Sanctified Marriage: Part 2

Bride And Groom

This is part of a series on patriarchy, headship, authority, and submission. See this index.

In the first part of the series, I talked about sanctification in marriage in response to a post at the Sigma Frame blog. I mentioned how the Bible instructs husbands and wives to sanctify—to make holy and pure—each other. I also mentioned that neither headship authority nor  sexual authority would accomplish this goal, nor should attraction and sanctification be mistaken for each other.

Since that time, things at Sigma Frame have been dissatisfying:

I am somewhat dissatisfied with this discussion, because I was hoping to see more discussion of redemption instead of attraction and SMP dynamics.  Most of the arguments this week have focused on secular SMP dynamics and there has been little emphasis and no distinction of how this relates to applied Christian morality and marital sanctification.  Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t, or perhaps it’s because we have no working model of how young people are to rectify the desires of the flesh with God’s prerogative of sanctification.  I’ll take this as a sign that redemption needs to be further explored.

Focusing on sexuality and attraction will not lead to marital sanctification. They are not a matter of redemption. Nor will focusing on authority. Sometimes guest author on Sigma Frame, Red Pill Apostle doubles down in a comment:

There is a common modern church error in this statement. The error is that Christ did not directly serve the church. [..] For some reason he has decided to set up marriage in the same manner with the husband as head. I will attest that husbands are ABSOLUTELY to impose the authority God gave them on a disobedient wife. [..] We should actually focus more on authority and the hierarchy in marriage.

This is in error.


The first error is that Jesus didn’t serve the church. He did. John tells us about it:

John 13:3-5 (NIV)
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”


John 13:13-17 (NIV)
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Paul would go on to echo these words of Jesus when he said,

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV).

Jesus took on the role of servant and served his disciples by washing their feet. He could not have taken on a more servile or subservient role, which is precisely the point. The only time the master of the house would ever wash his guests’ feet was if he was literally the only person in residence or no one else was available. If he was childless and his wife was home, she would have done it. Washing feet was literally woman’s work[1], usually performed by the lowest household slave.

Peter was scandalized by such a role reversal. Jesus chided him by saying that he (Jesus) was the master with all authority, and no servant is greater than the master. If he, with all authority, could serve, so too could the disciples serve each other, members of the same body, Christ’s bride.

Authority or Status?

The second error is that headship refers to authority. It refers to status.

When Paul speaks of headship…

“because the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church”

…the word head (kephalē) means preeminence (of higher status, exalted, elevated, or the first position), not authority. This is why wives are told to submit by respecting their higher status husbands. That’s also the only way to make sense of what Paul says next:

Ephesians 5:25 (NIV)
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her

Jesus never gave up his authority for the church[2], but he did put aside his status for the church. He acted the servant and the sacrifice and we are commanded to do likewise. He used his authority to legitimize his right to sacrifice and serve.

The confusion stems from the fact that someone with high status often has more authority and is higher on a power hierarchy—like Jesus. But the two concepts are not the same. Status does not, for example, necessarily imply authority. Christians err if they think Paul is talking about authority when he is talking about status.

The word head (kephalē) does not mean leader. No ancient secular Greek lexicon gives that definition. Al Wolters states that this meaning is “virtually unattested in pagan Greek literature until about the fourth century AD”.

If Paul wanted to wives to submit to husbands of higher authority, he would have used the word exousia (which means authority) rather than kephalē (which means higher status). This is precisely what he did in Romans 13, where he used the Greek word for authority and told us to submit to it (using the same Greek word for submission that he did in Ephesians 5).

In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, he says…

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

…using exousia to refer to his authority to command the disciples.

“For the sacrifice and his submission to God, Jesus is the ultimate authority over the church. He commands and we are to do. This is for our benefit. For some reason he has decided to set up marriage in the same manner with the husband as head.”

Jesus had the ultimate authority, and he used it to command us to serve one another, as he served us, seeking to make disciples of all nations. Paul commanded us to submit to governments, due to their authority. Then Paul commanded Christians to submit to one another first, and only thereafter mentioned submitting to others because of status. We are still obligated to serve one another, regardless of authority.

While kephalē does not mean authority in Ephesians 5, the word ‘submit’ can carry that connotation. The verb ‘submit’ is only specified once in the sentence, as illustrated in this simplification:

“Submit yourselves to one another, wives to their husbands”

So, even though authority appears to be connoted, one type of submission is in view. Since the mutual submission between each other is equated to submission of wives to their husbands, it would seem to imply that there is a mutuality to marital authority (assuming authority is a justified connotation based on context). In any case, the discussion of its exegetical significance exceeds the scope of this post.


The third error is that husbands should impose authority of a disobedient wife.

A disobedient wife must be handled the same way any sinner is handled. If she is a believer, she must be confronted discretely, until it becomes a full matter of the church. If this is not possible or fails, she is to be treated as any other unbeliever. What do we do with unbelievers? Matthew’s version of the Great Commission tells us:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Notice that Jesus used his authority (‘exousia ‘) to command the disciples, members of the church. A wayward wife is to be treated the same way you’d treat your enemy: with love, not authority, with the goal of redemption and sanctification.

Is a husbands authority required to sanctify his unbelieving or unrepentant wife? No. Paul explicitly states what should be done:

I command that the wife not depart from her husband, and that the husband not leave his wife. If any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she is content to live with him, let him not leave her. And the woman that has an unbelieving husband, and he is content to live with her, let her not leave her husband. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified because of the husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are sanctified. Yet if the unbeliever departs, let him depart, the husband or the wife is not bound in such cases, but God has called us in peace. For how do you know, wife, if you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, if you will save your wife?

It is striking that the believing spouse sanctifies the unbelieving spouse so long as the unbelieving spouse consents to remain.

This is important, because any act of a husband toward his wayward wife that leads to divorce would be a complete failure to sanctify. If your goal is sanctification, imposing authoritarian rule on a disobedient wife may well end in divorce and a complete failure to sanctify ones spouse. Rather, the goal must be to remain together at all costs in hopes that one day your spouse will be saved.

Authority is nowhere to be found here. A husband or wife sanctifies their spouse by their own actions: being holy and pure. If one is to seek redemption and sanctification of their spouse, authority is not the place to start. It may play a role, but it won’t be the primary one.

To Be A Servant

Jesus served God, his master.

Luke 22:26-27 (NIV)
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

He also served his church. This was such a role reversal, so unexpected, that Jesus was obligated to wash his disciples feet, lest they not understand the full significance of his death and resurrection:

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Without demonstrating this, we would all be stuck saying…

There is a common modern church error in this statement. The error is that Christ did not directly serve the church. He served God the father and the church was the eternal beneficiary of that servanthood. When this type of sentiment comes up it is often without considering that Jesus asked to get out of being that servant in Gethsemane, but submitted to the will of God, not the church.

…because we wouldn’t realize that a master can be a servant. It simply would never occur to us, so far from normalcy. We would not realize that to make disciples, we need to serve. We would have instead set up systems of authority and hierarchy and turned Christianity into a bureaucracy, a set of rules that must be followed. We would ignore that Jesus claimed all authority for himself.


[1] See Luke 7:36-50, where a woman washes Jesus feet with perfume and tears. The only scandal was she was a sinner touching the master, not that she was a woman or debasing herself.

[2] The Roman Catholic Church maintains that Jesus did give up his authority to the church in the form of ‘apostolic succession’. The formation of the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century corresponds with one key linguistic change to the meaning of ‘head’ as leader, which was “virtually unattested in pagan Greek literature until about the fourth century AD.


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  4. Briar Rose

    Head means high position.
    The church is the body, Jesus is the head. Throughout the Bible the genealogies are focussed on patriarchal lineage, even the angels appear with a male image (we read that they slept with women, not men).

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