My egal friends may shoot me for this, but I am 100% sure Paul envisioned complementarian marriages in Ephesians 5.
But, please do not quote- or argue with – that statement without the rest of this article.
In the culture where Paul wrote this, only men had legal rights. Only men (some of them) had the opportunity for an education. Men married at about 25-30, after being established in their jobs, women at about 15.
Although husbands and wives have an equal standing before God, they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, equal intellectually (the human intellect withers when not educated in childhood), legally, or financially.
In such a culture, Paul looked at a Jesus who came to lift us up, to impute His righteousness on us, to give us the opportunity to stand before God clean. Jesus paid everything to do that for us, even though we deserved to be lost. He probably compared that to this world, where the weak (those with fewer rights to legal representation and education) does not deserve to have less.
If the deserving Jesus could give his all to lift up the undeserving, then certainly the no-more-deserving –but-circumstantially-having-more man could sacrifice to lift up his no-less-deserving –but-circumstantially-having-less wife.
Here, it starts to look like the gospel.
The first picture relates to the gospel. (1) God (the star in the picture) made us (the white heart in the picture) good, and to be with him. (2) After we fell into sin, we were far from God. (The black heart is now us.) The red and blue lines show that we moved lower, with God still where He was. (3) God comes down in the form of Jesus and takes all our sin on Him. (4) We are restored to a relationship with God, lifted up to stand beside Jesus (The word “present” in Eph 5:27 is translated elsewhere as “standing beside”.). We are not His servants but His friends (Joh 15:15). Our submission (identification with, support) is to follow His example in the power He gives. He don’t sit in front of the TV while we do all the work, He does not command us to stay thin while He puts on weight.
Paul seemingly imagined husbands and wives getting an example from this scenario.
In the case of man and woman, 1) Eve was made as an equal to Adam, and the first picture is of equality. 2) First century society moved women very far below men. (Notice the blue and red lines again.) Unlike in the gospel picture, this was not deserved. Men did nothing to deserve keeping a high place while women alone deserve lowering. 3) If the deserving Jesus could give his life to lift up the undeserving, then certainly the no-more-deserving –but-circumstantially-having-more man could sacrifice to lift up his no-less-deserving –but-circumstantially-having-less wife. Paul asked men to get an example from Jesus, to love their wives like their own bodies, to not see anything their bodies want or need as bigger than what she needs or wants. That would mean not making the demands he legally can, and to be equally likely to use his money, education and life experience to help her as himself. In fact, if he really loved her as himself, he’d probably spend more time thinking of her than himself in the beginning, because from her weaker position in society, she is more likely to have unmet needs than he is. That is lowering himself in order to… 4) lift her up to close to him. I do not draw the man and woman on the same height here, as I don’t think Paul envisioned total equality as possible in that situation: No education in your childhood, not having legal recourse, and having a 15-year gap in life experience are not holes that can easily be filled.
If you compare the red and blue lines in these diagrams, you will see that what Paul asked of the man looks quite a bit like the gospel picture. Elsewhere, the Bible asks everyone to follow the example of Jesus. But here Paul repeats it for the man seemingly because he, like Jesus, is the one with power, rights and knowledge.
In the 1st Century, a believing man could take the initiative for a “complementarian” marriage that is inspired by the Gospel. (A wife could not. The gospel does not start with the church acting, but with Jesus acting.)
In Part 2, we will look at the correct female response to Christ-like sacrifice made by the husband, and discuss if this gospel-inspired picture is possible in today’s society.