I had planned to be efficient today and do some minimal housework and then indulge myself in a little light blogging. However, I appear to have come down with some sort of wickedly vile stomach flu and am cast up on the couch, shaking, feverish, and (I imagine) deathly pale. So, because I cannot think a whole three words together, I'm inflicting my recently turned in paper on you all. I took out all the end notes and tried to cite in the text, but its been a while so I've probably done it wrong. Keep in mind also that I had to grind out this paper in the pleasant and thoughtful environment of a filthy house crammed with small screaming children. So if it doesn't make sense I'm sorry. Enjoy!
Paul said some very difficult things about women: “the women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34); “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5); “wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:24). These pithy statements, whether dragged out of context or considered in the light of the whole Pauline corpus, make women and men uncomfortable in this century. These statements and others like them are therefore left, to a large degree, in a category by themselves, hopefully not to be noticed, or, when noticed, explained away with a quick exegetical twist. I myself have struggled with these admonitions and many others, both as I discerned a call to ordained ministry and now more so, as a married woman.
These three texts run against the grain of the culture in which I find myself. They are countercultural now in precisely the opposite way they were written, a time when women were not accorded even the most basic of human rights we now find so indispensable. I trust that the author, at the time of writing, was not intending to damage or otherwise degrade the lot of anyone, women included. But that belief does not change the reality that in the shifting of ages, times and understandings, these words have helped to keep women tied essentially to the home, and now present a stumbling block for many when they consider Christianity on its face. At the same time, as I read these lines over and over, I find a lovely movement, back and forth, in the duties of the man for the woman, the woman for the man. It is in the context of a life lived in submission and obedience to Christ and the joy discovered therein, that I consider Ephesians 5:22-33.
Ephesians is attributed to Paul, and while there has been doubt about his actual authorship (Brown 621, Mertz 113), NT Wright argues afresh for Pauline authorship of both Ephesians and Colossians (18-19). Pauline authorship requires an early date (60-62), during his house arrest in Rome (Dahl 1212). Ephesians does not address a particular controversy or heresy but rather addresses the new defining context of the Church over the world. Ephesians 5 addresses the relationships of men and women using the ancient but reworked household code. From Aristotle onwards various codes of conduct, or household codes, were available and normative.
Witherington notes the similarity of Jewish, Greek and Christian codes, particularly in their “patriarchal orientation” (44). That is, the formulators of household codes, at the time of Paul’s writing, took for granted the centrality of the man or husband as leader and center of his family and household. The household extended to include immediate family, extended family, slaves, servants and those enjoying the patronage of the father. It was the most basic unit of society at that time.
The code in Ephesians is one of seven in the NT. Annette Merz asserts that Ephesians 5 was written as a corrective to 2 Corinthians 11 which, she believes, had led to a devaluation of the married state among women. Ephesians 5:22-33 reordered women back to marriage and made the new church more acceptable to the surrounding culture.
Ian McFarland, on the other hand, argues for a “Canonical Reading” of Ephesians 5, whereby “biblical unity is the interpreter’s starting point” (346). A canonical reading does not allow that Ephesians 5 is a corruption of “some more pristine form of the gospel” but does consider the “devastating impact it has had on the lives of women in the church” (McFarland 347). More importantly, McFarland suggests that Ephesians 5 “offers a fully developed argument for gender hierarchy in consistently Christological terms” (347). In other words, the use of the household code is not a capitulation to the surrounding culture of the day or an effort to make Christianity more palatable, but rather a reordering of all Christian relationships in both Christological and eschatological terms.
Ephesians describes the church in seven ways—as a new humanity, a colony, a community of transformed people, a new temple, an organism, an outpost in a dark world, and finally as a bride (ESV Study Bible 12-4). McFarland notes that Ephesians chapters 1-3, as a doxology, “provide the theological warrant for three chapters of instruction” (347). Ephesians 5:22-33 develops the theme of marriage as the outward sign of the mystical relationship between Christ and the Church. It is practically structured as part of a household code, but contains the culminating theological image of the letter, the relationship of Christ to the Church.
Form, Structure, Movement
Ephesians varies from the usual Pauline style in that it does not address particular persons or controversies (Dahl 1212). Some scholars believe the book is “best understood as a summary of Paul’s teachings”, but it might also be an introduction to Paul’s collected letters or “a meditation on the theme of Christ and the Church” (Dahl 1212).
Arguably (Mertz disagrees, 132), Ephesians 5:22-33 hinges on verse 21, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” which sets the context of mutual love and submission, not just of members in the church, but of members of a family. McFarland maintains, however, that grammatically speaking the argument begins in verse 18 with an imperative upon which hang a series of commands. The whole thought is carried through into verse 23 and concludes with verse 24 (350).
The Household code begins in verse 22, verses 22-24 dealing with the submission of the wife to the husband, in the same way that the Church submits to Christ. The bulk of the text, verses 25-32 deals with the love of the husband for the wife, as Christ loved the Church. This kind of love is examined in detail and finally related to the Mystery of the Church itself. Verses 26-27, however, relate particularly to Christ and the Church, from which analogies to marriage are afterwards drawn (vs. 28-31) (Witherington 55).
Verse by Verse
The verb, “be subject” in verse 21 carries over into 22 as an imperative, rather than an indicative. F. F. Bruce notes that the pronoun ‘own’ does not require special emphasis and would have been ‘a feature of household codes’ (384). Verse 22 sets the context for the wife’s submission—to the Lord. Verse 23 explains/describes this submission in terms of headship. “Head,” in this setting is understood both as ‘source’ or ‘origin’ (Genesis 2:21-24) and ‘authority’ (Bruce 37). There is no particular need to extend the ‘saving’ work of Christ to the husband further than that of protector (Bruce 385). McFarland notes further that, ‘By setting of a wife’s subordination from the model of the church’s subordination to Christ as a savior, verse 24 implicitly acknowledges that the wife’s subordination is not a function of the husband being the wife’s savior. (351)” In verse 24 the church so obviously submits to Christ in everything that the argument easily carries forward—wives submit in everything to their husbands.
From thence forward the author addresses husbands, relating their role to self sacrificing work of Christ as that of the woman as related to the submission of the Church. Verse 26 is clearly related to the cleansing water of baptism, jointly with the sanctifying nature of the word, but the image draws in the ‘cleansing bath’ a bride received before being dressed in ‘bridal array’. The work of Christ continues in 27 where he presents the Church to himself. In this case Christ does the saving (vs. 23), the cleanser (vs. 26), and the presenter (vs. 27).
The commandment to love ‘as their own bodies’ (vs. 28) derives directly from Leviticus 19:18 but is brought closer and intensified by Genesis 2:24 (Bruce 391). Verses 29 and 30 further extend and concretize the image—nourishing, cherishing, membership—finally binding them completely in Genesis 2:24 “the two shall become one flesh.” Finally, in a move almost to offset the material nature of the previous verses, he brings it back into the spiritual realm, “This mystery is profound” (vs. 32). McFarland argues that the placement of verse 32 moves the significance of the marriage bond from creation to “the eschatological reality of Christ and the church (356).” The whole is, then, summarily reduced in verse 33, to the love of the husband for the wife, and the respect of the wife for the husband.
Christ has a spiritual and intangible relationship to the Church, but one that is necessarily lived concretely day to day in the lives of ordinary Christians. This relationship is the norm, the context for all other relationships. So defining is it that the most basic of human relationships, marriage between a man and woman, can on one hand be elevated to describe the relationship between God and his people, and, then recast, on the other hand, spiritually through the language of baptism, salvation, sanctification, and creation.
Further, the salvific and sanctifying work of Christ, particularly in his actions as a servant, an obedient Son, and as the sacrificial victim, provide a new and counter cultural paradigm for the Christian person over against the prevailing paradigm in the world—that of self fulfillment and consumerism. Whereas in the world, relationships may be viewed contractually and for a time—as long as they are fulfilling—in the church relationships are characterized by self-sacrifice, service and grace.
This self sacrifice orients the husband and wife towards each other practically. The husband is commanded to love, to give the gift that is needed most. The wife is commanded to respect and honor, likewise a gift freely given regardless of merit. The wife requires love. The husband requires respect. And so, through the overarching work of Christ, the needs of both are met.
The task is only impossible or restrictive without the aid of Christ, who, in submission to the Father, sacrificed himself for the church. The Christian in first submitting to Christ, is then able to submit, out of love, to others. Without the work of Christ, Ephesians 5:22-33 not only becomes impossible to achieve, it becomes impossible to understand.
Men and women are different from each other. They are ordered differently, they have different world views, different ways of communicating and different means of being. These differences are reflected in Ephesians 5:22-33. While the text contains admonitions—submit, honor, love, sacrifice—it is also descriptive. Homes around the world are ordered and divided along gender lines. But this description, this similarity, cannot be taken for granted.
In my own life, because of the cultural impact this text and the others like it have had, I had to discover the love of God for me as a woman, not the imperfect love of a man for a woman, but the perfect transcending love of God for me as I am in myself. It also meant marrying a man who would share every aspect of himself with me—work, worship, children, the care and upkeep of the household—a man worthy of my respect and honor.
As I considered this text and my own life, I discovered on one hand a need for what is given and commanded. I need a husband who will love me. On the other hand I recognized that this man, whom I love, accepts a less traditional ordering of the home. He participates fully in the life of the household, and I participate fully in the life and work of the church. It is therefore my choice to submit to him in all things. This choice is based on his continual sacrifice of himself for me. These two choices, to submit and to sacrifice, are lived out in the context of daily submission and obedience to Christ, Christ who overpowers and overshadows me with his love.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Michigan:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
Dahl, Nils Alstrup. “Ephesians,” Harper’s Bible Commentary. San Francisco: Harper San
McFarland, Ian A. “A Canonical Reading of Ephesians 5:21-33: Theological Gleanings.”
Theology Today. 57.03 (2006): 344-356.
Mertz, Annette. “Why did the Pure Bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2) Become a Wedded Wife (Eph.
5:22-33)? Theses about the intertextual transformation of an ecclesiological metaphor.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 79.1 (2006): 131-147.
The Reformation Study Bible. Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005.
Witherington, Ben, III. Women in the Earliest Churches. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Wright, N.T. Fresh Perspectives on Paul. London: SPCK Publishing, 2005.