I have been privileged to teach an online course for the Hope International University graduate school on the book of Ephesians for the last few years. Ephesians is a wonderful book, filled with some of Paul’s richest theology and powerful words. Each time I teach the course, one of the central points of discussion is Ephesians 5:21. This verse has become a litmus test for a controversy among Evangelical theologians that I will label the “Egalitarian/Complementarian Debate.” Simply put, this debate questions the roles of husbands and wives in the marriage relationship. Egalitarians would argue that there is no biblical basis for anything other than equality between the marriage partners, and that male domination in the family is a leftover relic from cultural and historic patriarchy. Complementarians would hold that men and women are created by God with different, complementary roles, and that strong male leadership is proper and essential for a properly functioning marriage and family. These ideas quickly migrate to other spheres of human activity including church leadership and roles in society. Christian egalitarians, then, believe that they are fighting for the proper, God-intended equality between men and women. Christian complementarians believe that the egalitarian move is at cross purposes with the roles for men and women that the Bible describes, holding that men are created for leadership roles and women for supporting roles.
I hesitate to put this in my category of “Theological Mistake,” although some would cheer me for doing so. I’m going to create a new category of “Theological Disagreement” for this blog, because I don’t think this rises anywhere near the level of heresy, and because I do think that both sides have strong biblical arguments for their position.
Ephesians 5:21 has been an interpretive crux in this for several reasons. Before I discuss these, let me give you the verse from the new NIV (2011):
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
This is an OK translation, but my rendering might be something like this:
Submit to one another by means of the reverent fear of Christ
There are many things we should notice in this verse and its context, but I will limit myself to one in this post.
First we must address the internal literary context question. Is this verse the end of a section (4:17-5:21) or the beginning of a new section (5:21-6:9)? In other words, does it conclude Paul’s section on “Instructions for Christian Living” or begin Paul’s new section on “Instructions for Christian Households”? I am purposely using the NIV’s subheadings here, because the NIV 2011 made a shift from the NIV 1984 at this point. The earlier NIV had placed Ephesians 5:21 as the end of a section on “Living as Children of Light” and not part of the next section, which it labels “Wives and Husbands.” In NIV 2011, Ephesians 5:21 is now the first verse in what have been called the “Household Codes,” the section that is retitled from “Wives and Husbands” to “Instructions for Christian Households.”
You might think this is a silly point, but it makes a huge difference in how the Household Codes of Ephesians are understood. If Paul begins his discussion of the Christian household and its roles with a call to “submit to one another,” that should be seen as the controlling ethic for what follows (Egalitarianism). If, however, it is a concluding statement about Christian behavior in general, we need not necessarily tie it to the roles within the household, especially the roles of husbands and wives (Complementarianism). So, it would not be much of a stretch to say the editors of the NIV switched from a complementarian position in 1984 to an egalitarian position in 2011.
Remember this: section headings in Bible translations are placed there by editors, not Paul or the other biblical authors. In the old manuscripts, there are no breaks or even punctuation marks that indicate 5:21 as the end of a section or the beginning of a new section. This is a matter of interpretation pure and simple, and here is where there may be legitimate disagreement. I would like to suggest that neither position regarding the literary role of 5:21 is completely correct. But right now I am being called to a Trustees Meeting, so that explanation will need to wait until my next post.