An exegetical puzzle in Eph. 5

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…’?


  1. Alastair
    Mar 26, 2008

    Have you read Badiou’s treatment of such passages in chapter 10 (Universality and the Traversal of Differences) of Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism? The movement that gives rise to the Pauline traversing of all differences, gives priority to some over others: to the Jew over Gentiles and, arguably, to the man over the woman. What Paul opposes is any attempt to ‘submit postevental universality’ to such particular differences.

    I suspect that Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, slave and free and male and female has a far deeper relationship with his eschatology than most seem to acknowledge. Man has a temporal priority over the woman in Pauline theology. However, as the protological sex, man is incapable of bringing about glory. The woman is the (eschatological) glory of the man (1 Corinthians 11:7). Perhaps this is part of the underlying logic of Paul’s confusing argument in 1 Corinthians 11: the veiling or covering of the woman in worship has to do with unrealized eschatology. When the time has come for the glory of man to be revealed the woman will be unveiled as such. There is no veil that will not be removed.

    Much as the glory of Israel is the bringing in of the Gentiles, the man is glorified by the woman (as Christ’s glory is bound up with his Spiritual union with the church as his bride). God separates in order to reunite in more perfect union. The man is separated from the flesh from his own side in order to lead to the more glorious union of marriage. Abraham is separated from the nations in order that the nations might ultimately, through the salvation that comes from the Jews, be brought into the more glorious unity of the body of Christ.

    In terms of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology, in the Spirit there is neither Jew nor Greek, male and female; whatever differences remain grant no priority to either party, nor constitute division between them (and, yes, we could do with a lot more of such inaugurated eschatology in the church!). However, in terms of the ‘evental site,’ a priority is given to men and Jews in the movement by which differences are traversed.

    Perhaps the asymmetry that you observe is the result of the necessarily differentiated manner in which universality is constructed (to employ Badiou’s terminology). Were there to be pure symmetry here we would not have a genuine traversal of differences (just an ignoring of them – and consequently of the historical subject), as the differentiated ways in which the universal is constructed is the very manner in which differences are transcended. It is right that Jews lead the way into the new order of the Church, although they do not retain their priority within it.

  2. Phil Smoke
    Mar 27, 2008

    For subscript iotas, if you’re using the standard Windows polytonic Greek keyboard, you hit shift + [ and then the vowel. Or to combine the subscript iota with other diacritics, you hit the right alt key + the keys needed for the other diacritics. I muddle through this and other issues with typing Greek here. I hope that helps!

  3. Wesley
    Jan 6, 2011

    Steve –
    decided to find some other posts of your on gender to get a fuller picture of where you’re coming from on the issue. given that there are sundry commands throughout Scripture on submission and love for one another, is it even possible in your thinking that Paul had gender differences in mind when he addressed husbands and wives specifically? Consider, the curse of Gen. 3 on the man and the woman – do you imagine that those curses, though given to men and women spereately are trans-gender? Could ther Bible command a wife specifically to “submit to her husband as to the Lord’ b/c her part of the curse was that her “desire” would be for her husband (same word used in Gen 4 for the devil’s desire to devour) and she would, thus, need this command to war against what the curse had placed on all women? And to the man, as the curse told him that even as he loved and worked creation, it would fight and war against him, he would need the specific command to servant leadership and to give himself to his wife (even as she would war against him as well) in Christ like love even as He gave himself for us? Surely, as you said at the end, “perfect love” viz. the love of Christ, would cast out her “fear” that instead of loving her he would seek to rule over her. Just a thoght.

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