I would like to finish this discussion on “mutual submission” from Ephesians 5:21 in this post. Let me summarize where we are. I believe that Ephesians 5:21 is in the middle of a section that starts in 5:1. We could even see this section beginning with 4:17 where Paul begins to talk about personal behavior under the theme of “you cannot live like the Gentiles do any longer,” but I think 5:1 is a pivot point for his argument. We could characterize the theme of this section by lifting a snippet from the first part:
[W]alk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us … (from 5:2)
This is a present imperative, so it has the sense of continuation rather than a one-time command. Walking in Christ-like love is the ongoing lifestyle principle of the Christian. I think the theme of this entire section, which ends at 6:9, is Paul’s discussion of what it means to walk in Christ-like love. Ephesians 5:21, then, is neither the end of a section nor the beginning of a new section. It fits into the entire discussion in specific way. If I were to do a rough outline, it might look like this:
|Walk in Christlike love (major theme of 5:1-6:9)|
|(Several points in 5:2-17 I won’t outline)|
|Don’t be drunk with wine. Instead, be filled with the Spirit (5:18-6:9)|
|Sing to one another (5:19)|
|Sing in your own heart to the Lord (5:19)|
|Give thanks to God for everything (5:20)|
|Submit yourselves to one another out of respect for Christ (5:21-6:7)|
|Masters of Slaves (6:9)|
I’m not going to ignore the elephant-in-the-room text here, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (5:22), but let me put this in context. Paul’s expectation of the wife submitting to the husband is qualified in three ways. First, it is within the immediate context of mutual submission from 5:21. Second, it is within the larger context of being filled with the Spirit from 5:18. Third, the even larger circle of context is the idea of walking in Christ-like love from 5:1-2. This diagram might help:
Now here’s the rub: all six of the parties addressed in the household codes could be put in that center circle. Paul’s instruction to each is a little different:
- Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as you do to the Lord.
- Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.
- Children, obey your parents in the Lord.
- Fathers, do not exasperate your children.
- Slaves, obey your masters.
- Masters, treat your slaves with respect.
All of these fall under the categories of Christ-like love for others, being filled with the Spirit, and submitting ourselves to one another.
So here is what I want to take away from all of this. I don’t think Paul is addressing the nature of the husband/wife relationship here either as a reformer or as a supporter of the status quo. Here’s why. Any argument based on this text that it is God’s plan that wives be dominated in the marriage by the husband as God’s plan or created order must accept that the master/slave relationship is also intended and approved by God. If we want to be consistent, using this text to justify the marriage pattern from the ancient world (husband domination) leads us to legitimize slavery. Some may be OK with that, but I am not.
I think that Paul is presenting this material to help his readers understand a new reality in their lives. They must answer this question: what is it like to treat the members of their household as brothers and sisters in Christ? The wife/husband roles were well defined in the Gentile households and the Jewish households of Paul’s day, and Paul is not challenging the general structure. But he is saying to wives: treat your husbands like your Christian brothers, not your antagonists. And he is saying to husbands: treat your wives like Christian sisters, not your servants. Love and respect each other, because each individual in your household from father/husband to slave is a valued person in God’s, eyes, a person whom Christ loved enough to give his life (5:2).
Bottom line: if you want to make a case for family structure as a divine creation with the husband/father at the head, find another text.