SCRIPTURE – Ephesians 5:21-33 – Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Husbands, Wives, and Paul
Sept. 9, 2012
I have done 40 weddings in my career. Most of weddings were fun, a few were less than fun. I’ve had nervous grooms, late brides, and drunk best men. I’ve done weddings in people’s houses, in our church courtyard, in a city park and in a posh downtown Chicago hotel. Every wedding I’ve done has been different, except for one thing. In all of those 40 weddings, not once has either the bride or the groom asked to have the word “obey” in their vows.
I’m not actually sure where the tradition started of including “obey” in the vows. A lot of people blame Paul for that. Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul deserves the blame for a lot of things, but this is not one of them. Nowhere does Paul say wives must obey their husbands, although he does say slaves should obey their masters and – listen up, kids! – children should obey their parents. But wives obeying their husbands? Paul didn’t say it. What he did say may actually be even more controversial.
We finish up our sermon series on Paul this morning by looking at his words for husbands and wives. The last few weeks we’ve been dealing with the problem of Paul by looking at what he had to say about women and about slavery, trying to figure out what in the world we do with these troubling passages and how we transport them from his very different time and culture, across the bridge of interpretation, and intp our time and culture. In order for us to fully understand Paul’s words, we have to be willing to go back across the bridge and first hear their words in his context and culture, not just in ours.
This is certainly true of our passage today. While Paul’s words are directed to wives and husbands, I believe the conclusions I’ll be drawing are applicable to all of our relationships. Whether you’re single, widowed, divorced, or married, there is something to take away here. So while Paul’s words may sound exclusive at first, there is a truth here for all of us.
Marriage is hard work. It takes stamina, endurance, and the ability to compromise…and that’s just planning the wedding! When you attempt to take two individual lives and weave them together into one, you are bound to run into a few snags. That was as true in Paul’s time as it is in ours, which is why we have Paul’s instructions on marriage.
“Wives, be subject to your husbands.” Other translations say “Submit to your husbands” or the more troubling “be submissive to your husbands.” The translator of The Message, who is a man, says, “Wives, understand and support your husbands,” which is his way of tempering the original language and making sure he didn’t have to sleep on the couch when his book came out. No matter how your try to soften or modernize it, Paul’s words definitely carry a hierarchical assumption, that the man is the head of the household.
That may chafe us a bit, but remember, we have to travel back across the bridge to view marriage in Paul’s time. Back then, there were certain unwritten rules about how a household was managed, which were known as household codes. Bullet point no. 1 of that code was that the man was the head of the household, the CEO of the family. Paul never puts down the value or intelligence of women, but he does presume this household hierarchy that was universally accepted in his day. The man was the authority of the house, and women were expected to operate within this understanding.
Initially, it sounds as if Paul is reinforcing this hierarchy with his instructions, and in a way, he is. But if we resist the temptation to take these words out of context and read them within their surroundings, we’ll discover Paul has a much more important agenda here, and it is one that is so radical and revolutionary it would completely redefine the understanding of a relationship between a husband and wife.
For example, Paul starts out by saying, “Submit to each other,” setting up his redefinition of the traditionally hierarchical relationship. He then spends three verses restating the household code, but infusing it with a spiritual understanding. Then, Paul turns to the husbands and offers them some instructions. He spends three verses talking to the women and nine verses talking to the men. It’s like when one of your kids acts up, but you talk to both of them so as not to single one of them out. Paul is talking to both wives and husbands here, but the real meat of what he’s saying is not for the women. It’s for the men.
What Paul does say to the wives is to “submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” That last part is sometimes omitted, but it is crucial to our understanding of Paul’s words. Submission to Christ was one of Paul’s most important aspects of Christianity. Submission simply means to give ourselves over to the other person, to serve them with all our hearts. It’s the same model Paul sets for himself when he identifies himself as a “servant of Christ.”
What this understanding of submission does is situate Paul’s comments to wives in the larger context of his theology, where service, obedience, and self-sacrifice were required for both men and women. This is not culturally enforced submission; this is not erasing your entire self-worth and identity. With Paul, submission is transformed from societal expectation to a mark of faith. Christ submitted his will to God, and we’re called to do the same. If we are genuinely concerned for the happiness of our spouse, our submission to them is a natural part of that, for the man or the woman.
So let’s turn to Paul’s words for the men. In the Greco-Roman culture, there were no limits placed on husbands and their authority. No one told them how to treat their wives, and there were rarely any repercussions for mistreatment, so we can only imagine the types of abuse and degradation that took place. The woman’s role in the marriage was primarily that of breeder so that the man could pass on his legacy to his male children. There was nothing that called for respect or love or protection for the wife.
So do you see what’s so radical about what Paul says? Paul’s words turn all of those unwritten societal laws on their ears. And yet, his words fit in perfectly with our understanding of Christian values. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The word Paul uses for love here is “agape,” which is a selfless, sacrificial kind of love. Paul says, “Husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies,” and “he who loves his wife loves himself.” The authority Paul is giving husbands here is not based on domineering or intimidation; it’s based on sacrificial love. In other words, husbands should look at how they treat their wives and then stop and ask themselves, “Is this how I want to be treated? Is this how I want to be loved?”
As we try to bring Paul’s words across the bridge, here’s what we have: (1) husbands, be willing to sacrifice everything for your wife; (2) husbands, make your wife’s well-being your primary importance, and (3) husbands, care for your wife as you care for your own body. No early Christian wife would fear submitting to a husband who treats her this way, because this represents service and submission on the husband’s part, as well.
I believe the reason this passage has caused women so much pain is not Paul’s words, but how they’ve been misused. These words are sometimes brandished as a weapon to force women to submit to their husbands no matter what “because it’s in the Bible.” But Paul doesn’t say “no matter what” here. Submission does not mean becoming a doormat to be stepped on. Paul states very clearly that a husband’s authority should mirror Christ’s authority. Paul is not requiring wives to accept degrading or harmful forms of submission, and verbal and physical abuse are not in any way on Paul’s radar screen of what a husband’s authority should be. Paul calls for submission out of love, not out of fear, and any exercising of harmful authority would go directly against what Paul is saying here and is extremely un-biblical. I believe that’s true for any kind of relationship we’re in, be it a friendship, family relationship, or marriage.
When this passage has been misused, and that’s happened way too much in churches down through the years, it’s an example of taking one or two verses out of its context and applying them to a certain advantage. Of course domineering husbands are going to quote Paul’s instructions to wives, and of course they’re going to leave out his nine verses to husbands! But we have to take them together, because to understand one set of instructions, you have to understand the other. They cannot be separated.
The wisest thing Paul says in this passage may be in v. 32, when he says, “This is a profound mystery.” Yes it is! Any kind of relationship is a complex bundle of emotions and commitments and competing agendas. But if we follow Paul’s instructions, we can become more Christ-like in how we treat each other. A wise person once said that more couples would celebrate their golden anniversary if they first followed the Golden Rule. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. Husbands love your wives as much as you love yourselves. And in all things, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. That’s one instruction it would do all of us well to obey.