At Home With Christ
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord”. A preacher addressing this text of scripture in our cultural context is a little like a soldier trying to navigate a safe path across a mine field. Culturally speaking, we are so tightly wound with respect to the topic of gender it is hard to have an honest conversation about it. Another challenge is that this text in Ephesians chapter five has been misread so widely and has been the occasion of so much suffering it is hard to even consider that Paul is saying something helpful. The passage gets written off as the musings of a patriarchal mind with little to say today except as a foil against which to rale.
According to Canadian Council on Learning one of the current educational challenges is the gender gap with respect to boys; boys are falling behind in learning objectives. Is it possible that our current cultural gender pieties—dare I say “cultural doctrines”—have problems as well? I invite you to hear afresh Paul’s counsel with respect to the Christian household; our objective is to hear what he actually did say—then you can reflect on its application.
1. First, it would be important to set the Ephesian text in the context of Paul’s thought. In his letter to the church in Galatia (which letter is traditionally known as the charter of Christian liberty) Paul states without qualification that in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female. Regardless of how any society or any subgroup in a society treats women, in Christ men and women stand on level ground. In Christ there is neither male domination nor female subservience. When the apostle exclaims, "In Christ there is neither male nor female" he is not saying that sexual differentiation has been blurred (men are still men, women still women); he is insisting that in Christ any notion of gender superiority is groundless, false, iniquitous.
The truth is, Paul has been blamed for the social enslavement of women when few people have done as much for their liberation.
2. If you doubt this you need only consider the mindset of ancient Greece. Socrates maintained that being born a woman is divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal. To be sure, Socrates did say that a woman could serve in the armed forces—after all, he argued, a female dog is as useful to a shepherd as a male dog.
Aristotle noticed that a swarm of bees is led by one bee in particular; it has to be a king bee, since males are by nature more fit to command than are females. Aristotle maintained that men show their courage by giving orders, while women show their courage by following orders. In ancient Athens women took no part in public affairs, never appeared with men at meals, never appeared with men on social occasions. The Greek Stoic philosophers who came after Socrates and Aristotle maintained that women are but a distraction and a temptation.
In the Roman era (following the Greek era) a woman was permitted to accompany her husband socially but was still regarded as humanly inferior. In Jewish circles it was little better. While the Hebrew bible depicted many women as heroes (Deborah, Ruth, Rahab) rabbinic teaching (that is, the teaching of the rabbis in contrast to the teaching of scripture) generally devalued women. It was regarded improper for a man to speak to a woman in public, even if she were his wife.
3. Against this backdrop consider how revolutionary Jesus was! Every day he spoke with women in public. They spoke with him. He included women (both married and single) in his band of disciples. They traipsed around with him and supported him. Scandalous behaviour! He permitted a woman (in public, no less) to wipe his feet with her hair; in that society a woman whose hair wasn't tied up was looked upon as a seductress.
Paul certainly knew the gospel accounts of Jesus. Paul certainly knew how revolutionary Jesus had been, and just as certainly he endorsed it. We do not have time in this message to explore what Paul’s letters indicate about the role women played in church leadership. In summary it would be fair to say that the revolution which Jesus launched Paul did not stifle. He practiced what he preached. In Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female.
4. (Dr. Victor Shepherd’s outline of this text) The first thing we must notice is really profound: in Ephesians 5 verse 21 precedes verse 22! The instruction to husbands and wives is preceded by the instruction to everyone, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." THIS IS FOUNDATIONAL. "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ"; this is the foundational statement which controls everything that follows. Mutual subordination, mutual subjection, mutual self-denial is what the gospel requires of every Christian.
Please make this note: "be subject to" does not mean "obey" (as we shall see in a moment). Paul never says that a wife is to obey her husband.
Second, when Paul says that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, domineering males conclude that since Christ is sole, sovereign lord of the church, therefore the husband is sole, sovereign lord of his wife. Not so! Nevertheless, Paul certainly maintains that there is a similarity between Christ's being head of the church and the husband's being head of his wife. There is an aspect to Christ's headship which is the model for the husband's headship. It's clear, isn't it, that our understanding of this passage hinges on our understanding of the meaning of "head" and the meaning of the verb "subject".
In everyday English "head" can mean literally that part of my body which is attached to my neck, or it can mean figuratively chief, boss, director, commander, controller, ruler, governor. The Greek word Paul uses for head is KEPHALE. It literally means that part of the body which is attached to the neck. But KEPHALE never means, even figuratively, chief or ruler or boss. The Greek word which means chief or ruler or boss is ARCHON— and Paul never says that the husband is the ARCHON, ruler or boss, of his wife. Never! He says, figuratively, that the husband is the KEPHALE of his wife.
Then what is the figurative meaning of KEPHALE? Figuratively, KEPHALE means source of being, origin of being; it does NOT mean someone of superior rank. Jesus Christ is head of the church in that he is the source of the church's being, the origin of the church's existence. When Paul says that the husband is head of the wife he has in mind the second creation story in Genesis 2. There the man or husband is spoken of as the source or origin of the woman's existence. In the Genesis chapter 1 man and woman are created together. In the second, however, woman is made from man (from his rib). Man is the source of woman's life. (Paul refers to the second creation story elsewhere in his epistles.) His point here is that she "comes" from him, NOT that the husband is the wife's boss or commander or ruler.
The older testament was first written in Hebrew, later translated into Greek for the benefit of Jews who didn't know Hebrew (most of them). Paul knows Hebrew (he was trained by Rabbi Gamaliel); yet Paul always quotes the Older Testament in Greek, there being little point in quoting it in a language his readers could not understand (Hebrew).
Now the Hebrew word for head is ROSH. Where head (ROSH) has the force of chief, ruler, boss, commander, etc., the Greek O.T. uses ARCHON. Where ROSH has the force of "source of life" or even "example" (a meaning found in military contexts) it customarily uses KEPHALE. Paul speaks of the husband as the KEPHALE of his wife, never as the ARCHON of his wife.
The predominant theme of Ephesians is the unity of Christ and his people. (It is not to be denied that Christ is ruler or sovereign over the church. But this is not the theme of the epistle.) This predominant theme—unity—forms the context of the passage under discussion. Paul emphasizes this unity between husband and wife and between Christ and the church by quoting Genesis 2:24 ("Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh") in Ephesians 5:31-32: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church."
KEPHPALE, "head", is also used figuratively in military contexts to speak of the front-line soldier who is first in line of fire: the shock-troop in World War I who was first over the top, absorbing enemy fire, the G.I. in World War II who was first on the Normandy beach on D-Day. Today we would say the point person. During the 1990 crisis on the reserve in Oka, Quebec an officer of the Canadian Army walked deliberately, purposefully, toward the native barricades telling his armed foes that he and his men were moving down the road, barricades or not. The officer who was out in front incurred the greatest risk. In fact he was defenceless. He was the head soldier. It is precisely in this sense that Paul uses the military analogy of head, KEPHALE. Paul was exceedingly fond of military metaphors. He loved to compare the Christian life to soldiering.
The husband is head of his wife, then, in the sense that he is like that soldier who incurs the greatest vulnerability, the greatest risk, who is most self-forgetful—all for the sake of others. The husband is head of his wife in that he renounces all concern for safety and self-protection for the sake of his wife. Note what Paul says in verse 23: "For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, and is its saviour." To be sure, Jesus Christ is both Saviour and Lord. But the one aspect of Jesus Christ to which Paul refers in this discussion is Christ's saviourhood. As saviour, Jesus renounced all security, safety, self-protection. For the sake of his people, the church, he incurred extraordinary vulnerability. This is what the husband must do for his wife. Remember, the husband is head of his wife not in the sense of ARCHON, ruler, chief, boss, but in the sense of KEPHALE, the soldier who will incur extraordinary risk for the sake of those to whom he has pledged himself.
5. What about the word "subject"? What does it mean? It does not mean "obey". The Greek verb "to obey" is HUPAKOUO. Paul uses it frequently. He maintains for instance, that children are to obey their parents. BUT NOWHERE DOES PAUL SAY THAT A WIFE IS TO OBEY HER HUSBAND. The verb "be subject to" is HUPOTASSO. It means to give of oneself, even to give of oneself sacrificially. It means to renounce oneself, deny oneself, surrender one's rights for the sake of someone else. But it does not mean to lie down in front of a brute and say, "Step on me". Christians recognize that other people—all sorts of other people—have a claim on us. Our spouses therefore have a claim on us too. To be subject to someone is to recognize that that person has a claim on us. The Christian wife recognizes that her husband has a claim on her. He is a needy person; she has resources for helping him. He should be able to count on her help. She must be willing to deny herself for the sake of her needy husband. But this never means "You have licence to abuse me".
The wife is to subject herself to her husband not in the sense of being docile or wimpish or self-deprecating, but rather by recognizing his claim upon her—just as the church subjects itself to Christ and demonstrates its allegiance to him. The wife is to support her husband, do whatever she can to help him, not let him down. And she does this willingly and gladly. But it's not a matter of gritting one's teeth and submitting oneself to a brute. No wife is called to submit to thuggish treatment. Glad self-renunciation has nothing to do with docile self-victimization.
We must be sure to notice that not only does Paul urge wives to subject themselves to their husbands; he also urges husbands to love their wives. "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." The word Paul uses for love, AGAPAO, means self-bestowal, self-giving, at whatever cost. It is the word used in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave...(himself)...". The husband who loves his wife to the point of giving himself up for her is precisely the husband who is not going to brutalize his wife or insist that she remain under his thumb.
6. Too many Christian leaders have read this text of scripture and concluded that Paul taught some kind of family hierarchy when he says nothing of the kind—it is the unity of husband and wife he is underscoring. It is a unity borne of mutually being subject to one another. If there is any leadership for husbands implied then it is in being first to give oneself, first to help, first to subject themselves in self-forgetful love for the other. I have always found Paul’s counsel to love my wife as Christ loved the church a high calling that inspires; it implies that I will regard my wife as my equal being the one I am called to serve and give myself for first among all humans (after Christ, of course).
You will notice that there is always a third person involved in the relationship with husband and wife who is, of course, Christ Jesus. Surely the fact the Jesus gave his life equally for the wife and the husband bespeaks an equality that is fundamental to our humanity. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.