We are working our way through Ephesians this summer at my church, preaching from a whole chapter each week. The discipline of dealing with Paul a chapter at a time is helping me keep a bird’s eye view. It feels like not getting lost in the details has been great for preaching. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chapter five, and the verse, “Wives be subject to your husbands.” These are part of the Haustafeln, or “house precepts/rules,” found in Eph. 5, Col. 3, and 1 Peter 2.
Chapter 5 starts with this verse: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” This tells us 2 things:
- The way God relates to God’s self (Father, Son, & Spirit), is the model for human relationships here. So, when Paul says, “Wives be subject to your husbands,” he is not recommending that wives or husbands should ever do anything that would not be at home in the life of God – Trinity. There will be no lording over one another in haughty authoritativeness.
- By starting with the command to “live in love,” Paul seemed to believed that to be committed to Jesus is to be committed to love as a way of life. So anything that happens within marriage that might nullify love as a way of life should be off the table.
The topic sentence for the whole section goes like this: “Be subject to one another.” As we think about how to understand the words, “wives be subject to your husbands,” we have to know that anything else that happens in this section must come under that heading. Be subject to one another. The idea Paul is working with is mutual submission, or mutual subjection.
Paul is not arguing for a kind of family hierarchy. Anybody who uses these passages as a way to prove that women ought to be obsequious or servile in their marriage is distorting Paul’s message. Remember, those who follow Jesus are committed to love as a way of life. Within marriage, this looks like mutual submission.
Here are a few important observations when we are trying to read this verse well:
- It’s very important to remember that the offensive line in Paul’s day was not “wives submit to your husbands.” The offensive line in Paul’s day was, “husbands love your wives.” Nobody talked to men like that. It was not normal for husbands to think this way about their wives.
- Marriage was not romanticized in that culture. Marriage was for procreation, social status, and the proliferation of the family blood line. Love was very often not even a factor. Wives were not necessarily meant for romantic love in the 1st century – men had mistresses and concubines for that. Men could get rid of their wife simply by giving them a note that said they were released from the marriage. The main reason the women would need the note was so that they wouldn’t be stoned for adultery when they were caught working as prostitutes, because that’s one of the only options open to them after they were unceremoniously sent off. Paul is subverting that cultural view of marriage, and the horrible treatment of women. He was telling them that none of the cultural pictures of marriage constituted love as a way of life.
- Any reading of this text that makes a woman into a doormat, or a man into a martyr is absolutely missing the point. The obligations are listed in pairs, which implies a certain amount of reciprocity. The movement of Paul’s text is that he says first, be subject to one another. Wives be subject to your husbands. Husbands, lay down your life (include here any sort of desire to rule over your wife in an autocratic fashion), for your wife. In 1st century cultural language this is as close to saying the exact same thing for men and women as they could fathom.
- In ancient writing the the person who is lower on the scale according to the social customs of the day was addressed first. In Paul’s writings, women are addressed as moral agents who are responsible for their own behavior – same as men. This was not the social norm of that day. Women are given independent status. John Howard Yoder says it this way in The Politics of Jesus: “Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes of them decision makers.” P. 172
- However you view the subordinate demands, they are place over both parties in a marriage. Mutual subordination is part of this picture as well. The model for this is not a philosophy or social custom, but Jesus himself. This means that any act of self-subordination does not imply inferiority by any stretch of the imagination. Yoder again, “To accept subordination within the framework of things as they are is not to grant the inferiority in moral or personal value of the subordinate party.” P. 181
- In a society where women were not always granted independent agency and full moral status, Paul grants them both. The parts of the text that seem to indicate the husband’s superior status over their wives are drawn not from Paul’s view of the faith, but from the culture, and they are immediately subverted by Paul’s call for the husbands to lay that down, or “put off…” any social superiority that they may feel.
- When we read the part addressed to husbands, we have to remember that Paul is doing a little bit of sucking up to them. They are not going to like what he is asking them to do. What he asked the women to do was culturally lenient to the point where it actually was a lifting up type of move, a dignity giving statement. To immediately come back to the men with these demands of love and sacrifice on behalf of a wife would have created huge resistance in the male listeners.
- The main social change that these verses would illicit in the life of the Christian community, is that there would now be social pressure for men to be subject to their wives. “Be subject to one another,” created a very radical social expectation on husbands that did not previously exist. The other social change would have been the elevation of the status of wives, as full moral agents, as independent actors with a status not formerly granted them by the laws and customs of the day.
- When men and women who are predisposed toward more traditional views of female submission within marriage read the passage in Ephesians 5, I think the above points are really important to bear in mind. The view of marriage that pleases God does not exist in hierarchy, but in mutual submission. The way this works out in my marriage is that we don’t make moves unless both of us are on board. If a big decision is looming and we are not on the same page we wait, we keep the subject open, and when we are both in the same place we move. If I’m ready to move and my wife isn’t, then I live in mutual subjectivity and wait until she’s ready, and vice versa. I think that’s the relational view Paul is recommending here.