An exegetical puzzle in Eph. 5

Posted on March 25, 2008


I have been looking again at Yoder’s Politics of Jesus in preparation for teaching; he writes a chapter on ‘revolutionary submission,’ picking up on the Haustafeln of Eph. 5:21ff., Col. 3:18ff., 1Pet. 2:13ff., &c. He gives cogent reasons for reading these texts as collisions between the radically liberating ethic of Jesus and the patriarchal assumptions of the culture, and so decries both an unthinking assertion of gender equivalence that simply ignores the texts, and a wooden reading that extracts the text from its social context as some timeless normative principle that will guide modern Western egalitarian and nuclear marriages just as effectively as it did the older ones.

Yoder’s point was not particularly exegetical, but it, and the memory of some particularly awful sermons on Christian marriage, sent me back to the texts to look more closely. Let me take Eph. 5 as a case study. Read quickly, the text says ‘wives submit to your husbands; husbands love your wives…’ and the debate in Evangelical circles plays on whether we read this as normative, finding different but complementary gender roles in marriage, or whether we take a more Yoderian reading which stresses the astonishing decision to address a wife (and a child, and a slave) as a morally capable being, and so sees a push towards gender equality in the text which is then, unfortunately, tempered by cultural considerations no longer operative. But if we look carefully at the text, it seems to me that both positions are rather obviously wrong.

As Yoder points out elsewhere, submission is a basic and universal Christian stance. Christians are to submit themselves to the state (Rom. 13:1; 1Pet 2:13); to each other (Eph. 5:21); to God’s law (Rom 8:7); to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3); to God (Jam. 4:7); Christian wives to their husbands (1Pet 3:1); Christian children to their parents (Heb. 12:8); younger Christians to older Christians (1Pet. 5:5); more recent converts to longer-standing converts (1Cor. 16:16)… Equally, love is a basic and universal Christian stance–I won’t give the long list of texts, but ‘love one another’ is a fairly general Christian ethic.

In Ephesians, this point is made very obvious, to anyone without an NIV Bible. The text of Eph. 5:21-22 reads Υποστασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβω Χριστο (22) αἰ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῶ κυρίω (apologies for the lack of iota-subscripts; I’m still struggling with this Greek thing…): ‘Submit to one another out of fear of Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord…’ There is some uncertainty over the reading, and most of the (many) variant texts do put a main verb in v.22, but even so, it is a deliberate and conscious echo of the verb in v.21. (The NIV decision to put a major section break, complete with editorial sub-heading, between v.21 and v.22 is merely bizarre, grammatically impossible on the UBS4/NA27 majority reading, and making no sense of the variants.) Again, the entire parenetic section has begun in vv.1-2 with a mutual and general command to live in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us–language consciously and precisely echoed in v.25, the command to husbands. (Eph. 5:2: καὶ περιπατεῖτε ἐν ἀγάπη καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς καὶ παρέδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν …; Eph. 5:25: Οἱ ἄνδρες ἀγαπᾶτε τὰς γυναῖκας καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χπριστὸς ἠγάπησεν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπὲρ αὐτης.)

The text, then, is a puzzle: every member of the church is to love every other member as Christ first loved, and every member of the church is to submit to every other member. My wife is a member of the same church as I am–a not-uncommon situation, even in Ephesus, or so I presume; we are already under general ethical injunctions here in Ephesians to submit to one another and to love as Christ loved. Why, then, should the same chapter particularise these injunctions on gender lines within the marriage relationship?

Obviously, not because somehow she is to be more submissive to me than I am to her, or because I am to be more loving to her than she is to me; the text will not permit such a reading unless we excise Eph. 5:2 and 21 from the chapter. Every Christian relationship is to be marked by both revolutionary submission and by Christ-like love, not just some marked by one of them for reasons of gender. Nor is it some sort of cultural accommodation: the text is deliberately echoing already-established universal ethical commands, binding in all Christian relationships. Every Christian relationship is to be marked by both revolutionary submission and by Christ-like love, not just some marked by one of them for reasons of culture.

I don’t find this point adequately addressed in the commentators, or at least in those commentators I have consulted; they seem to note the echoes but then ignore the logical implications of them. I have two thoughts, one comfortable and one not. First, I take it that Eph. 5:22-32 is, as v.32 says, primarily about Christ and the church, not about marriage. The particularisation is not ethical, but an attempt to make a Christological/ecclesiological point by drawing an analogy with marriage. Like all analogies, it is inexact, and so there is a need to focus on part, not the whole, of the ethical injunctions made about Christian relationships, including the marriage relationship, in order to make the analogy stand. The asymmetrical relationship described here pictures the relationship of Christ and his church, not that of wife and husband.

Second, and less comfortably, v.33 returns to marriage, and there we do find, finally, an asymmetric injunction placed on the wife, that has previously been placed on the church in its relationship with Christ: the wife’s attitude to her husband, as the church’s to its Lord, is to be one of φόβος (v.33; compare v.21). All the translations duck the point; the word does not mean ‘respect’ at all; it means ‘fear,’ or better ‘utter terror,’ or possibly ‘profound reverence resulting in worship’ (as in ‘God-fearing’).

What to do with this? Remember, perhaps, that ‘perfect love casts out fear…’?

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