wives, husbands & ephesians 5:22

http://blog.taramoss.com/media/2/submit_1.jpgThis week’s announcement of a new marriage vow to be introduced by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney* has caused quite a stir across a range of circles.

The vow, which is expected to be approved at the synod of the Sydney Diocese in October, and which may not in fact comply with federal laws, would require a minister to ask the bride regarding her groom, “Will you honour and submit to him, as the church submits to Christ?” and for her to pledge ”to love and submit” to her husband.

These words are taken unmistakably from Ephesians 5:22:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

Complementarians regularly claim that their understanding of this text is in line with its “plain meaning” or “plain sense”. In other words, women submitting to men in marriage (and often in other areas) is the literal meaning of the text.

But the idea of a “plain meaning” of a text, particularly ancient texts far removed from our own chronological and geographical context, is at best questionable. How can anyone decide, without prior engagement with a text, whether that text is to be taken at face value? There is often a world of difference between the intended meaning of a text and its literal face-value meaning.

Case in point – most of you are probably enjoying the use of a right hand and a right eye at the moment. Why have you not taken Matthew 5:29-30 literally?

Stupid example? Probably because appealing to the plain meaning of a text is itself pretty foolish and, in truth, the rhetorical equivalent of crying to end an argument – people may stop arguing with you if you do it, but they will still think you are wrong and will never want to discuss anything with you again.

The so-called “plain meaning” of Ephesians 5:22 is great, so long as you take the verse in isolation and do absolutely no exegetical work. By this I do not mean to say that the complementarian position is stupid or lazy, since many complemantarians have thoughtfully approached Ephesians 5:22. What I do mean to say is that being a complementarian solely on the basis of a “plain reading” of a single text is to walk on thin interpretive ice.

No doubt it is obvious that I do not hold a complementarian view. Here are some interpretive thoughts.

As many authors have pointed out, the Roman imperial context in which Paul wrote Ephesians was organised by a strict household structure. The household in this world was not merely a reference to a small group of blood relatives, but rather an economic and juridical estate, almost like a kind of business. Within the household the male/father (the pater familias) held ultimate power, including the right to leave unwanted children to die. This was not merely a cultural preference – it was a legal mandate.** This system condemned all women, children and slaves to a sub-human existence. To subvert this structure was to act treasonously since such a subversion would be a challenge to the very social and economic basis of the Empire. It is within this context that Paul exhorts wives to submit to their husbands.

The question that arises is this: is Paul setting out a universal code for all households at all times, or is he instructing families to live wisely and contextually within the confines of a violent imperial system?

Western interpreters of biblical texts have, because of their relatively privileged position, often overlooked the subversive pedagogy present in New Testament texts. Discourse from the oppressed, however, is often dangerous since it challenges the structures and myths which legitimate the dominant order. This includes the discourse found in the New Testament, inspired as it was by a young prophet crucified between two failed revolutionaries.

For Paul to challenge the household structure of the Roman Empire would have been to challenge the Empire itself. The household structure was not simply a neat set up – it was the product of myths that legitimated patriarchy and the social positions of the powerful. Paul needed to be extremely careful about the challenges he mounted, lest he end up suffering the wrath of the powers. This is not a unique position – many marginalised and oppressed peoples have found themselves in the same situation throughout history.

A common sociological response of oppressed people has been to employ subtle forms of reframing reality that subvert the “official” stories of the world but that do not gain the attention of the authorities. These could be called “codes” or “hidden transcripts”. Such codes allow the marginalised to find hope in a new narrative of the world and begin to resist oppression whilst avoiding the retribution of the powerful who are unable to decipher what is truly being said. A prime example would be the old black gospel spirituals; the content is highly subversive (“Wade in the water / God’s gonna trouble the water”) but was not comprehended by the white slave owners.

My suggestion would be that Paul is doing the same, encoding a subtle subversion of the oppressive household structure of the Empire within a discourse which would have seemed acceptable to the authorities.

The subtle key to interpreting 5:22 within the entire passage is 5:21 and its exhortation to submit (hupotasso) to one another out of reverence for Christ. Even more crucial to the understanding of this section of Ephesians is Paul’s overall purpose for writing the letter, namely to promote the breaking down of all walls of hostility and the unity of all people, particularly between Jews and Gentiles, in light of Christ. In my view the index to the entire letter is what Paul calls the plan of God set out in Christ, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10)

This of course has strong resonances with other texts in the Pauline corpus, not least the assertion that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female. (Gal. 3:28)

With this in mind, Paul addresses households in Ephesians 5-6. He specifically addresses the marginalised parties first (wives before husbands, children before fathers, slaves before masters), knowing that the convention of the time was to always mention the superior or preeminent party first when listing people (check out all the lists of people in the Bible for proof). In other words, Paul gives preference to wives (and children and slaves). This is enough to give hints of Paul’s subversive destruction of all social barriers, ultimately a Christological conviction, without openly and thus dangerously stating his liberating position.

We must also allow for the possibility that those wives, children and slaves being addressed come from households whose head does not share their commitment to Jesus. This suggestion, if true, could have significant effects on our interpretations.

Of course none of this is comprehensively articulated in this post. Even so, it is hopefully food for thought.

And if not, then complementarians should attempt to tackle what I think is an insurmountable barrier for their position. Earlier I asked whether Paul was setting out a universal code for all households at all times, or if he was instructing families in his particular time to live wisely and contextually within the confines of a violent imperial system. If complementarians opt for the former option (a universal code), then this universalising tendency must apply to the entire household code. My question is: if we no longer seek to enforce the obedience of slaves to masters (in fact we have actively worked against modern slavery – was Paul wrong, or is there something else going on?), why do complementarians continue to enforce the submission of wives to husbands?

This is a particularly difficult question in light of Old Testament tradition about Sabbath, Jubilee and slavery – if it was God’s will that slaves were to be freed after a certain amount of time, does this will apply to slaves in the first century, even those whose masters are not in fact Christians? If so, what might this mean for wives?

MCA

P.S. If anyone is interested, here are the vows my wife and I composed for our wedding:

I, _____,
Take you _____ to be my wife/husband;
On this special and Holy day I establish with you, in the presence of God, family and friends
a covenant of love and faithfulness
From this day forward I promise to abide by your side as your faithful husband/wife
In laughter and in weeping
In prosperity and in poverty
In wholeness and in brokenness
I will respect, trust, protect and care for you
I will share my life with you
I will forgive you as we have been forgiven
I will lead with you a simple, just and peaceful life
as Christ has called us to live

I will love you and be thankful for the blessing of your love

As long as we both shall live.
This is my solemn vow and promise.


* In regard to the video on this link, and on an unrelated tangent, when did “honour” become part of the lexicon-of-excessively-used-words of Christians outside of Pentecostal megachurches? It wasn’t that way a few years ago (or was it?). I don’t have a point, I just find it interesting, and wonder what it reflects.
** See for example D. 50.16.195.1-5 (Ulpianus libro quadragensimo sexto ad Edictum)
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Posted on August 30, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thanks Matt!

    I unknowingly went to an Acts 29 church on the weekend, and ended up getting into a passionate discussion with someone regarding complimentaianism. I unfortunately had not yet read your blog! or I would have had a whole lot more substance to my argument. Equal value but different roles? Just one of those roles happens to have all the power?- no thank you. My friend very humourously retorted- “Complimenatrianism is just misogyny in drag”. Thanks Matt, I’ve been wanting to look more into the hermeneutics of this passage! Warm Regards,

    Bethany Koch

    PA to the National Director TEAR Australia http://www.tear.org.au Ph: 03 9264 7014 M: 0432 304 532 E: Bethany.Koch@tear.org.au Transformation | Empowerment | Advocacy | Relief

  2. Nice one. Thanks Matt. Your last point is interesting – I’m torn between thinking that the inherent difference in the slave/master and husband/wife relationships (ie, ownership) means the same rules cannot apply; but when we realize that husbands in those days did own their wives, it certainly waters down that argument.

    For what it’s worth, you are always welcome to refer to me first, rather than my husband. 🙂

    Oh, and happy almost anniversary!

  3. Great post Matt. I just love Keesmaat and Walsh’s reading of the Colossian household code in which they read “obey your masters…as is fitting in the Lord” subversively so that “as is fitting in the Lord” essentially undoes the hierarchy inherent in the “submit”.
    I am continually amazed at how we can read the Bible and think we understand it without an understanding of the history.

  4. Matt, I appreciate and agree with what you say, and I like the vows when I read them as much as when I heard them. I think there is one further implication.

    How we interpret the Bible is influenced by our view of the Bible. A verbally inspired, inerrant book of rules still needs interpretation, but not so much. Once we recognise that it isn’t a matter of blind rules, but understanding the local context and applying it to our own situation are required, we are effectively taking a different view of what the Bible is and isn’t – and I do take a different view, as I presume you do.

    Then we need to ask how do we know that our more flexible interpretation is the right one among many possible flexible interpretations? Not everyone has the opportunity, means or ability to read erudite commentaries. But Jesus promised the Spirit to guide us all into all truth. So as well as checking the Greek and the cultural context, I believe we should be praying for the Spirit’s guidance on us, and the whole church, on these interpretations.

    I believe that is happening, and christians all over the world are interpreting this passage more like you say – in their lives, if not (yet) in their explicit doctrine. Francis Shaeffer used to say that when cultural change occurs, the christians are the last to move. That isn’t always bad, but in this case, I think you are right and christians need to reconsider not just their doctrine of marriage, but also their doctrine of the Bible.

    Thanks.

  5. hey matt –

    just a couple of quick observations.

    firstly, there’s nothing new about these vows. There’s always been an option in the prayer book that anglicans use for the wife to obey/submit. Peter Jensen’s article in the herald made this point clearly. The great thing about getting married in an anglican church is that you can choose which vows to use (either the submit/obey vows or both parties saying love and cherish). Although I’m sure this discussion helps people read their bibles better, ultimately, nobody’s being forced to do anything.

    secondly, a quick word in response to Bethany … the heart of “equal with different roles” is the person of Jesus. He’s equal with the Father, and uses his power to submit himself to his Father’s will. This power exerted humbly is well spelled out in John Dickson’s book, “humilitas”. Jesus is never less than the Father despite submitting himself. So it is with wives and husbands. I find that when we take our eyes off Jesus, too quickly all the “what if”s quite rightly take centre stage (what if men abuse this power, what if women aren’t treated with care, etc).

    thanks for your work!

    roj

  6. Great post, mister Anslow. I love your wedding vows too.

    I think that this whole conversation around doctrines of gender is interesting because people’s lived behaviour varies so much from what they profess to believe. I know more than a few domineering wives who bully the crap out of their husbands, yet carry the flag for the cause of wifely submission. And I know dudes who are outspoken feminists, but who by virtue of their strong personalities and big egos, stomp all over their wives’ personalities and opinions at every turn. It doesn’t negate the importance of the discussion (nor the severity of the consequences when a social innovation gets ‘sacramentalised’ (Yoder’s term) by entering liturgy and lore. But all the same, it does kinda make me smile from time to time. In a similar vein, has anyone else ever had to stifle a smirk when a scrawny, pasty Moore College student/graduate starts banging on about ‘real masculinity’ John Eldridge style? If you choose to believe that God wants men to be agressive frontiersmen, all power to you, but might i suggest you go live in the woods for a bit – maybe skin a bear or two – before you try to push your crazy-ass beliefs onto the rest of us?

    The other perhaps ironic thing about this discussion is that while people passionately disagree about the finer doctrinal points, we all know a good – and a bad – marriage when we see one. There’s rarely much disagreement here, regardless of the doctrine you subscribe to. A good marriage just sings, you can see both people blossoming from a mile off; same too a bad one, you can practically smell it, as you watch one, or both, partners shrivel into themselves. I wish we could quite arguing over bloody marriage vows and focus a lot more on seeking the wisdom of those who are in the great marriages we see around us.

  7. Hi

    When using logic to voice your point, especially if you are intelligent and can do it well, the thing that will bring you down is the assumptions being made that have directed you that way. Unless they are based on truth, which is a rock that cannot be moved, they will fall, and be burnt up in the fire.

    Two of your assumptions are that Matthew 5 and Paul’s writing are I be read the same and that Paul feared the Roman empire, that it influenced his writing.

    The bible clearly teaches us it is or sinful nature, not our body, causing us to sin. Even if it were our physical body it would be better to cut it off then let it remain. As your can see this is used for emphasis of Jesus point at how desperate we should be to rid ourselves of our sinful nature. This is very different from Paul’s instructions for marriage, a type of the relationship between Christ and the church.

    Paul did not fear the roman empire, he did not fear that which could destroy the flesh he only feared God. For him to live is Christ but he considered death gain.

    However your point on the equalilty in worth is quite valid. In marriage the husband has authority over the wife’s body, but likewise the wife has authority over the husband’s body (1 Corinthians 7). There is equality, but that doesn’t mean uniformity. The roles are different. The husband’s is to give over his own desires to the point of his life to SERVE THE WIFE, and the wife is to submit to the husband.

    • Hi Andrew,

      I think it somewhat I ironic that you have criticised my assumptions, yet you clearly have some strong ones of your own. This is fine, since there is no such thing as a person with no assumptions. But we do need to recognise them.

      Your assumptions, at least some of the main ones demonstrated in your comment include:

      – The assumption that the “sinful nature” and the body are completely separate (a Greek philosophical view).
      – The assumption that because of Paul’s statement in Philippians 1 regarding death being gain that he did not have any fears apart from God. I would appreciate you pointing out to me where this is evidenced.
      – The assumption that a lack of fear of the Roman Empire (assuming as you do that Paul lacked such fear) equates to not having to show any care about what was said in a letter like Ephesians. Inflammatory speech about a government may be allowed in a modern liberal democracy, but it would be completely anachronistic to assume (as you seem to) that Paul could do the same in the midst of an oppressive empire like Rome’s.
      – The assumption that Paul’s writing would have only affected his own well-being. What I mean by this is that for Paul to have written scathingly about the Roman imperial system would not have just been dangerous for him – it would have been dangerous for his audience as well. If, as you argue, Paul had no fear of Rome, this still would not mean he could say whatever he wanted. Sometimes there are practical reasons to not invoke the wrath of a world power, such as simply wanting to carry on your ministry… Indeed, not having fear of something if not the same as not caring if it kills you.

      I also take issue with the assumption of mine that you have stated, namely that Matthew 5 and Ephesians 5 are to be read the same way. I never said such a thing. I simply made the point that neither text can be read at literal face value simply as an assumption. I never made any further connection between the texts.

      Perhaps one of the assumptions I should be pulled up for is my belief that Galatians 3:28 should be taken as equally authoritative as Ephesians 5:22.

      Lastly, I’m not quite sure from where you took the point about equality in worth, because i don’t believe I made that point in this post. Certainly I never made the point that “The husband’s is to give over his own desires to the point of his life to SERVE THE WIFE, and the wife is to submit to the husband.”

      Peace,

      Matt

  8. Hi Matt,

    I appreciate the way you have looked at my assumptions also, as I am bound to make poor ones also.

    You asked that I point out to you where it is evidenced that Paul had no fears apart from God. Phillipians 1 itself is clear evidence for that. Him rejoicing in his chains for standing firm are is just the beginning. Paul boasts in his sufferings to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11) The account of his life in Acts testifies that he did not only proclaim that he rejoices in persecution for the the truth but that he lives it out, Acts 20:22-24 is a short passage that demonstrates this. Romans 1 shows that he is not ashamed of the Gospel.1 Thessalonians 2:4 Galatians 1 both speak of his heart not let anything in this world influence what God has told him to proclaim.

    From what we see in Acts, Paul really did imitate Christ as he proclaimed to the Corinthian church. Jesus did not fear what man could do to him in fact he expected man to do things to him (Luke 21) because of what he said and he said that we should expect the same. thus Paul would not change what he wrote for fear that those who obeyed it would be persecuted even to death. He knew he was writing the words inspired by God. Paul’s life testifies to the message in Hebrews 13:6.

    Because of these things I am sure that we can read Paul’s instructions literally here and I have faith that they are inerrant, uninfluenced by opposition from the Roman Empire

    My point is this on equality and worth is this:

    Paul’s message to the Ephesians and to all the saints is that wives are called to submit to husbands and Husbands are called to serve their wives as Christ to the church. We are literally called to do these things. This has nothing to do with equality and worth as Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 7 show us that neither is greater than another, we are all His children. My assumption in writing that point is that people who oppose wives submitting to their husbands think that this passage is saying wives are inferior, which is not what this passage is saying.

    You are more than entitled to disagree with me, as I am sure I myself only know in part here on earth.

    Peace,

    Andrew

  9. Hi Matt,

    It looks like you have done some great cultural contextual research and some thinking about how to apply that to the issue at hand. A couple of observations (am happy to expand on my thoughts if you\’d like):

    1. I\’m not not sure you have paid enough attention to the Old Testament/creational context of this passage (especially Genesis 2 and 3, hence the Genesis quote in 5:31). I think think this context has to play a big part in how we understand Ephesians 5:22-33. In short, order in marriage was established in creation, reversed in the fall, and re-established by God after the fall, but under curse. Ephesians 5 is the reversal of the curse, a reversal brought in by Jesus, and established by the Holy Spirit in his people (Eph 5:15-21). This reversal means that instead of desiring to rule over her husband, a wife submits, and instead of a husband ruling harshly, he cares for and loves his wife. Hence God\’s good intentions for marriage are re-established, in Christ by the Spirit.

    Because these verses are a self conscious reversal of the fall, I\’m not sure the barrier you describe for complementarians is insurmountable. Marriage has a universal creational context while slavery does not – that\’s why we can separate marriage from slavery. And in any case if we accept your proposal to have all of the housecode or none of it, does that mean if we accept your position, that parents no longer have authority over their children?

    2. The link between authority/headship and worth. With Andrew and Rog above, I don\’t think a complementarian interpretation of Eph 5 is at odds with with Galatians 3 or 1 Cor 7 at all. First we see submission and equality exist perfectly in the godhead (1 Cor 15:28). Second greatness in the kingdom of God is linked to service (Mark 10:42-45). Third, I don\’t think authority is tied to gender/individuals in the bible, but to relationships. In this case, it applies to men and women where gender is relevant to the relationship, i.e. marriage. Women don\’t submit to all men. Men don\’t have authority over all women. But a husband is the head of his wife. So I don\’t think this authority structure says anything at all about the worth of individuals, but the order of relationships.

    Blessings,
    Alex

  10. Hi Andrew, I think that your argument for putting aside the putting aside the Biblical teaching on wives submitting to their husbands falls down at a number of points. What you seem to be doing is privileging Galatians 3:28 and your interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 over 5:22-24 (and by implication 1 Peter 3:1ff). There are a number of problems with this (some highlighted above), but I would like to respond to your statement about slavery, since you see it as a ‘clincher’ for your argument (‘an insurmountable problem for complimentarians’).

    First I note that you don’t insist that the command for children to obey parents is out of date, despite the fact that this relationship has sometimes (sadly) been misused.

    The command for slaves to submit to their masters is found in both Ephesians (6:5ff) and 1 Peter (2:18ff). In the first century most slavery was parallel to imprisonment rather than the kind of chattel slavery we imagine from 18th century American History. Slaves may have been prisoners of war or bankrupts or other kinds of criminals. Many slaves were freed after their alloted time was complete. No doubt there was too much abuse of slaves, but this does not make the system an absolute wrong as you suggest. While Paul encourages Christian slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Cor 7:21) but else to remain in the situation they were in when they were called. He sends runaway slave Onesimus back to Philemon (with the request that Philemon send the bill for his punishment to Paul and a hint that Philemon should let him go!) The list of ‘sinners’ in 1 Tim 1:10 includes ‘slave-traders’ or kidnappers, but slavery as such is never outright condemned. You might find it helpful to read Murray Harris’ book ‘Slave of Christ’ or something else on 1st century slavery.

    This is not to say that I am a supporter of modern slavery (and I do everything I can to work for the end of such slavery). But I suspect you agree with the concept of prison for criminals as much as I do? What I am suggesting is that you have not proven that the Bible condemns slavery as an absolute, yet you have appealed to that absolute as the clincher in your argument. It seems to me that this is another example of incautious exegesis in your article and undermines your argument.

  11. Hi Andrew, I think that your argument for putting aside the putting aside the Biblical teaching on wives submitting to their husbands falls down at a number of points. What you seem to be doing is privileging Galatians 3:28 and your interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 over 5:22-24 (and by implication 1 Peter 3:1ff). There are a number of problems with this (some highlighted above), but I would like to respond to your statement about slavery, since you see it as a ‘clincher’ for your argument (‘an insurmountable problem for complimentarians’).

    First I note that you don’t insist that the command for children to obey parents is out of date, despite the fact that this relationship has sometimes (sadly) been misused.

    The command for slaves to submit to their masters is found in both Ephesians (6:5ff) and 1 Peter (2:18ff). In the first century most slavery was parallel to imprisonment rather than the kind of chattel slavery we imagine from 18th century American History. Slaves may have been prisoners of war or bankrupts or other kinds of criminals. Many slaves were freed after their alloted time was complete. No doubt there was too much abuse of slaves, but this does not make the system an absolute wrong as you suggest. While Paul encourages Christian slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Cor 7:21) but else to remain in the situation they were in when they were called. He sends runaway slave Onesimus back to Philemon (with the request that Philemon send the bill for his punishment to Paul and a hint that Philemon should let him go!) The list of ‘sinners’ in 1 Tim 1:10 includes ‘slave-traders’ or kidnappers, but slavery as such is never outright condemned. You might find it helpful to read Murray Harris’ book ‘Slave of Christ’ or something else on 1st century slavery.

    This is not to say that I am a supporter of modern slavery (and I do everything I can to work for the end of such slavery). But I suspect you agree with the concept of prison for criminals as much as I do? What I am suggesting is that you have not proven that the Bible condemns slavery as an absolute, yet you have appealed to that absolute as the clincher in your argument. It seems to me that this is another example of incautious exegesis in your article and undermines your argument.

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