Posted by: vicholdsforth | January 29, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 7: Ephesians 5)

We recently visited 1 Cor 11:3-16 and concluded that Paul made it pretty clear that his instructions were a temporary, local solution meant to correct an isolated problem. We also discovered that Paul probably didn’t mean “boss” when he said “the husband is the head of the wife.” We spent an entire installment looking at the usage of kephelay (Greek for head) in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in use in Paul’s day. This is a good segue into the Household Codes. Our study of these texts will take multiple installments. We’ll begin with Eph 5, and we’ll see that Paul was simply assuming that male authority was part of the cultural milieu in which this letter was written, rather than conferring it upon all men in all places and times.

Complementarians begin with verse 22: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” But Paul didn’t begin his thought here. English translations consistently misrepresent of the grammatical structure and verb tense, voice, and mood of this passage as it occurs in Greek. English translations consistently add new sentences, a paragraph, and verb to make what had been a gerund clause into a command directed exclusively at wives. The imperative is actually back in verse 18: “Be filled with the Spirit.” This passage should more accurately be rendered, “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; being submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ—the wives, to their own husbands as to the Lord.” Verse 21 is inextricably tied to verse 22 and clearly states that every member of the body is to maintain a submissive attitude towards the others…husbands included.

The next verse says, “For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the savior.” Complementarians rest their case here. They conclude that because Jesus holds authority over the church, husbands hold analogous authority over their wives. And because Paul appealed to Christ’s position, this must be a universal mandate. Once again, complementarians are coming to the text with presuppositions that color their interpretation, rather than allowing the text to speak for itself. There are many considerations here, so let’s begin to unpack them.

Let’s first consider the word “submit.” Complementarians insist that implicit in this so-called command to wives is the assumption that the husband holds a God-given authority over her, and it is her Christian duty to comply. Recall that the text does not say “wives submit to your husbands.” It says, “…being submissive to one another…wives to your own husbands…” Does it make sense that Paul is trying to introduce or affirm some kind of orderly hierarchy here? Let’s paraphrase verse 21 the way complementarians read verse 22 and see if it makes any sense: “Everyone is the boss of everyone else and you all have to obey each other.” If we insist that this text enjoins marital hierarchy and then attempt to apply it to the entire congregation as the grammar demands, the result is pandemonium and anarchy, not orderliness. Notice also that slaves and children are commanded to “obey” their masters and parents. What is the difference between submission and obedience? Once again, taking our cue from the context, Paul tells us right in verse 33: respect. Phil 2:3 sheds additional light on how we are to relate to other members of the body: “consider others better than yourselves.”

Notice next that all English translations agree that husband is described as head of, not head over, the wife. What does it mean for a husband to be head of a wife? Whenever Paul uses a metaphor, he always tells us right in the text what point he is using it to illustrate: sacrificial love (5:25), oneness (5:28, 31), and nourishing and tender care (5:29). To suggest that this passage instead teaches that the husband has authority over the wife is plumbing the metaphor for symbology that is not suggested by the text itself. This would be like insisting that the pottery metaphor employed by Paul in Romans 9 is meant to teach that God uses adversity like a potter uses a kiln to make us stronger and more useful. While the concept may be valid, that is not what Paul is using this metaphor to teach; rather, he is using this metaphor to teach the sovereignty of God. We would rightly criticize someone who taught this. Paul is not here conferring authority upon husbands, but rather, instructing them as to how to use the power conferred upon them by the culture in a manner that glorifies God. Once again, what seems regressive to the modern reader was, in fact, a revolutionary step forward in the treatment of women. Some attempt to overcome this problem by asserting that Paul chose kephelay (“head”) over words like prostatis, hegoumenos, or arxi, words that clearly convey leadership, because he wanted to communicate both oneness and authority. This is the “overload fallacy,” in which the reader attempts to make a word mean two different definitions at once. When a word carries multiple meanings, we must allow the context, not our presuppositions, tell us which meaning is correct.

Complementarians attempt to make their theology more palatable by teaching that God intends that husbands use their power on behalf of their wives. This is certainly true, but it does not mean that God gave that power to men in the first place. The authoritarian interpretation flies in the face of Jesus’ admonition that his followers were not to exercise authority over one another (Matt 20:25-28). And even more plainly, in Luke 22:25-26, Jesus flatly condemns the practice of exercising authority over others while claiming that they are acting in the best interest of those being subordinated: “Jesus said to them… those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.”  Look carefully at what Jesus said in Matt 20:27: you must be a servant, a slave. Slaves and servants do not “use their authority” to serve; they have no authority. When the disciples were similarly jockeying for position in Mark 9:33ff and Luke 9:46ff, Jesus held out a little child as an object lesson for them—yet another person with absolutely no authority. Returning to the Matthew passage, notice also Jesus’ use of the conjunction “instead.” Jesus was contrasting authority with servanthood, not explaining the “proper” use of authority.

Understanding submission to mean placing the interests of others before our own, rather than an implicit endorsement of a God-ordained hierarchical strtucture, is the best way to understand Ephesians 5 in light of not only the immediate context, but the New Testament as a whole.



  1. Amen

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