The "Submission" of Wives
by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.

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Modern Christians often have an unfortunate tendency to pick up the New Testament and read it without really considering its context in the New Testament and without looking up the Old Testament references. Perhaps one of the most tragic instances of this can be found in the common interpretation of the "submission of wives" text that is found in Ephesians 5. This is a text that has come into the news recently as a result of a modification to the Baptist Faith and Message voted into existence by the Southern Baptist Convention in June, 1998.

The first mistake often made in evangelical circles takes place during the selection of a block of text. Some types of scholarly Bible study divide up a text into blocks called "pericopes" (pronounced per-ic'-o-pees) on the assumption that the text in question actually came from smaller units of text and that such divisions recover the "original" blocks, each of which is best studied in isolation. One may or may not accept such a method in the gospels and some Old Testament texts, but it is absolutely inappropriate in the great majority of the epistles of Paul which were written as complete letters addressed to one or more churches in order to accomplish a particular purpose.

So here is the scenario, practiced again and again by evangelicals today: well intentioned Christians, eager to be obedient to the Word of Truth, are confonted with a snippet of scripture and are expected to say "Amen." There is no room for argument or discussion, they are told, because to do so would be to argue against the plain, literal truth of the Bible. If they have a problem with the intended lesson the snippet is supposed to prove, they are told that their problem is between them and God because any failure to accept the text in the prescribed way is equivalent to "not believing the Bible."

Our Bible editors often help this process along by dividing the text up under captions that appear nowhere in the original manuscripts. In the case of Ephesians 5, the NIV translators have placed a break at Eph. 5:22 and have inserted the caption "Wives and Husbands." So the "submission of wives" passage is taken as Eph. 5:22-28, or perhaps 5:22-39. Now when that text is read in isolation, one can't help but to understand it as saying that wives are to submit to the authority of their husbands as a servant submits to an employer. The fact that such human authority in the church is completely counter to the remainder of Jesus' teachings is not even considered (read, for example, Matthew 20:24-28--or the feet washing of John 13). So the reader is forced to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ upholds the priesthood of the believer, with no human authority over the Christian--except for the case of wives, who are to submit to the authority of their husbands!

But the careful reader of scripture will locate the text in the much broader context of Ephesians. In Eph. 3:14, Paul presents a prayer on behalf of the the saints to which he is writing. In Eph. 4:1 one finds a "Therefore" passage that begins an ethical discussion of how the the saints in that church should behave, turning particularly in Eph. 4:25 to specific guidelines. This discussion is the subject of the entire rest of the letter, in fact, right up to the closing remarks and benediction of Eph. 6:21-24.

The section from Eph. 5:21-6:9 has to do with the question of mutual submission, and, since Paul uses the "one another" phrase there it is clear that the mutual submission he is talking about is within the church--that is, among Christians. One cannot begin to understand Eph. 5:22 without first dealing with the passage that immediately introduces it: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Again, what does that passage say? It speaks of the mutual submission of Christians to one another (that is, among members of the church). So should we not expect that the material that follows to be an example of mutual submission?

Such an understanding of the text also becomes much more obvious when one follows up the Old Testament reference that Paul provides in Eph. 5:31 (Gen. 2:24). This is a reference to the pre-fallen universe--a state in which husbands and wives are to unite as being "naked without shame." The man and women in the garden are painted as being in a full partnership, as if "one flesh" (a single organism). The "nakedness" metaphor has nothing to do with clothing, but has everything to do with complete transparency of relationship, neither partner holding back anything from the other. Decisions were not to be made to benefit individuals, but rather to benefit the union of partners. (Some see in Gen. 2:18 and 2:20 the word "helper," and conclude that a subordination of the woman is intended here. The NIV translation would seem to confirm such an idea, but only because its translators have ignored the Hebrew word in both of these verses that puts the two partners in full correspondence. Check the NRSV, which has the word translated "as his partner").

Once the Genesis passage is taken into consideration, along with the introductory passage of Eph. 5:21, it becomes clear what Paul is trying to do. Husbands and wives are both to practice the kind of mutual submission that is pictured in the "one flesh," Genesis 2 account. Here is how it all comes together:

  • In Eph. 5:22, wives are to submit to husbands as they submit to the Lord. Evidently, the Ephesian wives were using their newfound Christian egalitarianism to boss their husbands around. Paul wants them to stop it! So he tells them to submit to their husbands just as both they and their husbands submit to the Lord.
  • >In Eph. 5:25, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. They have reacted to their assertive wives by failing to love them. Paul wants them to manifest the same, sacrificial love toward their wives as both they and their wives love the Lord.

In either case, mutual submission is required. That is the only way that one can interpret this verse in the face of the Old Testament reference, the "mutual submission" command of Eph. 5:21, and the no-human-authority-over-another-human imperative that characterizes the gospel of Christ.

As we continue reading the rest of Eph. 5-6 (children and parents, slaves and masters), the Christian virtue of mutual submission is applied to two other examples where the behavior of the Ephesians was out of line.

  • Children, evidently, were not submitting to parents, and Paul wanted them to conform not only to the submission of Eph. 5:21, but also to the two Old Testament imparatives that he cites (the Fifth Commandment and Deut 5:16).
  • Slaves were not submitting to their masters (see Paul's extended treatment of this in 1 Cor. 7:17-24: "let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned."). But--and here is where Paul gets outrageously incorrect with respect to the politics of the first century--masters are to submit to slaves!

The fact that the passage from 5:21-6:20 treats three errors in the practice of mutual submission by Ephesian church members makes this fact clear: Paul is not randomly inserting new rules here for husbands/wives, parents/children, and slaves/masters at all! Rather, he is simply taking up the incorrect practices of the Ephesians in these three areas as examples of their failings in the practice of mutual submission.

Another difficulty that the "Submission of Wives" passage presents to us is the "head" metaphor in Eph. 5:21. We use that as a metaphor in our own language and culture to mean "authority," but it would be a serious mistake to jump to the conclusion that the first century culture used it the same way. Hebrew thinking people like Paul understood "head" in several contexts as is evidenced by the Hebrew word for head, which can mean "beginning" (see Gen. 1:1), as well as it can mean "leader." The same meanings appear in the Greek word Paul used here, where "head" tends to mean the starting point from which something radiates outward through the trunk and into the limbs. This idea is expressed again and again in Eph. 3, 4, and 5. God's grace begins in Christ and then moves through Paul and to the church (Eph. 3:7-10). See also Eph. 4:7-16, where the "head" metaphor appears again to indicate Christ as the source of spiritual gifts. So, with this motive developed so strongly in prior chapters, we should not expect to find the "head" metaphor changed to mean "authority" in Chapter 5. It is better to see the "headship" of man over woman in Eph. 5:23 as "source" (remember? the man was the source of woman in Gen. 2:19-23) as Christ is the "source" of the church.

When we interpret the "submissions of wives" passage the wrong way, as Southern Baptists are now obliged to do, we not only distort the "one flesh" marriage that God intends for us, but we also distort the whole gospel by depreciating its mutually submissive character. Remember Genesis 3? In that chapter the women is given a curse for her particpation in the fall--she will experience pain in childbirth and her husband will "rule over her." That is the "fallen" relationship--the kind of marriages that exist outside of the Christian community. But Christ, through his church, means to change that--to reverse the curse and to have the church go back to the conditions before the fall. So Paul is not re-asserting the Gen. 3:16; Rather he is saying that God has removed that judgment through Christ! Christ is the second-Adam through whom the fallenness of Genesis 3 is repaired and God's good judgments are reversed. And it is in God's family--the church--where this is to be done. The same kind of thing took place in Acts 2, at the very birth of the church, where the judgment of Babel is reversed (see the doctrine of God).

Ephesians 5-6 is important because it demands mutual submission within the church (that is, among church members). The deficits among the Ehpesians in this important area are cited--it is likely that Paul would have given a different list of shortcomings had he been writing to another church in another place or time. But this passage is also important because it gives us an important hermeneutic guideline by bringing the Old Testament into this verse. Do you want to know how husbands and wives are to relate? Or how any two humans are to relate? Or how humans and God are to relate? Don't look after the fall, look before the fall! Look in Genesis 2, because that is the way it is in the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God is now. We are to find it in the church.

So should wives submit to their husbands? Yes! Absolutely Yes! But husbands should also submit to their wives! Mutual submission in marriage is not only the proper Christian witness and the way for husbands and wives to be "one flesh." It is also a sure way to keep our marriages out of divorce court!

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