As I grow older, I relate to the Bible as I do my long term friends. Some friends I can remember in their teens, then twenties, and thirties. I remember the struggles we have faced over the years, the victories we have celebrated together, and how our values have grown and changed over time.
That’s true of the Bible as well. I can remember what a passage meant to me in my twenties, then thirties; so different from its significance to me today.
Ephesians 5:21–33 is one such passage. I once considered it highly suspect, not to be trusted. But over time, I came to see it as a loyal friend indeed. This, in recent years, has freed me to enjoy and partake of the passage as it points to the glory of God.
Friends or “Frenemies”?
Upon first acquaintance with Ephesians 5:21–33, I was pretty turned off. The husband is the head of his wife? How could this be taken as anything other than an insult to women? My reaction: I already have a head, thank you very much. It may not be perfect, but it’s at least comparable to that of any male I know.
It certainly didn’t help that I was reading the NIV 1984 translation at this time, which separates verse 21 from 22 by inserting a heading between them, “Wives and Husbands.” This of course divorces the concept in verse 21, “submit to one another,” from what follows, making verse 22 appear to introduce the guiding principle of the passage: “Wives, submit to your husbands.”
In addressing husbands later on in the passage, Paul came across to me as one patronizing stuffed shirt pep-talking another: Come on, do your duty, men—you’re really doing yourself a favor! Once you “wash” your woman, you won’t have to put up with her stains or wrinkles or blemishes; you can present yourself with a beautiful, radiant, sparkling bride!
What influenced my reaction? Was it the personality I was born with, or the way that I was raised? Was it simply a rebellious spirit that must be excised? I felt wary, like I had fallen prey to a bait-and-switch—I had been drawn to God because of his great love and faithfulness, only to find that the outcome is subservience to another human being.
Some people I knew encountered Ephesians 5 and walked away from Christianity. Paul demeans women, they said, and that’s wrong. I could see the point, but I didn’t walk away from my faith. Instead, I did my best to reconcile this seemingly demeaning text with the God that I knew and believed in—the God who is kind, who doesn’t oppress, who made both men and women in the image of God, and who set them both in the garden and directed them to rule together.
There was a lasting, unconscious impact, though. Deep inside, the knowledge registered that since Ephesians 5 demeaned women, then the Bible, and therefore God and even other Christians, may not truly be for me, a female. Ephesians 5 became my “frenemy”: seemingly supportive, as God’s inspired Word, but in reality profoundly undermining to my best interests, because its message competed with what I knew to be true of God.
A Loyal Friend Indeed
In my twenties, as I interacted more deeply with the passage, I realized that first impressions can be deceiving. I read Beyond Sex Roles, by Gilbert Bilezikian. Its convincing, biblically-based argument for equal partnership between men and women in church, home, and society seemed a vindication: “I knew it! Now this sounds like God.” Maybe Ephesians 5 and I could be true friends after all.
From Beyond Sex Roles I learned that any portion of Scripture needs to be considered in relation to the whole. We must weigh a passage like Ephesians 5 that seems to deny equality or limit women’s leadership against other passages that affirm women in these areas (such as Judg. 4:4, Prov. 31, Luke 10:42, Acts 2:18, Rom. 16:3–7, Gal. 3:28, etc.).
Beyond Sex Roles also introduced me to the challenge of translating a text not only from Greek to English, but also from the culture of the first century Roman Empire to our present cultural context. The Greek word kephale that we find in Ephesians 5, for example, means “head,” but its figurative use in ancient times differed from the associations that we attach to it today. We use this word to reference a boss, CEO, or some other authoritative leader, but Bilezikian demonstrates that in ancient times, the term signified something more akin to “life source” or “nourisher.” In large part, therefore, ideas of male authority and dominance that we derive from this term in Ephesians 5 are meanings that we impose upon the text, and are not, Bilezikian shows, intended by Paul.
Since reading Beyond Sex Roles, I have also learned of Roman household codes—the written rules that delineated the lines of authority within a Roman household. Roman society possessed strict class divisions, ascribing status, power, and privilege to the upper tiers and subservient dependence to the lower tiers. The paterfamilias, the male leader, possessed almost absolute authority over the members of his household, sometimes even determining whether they lived or died.
Comparing copies of Roman household codes to biblical texts reveals that the authors of New Testament household codes, such as those found in Ephesians 5, borrowed the form of the Roman codes but dramatically changed their content (Introducing the New Testament, p. 387.) Such changes would have been obvious and significant to Paul’s audience, each member of whom knew well his or her station, role, and boundaries according to Roman society. So the phrases in Ephesians 5 that initially struck me as oppressive would have struck original readers as radically counter-cultural, freeing both women and men from hierarchy in their relations with each other because of their new status in Christ.
In Ephesians 5:22, wives are instructed to submit to their husbands not as is fitting to their station, but “as is fitting in the Lord,” meaning, as already stated in verse 21, that all Christians are obligated to submit to one another. Husbands, then, are not to rule their wives, as was the obligation of every Roman husband, but to love their wives (v. 25), and to do so in the manner that Christ loved the church, that is, in holding back no part of himself or his resources for the betterment of his bride, the church.
So over time, this text and I grew into deep friends. No longer did I view it as demeaning to women. Rather, it actually elevates them, by presenting husbands and wives as equals, with the mutual obligation to serve.
This Friend Points Me to Christ
I’ve been married for eighteen years now, and, no, not every moment has oozed unparalleled bliss. But, a fair number!
Many believe a marriage of functional equals cannot work. Without a designated authority to make that “final decision” in times of conflict, they fear the family will devolve into chaos as husband and wife lock horns.
It has not been like that for us. The simple willingness to mutually seek each other’s benefit prevents most conflict from arising and goes far in resolving those that do. We have also benefitted from invoking alternative methods of conflict resolution listed in Beyond Sex Roles, including, “wait to make a decision,” “give greater weight to the person most affected by a decision,” and “seek the counsel of mutually trusted friends” (p. 212–214, second edition).
No, the challenges in our marriage have been more external than internal, related more to coping with quite typical disappointments and stresses of modern American life rather than clashes of power between us. I myself have failed in some relationships and goals. I’ve struggled to fulfill responsibilities. I’ve been wounded sometimes. In these times, Brian has loyally stood by me, stuck up for me, and sought to help me in any way that he knew how.
So often this casts my mind back to my old friend Ephesians 5:21–33, with its image of washing—a household slave’s demeaning task and the shocking image Jesus also employed when he disrobed and knelt before those who called him “Lord.” Brian has smeared anti-fungal cream around my toes. He has braced my back in a birthing tub swirling with all sorts of delightful bodily goo. He has not only served me over the years, but also preserved me, and, at times, even restored me.
Perhaps a complementarian could interject here, “But of course, that’s his role. He is your knight in shining armor.” But, I trust the rescue is reciprocal—and I will not allow the way others may interpret my story to prevent me from luxuriating in the glory of God as revealed in my marriage.
When Brian empties himself in service to me, and I think, “That is so Christlike, so godly,” I am following the example of Paul. He, likewise, in Ephesians 5 could not remain focused on husbands and wives, but fell to waxing rhapsodic over the mystery of Christ and his church.
So in these recent years I’ve come to appreciate new qualities in Ephesians 5:21–33. In it I now celebrate the same sentiment as that which I find in Philippians 2, where Paul also exhorts Christians—both male and female—to follow the example of Christ. His greatest glory was achieved, not by retaining his assigned exalted status, but by surrendering it. That the Creator should do this for his creatures, and that each of us can surrender our status for one another, these—you are right, Paul—are mysteries indeed.