We don't have too many weddings in our parish--an average of three or four a year--but for some reason this year has been especially busy. In the last few weeks, I've had four different couples in premarital counseling. As each wedding draws closer, the couple and I spend our last session discussing the service. The couple's homework (yes, there's homework each time) before that final session is to read all of the appointed lessons and choose together which ones are appropriate for their wedding. As I discuss the possibilities with the couple, I always explain that, they may choose the reading from Ephesians 5, which is a wonderful passage of scripture, but I will preach on that passage, and it takes a little bit longer than 5 or 10 minutes to wrestle with that text on a wedding day.
I've been having that conversation a good deal lately, so Ephesians 5:21-33 has been on my mind a lot, and I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed, and distraught to see that, as we make our way through Ephesians in our Sunday-morning lectionary, the RCL skips that passage entirely! When I noticed that this Sunday we will jump into the "armor of God" bit from Ephesians 6, I scratched my head and thought, "Where did 'Wives be subject to your husbands' go? I thought it was in there?" So I went back and checked the old BCP lectionary, and, sure enough, the epistle lesson for Proper 16, which is this Sunday, is Ephesians 5:21-33. You can compare the RCL and BCP lessons here and here, respectively. As I said earlier this week, I'm not preaching on Sunday, and, if I were, maybe I'd be thankful that we leapfrog over this tough part of the bible, but, from where I sit, I think it's a shame that the preacher isn't invited to tackle this bit of the bible.
In what many would call "shockingly outdated" language, Paul writes, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands." Read those words again. Remember that they are in the bible--the same bible that proclaims "there is neither male nor female," the same bible that declares "God created humankind in his own image...male and female he created them," the same bible that instructs "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." And here's the real question: what do we do with verses like those? How will the church handle them?
We can skip them altogether, which is what the RCL is suggesting we do. Sure, great idea. We'll ignore them--pretend they aren't in there--and trust that people won't worry about that part of the bible. The problem with that, though, is that other preachers are talking about Ephesians 5:21-33, and they are using those verses to subjugate women to the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of misogynistic husbands, relatives, and church leaders. Our silence creates a great vacuum from which there appear to be only two options: accept misogynistic Christianity or reject the Jesus-movement altogether. Surely we have something to say about that, and say it we must.
How do we make sense of Ephesians 5:21-33 in a church that believes in the full inclusion, full participation, and full redemption from oppression of women and their voices in biblical, theological scholarship and leadership? I might not be the best person to ask, but here's what I think.
Some of us might reject this bit of scripture as impossible to transfer from its ancient context into modern culture. That is, some might say that these words of Paul do not and cannot have a place in today's church. They were written at a time when things were fundamentally different and so are not applicable today. We use this hermeneutical approach to read lots of scriptural passages--including the bit about stoning adulterers to death. But I think that's almost as bad as skipping it completely. I think there is good, genuine, gospel hope in these words, and, as reticent as I might be to utter them, I think Ephesians 5:21-33 is an important passage for couples to consider as they prepare for and journey through marriage.
Consider briefly Paul's understanding of the headship of Christ. He likes the body image and repeatedly affixes Jesus as its head. That is the root of the image in these verses: "For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior." Paul makes it clear that no part of the body is indispensable. All are interconnected. Yes, the head takes a role of prominence, but that doesn't mean it's better. Consider 1 Corinthians 12:22-25:
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.I wouldn't conclude from this that the head/man has less honor than the rest of the body/woman, but I would say that this passage shows the headship image used in Paul's understanding of the body of Christ is not about hierarchy as we might initially think.
Going a step further, consider what sort of headship Christ demonstrates in Paul's theology. The exaltation of Christ is principally the product of his humility, as Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-9:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name...The word "therefore" is a strong statement that causally links the sacrificial humiliation of Christ with his exaltation. For me, this is the core of what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:21-33. He isn't commanding wives to submit to their husbands in blind obedience. He is inviting them to identify their role in the wife-husband relationship as one that benefits from the sacrifice of the husband and so participates in the relationship through sacrificial love. As Paul begins the whole passage in verse 21, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."
Paul could have reversed the husband and wife images. He could have started with what he says to the men: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy..." But he didn't. I think that's because he wanted to lead his readers down a path of their own expectations before shocking them with the necessary, egalitarian message of a husband's sacrificial love. To the ancient ear--just as to our own--there isn't much surprise to a male church leader declaring that women should submit themselves to their husbands. That was the "easy" part for Paul's audience to read. But then Paul forces them to go back and read the whole thing again when he pulls the rug out from under their feet by saying that husbands must love their wives sacrificially--even to the point of giving up their lives for the ones they love. "Wait, what did you say?" they might have said to themselves. "Let's go back and read that bit again." And then we're drawn into the fuller, mature understanding of headship, which is to say of humiliated, sacrificial connectivity.
Is Paul a misogynist? I had to write an essay on that in seminary. I concluded the answer was "no," but only because I wanted it to be "no." Since then, I've been married and enjoyed married life for almost a decade. I'm starting to learn what Ephesians 5:21-33 really means. And, trust me, it isn't about misogyny. There is real, egalitarian, gospel-centered love in this passage. Let's not skip it entirely.