His Role and its Duties
In Christian teaching before the devastating epidemic, persecution, and mass apostasy of AD 249-251, a husband's role is best described as "head" of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. This appears in Ephesians 5.23, as well as 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-posed to know and record the consensus of Christian beliefs and practices because he traveled 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 in the first three decades of the third century.
Origen also designated a higher but nevertheless loving status for the husband. 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 recognize that women are weaker when they provide different competitions for them. This is not men lording it over women but recognition of differences in ability and specialization conferred by nature. The difference in function and status that results from being weaker did not require abject subordination; rather, 1 Peter 3.7 commands Christian husbands to honor wives as the "weaker vessel". It is the duty of the husband to brave conflicts in order to protect his wife.
Besides being equipped by nature to fight in literal battles, husbands until the twentieth century possessed a greater knowledge of "the world"--workplaces, business, and evil men therein--due to working and associating with many people outside the home at a time when females were confined to home and family. For this reason, says Origen's Commentary on Matthew 14.24, a Christian husband has a right and duty to prevent his wife from doing what is not fitting and from associating with such men he knows from general experience have dishonorable intentions.
To maintain the balance of wifely submission and husbandly leadership, the church father Tertullian 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 founder of Latin Christian literature from his base in Tunisia.
Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 14.34f, that women must not voice questions aloud in church but must ask them at home from their husbands, are not evidence of female subjection or disenfranchisement. Origen's Sermons on Joshua 3.1 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 the 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 behavior, self-control, honesty and love of others that characterize 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 neighbor.
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 to 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.
Husbands are instructed seven times to love their wives: 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 new love? Ephesians 5.25 and Clement and Ignatius said that the husband is to love the wife "as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it", while Ephesians 5.28 commands husbands to love their wives "as their own bodies", adding that "he that loves his wife loves himself." Of course, men can "love" many things: their dogs, their automobile, their football team, and-among Roman men in the early Christian centuries-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 wife was to be permanent and constant. A husband must spend time with the wife and for the wife's benefit by teaching her, considering her sexual needs (1 Corinthians 7.3f and Clement), controlling his sexual passion, protecting her from evil-intentioned persons, living considerately with her and honoring her (1 Peter 3.7), and leading the way towards God (Origen Sermons on Genesis 4.4). Such love excludes bitterness and harshness (Colossians 3.19). To perform these responsibilities he needs to be head of the wife.
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