The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 5:23, says that “the husband is the head of the wife.” This is also mentioned in Origen’s Commentary on Ephesians. Origen was considered the greatest Bible scholar, teacher and preacher of the first half of the third century. Dean of “the first Christian university,” he was well-positioned to know and record the consensus of Christian beliefs and practices, as he travelled frequently throughout the eastern Mediterranean at the request of local clergy as a theological consultant.
The husband’s headship is also indicated in a Syrian manual of church and individual Christian practice compiled sometime during the first three decades of the third century.
Even though Origen designated a “higher” status for husbands, it’s nevertheless a loving one. Husbands, Origen wrote, are to relate to their wives in the way that Jesus related to the church, while wives are to relate to their husbands as the church relates to Jesus. In the same vein, Origen instructed husbands to think and do the things of Christ while wives are to think and do those of the church.
There are many passages in early Christian literature that instruct wives to submit to their husbands. Unlike the abuse of Bible teaching in comparatively recent times, this is not submission like a slave but springs from the acknowledgement that the wife is a “weaker vessel” whose compliance with her husband materially aids him as the “stronger vessel” to protect and provide for her. In Sermons on Joshua Origen explained why men but not women fought as soldiers in the ancient Israelite army: “a weak vessel is not sent into conflicts lest it become broken and useless.”
Today’s Olympics and other sporting events recognise the gender difference- that women are weaker-when they provide different competitions for them. This is not men lording it over women but a recognition of differences in ability and specialisation conferred by nature. The difference in function and status that results from being weaker did not require abject subordination; rather, the apostle Peter commands husbands to “treat [wives] with respect as the weaker partner” (1 Peter 3:7). It is the duty of the husband to brave conflicts in order to protect his wife.
To maintain the balance of wifely submission and leadership of the husband, church father Tertullian (in around AD 200) forbade wives to rule over their husbands and for a woman to select a man to marry on the basis that she could dominate him. Tertullian was a Roman lawyer before being converted and ordained, and became the founder of Latin Christian literature from his base in Tunisia.
a duty to teach and love
Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:34, that women must not voice questions aloud in church but must ask them at home from their husbands, is not evidence of female subjection or disenfranchisement. Origen’s Sermons on Joshua explains that one person cannot help another unless the intended helper can teach something to the other person. Husbands thus had a duty to help, teach and inform their wives on spiritual matters.
Origen received his formal theological education at the world’s foremost institute of Christian learning at Alexandria in Egypt. The dean at the time was Clement, the most outstanding Christian thinker of the day. In the AD 190s Clement wrote much about relationships between spouses, particularly on sexual aspects. While the unmarried Origen wrote in generalities that husbands are to regulate the matters of marriage, the married Clement gave details. The husband, wrote Clement, is under an obligation to control and regulate himself and his desires so that he loves and delights in his wife as a person more than in the pleasure of intercourse.
According to Clement, a husband’s trustworthiness, reliability, good behaviour, self-control, honesty and love of others that characterise a Christian in his relations with outsiders, are also to be exhibited to his wife. Indeed, said Clement, marriage should be the training ground for developing and practicing love of neighbour.
Clement also taught that the husband has a duty to ask the wife’s consent to sex, a novel idea at the time. In an age when wives and other slaves were considered mere playthings and tools for a free man’s pleasure, Clement revealed new ground by allowing women a veto of her husband’s advances.
Christianity before AD 249-251 introduced yet another novel duty (and for its time, outrageous) for husbands. Husbands were obliged to actually love their wives. There are many more injunctions in the early literature that a husband love his wife than that she should love him. Love by wife for husband, without mentioning that he love her, is found only in Titus 2:4, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians, and Origen’s Commentary on Romans. Writing in the first half of the second century, Polycarp was a pastor-bishop who in his youth had associated with the apostle John and other first-generation Christians.
all you need is love
Husbands are seven times instructed to love their wives: in Ephesians 5:25, Ephesians 5:28, Ephesians 5:33, Colossians 3:19, in two of Clement’s books, and in the letter of Ignatius to Polycarp. A first-generation Christian, Ignatius was pastor-bishop of Antioch who had worked with apostles and was martyred around AD 107.
What was this love? Ephesians 5:25, Clement and Ignatius said that the husband is to love the wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” while Ephesians 5:28 commands husbands to love their wives “as their own bodies,” adding that “he who loves his wife loves himself.”
Of course, men can “love” many things: their dogs, their cars, their football team and-among Roman men in those early Christian times-a sex partner of either gender. But these are means to an end, put aside when he becomes more interested in something else.
Love for a wife was to be permanent and constant. A husband must spend time with his wife, teaching her, considering her sexual needs (1 Corinthians 7:3, and Clement), living considerately with her, controlling his sexual passion, protecting her from illintentioned persons and honouring her (see 1 Peter 3:7), and leading the way towards God (Origen’s Sermons on Genesis). Such love excludes bitterness and harshness (Colossians 3:19). And to perform these responsibilities well he needs to be head of the wife.