We are studying Ephesians 5:21-33 for Sunday, August 25. God, make speed to save me. [Some questions on the text are here.]

This is one of the most controversial passages in scripture, and I think not only “these days.” The person I know at church who told me “I ripped the book of Ephesians out of my Bible” [because of this text] doesn’t come to our class; and since we are a denomination that settled the matter of women’s ordination a few decades ago, we can probably safely assume that we won’t have to deal with the current egalitarian/complementarian debate personally. But we will have to deal with the text.

Still, I say to my friend about ripping Ephesians out of your copy of the Bible, the problem with that response is, then you lose out on “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before [God] in love,” and on God’s plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things in Christ [and let me tell you, a day will come when that will be the only thing that helps] and on “by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God that no one may boast” and on “the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead” [one of my mom’s favorites] and on “rooted and grounded in love” and on “who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” and on “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” and on “speaking the truth in love” and “be ye kind one to another” and even “the whole armor of God”… that all just seems like way too high a price to pay, even in light of the challenges of chapter 5.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Almost everything about the letter to the Ephesians seems to be difficult.

It’s a disputed Pauline letter, and it is not that difficult to see why, even for someone who doesn’t read Greek. It reads like it was written by someone with a different “voice.” The sentences go on forever, there are lots of unusual words, and there are arguably some new ideas (e.g., “in the heavenly places”). I think I “learned in Seminary” that someone else wrote this letter, and that it is from 80-85 CE, and that the scholarly consensus is fairly strong on the matter, but by no means 100%.

It may not even be entirely clear that Ephesians was written to the early church in Ephesus. Our study Bible points out that it might have been written to the church at Laodicea (which would solve a problem, maybe), or as a circular letter to several churches. It does seem to have been written to a church or churches in Asia Minor.

Based on evidence from the letter itself, the people in this church seem to be having power issues: where does power come from, who has it, how do we tap into it, and how do we use it properly. Hence the preoccupation with matters like the former, pre-Christian service to “the ruler of the powers of the air” (2:2) and our battle “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (6:12). Christ is more powerful than all that.

But in a different way. (For which: see that undisputed Pauline letter to the Philippians. However, the theme of unity – though a lot more as a kind of organic maturity, of “growing up into” – is at least as prominent in Ephesians as it is in Philippians.)

Christianity runs against the grain of the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world, a world obsessed with power, status, and privilege, organized along relentlessly hierarchical principles.

LOL. As if that ancient Greco-Roman world is so different from ours.

Well … it was, in the sense that they apparently didn’t even have the idea that “equality is something we’re supposed to be for,” whether or not we actually are, and would have laughed at that idea. They didn’t have the benefit of a couple of millennia of Christian civilization, which at least officially and at least most of the time proclaims the fundamental spiritual equality of every last single solitary soul. They didn’t have shelves of books on “teamwork” and “collaborative leadership” and “servant leadership” and “quality circles” and all that palaver about listening to everyone from the guy on the line to the CEO. They didn’t have a few hundred years of collective experience of Mayflower Compacts and town hall meetings and something approaching “universal manhood suffrage” and the cultivation of the visceral American reaction of “Who the heck do you think you are, you’re no better than I am” whenever someone makes an elitist gesture. They did not think arrogance was a bad thing.

So, after first thanking God that I do not live in the ancient world, I’m thinking those Ephesians (or whoever they were) did not read this letter the way we do, and could not have. We will probably do well to remember that, though what that will mean for us remains to be seen.

One particular difference between then and now is that most of us don’t normally think of family relationships as “religious obligations.” Yes, we probably think of “how we treat other people,” including the people in our families, as an exercise of our religion. Marriage could even be a sacrament for us (if we weren’t Protestants), and there is that commandment to honor our mothers and fathers. But we don’t typically use the word “piety” to characterize the way we treat other people; we use the word “piety” for things like prayer, Bible study, and going to church. But Roman “piety” (pietas) absolutely included observing propriety in household relationships. That may help us understand why this household code shows up in Ephesians in the first place. It would not have seemed out of place to the ancient audience.

The household codes of the late first century CE day were different from this one in important respects. [Here is one from Aristotle’s Politics, with commentary by Ian Paul. And here is Carolyn Osiek, at Bible Odyssey, on the very idea of “household codes.”]

Our text comes almost at the end of the letter, after a lot of theological interpretation of the Ephesians’ experience. We’re redeemed, and that means: true knowledge, inheritance, real power, and life, and peace and the reconciliation of different groups (like Gentiles, reconciled to the people of God – see 2:11-22). Paul (or perhaps “Paul”) gives an example of what that looks like in a person’s life by noting that he, himself, is a servant of the gospel (3:7 ff), so that what he does and says proceeds from that relationship. That is: Paul himself is a model of the kind of relationship that characterizes the unified Christian community. (We might be tempted to say, “the household of faith.”) Chapter 4 begins a section on practical moral advice for the members of the Christian community: how to behave.

It is hard to get past the feeling that the real unit of text here is 5:15-6:17. We may not want to resist that feeling.

The letter ends with an exhortation to pray in the spirit at all times, to pray for Paul, and with concluding greetings.

CLOSER READING: There is a big fat text critical issue in v21-22, and it is precisely the kind of thing that makes people say things like, in effect, “well, isn’t everything we don’t like in the Bible just there because of ‘translation?’”

[I admit, I felt a lot better about making a deal about this text critical issue once I found out Mike Aubrey at Koine Greek had made a deal out of it, too. That article also links to a fuller discussion of our text of the week.]

And there are translation issues, too.

So, the clunky literal version might be more like this (starting with the last imperative verb, in verse 18):

Don’t be drunk with wine, in which is wastefulness, instead be filled to the brim in [the] Spirit, speaking to each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and instrumentalizing in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks at all times for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to the God and Father, submitting to one another in fear of Christ, the women/wives to their individual husbands/men as to the lord, because [the] husband/man is head of the wife/woman as also Christ head of the church he himself savior of the body, but in the same way the church subjects itself to Christ so also the women/wives to the men/husbands in all things.

This is one of those texts that pointedly reminds us that Greek is not English. Everything we want to do to turn this sentence into English adds words that aren’t there in Greek, or uses pronouns that aren’t there, or whatever. We also might honestly want to ask ourselves whether we should be reading “the lord” or “the Lord” in v22. Everyone seems to want to capitalize that Lord there, and it probably makes sense, but then again pious wives in those days probably did call their husbands kyrios, fairly habitually, so there is a little ambiguity about that.

Then finally in v25 there’s another imperative verb, “love”, the agape kind, addressed to the “men/husbands.” Who may have thought they were being addressed all along.

That is: we could, I think, be forgiven for reading v22 as a clarifying aside in the context of the longer instruction about how to walk carefully as beloved children (5:1) of light rather than darkness (5:8), wisdom rather than unwisdom (5:15). What with all this submitting ourselves to one another, it may have felt like it needed to be made clear that wives would still be submitting themselves to their individual husbands. Rather than, perhaps, submitting themselves to other people’s husbands, which would be one possible misreading, and also, perhaps, rather than getting so radical that husbands would have to be submitting themselves to their wives.

Although, by the time the husbands have gotten done loving the wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, submission might look like the easier job description.

Verses 25-27 focus on Christ’s relationship to the church; Christ loved, and literally handed himself over for the church; the goal was to make the church holy, cleanse the church, and then something like stand the church beside himself (a kind of public display, it seems) – so, “in glory” being a kind of sharing in Christ’s glory – with as spotless a perfection as Christ’s sacrificial lamb-like perfection.

The “holy and blameless” state of the church thus sanctified and cleansed in v27 echoes the “holy and blameless before him in love” of 1:4.

The relevant intertext might be Ezekiel 16:1-14. Along with all the other Hebrew Biblical texts that depict Israel as the bride of YHWH.

[Although there is an interesting article by Holly Carey that argues that another relevant text is Isaiah 59:17, which describes the divine warrior God, and that the author here is arguing for a well-organized and well-armed church, prepared for spiritual warfare, winding up in 6:11-17 with everyone outfitted with the whole armor of God. This seems like a good argument, too.]

In v28, husbands “ought” – literally, “owe it to” their wives – to love them “as their own bodies”. The way Christ loves the church as his own body.

Which might make us think this: that the image of the man/husband being the head of the woman/wife is there to remind us that the head separated from the body is far from lively; the image of a body separated from its head is not any more lively. Life and growth characterize heads that are connected to their bodies, bodies that are connected to their heads.

And now we’re back to “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3) and to growing up in every way into Christ who is the head and the whole organic image of the body being knit together and building itself up in love from 4:15-16.

Because if the family/household is the smallest unit of the community, which would be a commonplace idea in the ancient world, then the way of life of the whole community will have to be taking place, cellularly, there.

Verse 31 cites Genesis 2:24, verse 32 makes this image of “one flesh” an image of Christ and the church, and then verse 33 – more translation questions – seems to say something like “however, accordingly, each one of you love his wife as himself and also the woman/wife so that she may fear the man/husband.” Everyone seems to translate fear in this context as “respect,” which most of us probably prefer, but it is literally that phobia word. Which it was, also, in v21.

Alas. Our potential troubles with this text are of every kind: text, translation, cultural difference, our understanding of scriptural authority and how to acknowledge that authority in specific conflicted contexts, along with the recurrent problems we have with “understanding what this means” – by which we usually mean something like “how do we take this abstract general instruction and use it the right way in widely varying specific circumstances?”

Because Ephesians 5:22, which seems not even quite to say “wives, be subject to your husbands,” though it does seem to mean this, surely does not mean “a married woman must continue to treat her abusive husband as her personal lord, so that if he tells her to go stand outside in the snow barefoot until he tells her to come in, she has to do that, because the Bible, which is to say, God, says so.” Although that could be one example of “being subject to” that we could imagine.

It would be nice to imagine that no Christian or anyhow allegedly Christian husband would ever do anything like that in real life. But I suppose we all know that would be a mistake.

It would also be nice to imagine that no Christian or anyhow allegedly Christian pastors and Biblical interpreters would ever tell a married woman that she would have to do whatever her husband says, including the standing outside barefoot in the snow thing, because of what the Bible says in Ephesians 5:22, and because of what that means about what she has to do to please God and be saved and go to heaven when she dies. Which she might have to do sooner rather than later if she has that kind of husband. I suppose we all know that would be a mistake, too.

So on top of everything else, we have to deal with the history of interpretation.

But what about other, possibly more typical, situations in which “being subject to” or “submission” might come into play?

Is it “submission,” for instance, when after 30 or so years of married life, you have learned not to try to tell the driver of the family car which route to take, even though you yourself hate taking the one the driver always takes and would never do it if you were driving the car yourself? But you just go with it, without making a comment and without saying “I told you so” when that annoying thing happens the way it always happens on this route?

Or is that just, you know … keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?


mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing