Wives be subject; an analogy mistaken – Tuesday, 30th Week in ordinary time – Ephesians 5:21-33
Chapter 5:21- 6:9, the reading of today and tomorrow, focuses on the relationships among members of a household. In both form and content, it has many parallels in early Christian literature especially Colossians 3:18-4:6. Today’s text focuses on husbands and wives; tomorrow we will look at parents (fathers in a special way) and children and finally on slaves and masters. In each of these three relationships there is a call to obedience. In that sense, verse 21, which calls for obedience to one another out of reverence for Christ, can be seen as an introduction to all three groups of people.
These texts may raise eyebrows. Obedience in our day and time sounds servile and there is a tendency to disregarded these texts and in the case of master and slaves, even their context, as belonging to another era. But it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to examine the heart and mind of the author of the Ephesians. Having said that, while obedience is called for, it is not servitude that is demanded. If you study the texts, you will see that for every injunction there is a reciprocal responsibility that is also called for. If wives are called to be subject to their husbands, then husbands are called to love their wives. If children are called to obey their parents, then parents are called not provoke their children. If slaves are to obey their earthly masters, then masters are called to stop threatening them.
So, let’s state the intended intention of this text rather than get lost in the subtext. The author to the Ephesians is concerned primarily with the desire to define the nature of the Church. This is the point that we need to focus on. He says this plainly in verse 32 “this is a great mystery and I am applying it to Christ and the Church. “The Church is subject to Christ; he is the head”. This is the point being mad. In order to express this truth, the author to the Ephesians finds a parallel in the institution of marriage, family and society, borrowing largely from the social behavioral patterns at that time. So, let’s says this again, primarily this is not a teaching on marriage or parenting skills or social emancipation.
Stepping slightly away from the controversy of ‘submission’ but still drawing a lesson from the teaching on marriage, one can see that that the author to the Ephesians has two basic convictions about marriage that he elaborates and this forms the basis of his teaching. Genesis 2:24 declares that with marriage, a husband and wife become one flesh. How do we understand this becoming of ‘one flesh?’ This is seen in verse 28 where he says no one hates one’s body but nourishes and tenderly cares for it. A marriage is a union of two bodies who become one flesh. This one flesh must be nourished and cared. This is what any human being would do with his body. Christ does the same for the Church; he nourishes and cares for the Church. The second conviction that we see presented by the author to the Ephesians regarding a marriage is that he presents the husband as ‘the head’ of this body with a command to love his wife.
The principal idea in all of this is not ‘who is the head of whom’ but how the Church should relate to Christ; he is the head and he nourishes the Church which in turn obeys him. There is no mandate of servitude in a relationship that is being advocated. If the wife is called to be obedient (as an analogy of how we are called to be obedient to Christ) then the husband is also called to love his wife (as Christ loves us). He says this so that one may grasp the relationship that Christ has for the Church (as a husband and wife should) and how Christ is self-sacrificing and sanctifies the Church with his love for her (as a husband and wife should) It is important to see that the text does not intend to limit or down play one over the other in a relationship but calls one to imitate Christ’s love and apply it in a marital relationship.
So, while the text presents a controversial analogy, by our social standards and understanding, that was clearly not the focus of the teaching. Paul wants to reiterate Christ’s lordship over the Church, he wants to remind us to be obedient to Christ and to understand that the obedience we are called to is matched by the love of Christ for us.