An old friend of mine, noticing the press the Episcopal Church has been receiving over the approval of Provisional Same-Sex Blessings asked me a question about how I would go about preaching Ephesians 5:22, one of Paul’s famous passages about the place of women.
Eph. 5:22 For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. (CEB)
How you interpret this passage has a lot to do with how you read scripture. The “Common-sense” approach is the default American method of scriptural interpretation. As Mark Knoll writes in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis:
By 1860 a substantial majority of articulate Americans had come to hold a number of corollary beliefs about the Bible-specifically, that besides its religious uses, it also promoted republican political theory, that it was accessible to every sentient person, that it defined the glories of liberty, that it opposed the tyranny of inherited religious authority, that it forecast the providential destiny of the United States, and that it was best interpreted by the common sense of ordinary people. [loc 308, 1]knoll
That last sentence is the part that can be especially problematic in the context we are exploring. While scripture usually has a “plain sense,” it’s a plain sense in the culture of the time in which it is written. "Common Sense" readings of scripture are an attempt to box the Bible into the cultural framework we are comfortable with. For instance, in the context of the theological arguments around the Civil War, “Common Sense” readings of scripture heavily supported the institution of slavery. The entrenched nature of the “peculiar institution” as well as a near universal belief in white superiority (even among abolitionists) made the anti-slavery argument difficult. To quote Knoll again:
(the) nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. … In the culture of the United States, as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed. [loc 647, 1]knoll
Writers on this subject routinely point out that the Christian anti-slavery argument never got a lot of traction until after armed conflict broke out and people needed to make sense of the vast slaughter. The abolitionist argument made sense if you considered the sweep of the Bible towards mutuality and respect, but it could not overcome the entrenched “common sense” interpretation that supported the status quo, as such interpretations invariably do. Yet yesterday’s common sense is today’s folly. You would be hard pressed to find a modern biblical literalist who would support the idea that American slaveholding was a Biblically just institution. This is because a “common sense” interpretation has more to do with us and our context than the Scripture and its Sitz im Leben (That’s Biblical geek speak for the original cultural/historical setting of the passage).
There are two ways to read Ephesians that do this passage a grave injustice. Both of them involve this “common-sense” reading that ignores literary and historical context. One is the “literalist” interpretation that insists that this passage requires a wife to be subordinate to her husband in all things. Feminist theology has rightly criticized this reading as being a tool of repression. A more basic criticism might be that using it in such a way completely ignores the rest of the chapter (see below), as well as assuming that Paul is writing in a universal sense without examining his Sitz im Leben.
A second way to do injustice to this text by a “Common-Sense” reading is to try to judge what Paul is saying by our vantage point, which has been shaped by postmodernism, marxism and feminism. To be condescending to ancient writers because they didn’t have the same default point of view that we as postmodern Americans have is just as destructive as a literalist position and would result in the loss of much of the world’s collected wisdom were it universally applied.
To do justice to Paul, we need to ask the questions of context:
- What is the literary context of this verse? What happens in the letter around it?
- What is the cultural and historical context? What is he saying to HIS culture?
Only after answering these questions can we begin to ask interpretive questions for ourselves. If Paul was saying this to his culture, what might he say if he was writing within ours? Scriptural interpretation in this full sense is not of direct application. Let’s think of this in pseudo-algebraic terms. X would be the application of Galatians for us today. A is the cultural setting of Paul’s time. B is the scripture. C is our cultural setting. A literalist might say that there is no algebra. Scripture is universal and timeless and all you need is a direct correspondence:
B = X
Those of us who believe scripture is the Word of God, but are literary works that bear the imprints of culture and personality would say it is more complex. It’s more like solving the proportion:
A/B = C/X
So if we avoid the so-called “common sense” position (although that’s really a misnomer. It’s not common-sensical to think that Paul’s culture and ours are similar.) and use this approach that is more sensitive to context, what can we say about this passage?
Where does Paul get his position that wives should submit? The Epistles are older than the Gospels, but anything that wound up in the Gospels would be circulating as stories and proverbs of Jesus at the time of Paul. It’s hard to find anything attributed to Jesus that would support such an assertion. In fact, Jesus seems to be surrounded by “uppity” women, such as the Syro-Phonecian woman, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany who don’t seem to know their “proper place” and routinely scandalize the disciples. Did Paul invent all this?
As he would say, “By no means!” There is a long tradition in Greco-Roman and Hellenized Jewish writing (such as Philo and Josephus) of “Household Codes.” These codes lay out how a male head of household should manage his affairs. The Roman head of household (Pater Familias) was an absolute ruler within his domain. The Household Codes instruct a young Pater Familias on how to conduct his household in order to preserve honor and avoid shame in a culture in which such things were paramount for survival. The failure of a householder to abide by these codes could mean ruin and ostracization from the culture for him and his entire family.
When Paul states that wives are to submit, he’s not stating anything new. He’s stating anything that any writer of Household codes in his culture, Roman or Jewish, would agree with. Most members of a household in Ephesus hearing the letter read aloud, be they male or female, would have been nodding at this point. But look at what comes later. This is where Paul goes way off track from a standard household code.
Eph. 5:25 As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. (CEB)
Non-Christian Household codes of the time do not speak of the duties of the Pater Familias to his “subordinates” at all. Paul goes on for six more verses exhorting husbands to show the same respect to their wives as Christ does for the church. Think about that. Paul goes to great pains in his letters to show how much Christ sacrificed for his church. It is an absolute, self-sacrificing love, completely incompatible with the self-centered idea of the householder as absolute monarch.
I think Paul is using the household code as a subversive rhetorical device. He uses some throwaway lines, such as 5:22, to lull the hearers into a receptive state, then hits them with something demanding and new (the rest of the chapter) where women are given the same value as the church. Paul is by no means an egalitarian in our terms, but it’s unfair to criticize him by those terms. To discard Ephesians because Paul does not articulate perfect egalitarianism would be like discarding the Emancipation Proclamation because Lincoln still retained ideas of white superiority. We are all products of our culture, and I have no doubt that some in the future will judge US with harshness.
However, holding up Paul’s writings as scripture does not mean we have to come to it uncritically. Paul’s instructions to wives in Ephesians does not support domineering, abusive gender relationships any more than Peter’s parallel instructions to slaves (1Peter 2:18) supports modern human trafficking. Paul’s culture and assumptions were very different than ours, and our reading of his writings need to reflect that reality. While not a modern egalitarian, Paul’s views of both slavery and the place of women was much more progressive than those of contemporary writers. He was a careful but passionate rebel, and he upset the establishment enough that he was eventually executed for it.
It is for this reason that even though some continue to use Ephesians to repress, I think that if we read it with eyes open to context, we can find an example of someone transforming his world bit by bit for Christ. God’s plan does not happen in one lifetime, or even in a hundred. This is not a failing of God, but a result of human intransigence. As Jesus said to his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come.” (John 16:12–13 CEB)
Those of us who claim to follow Jesus in the church continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit together as we read our scriptures. God can indeed be found in the Bible. There are those that claim that this should be an easy endeavor, and that the Bible reads like some sort of instruction manual. But many of us believe that the Bible is a complicated work that requires study, work, thought, prayers and discussion in community to begin to understand.
Other blogs on this topic:
Rachael Held Evans has an excellent post on this.
A great sermon by Frank Logue.
Related Posts on AskThePriest:
Noll, Mark A., 2006, The Civil War As a Theological Crisis. The University of North Carolina Press.