Tough Texts Part 3: Be Subject to One Another

Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33

I led a Bible study recently in which we discussed many of Paul’s letters. Not that Paul needs my endorsement, but I am a great admirer of Paul and his writing. So I had many positive things to say about him. Every time I ventured to say something positive about him, however, a student in the class, who knew her Bible very well, made a point of telling me how she does not like Paul. I would say, “Yes, but have you…” “I do not like Paul.” “But what about…” “I do not like Paul.” “O.K., but what if…” “I do not like Paul.” I do not like him in a box. I do not like him with a fox. I do not like him in a house. I do not like him with a mouse. I do not like him here or there. I do not like him anywhere.

She didn’t say that last part, but she may as well have. And she’s not alone: her feelings toward Paul mirror many people’s feelings, and one large reason for that is because of passages like this one from Ephesians 5:21-33, which includes difficult words like these: “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 savior.” Passages like this one embarrass many Christians today, so much so that a large part of the Church Universal never hears a sermon on this text or hears it read in church. I usually follow the Lectionary, which is an ecumenical calendar of four scripture readings for each Sunday of the Christian year. Preachers like me choose one of these texts to preach on, and in high-church settings all four scriptures are read each Sunday. The Lectionary covers nearly the entire book of Ephesians, but—conveniently—leaves this one out. Then there are those churches who don’t follow the Lectionary but do preach on this passage, and—well… We wouldn’t like what they have to say about wives submitting to their husbands. The premise of this sermon series is, if it’s in the Book, why don’t we talk about it?

When I mentioned that I was preaching on this text, one of you asked, “Can’t we just say that Paul is wrong here? That he is understandably a product of a chauvinistic, patriarchal culture, which treated women like little more than property, so it’s natural that this prejudice would show through from time to time?” Well, yes, I am prepared to say that, as a last resort, if there’s something in Paul that contradicts the spirit of gospel of Jesus Christ, which Paul—at his best—loudly affirms and proclaims; for example, when he says in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

While I’m prepared to say that Paul is merely being a victim of his culture, I would have to be convinced that that’s what is going on. Let’s please first understand what Paul’s saying in context. These words of Paul are part of what was known in the Greco-Roman world as “household codes.” Household codes, which appear also in Colossians and 1 Peter, were a standard feature of letters written by moral teachers. In other words, household codes were conventional; they were a cliché in letter-writing of the first-century. We have clichés in our correspondences today: In a couple thousand years, historians will ponder the meaning of strange expressions like LOL and ROTFL and btw and others I can’t repeat in church. We have smileys and emoticons. So, in using household codes, Paul is taking something very conventional—very cliché—but, I would argue, “baptizing” it in the gospel. We’ll talk about that next but first let’s notice something: The non-Christian version of household codes with which Paul was familiar included instructions to the subordinate members of the household only: wives, children, and slaves. Here’s how you ought to behave. Here, however, Paul spends most of his time giving instructions not to wives but to husbands. What does that mean?

Not only that, when we read the text earlier, we read v. 22 as, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Did you know that that’s not what Paul says in the original Greek? The verb “submit” or “be subject” doesn’t appear in v. 22—rather, in English we carry it over from v. 21. In Greek, verses 21 and 22 together read: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” The “be subject” part is implied, but here’s something incredibly important: The submission Paul asks for in v. 21, he asks of all Christians—both men and women, husbands and wives, married and single. So in v. 22, he isn’t saying anything new to them. By the logic of v. 21, husbands would also submit to their wives. If all of us are to submit to one another, then of course wives submit to husbands—but husbands also submit to wives. It is mutual submission.

What’s Paul up to? Moving on to the next tricky verse: “For the husband is the head of the wife…” Now your alarm bells are going off: See, this is why I don’t like Paul! Talking about how wives are subordinate to husbands! Well, hold on a minute… Anyone in the first century reading the first part of v. 23, “the husband is the head of the wife,” would say, “Of course the husband is the head of the wife! Everyone knows that.” Notice that Paul is not using the imperative here. In other words, he’s not giving a command: “Husbands, be the head of the wife,” as he is in v. 21, “Submit to one another.” In verse 23 Paul is merely stating what would be heard by first-century listeners as an obvious fact of life: a husband is the head of the wife; the husband is dominant in the relationship; the wife is subordinate. But then Paul turns this idea of being the “head” on its head: the husband is the head, “just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is Savior.”

Just as Christ is the head? It would be understandable if husbands in the first century were thinking at this point, “Wait a minute! I’m not so sure I want to be head the same way that Christ is the head.” How exactly is Christ the head of the church? Paul spells it out. And it’s all about loving their wives the way Jesus loves. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus took the form of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet—and remember Peter’s objection: “You’re going to wash my feet, Lord?” Peter knows that Jesus is supposed to be in charge. He’s supposed to have authority over Peter. Peter knows that he should be washing Jesus’ feet! Jesus reversed the roles with his disciples; he reversed the traditional understanding of what it means to be in charge, to have power. And please remember that Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, reversed roles in the most dramatic way of all: He willingly set aside his own interests, his own safety, his own security, his own reputation, his own position, his own well-being in order to die a humiliating and shameful criminal’s death on a cross. And he did so out of love for us we can barely comprehend.

What wouldn’t Jesus do for us out of love? Husbands, are you prepared to love that way? Paul challenges husbands here because he knows that that’s not the way husbands typically love their wives, and he wants them to change!

I hope we already see that the traditional interpretation of this passage is terrible. Among other things, Paul is not saying that when a husband and wife disagree about something, the husband gets to assert his authority to say, “I’m the head, so what I say goes.” Because that would contradict the Christ-like love by which Paul says husbands are to love their wives. Husbands, do you want to be the “head” of your wives? Great! Love the way Jesus loved. That’s a very high standard of love that applies to all of us Christians. And I suspect that for most of us most of the time, loving one another the way Christ loves is still very difficult.

Did you know that, more than anything else, this passage of scripture is a love story? Paul compares the love that unites a husband and wife to the love that unites God and humanity. Because of the love between a man and woman, Paul says, quoting Genesis chapter 2, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Then he says, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” What does that mean? Because of God’s love for world, God the Son, left his Father in heaven, in order to unite with our flesh, to become one with us, his creation—and  [quoting Philippians 2]

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

And as we come to the Lord’s table for Holy Communion now, we come believing that in the bread and wine of this meal, Christ wants to share this great love with you…

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