Adapted and condensed from Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. (Herald Press, 2016) www.HeraldPress.com. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:21–33, NRSV)
It will come as no surprise to you that I have never preached on this text before. And to be honest, I can tell you that I never thought I would. Of course, I also never thought I’d preach on the text from 1 Timothy that tells women to be silent in church, but I did that several years ago in California. I am either brave or foolhardy—perhaps a bit of both.
I recently wrote a book about marriage. It is a mix of personal narrative, cultural commentary, and biblical reflection. As it turns out, you cannot write about marriage from a Christian perspective without addressing texts such as this one. Paul’s words about marriage in his letter to the Ephesians are, for many Christian communities, central to the definition of marriage. In my own mainline tradition, they do not tend to be central to the way marriage is understood. But I believe that as Christians, we must take the Bible seriously. Not always literally, but seriously. Either misunderstanding or ignoring texts such as this one does a disservice to the community of faith.
I can remember hearing this passage read from a pulpit precisely once in my life. I was at my friend Twyla’s wedding, just a few weeks before my own wedding day. As the minister of her conservative Baptist congregation began to speak of wives submitting to husbands, my friend Lorelai, seated in the pew next to me, grabbed my arm. The minister went on to explain to the bride and groom the hierarchy that would forevermore structure their marriage—the roles that would govern their relationship.
As the husband, Lucas would be the head of their household. He would make the decisions. He would report directly to Christ. As the wife, Twyla would submit to Lucas’s spiritual and practical leadership. She would report directly to Lucas. She would accept his authority in their house and in her life.
By the time the pastor concluded his wedding homily, my flesh was marked with a constellation of half-moons. Lorelei had taken her feminist fury out on my arm with her fingernails. On the drive to the reception hall, we soberly debriefed the wedding amongst ourselves. Twyla had always been one of our brightest and most grounded friends. She was independent, confident, and talented. She transcended the boy-craziness that marked so many of our peers (myself included). Lorelei’s eyes filled with tears. Her anger had given way to anguish. “I feel like Twyla just willingly subsumed her whole existence to a boy.”
At the time, I fully agreed with Lorelei’s assessment. I grieved the presence of an oppressive teaching in the sacred text of my own religion. I was a Christian and a woman, but I certainly wasn’t that kind of Christian woman. I had no intention of becoming that kind of Christian wife.
I still find that pastor’s application of the text problematic. I must admit, however, that my assumptions about Twyla did not pan out. Even though Twyla willingly entered a marriage of intentional inequality, she never stopped being bright, grounded, independent, confident, and talented. She seems—from the outside looking in, anyway—to be quite happily married. And Twyla is not the only woman I know who interprets the Bible this way who has disrupted my assumptions. These friends have forced me to acknowledge that this brand of Christianity does not necessarily make for oppressed and downtrodden women. To be sure, this isn’t to say that women in hierarchical marriages are never oppressed and downtrodden. Sexism is a real problem, in both the public and private sphere. When religion is used to justify oppression of any stripe, people of faith should speak out.
The irony is this: in its original context, this text was not intended to subjugate women, but to raise them up. Paul was writing, as we know, to the community in Corinth, a Greek city. Women in ancient Greece did not have an abundance of human rights; they were not considered equal to men. As backwards as this text might sound to contemporary ears, it was in fact pretty progressive in its original context. It’s easy to get stuck on the part about wives being subject to husbands, but the passage does begin, “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” This implies a mutuality in marriage that was entirely out of step with the mores of ancient Greek society. Given that wives were essentially the property of their husbands, it is no small thing that Paul encourages men to love their wives.
As Sarah Bessey notes in her book, Jesus Feminist, “These passages were actually subversive in their time because they placed demands on the assumed power of men (teaching them to be kind to their slaves, to be gentle with their children, to love their wives) and because they addressed the most powerless in a patriarchal society—the women, the children, the slaves.”
I’ve noticed that many Christians struggle to give Paul the benefit of the doubt; he is a complicated and occasionally maddening architect of early Christian thought. But if you can suspend your misgivings about Paul, there is truly good news in his writings—and not only for the Christians of ancient Corinth. For us. Remember that this is, after all, the same Paul who proclaimed that “there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV).
In the Women’s Bible Commentary, published by Intervarsity Press, Claire M. Powell pushes back against hierarchical interpretations of this text, and offers rich alternative readings. She considers what it truly means to “be subject.” She understands submission as “not something enforced but embraced voluntarily, out of love for Christ and for one another.
Another way of thinking of it,” she suggests, “is giving in. Giving in to others or compromising our needs or wishes is something that is necessary to make a relationship work and is eventually a mark of strength, not of weakness. The relationship advocated is not one of doormat to exploiter but of equals giving in at appropriate times to each other in love.” That sounds to me like a pretty great relationship.
Professor Powell goes on to ponder what Paul might have meant when he argued that “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” She notes that in English, the word “head” often carries the connotation of ruler or boss, but that Paul’s emphasis here is not on the “glorious ruling of Christ but of his self-giving sacrifice… What the husband stands for when described as head is the caring, giving, sacrificial love that is like Christ.”
In turn, wives are encouraged to love their husbands with the same caliber of devotion the church confers upon Christ. It is not a matter of who’s in charge, or who has the power. It is a metaphor for mutual love and devotion.
In this tricky text, Paul sets forth a profound parallel: the relationship between spouses is an echo of the relationship between Christ and the church. Way to raise the stakes, Paul.
I believe that this passage has a good word about marriage regardless of whether any given wife subscribes to traditional ideas about femininity or any given husband is the family breadwinner. I believe this passage has a good word for marriage, period, regardless of gender.
In all my reading, research, and reflection about marriage, one quality has stood out, head and shoulders above all others, as the hallmark of a healthy relationship: loving-kindness.
It’s tempting to roll our collective eyes at this. If it were that easy, we may say, why aren’t there more strong, stable, loving relationships? Why do so many marriages limp along unhappily or end in painful divorce? But here’s the thing: practicing loving-kindness isn’t easy at all. It’s work. It’s hard work. It’s listening when you don’t feel like listening. It’s compromising when you’d really rather have your way. It’s relentlessly considering the well-being and desires of someone other than yourself, and resisting the inherent impulse we human beings have toward selfishness. I am not going to pretend that marriage is not a complicated thing. There are countless ways for marriages to thrive, and countless ways for marriages to fail. But I suspect that the presence or absence of mutual loving-kindness is, at the very least, a very prominent part of the pattern.
A few years ago, Glennon Melton published a parable about marriage. In it, she described a marriage beset by familiar woes. She writes, “… the kids came and work got hard and money got tight and the shine wore off of each of them. She used to see strong and silent but now she saw cold and distant. He used to see passionate and loving, but now he saw dramatic and meddling. They allowed themselves to become annoyed with each other. And so they stopped being careful. They stopped taking care of each other because they each decided they needed to look out for themselves.”
Melton goes onto describe the couple at the verge of a breaking point. The wife stands alone in the kitchen, fuming that her husband is once again late coming home. “God, help us,” she prays. And then she does something unexpected: she performs a simple act of kindness: she leaves a glass of wine and his book next to his favorite chair before heading off to bed. The next morning, she is surprised to find that her husband had set the coffee pot to start brewing just as she sleepily walked into the kitchen, and placed her favorite mug on the counter. It’s the start of something, small but powerful.
It takes courage to pour the first glass of wine. It takes a willingness to risk, to be vulnerable, to be subject to the other. We may well not have what it takes to be in right relationship with anyone if we are not allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
We love because God first loved us. How better to learn the ways of sacrificial love, but from the one who lay down his life for his friends?
Earlier in this letter, before Paul begins handing out advice, he offers this prayer for his readers: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
This is my prayer for husbands and wives, for parents and children, for friends and neighbors, as we seek to live and love faithfully. May it be so.