wives, husbands & ephesians 5:22
This 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?
P.S. If anyone is interested, here are the vows my wife and I composed for our wedding:
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. 188.8.131.52-5 (Ulpianus libro quadragensimo sexto ad Edictum)
Posted on August 30, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged Complementarian, Egalitarian, Ephesians 5:22, Husbands, Marriage Vows, Submission, Submit, Sydney Anglicans, Wives. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.