“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.” ~ Ephesians 5:22–23
To be crystal clear, the English version of this short passage from Ephesians 5 seems to be an open and shut case that according to Paul (or pseudo-Paul) women ought to be the loyal subjects of men. Sounds good, right gentlemen? Well, don’t be too quick to beat your chest in triumphal victory; there are at least three glaring problems with this conclusion. The first obvious one is that it doesn’t exactly fit with the immediate context of chapter 5.
If we take a look at how Paul begins Ephesians 5, what we need to pay attention to is the specific way in which it is said how Christ loves us, because that will be our lens with which to view the entire chapter. Paul writes: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Did you catch that? According to Paul, to love as Christ loves is to renounce power and authority; it is the giving up of one’s self in love for the other. This is further emphasized in verse 25, where Paul says that husbands are to love their wives and give themselves up for them. So, we ask: How can a husband, on the one hand, give himself—including his supposed authority and power—up for his wife while, on the other, exert hierarchical headship over her? I’ll let you wrestle with that one but it seems like an absurd notion, does it not?
Furthermore—and this is always underemphasized by complementarians—the Apostle Paul, bucking the cultural and religious trend of the day, actually tells both husbands and wives to submit to each other in verse 21. This is huge! You see, back in antiquity, men simply didn’t subject themselves to women. Not. One. Iota. Men ruled; women served—in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and all that bullshit.
With this in mind, then, let us turn to New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener to explain exactly how Paul goes about subverting this standard notion:
The section 5:21—6:9 addresses what we call “household codes.” In Paul’s day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of “religions from the East” (e.g., Isis worship, Judaism and Christianity), which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for those values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on. These exhortations about how the head of a household should deal with members of his family usually break down into discussions of husband-wife, father-child and master-slave relationships. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight from standard Greco-Roman moral writing. But unlike most ancient writers, Paul undermines the basic premise of these codes: the absolute authority of the male head of the house . . . The final expression of being filled with the Spirit is “submitting to one another” because Christ is one’s Lord. All the household codes Paul proposes are based on this idea. But although it was customary to call on wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, to call all members of a group (including the paterfamilias, the male head of the household) to submit to one another was unheard of. (Keener, IVP Bible Background, 551)
And so, here’s the rub: Because women in the Greco-Roman world were basically property—their father’s first, and then, usually after some sort of financial negotiation, the lucky suitor whom the father brokered the deal with—Paul uses the standard Greco-Roman formula, so to speak, only to then subvert what submission and authority for those living in the Spirit of Christ actually means, namely that all submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21, my emphasis).
Which brings me to the second major issue with concluding that men rule and women drool, so to speak, namely that submission to the “headship” Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5:23 may have nothing to do with having “authority over” another, as we so often hear.
You see, the Greek term kephalé is a bit ambiguous. On the one hand, it can certainly mean “head/leader/authority,” but it can also mean something more along the lines of the head or source of a river. As feminist theologian Jory Micah points out on her blog: “The logic is this: The Apostle Paul is suggesting that man (Adam) is the source of woman (Eve) because Eve was taken out of Adam’s side.” Nevertheless, the point in mentioning this is that none of us can be certain what “head” really means for the simple fact that it can mean different things depending on which ancient source you are reading, as well as the specific context in which the term is being used. And the context, as I just pointed out, is subversive to the traditional notion of “headship”; it is a type of headship where both men and women are to mutually submit to one another, just as Christ—the head over all things for the church (Eph. 1:22)—submitted himself to us by giving his body over as an act of self-sacrifice.
Finally, all this leads me to the third problem we face when concluding that Ephesians 5:22–23 proves that a complementarian view of marriage is the most biblical: It runs counter to the broader thrust of Paul’s theology. And that is, to my mind, the crux of the matter.
When reading Paul, we must, at minimum, remember two things: 1) That Paul wrote letters addressing very specific issues within his churches and 2) that Paul’s goals in doing this were two-fold: the full inclusion of Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation and the elimination of any labels that led to exclusory behavior in the church. This is witnessed most clearly in Galatians 3:28, when he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul penned these words, he was dealing with a number of problems, all of which had to do with one group exerting authority over another. In the Galatian churches, for instance, there were some believers who were arguing that in order to become a Christian, one had to keep certain Jewish rites: a kosher meal, observe the Sabbath, and, if male, become circumcised. To Paul’s mind, this was a false gospel, and as such, naturally led to disunion in the church. To divide between clean and unclean food, or between circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles, was to engage in behavior that was unbefitting of anyone who followed Christ—one could call it “antichrist.” To that end, to use one’s “maleness” as a way to command authority over a female should be considered just as antichrist because it literally is the opposite way in which Christ gave himself up for others, women included.
To that end, if we are going to conclude anything about a husband’s supposed “Ephesians 5 authority,” it is this: husbands are to lead in love by laying down their lives—indeed, even their so-called headship—for the sake of their wives. For without a complete self-sacrifice of one’s authority and power, how can one honestly say that they are loving others as Christ loves them? To my mind, and seemingly Paul’s, love and mutual submission are the only way, which is why he, running counter to the commonly held cultural assumption that men are simply in charge of their wives, tells both husbands and wives to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
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