bankrupt Christian traditions, biblical authority, by grace, Christian community, Christian Humility, Christian Misogyny, Christian Submission, Marriage and Friendship, Redemption of Creation, the Christian story, the story of God
If some of this material looks familiar to some of you, this and a post yesterday and one tomorrow are reworkings of three I did in March/April on “Paul and Misogyny.” I am remixing the studies of the three passages (see below) within the Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation framework, with special focus on the creation and new creation themes. The occasion is a “syncroblog,” organized by Rachel Held Evans on Male/Female Mutuality, June 4-10, 2012. On Thursday I am off to serve as a Spiritual Director on a UEC (Cursillo) Weekend and thus the rush to get these three old/new posts out in just three days. Enjoy!
In the first post on male/female mutuality, I used the image of the story of God, told from a height of 30,000 feet to get at the larger narrative, the big picture/story of God. In that first post I maintained that mutuality, not complementarity was intended from the beginning of creation. I wrote that his must then mean: men and women were, from the beginning, charged to reshape creation to suit their human but God-directed purposes together, with leadership in any given situation based on giftedness, not gender. That is mutuality.
Complementarity, by contrast, assumes that in any situation, regardless of the gifts one or another has developed, males normatively assume leadership even if some of the women involved have demonstrated greater giftedness and expertise. To be fair, some proponents of complementarity recognize that in many areas of life women may be in positions of authority over men but such semi-complementarians reserve marriage and church as areas where the scriptures holds that men must exercise authority regardless of giftedness and expertise. Where do they get this idea? Besides some Bible passages discussed elsewhere, there is Paul’s message in Ephesians.
Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord.
If one reads this verse (and that like it in Colossians) outside of both the historical and literary contexts of the verses, one might easily conclude that the Bible supports complementarity. As is often the case with these “problem passages,” there is more story to tell than what shows up in a surface glance at the text.
The first issue is that of literary context (and, as with I Corinthians 14:34-38, sloppy or purposely bad translating). Ephesians 5:22 is the first half of the first couplet of three exemplary comparatives in a short, part-for-the-whole string of ways in which all Christians should be subject to each other. The thesis sentence, the imperative for which the couplets (wives/husbands, children/parents, servants/masters) are exemplary is: 5:21:
Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
Although many translators have tucked this lead verse into a previous paragraph so that it appears as though Paul has begun a new subject which starts with, “Wives, buckle under; that’s what Jesus wants,” when read in the context of verse 21, that can not be the meaning. Verse 22, grammatically, cannot be the beginning of a new subject because it is a dependent statement. Verse 22 is utterly, textually dependent on verse 21. The Greek word, ὑποτάσσω, (hupoSTASsoe) to “arrange (yourselves) under” which is usually translated as “be subject” does not even appear in verse 22; it is borrowed from the thematic verse before it.
While this is important, there is more we need to know about the historical context of this passage and the Colossians passage which is similar to it. In the Greco-Roman culture this sort of writing was called a Household Code. Paul in Colossians and Ephesians (as well as I Peter 3:1-9) bear a striking resemblance to those ancient documents. Rachel Evans has written extensively for today on the comparison of these biblical passages and the ancient household codes, so I will simply echo a summation of her work and that of others. Any resemblance between these passages and the ancient codes is at least superficial. More likely, these biblical parodies of the traditional codes subvert them completely. The Greco-Roman codes left no doubt of who was in charge in any sphere of life: the father. The Christian codes turn issues of authority upside down, making it clear that King Jesus alone is in charge!
Whereas the ancient codes left husbands, fathers and masters firmly in authority, in fact, Ephesians 5:21–6:9 is all about how husbands, wives, children, parents, masters and slaves and everyone else not so named, all ought to all be subject to each other because of their reverence for their Lord. You have to really work hard to make the entire passage mean anything other than mutual voluntary submission of all Christians to each other because of awe and gratitude for what the Lord Jesus has done for them!
For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.
So what is the deal with “headship?” Paul alone discusses it and only in this passage and in I Corinthians 11, (where he writes that women should cover their heads in formal worship settings because their head is the man and the man’s head is Christ and so women should cover their heads for the sake of the angels. Let me say, I am looking forward to reading anything anyone has to say which is of value on the subject of I Corinthians 11.) I will discuss what little I think I understand of the Ephesians passage.
What does it mean in a marriage that the husband is the head of his wife? First of all, what does it mean that anyone is ever the head of someone else? In our culture, “head” means the leader or boss; the decision-maker. In the Greco-Roman world and in the second-temple world of Jewish culture, decisions were not understood to be made with the head but with the heart; the imperative was: “Follow your heart,” not, “Use your head!” The issue of authority, of decision-making, did not figure into headship. The writer of Proverbs 4:23, for instance, knew that all decisions flowed from the deep center of a person which he called the heart [link].
By contrast, “the head” was all about recognition, adornment and sustenance. Persons were recognized by their heads. Both men and women “gussied up” their heads and everyone fed their bodies through their heads. So to be “the head” of something or someone, was to be the identifier, the glory or beauty and the means of that person’s support or sustenance. In those days, most women were known as the wife of so-and-so and it was the husband’s responsibility to care for and work to ensure the success of a marriage and of a household. And so while King Jesus is both the head (identifier, glory-giver and provider) of the church and its lord, the husband is the head of his wife but both submit themselves to the authority (because of wisdom, giftedness and expertise) of the other because of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished for them both. By faith, Jesus is in charge; not the man or the woman, per se.
How is headship relevant now?
Today I am just as frequently introduced as “Karen’s husband” as not and the financial support of many households is now shared by two persons (more is the pity when it is not). However, it could be argued that it still is the responsibility before God of each husband to see to it that his marriage is a whole and healthy relationship before God. Indeed, how better might a man lay down his life for his wife in Christ Jesus than to guard in his own person the integrity of his marriage and to support emotionally as well as in other ways the marriage he has entered into by solemn vow?
Mutuality and New Creation
Again, as we saw with I Corinthians 14, a good translation of Ephesians 5 fits easily within the frame in which males and females exist before God in mutual, co-equal bi-unity, restored by King Jesus as a sign of his coming new creation. Only a careless translation of this passage recommends the continuation of the old creation when and where men are always in authority over women.
How might history throughout the last two millennia been different if we had read the apostle by new-creation light rather than within the spirit of the old way!? Women and men were meant to develop and manage creation carefully and together! As Paul states so beautifully in chapter 11:8-9, men and women are inseparably and dependently linked! Men and women need each others’ energy, creativity, imagination and love in every activity, in all the ministries of created living, even in church!
What a shame! For centuries, men have been denied the wise fellowship of gracious partners in the unfolding of creation. With men in charge, do we wonder at the world’s penchant for war as a primary tool for solving problems? How did the Iroquois Confederation of Native American tribes keep the peace for a thousand years? The Iroquois women’s co-equal council had a veto over war!
If we, today’s disciples, hope to make a contribution to the coming-on-earth-kingdom, let’s start right here; with submitting ourselves to each other, females and males, the leaders and those led, as one people with one great work, together in Christ Jesus. And let’s learn together how to read the Bible as the here-and-coming new creation story, leaving behind the compromised old ways which God once used but has since traded in for more heavenly ways on the earth.
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1 Back to Post See also Glenn Miller on the Roman written moral household codes (http://christianthinktank.com/fem09.html, section 4. Controversial Pauline Passages). Such codes always emphasized complete and unquestioning obedience of all family members and servant/slaves to the paterfamilias. How utterly subversive of “the way [Roman] things are” Paul’s reworking of the Roman code in Ephesians 5 and in the shorter Colossians 3:18–4:1 really was! Outside of its usual military use, “hupoSTASsoe” meant, to voluntarily comply, cooperate, assume a burden or take on responsibility.
2 Back to Post Lest we imagine that Jews of the period were a romantic folk who considered only their emotions when making decisions, in the Jewish scriptures and thus in their worldview, the heart is not first of all the seat of emotion; it is the locus of the will, of ultimate loyalties and commitments; (see Genesis 6:5; Exodus 7:14; Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:16; Proverbs 3:5, 4:23; Ecclesiastes 8:5, 9:1; Isaiah 32:6; Malachi 2:2; Matthew 5:8, 6:21, etc.)