If you’d like to be wildly unpopular at dinner parties or other social events, try bringing up a scripture passage such as Ephesians 5:22-24 without first explaining that you don’t agree with such ideas. This will certainly earn you some immediate “stink eye” as they say in Hawaii, and it may also end up starting a conversation in which words such as “egalitarianism,” “patriarchalism” and lots of other “isms” get thrown around like hot potatoes.
If you’re unfamiliar with this particular passage, it’s the one that says “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Furthermore, it says that wives should submit to their husbands because he [the husband] is the “head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church…” Now, if that sounds like one of those scriptures that’s on the naughty list in contemporary American culture, you’re right. Of course it’s not without good reason that this particular passage is considered potentially sensitive. There are many historic examples of this and similar passages being used both on the personal and institutional levels to support abuses of power, and the continuation of status quo—especially when that status quo happens to be situations of male domination. Indeed, depending on the situation, this may often be the case, as theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has pointed out, the “trajectory [of Ephesians 5:22 and other similar scriptures] Christianizes imperial social and ecclesial (or Church-based…“Ekklesia” is Greek for “Church”) structures.”
Before we begin to investigate the situation with regard to Ephesians 5:22-24, we may want to start by asking ourselves whether a patriarchal society is automatically wrong, and what we mean when we think of a “patriarchal” society. For the most part, our immediate rejection of a patriarchal society stems from the fact that we live in a society that is still under the influence of all that happened in what’s called the Age of Enlightenment in 17th and 18th century Europe. Without getting into too much detail, the cultural development called the Enlightenment is basically where we get our Liberal Democratic social ideals. These ideals are responsible for the priority we place as a society on individualism, equality, personal justice and other such notions. And, while these are certainly good things, there are always drawbacks to societal advancement.
One such drawback is the fact that individualism can be damaging to community development, and foster an unhealthy obsession with the self above concern for others. In addition, some scholars, theologians and philosophers have recently pointed out that the Liberal Democratic ideal of the Age of Enlightenment may not in actual fact be the utopia of equality that it’s usually considered. Furthermore, the liberal societal ideal of “equality” may just be another large, powerful form of discrimination hidden under the guise of “equality.” You may want to pause here and think for a moment how people who disagree with our contemporary ideals of equality and other notions are treated. Are they given the space to hold to their convictions, and to disagree in a civil manner, or are they demonized, smeared and mistreated when they don’t kowtow to the party line?
Of course much can be written about the various effects, both good and bad, that the Enlightenment exerted on our sociopolitical situation, but with regard to our present scripture passage we may want to begin by taking a brief look at some of the ways this passage has been interpreted. Going back at least to Martin Luther in the 16th century, we find scholars starting to refer to this particular section of scripture using the German word “haustafeln.” In the German language, this word stands for “household code” or “household tablet”. While the term haustafeln refers to a larger section of scripture, including parts of Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Peter, our passage is a good example of the overall thrust of these sections. But what is a “household code?” Basically, this refers to the ancient Greek, popular philosophy of family duties based on certain familiar roles. This philosophy was a part of particular Greek philosophical system called “Stoicism.”
“Individualism can be damaging to community development, and foster an unhealthy obsession with the self above concern for others.”
Now, this is where the story starts to get interesting. Scholars since Martin Luther have been busy debating where these household code sections of scripture might have come from. The most popular and widely accepted idea originates from a scholar named Martin Dibelius who lived in the 1800s. Dibelius hypothesized that since the ideas of Jesus were so concerned with the Kingdom of God and mostly spiritual, otherworldly things, that his followers would have needed to come up with a way of living, or a “social-ethic” after he died. According to Dibelius, Christ’s followers (and the writers of the New Testament, including Ephesians) need not look much farther than the popular family codes of the day since these were rather common in Greek society. So, the story goes, that the household code (and the section of text that we are referring to) are basically borrowed from the Greek popular philosophical lexicon of the day. Of course, this does present a problem since it implies that the ethical instruction of the Bible and the church can be borrowed rather than originating with its founder—Jesus. This places Christianity on an interesting footing, since it basically just implies that Jesus was reiterating the core of our liberal social ideals, namely, that Jesus was showing us how to be “fully human” which ends up relativizing the teaching of Jesus so that it’s no longer unique.
But, as the story deepens, we have more problems with this interpretation. Of course, this idea that Jesus really didn’t have a reliable “ethic” or leave behind a way of living for his followers since he was so wildly focused on the end of the world, became entrenched in the minds of scholars since the time of Dibelius in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What this means for us is that many scholars have simply assumed that the household code represents an essentially conservative ethic as our quote from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza pointed out, and that they simply uphold the patriarchal situation of the time when Ephesians was written (again, since the “household codes” were borrowed from popular culture).
Now, if we view the text from the lens of our modern, liberal mindset with all of its notions of equality and individual freedom, these household code passages look pretty suspect. It’s easy to see why those who are working toward the freedom and liberation would want to simply skip over these passages at best, or at worst attack them as upholding a backward social ideal. But is it possible that there is another way to look at these household code passages? Theologians such as John Howard Yoder believe there is. In fact, in his landmark theological work titled The Politics of Jesus, Yoder argues that the household code were indeed revolutionary for their time, if we are willing to see them with fresh eyes and look beyond the basic assumptions of Martin Dibelius which are so prevalent in New Testament scholarship.
John Howard Yoder’s basic premise in his Politics of Jesus is that the household code as presented in the Bible, and especially our passage in Ephesians, represent a kind of third way between simply upholding the patriarchal structures of the day, and an all out violent revolution. Indeed, part of the main thrust of Yoder’s argument is that if we look at the way that the text in Ephesians 5:22 is structured, we see that it is addressed first to the wives, who culturally find themselves in the subordinate position. In addition, the text calls for the wives, in this case those apparently without any power, to submit to the husband who is in the dominant position.
Why is this important? It’s important because it would hardly need to be stressed in such a society that women (also children and slaves) should need to submit since this was completely understood by everyone. Why would the writer of Ephesians feel it necessary to reiterate this? According to Yoder, it was due to the liberating effect of Gospel message. Yoder notes that “for the apostles to encourage slaves and women to be subordinate, there must have been some specific reason for them to have been tempted to behave otherwise.” He further states that “there must have been something in the experience of their becoming Christians, or in their education as new members of the Christian community, or in their experience in the life of that group, which had given to these subjects a vision or a breath of a new kind of dignity and responsibility.”
So, according to Yoder, the Gospel message freed those without power into a new reality, and the writer of Ephesians was calling them to be subordinate for the sake of Christ. Yoder goes further to say that, “the subordinate person becomes a free ethical agent in the act of voluntarily acceding to subordination in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it fatalistically or resentfully.” This point is very important as this mirrors what many other scholars such as G.E. Ladd say of the kingdom message of Christ, namely, that in Christ the kingdom of God is an “already and not yet” reality. This is precisely why we don’t see Christ leading a violent insurrection in order to overthrow the present realm. Christ has inaugurated the kingdom of God, but does not need to force it into place. And that means that the attitude toward positions of unequal power will somewhat remain, however, they have been put on notice of their eventual collapse by the message of Christ.
Now, if the temptation here is to try and simply see the liberating message of the Gospel of Christ as another way of phrasing our basic liberal democratic ideals, another point may help. In a widely known book titled The Moral Vision of the New Testament, critically acclaimed biblical scholar named Richard Hays notes that “the household code of Ephesians articulates a vision for a community whose social relations are impacted by the gospel of Jesus Christ…[but] the vision is not egalitarian, if measured anachronistically by twentieth-century ideals of social equality.” Hays goes on to state that “Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza aptly describes this social order as ‘love patriarchalism.”
As with anything, there is always more to a subject than can be seen on first glance. So it is with this particular issue. Another important dimension to the discussion about the Eph. 5:22-24 text is that the call to submission is reciprocal. Indeed, the husband is called both in verse 21 and verse 25 to submit to the wife. First, verse 21 contains the general call to “submit…to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In addition, verse 25 goes further and calls the husband to “love [his wife] as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Now, due to the scope of this article, I won’t be able to discuss in detail the “Christological” dimension (or relating to the person, nature, and role of Christ) of these passages, but I would like to point out that many scholars also believe this to be a novel approach to the basic assumptions of the day (namely the Greek philosophy of “roles”) wherein the Gospel message once again turns the culture on its head instead of simply endorsing the status quo. The way in which the Christological emphasis of the text accomplishes this, according to some scholars, is that the idea of Christ and the husband laying down their lives for the partner is at complete odds with Greek idea of dignity that was assigned to males in the culture. In other words, it was then, much as it is now, men were “macho” and they didn’t go around laying themselves down for others.
As I mentioned before, the scope of this article prevents anything but a mere surface scan of this issue, but I hope that I have at least furnished you with some new or fresh ways to approach the texts in question. Now, as we part ways, I would like to ask whether the ideas discussed in this short article have spurred you to dive deeper into the word of God, to research more fully the situation discussed or whether you are possibly insulted by what has been presented? I acknowledge that you certainly have the right to feel strongly about this subject one way or another as this certainly is not an easy topic with which to make either meaningful statements or to simply dismiss. Furthermore, I must comment that as a man, this is a difficult subject to write about, and I hope that this article won’t be taken as another attempt at endorsing an unequal power situation. My goal for this article is to present some of the relevant material regarding this subject with the hope that you will take it upon yourself to more fully seek this topic out. In your endeavors I pray that you will be blessed with insight.