Book Review: As Christ Submits to the Church

A book review of: As Christ Submits to the Church: a Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission. By Alan G. Padgett. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. Paper. 151 + xviii pages. Review by John G. Nordling.

Unwary Lutherans might at first suppose that Padgett presents here a Christ who serves sinners humbly through the means of grace, rather the way God himself does at the Divine Service (cf. P. Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus [St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1968] 126-196).  One quickly realizes, however, that the “submission” Padgett envisions is of a rather different sort.  To be sure, Padgett does pay brief lip service to the gospel in the narrow sense: “evangelical is contrasted with moralistic or legalistic religion” (16 n. 22).  Mainly what Padgett has in mind, however, is a profoundly moralistic Christ who models a type of mutual submission that all Christians should be about in their day-to-day lives.  Thus, on almost every page is presented an extremely meek, servile, and even pusillanimous Christ who serves admirably as “the standard and moral exemplar” (46) of strong, empowered Christians serving weaker sisters and brothers—which may be a noble objective, admittedly.  This ethic of mutual submission, moreover, is the whole point of Jesus’ washing of Peter’s feet (John 13:13-14; cf. 54-55, 64, 126, 130), an eighth-century mural of which quite handsomely adorns the book’s front cover.  Hence, I think it safe to say that Padgett’s Christ is at some remove from the one assumed by most Lutheran readers of Logia.  But this should not surprise: Padgett is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church, serving as professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary (dust cover).

Padgett supposes that the ethic of mutual submission has the potential of freeing the church from oppressive gender roles.   Gender hierarchy derives not from Scripture itself, but rather the patriarchal philosophies of Greece and Rome (2, 88).  Three lengthy chapters wrestle exegetically with the type of passages Padgett thinks have been wrongly used over time to keep women down:

Chapter 3: Mutual Submission or Male Dominion?: Christ and Gender Roles in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians (57-77);

Chapter 4: Mission and Submission: 1 Peter and the Pastoral Epistles (79-101);

Chapter 5: Headship and Head-Coverings: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 from the Bottom Up (103-124).

A first chapter documents Evangelical approaches to gender roles since the Reformation (1-30), and in a second Padgett advances his thesis that mutual submission and the form of “servant leadership” that Christ exemplified are virtually one and the same (31-56).  A final chapter (125-131) attempts to apply the ethic of mutual submission to the contemporary situation: those who are weak (women, the poor, the oppressed, etc.) should not have to submit to those in power (abusive husbands, male senior pastors in large congregations).  So the overall message of the book and its concerns are not particularly surprising, given where Padgett is coming from.

What truly is remarkable and so should be addressed here is how Padgett engages Scripture and uses the traditional passages to advance a quite radical agenda.  In his opinion, mere biblical exegesis is “not enough” to determine meaning (3, 14, 21), provide the mind of an author (19-20), nor can one single verse ever decide an issue (30).  Nevertheless, Padgett devotes the bulk of the book (chapters 3-5) to the relevant texts of Scripture and thereby tries to provide biblical affirmations of equality.

The passage upon which so much depends is Eph 5:21ff.: “Being subject to one another [ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις] in the fear of Christ, [let] the wives [be subject] to their own husbands as to the Lord…” (my own translation, paying attention to the NRSV which Padgett prefers).  Padgett’s translation “submitting yourselves one to another” (41) for ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις already favors mutual submission.  After all, the present participle ὑποτασσόμενοι does indeed occur in the middle voice (“submitting yourselves”) and Padgett makes much of the reflexive pronoun ἀλλήλοις: “the term one another (allēlois) in Ephesians (4:2, 32) and in Paul’s letters in general indicates something that applies to each member of the church and not merely to a few” (41, original emphasis).  So, reasons Padgett, husbands should “submit” to their wives out of “self-sacrificial love and voluntary self-submission” (41) and the wives should “return the same” (42), just as Christ willingly and joyfully submits to the Church.  The reasoning here seems cogent enough, and I predict many well-intended Christians will enthusiastically accept Padgett’s arguments without a second thought.

Observation reveals, however, that Eph 5:21 is not complete in itself but functions as a kind of “general heading” (so A.T. Lincoln, Ephesians [Dallas, TX: Word, 1990] 365) for the specific callings of Christians that follow in the household code of 5:22-6:9 (wives/husbands, children/parents, slaves/masters).  Padgett would do well, therefore, to heed the following arguments (distilled from P.T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1999]401-405): first, in the NT ὑποτάσσω (“to submit”) regularly describes the submission of someone in an ordered arrangement to another who is above the first—that is, in authority over that person.[1]  In the many passages listed in the preceding footnote, none of the relationships wherein this verb appears is ever reversed—that is, husbands are not subject to their wives (as Padgett himself admits, 60, 66), nor parents to children, nor the government to citizens, nor the disciples to demons, nor God the Father to Christ the Son.  Therefore, ὑποτάσσω does not describe “symmetrical” relationships at all, but rather ordered relationships wherein some persons are “over” and others “under.”

Second, the pronoun ἀλλήλοις (“to one another”) is not always reciprocal as Padgett imagines.  Sometimes it is, so the translation “everyone to everyone” is in order (so John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 17; Rom 1:12; Eph 4:25, etc).  But as is often the case with words that occur frequently in Scripture, context determines meaning and one size does not necessarily fit all.  Thus, elsewhere in the NT symmetrical relationships cannot possibly be in view even though the pronoun “one another” occurs.[2]  In the passage at hand, therefore, “submitting to one another” does not indicate mutual submission because—as has already been demonstrated above—the submission is not reciprocal but one-directional.

Third, the flow of Paul’s argument as expressed in the Greek text does not permit the reciprocal interpretation.  Eph 5:21 (“being subject to one another in the fear of Christ”) introduces programmatically the notion of “submission” in the letter, and this is unpacked in the household code of 5:22-6:9.  The “general heading” (as Lincoln calls 5:21) is closely connected to what follows immediately in 5:22: there is no verb in the latter passage, so accurate readers of Greek will naturally carry forward the idea of “submit” (a second or third person imperative would do nicely) from the ὑποτασσόμενοι in 5:21.[3]  In 5:24 where ὑποτάσσεται does indeed occur (“as the church submits to Christ”) Paul adds, “so also the wives [submit] to their husbands in everything” (οὕτως καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἀνδράσιν ἐν παντί).  Again, Paul does not have to add the verb “submit” to clarify what already is quite clear.  This is a stylistic matter, and so Paul—like all other writers of Greek and Latin—never adds a superfluous word to clarify his thinking, even though (to be sure!) many writers of English do so routinely.  But Paul cannot be subject to English style: he thinks and writes in Greek, an accommodation to which any adequate interpretation pays heed.  A stupid argument (that Padgett does not actually make) would be that because ὑποτάσσω is not actually paired with “women” in Eph 5:21, 22, and 24b Paul could not be thinking of wives submitting to their husbands in the overall passage.  But that he does have such submission in mind is clear enough from context (and he makes the point about wives submitting to their husbands explicitly in Col 3:18 and Titus 2:5; cf. also 1 Pet 3:5).

Preceding arguments should scupper any notion of “mutual submission” that Padgett may think Paul is establishing in Eph 5:21ff.  Instead, it is as though Paul were saying: “Submit to one another, and what I mean is, wives submit to your husbands, children to your parents, and slaves to your masters” (O’Brien, Ephesians, 403).  Another worthy interpreter has written: “Let each of you subordinate himself or herself to the one he or she should be subordinate to” (S.B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ [Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1980] 76).

An even more radical interpretation comes to light in Padgett’s treatment of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (women’s head-covering, deportment during worship), which he attempts to read “from the bottom up”—that is, starting from the end of Paul’s argument and working toward the beginning (103-124).  Padgett believes Paul is taking on an unfortunate custom at Corinth that women should not pray or prophesy “with uncovered head” (ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ, 11:5).  That this was the errant Corinthian custom (so not Paul’s own teaching) is supported, Padgett believes, by taking 11:13b as a statement (which, however, is punctuated in the UBS, Nestle-Aland, and most English versions as a question).  Thus, “judge for yourselves: it is proper for an uncovered woman to pray to God” (Padgett’s translation of 11:13b).  This exegetical sleight-of-hand allows Padgett to argue that there is no shame in a man with long hair at worship (which argues against traditional interpretations of 11:14 [cf. 11:7a]), and that nature herself has given women long hair instead of head coverings (which argues against traditional interpretations of 11:5, 6, 15a).  So, reasons Padgett, “women ought to have freedom to wear their hair however they want in church” (112).  Furthermore, the “authority” (ἐξουσίαν, 11:10) that a woman has “over her head” (ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς, 11:10)—far from being a symbol of any type of head-covering (κάλυμα is a variant for ἐξουσίαν in many versions)—is a type of warrant early Christian women had to spread the gospel publicly and without hindrance: “Should not such a ‘messenger’ have the freedom to wear her hair however she wishes in church?” (113).  Thus, what Paul really means throughout this vexed passage—which has suffered centuries of abuse by mistranslation and “man-centered” interpretation—is that

…gender distinctions were of no importance.  This is where the saying “of the Lord” [ἐν κυρίῳ, 11:11] comes in: Jesus teaches that in the resurrection, sexuality as we know it will be no more.  So sexual distinctions, like head-coverings, should, in the Lord, be of no importance.  Therefore, “because of the angels” women should not have to cover themselves when men do not.  They should have freedom (to cover or not to cover) over their heads (115).

What shall we make of Padgett’s interpretation?  Well, we shall have to say, first, that it is nothing short of magnificent on many levels, and one’s sneaking suspicion is that such reasoning is destined to persuade many.  Padgett has been working on 1 Cor 11:2-16 “for over twenty years” (103) and has generated the impressive scholarship to demonstrate competency.[4]  Nevertheless, and speaking only for myself, I shall have to confess that I am not persuaded by most of Padgett’s arguments here, ingenious though they are.  The possibility that Paul is opposing a Corinthian custom (instead of giving vent to his own authoritative teaching) almost entirely depends on interpreting 11:13b as a statement instead of as a question, as demonstrated above.  However, it seems entirely natural to interpret the passage as Paul’s incredulous question with respect to what was routinely going on at Corinth during worship: “Is it proper for an uncovered woman [γυναῖκα ἀκατακάλυπτον] to pray to God?” (my added emphasis).  And the answer, though not actually stated, would be: “No, such deportment is not proper!” (cf. G.J. Lockwood, 1 Corinthians [St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2000], 376).  So Paul is a bit perturbed by the Corinthian license in this respect: “Surely it cannot be right for a woman to participate in public worship without the appropriate head-covering” (Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, 376).  Paul’s sense of incredulity continues in 11:14-15b which, as all acknowledge (including Padgett, 108), is another question: “Does not nature herself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but if a woman has long hair it is her glory?”  Here the answer to the question must be, “Yes, nature herself does teach that such activity is a disgrace!” (positive answer expected in response to the particle οὐδέ in 11:14a).  Padgett stumbles here by interpreting the οὐδέ negatively: “The clear and sensible answer to this question is no” (109).  But Padgett’s interpretation violates an important principle of Greek grammar whereby questions introduced by the negative particles οὐ/οὐκ, οὐδείς, οὐδέ, etc. invariably expect the answer yes (so H.W. Smyth, Greek Grammar [Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1920] 598, §2651).  With this prop out of the way Padgett’s argument quickly falls.  The idea that a woman brings “shame” on herself while praying “uncovered” is clearly repeated in 11:5 and 6; likewise, the idea that a man ought not be covered with respect to his head is repeated in 11:7: “since he is the image and glory of God [εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ ὑπαρχων]; but the woman is the glory of man [ἡ γυνὴ δὲ δόξα ἀνδρός ἐστιν].”

Just what is Paul driving at here?  The special relationship that obtained between Adam and Eve at the beginning? (this could be suggested by 11:8-9).  The special relationship that also obtains between a Christian husband who exercises godly authority over his wife and family, and a wife who willingly submits to her husband in this matter? (so Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, 372).  I shall refrain from answering the question dogmatically because, as I think, a certain mystery pervades the entire passage: Paul here provides various intimations regarding the glorious relationship that can potentially exist between a man and woman in Christ, so the question is not easily reduced to a single, binding answer (which is the problem with much rather legalistically “conservative” interpretation on the Reformed side, as Padgett rightly notes [10]).  But what I would argue at the very least is that Paul suggests that there are certain undeniable, God-given, and created differences between the two genders that are not supposed to be overlooked, minimized, or denied.  And this precisely is what Padgett’s scholarship routinely does.  By “gender balance” (111, 112, 118, 119) Padgett means that there just are no appreciable differences between man and woman; in the name of “equality” the two sexes ought simply to be blended together, and so what emerges is a kind of benign unisexuality: “the distinguishing marks of short hair on men and head-coverings for women are of no consequence in the Lord or in church” (111).  Well, perhaps not at the resurrection of all flesh, or at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Last Day.  But until then and “here below” where we live now, I submit, sexuality and the type of ordering that God intends to exist between the two genders continues to matter a great deal.  Here I defer to scholars who have written at greater length on these matters than have I:

The created distinction between man and woman should be honored in the church.  Symbolic “gender-bending” actions in which women and men seek to reject their specific sexual identities are a sign not of authentic spirituality but of an adolescent impatience with the world in which God has placed us.  We are not disembodied spirits; consequently, spiritual maturity in Christ will lead us to become mature women and men in Christ.  Our dress and outward appearance should appropriately reflect our gender identity; to blur these distinctions is to bring needless shame upon the community.  In a time of rampant confusion about gender identity in our culture, Paul’s teaching on this matter is timely for us.  A healthy community needs men and women together ([11:]11), not a group of people striving for sexless neutrality (R.B. Hays, First Corinthians [Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1997] 191; in Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, 378-379; original emphasis).

Padgett is familiar with the work of much traditional scholarship but routinely dismisses it as evocative of “man-centered leadership” (so 2, 10, 27, 57, 68, 101, 130), “traditional Christian patriarchy” (4), or the type of “complementarian” positions (2, 11, 32, 39, 43, 130) he supposes have been outmoded by the “Gospel” as he defines it.  Padgett is no slouch exegetically but, unfortunately, uses his powers to undermine traditional positions and (as the ancient rhetoricians used to say) “make the worse appear the better cause.”  So anyone reading this book needs constantly to be on guard and prepared to wage battle exegetically.  Space does not permit me to expose everything, though another book of equal length could well be written to engage Padgett’s faulty interpretations of the other passages and set matters straight.  In this review I have managed to engage Padgett’s substandard interpretations of Eph 5:21ff. and 1 Cor 11:2-16.  It goes without saying that much more of this work could and should be done.  So perhaps pastors who have the time and training could purchase the book and engage it deeply with each other before instructing their laypersons suitably.  Gender confusion runs rampant in our churches and pastors are needed who can confront this growing menace, yet do so without alienating the godly women who comprise more than half of our congregations.  I would like to see our pastors engage such scholarship as Padgett has produced, and get to work in this matter.

John G. Nordling serves in the Department of Exegetical Theology Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne, IN


 1  E.g., the submission of Jesus to his parents (Luke 2:51); of demons to the disciples (Luke 10:17, 20); of citizens to governing authorities (Rom 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13); of the universe to Christ (1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22); of unseen powers to Christ (1 Pet 3:22); of Christ to God the Father (1 Cor 15:28); of church members to their leaders (1 Cor 16:15-16; 1 Pet 5:5); of the church to Christ (Eph 5:24); of slaves to their masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18); of Christians to God (Heb 12:9; James 4:7); and of wives to their husbands (Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:5).

 2  O’Brien, Ephesians, 403 (original emphases): “For example, Revelation 6:4, ‘so that men should slay one another’, cannot mean that each killed the other at precisely the same time as he or she was killed.  Likewise, Galatians 6:2, ‘Bear one another’s burdens’, does not signify that ‘everyone should exchange burdens with everyone else’, but that ‘some who are more able should help bear the burdens of others who are less able’ (cf. also 1 Cor 11:33; Luke 2:15; 21:1 [in error for 12:1]; 24:32).”

 3  Later witnesses read either ὑποτάσσεσθε (“submit,” 2 plur. pres. impv. mid.) or ὑποτασσέσθωσαν (“let them submit,” 3 plur. pres. impv. mid.) in 5:22 to give absolutely no doubt what Paul’s intent here was.  Such excessive wordiness, however, violates “the succinct style of the author’s admonitions” (B.M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition [Deutche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994]541).

 4  “Paul on Women in the Church: The Contradictions of Coiffure in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16.” JSNT 20 (1984) 69-86; “Feminism in First Corinthians: A Dialogue with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.” EvQ 58 (1986) 121-132; “The Significance of ἀντί in 1 Corinthians 11:15.” TynBul 45 (1994) 181-187.