguments as to why men are more suited to this role than women, and others let it rest by saying "this is what we're told to do, period." But nowhere does Paul argue that men are somehow naturally superior to women, or that women are inherently unsuited to authority roles. His intent is to put one person in charge of the family, and his position is that this job is reserved by God for the husband. Paul's implied message in 5:23 is that a body can only have one head, a government one leader, and army one commander, and a family one leader.

But lest you think that men have the easy part of the job, consider Paul's very next command to the husbands in Ephesians 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her". After all, as he reminded another church in Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Yep, the wife should submit to the husband. But the husband, in turn, should be willing to sacrifice everything in love for her, up to and including his own life.

You still want that authority, guys?