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. (Eph 5:21–33 NRSV)
When a person searches the Scriptures for instructions regarding Christian marriage, they often find their way to Eph 5:22–33. These verses have been read in our wedding ceremonies, embroidered onto beautiful wall hangings for our homes, and have ultimately shaped the climate and the character of generations of Christian marriages. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to read these words without looking at the greater context in which they were spoken. If we do look at the context, we will come to understand that the apostle Paul is doing something far different from what we might think. He is not discussing gender roles within a family. He is not delineating a biblical blueprint for marriage. He is not doing what we think he is doing, but if we look closely, we just might discover what he is trying to do in this passage. And we just may realize that what he is doing is of utmost importance.
Ephesians 4, 5, and 6 provide a full, lengthy description of the characteristics, perspectives, and attitudes that should define and shape the Christian community. Throughout these three chapters Paul paints a picture of a community that is uniquely Christian. He tries desperately, using long sentences and numerous examples, to communicate the spirit, the ethos, the atmosphere that should typify these new worshiping communities. He takes great pains to illustrate how faith in Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be manifested in this brand-new type of community—a community vastly different from anything they had ever seen or known.
This community is one of humility, gentleness, and patience, where people bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain unity and peace. It is a community of people who have put away their former ways of life and are being renewed according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. A community where people are kind and tenderhearted to one another. A community marked by forgiveness. Members of this community are imitators of God, since they know they are God’s beloved children. And they live in love because they believe Christ loves them and gave himself up for them. Paul ends his effusive description of the Christian community with this admonition: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21 NRSV).
It is only after spending two chapters describing the spiritual qualities and moral character that should define the Christian community that Paul specifically addresses four groups of people. These four groups are wives, children, slaves, and male heads of households. The four groups would have been immediately recognized by those who received the original letter because Roman society was organized through households, each typically led by a man who functioned as father, husband, and slaveholder. Because the earliest Christian churches met in homes and this social reality was in place long before the arrival of Christianity, the churches inherited the structure.
It is important to note that a full half of Paul’s instructions in Eph 5:22–25 are directed to one type of person—the male heads of households. Also vital to the interpretation of this passage is the fact that in the Roman world, marriage was not based on love. It could not be assumed that a husband loved his wife. Marriage was initiated on economics and a need to produce offspring, not on love. However, Paul specifically commands husbands to love their wives. He says this not once, and not twice, but three times (Eph 5:25, 28, 33). To first-century ears this command would sound peculiar, perhaps even subversive.1
Because of the love God has shown them through Jesus, men are being called to love and serve their wives, to nurture their children and treat them with respect, and to treat those they have enslaved as persons of full dignity, recognizing that they are all equally slaves to God (Eph 6:4, 9). Far from seeking to canonize the Roman household structure as God’s will for all time, Paul is demonstrating how the gospel of Jesus would affect and transform even the most rigidly established of social structures. The social privilege, the entitlement given by law to men is being stripped away, as Christian men are challenged to imitate Jesus by living lives of love and service. They are being called into relationships of mutuality, not only with their wives, but with all of those under their social authority. Paul does not attempt to dismantle the Roman authority structure, but rather he sows the seeds of the gospel that have the power to eventually undermine the entire hierarchical system.
New Testament scholar Cynthia Westfall explains it this way:
Within the church, the authority structure was far different than in the home and in the public venue for both men and women. The early church almost spoke a different language: men and women were brothers and sisters as equal heirs. Any sense of rule based on categories of position and privilege is removed. God is the believer’s only patron, and Jesus Christ is the only mediator. No one but God was a father to the community. On the other hand, Paul could be a father to the churches that he planted or function as a mentor even while he made himself a slave to all. A leader is to respect all the older believers like their own fathers and mothers (1 Tim. 5:1–2), while the leaders described themselves with low-status titles such as “slave,” “servant,” and “shepherd.”2
In contrast to ancient Roman society, many modern cultures place high value on freedom, justice, and equality among people, especially in close relationships. Many people do marry for love and see marriage as a partnership between two consenting adults with equal rights and equal influence. We believe that marriage is based on mutuality and reciprocity. Therefore, when our ears hear the instructions for husbands to “love their wives,” it sounds normal. We assume Paul is instructing men to continue life as usual, being kind and loving to their wives just as we would expect any good man to do. But when we hear Paul’s instructions for wives to “submit to their husbands in everything,” we hear a counter-cultural command. Because of our cultural context, we assume Paul is calling wives who are disciples of Jesus into a challenging practice of gender-based submission.
Ironically, by reading the passage through our own cultural lens, we turn it on its head. The original listeners would have heard something completely opposite. They would have heard Christian husbands being called to act in a way that is counter-cultural and challenging. Loving their wives as their own bodies was unheard of in their time! While wives were being called to do something that would appear to be quite normal—to continue being subject to their husbands as the culture required. The change for women was internal—to remember that their true master is God alone.
When we interpret this passage from our own cultural context, we are misunderstanding and misapplying Paul’s words. The error is serious and has caused, and continues to cause, far-reaching damage. I remember, years ago when I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, hearing author Rebecca Merrill Groothuis speak. She explained that gender-based submission within marriage is unhelpful in good marriages, but deeply destructive in bad marriages.3 This struck me as true. In a good marriage, both partners love and respect each other. They submit to one another in love, listening, serving, and caring.
But if a marriage is fraught with conflict, if selfishness and deceit are present, if one or both partners are vying for control of the other, then a gender-based hierarchical framework simply furthers and complicates the problems. Feeling justified by biblical permission, men may engage in abusive, domineering behaviors, while women may resort to manipulation and passive-aggressive behaviors. Relationships become more dysfunctional and destructive. Dysfunctional relationships are not the fruit of the gospel of peace. In fact, Jesus never encouraged his followers to embrace human hierarchy or ranking of any kind. It is Paul’s hope that the followers of Jesus will be a community of love and mutuality. It is his greatest desire that the unity he has taken great pains to describe will exist in all Christian relationships, from the smallest family units to the largest worshiping congregations.
In conclusion, if we take care to understand Paul’s words correctly, we will indeed receive instructions for Christian marriage. And rather than wasting our energy trying to enforce an ancient culture’s hierarchical social structure, we will see how husbands and wives are called by God to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21 NRSV). Instead of finding our hope in traditional gender roles, we will enjoy the freedom of true Christian community even in our homes. Our marriages will be shaped by the Spirit of God, as we treat each other “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…. giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 4:2–3, 5:20 NRSV).
1. See Gordon D. Fee, “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18–6:9,” Priscilla Papers 16/1 (2002) 3–8.
2. Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Baker Academic, 2016) 249–50.
3. In researching this topic, I was saddened to learn that Rebecca Merrill Groothuis died in July of 2018. She influenced my thinking in important ways when I was quite young, and I will always be thankful for the important work she did to further the cause of biblical feminism. I pray for those who knew her and are missing her today. See the following tribute: Douglas Groothuis, “Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s Contribution to Biblical Equality: A Personal Testimony and Lament,” Priscilla Papers 29/3 (Summer 2015) 3–6.
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