Wives, submit to your husbands (2)

A couple of posts back there was a promise to come back to Ephesians 5:21-33 and look at it from a different interpretative angle – that of Cynthia Long Westfall.

I invite you to read this and compare to the earlier post on John Stott’s interpretation. Which do you find most convincing and why?

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Her book has been out a couple of years. You can listen to an interview with her here at the excellent OnScript website – a sort of biblical research podcast treasure trove.

Her big argument is that Paul is subverting male privilege in home and church. The focus of the text is clearly on husbands. Paul is teaching them what life within God’s economy looks like within a Greco-Roman culture of male patronage, power and superiority.

In the context of Paul’s day, the basic patronage relationship was reflected within the marital relationship. The husband is superior in power, status, honour and value. The wife receives the benefits of his standing and in return offers him respect, chastity, obedience and loyalty.

It is this patronage relationship that is being reimagined (subverted) by Paul in light of Christ. A radically new way of relating between husbands and wives is in view. It, of course, still operates within the given culture of his recipients – Paul famously does not directly confront slavery, nor does he advocate social revolution in terms of marriage.

Interpretations that focus on wives’ submission and the analogy of the husband to Christ (verse 23) without proper regard to the grammar and syntax of Paul’s thought act to distort his message and propagate a false view of (male) authority. (p. 93).

To summarise from various places that Westfall discusses the Ephesians text:

  • The passage as a whole is an example of what it is to be filled with the Spirit (v.18 -23 is one long sentence in Greek). [I would argue that the even bigger context is to ‘walk in love’ (5:2) that frames much of Ephesians as a whole].
  • This is the way of life for all Christians – male or female. Jew or Gentile.
  • ALL believers are to be in mutual submission v. 21
  • This is then applied to the Household Codes and husbands / wives, parents / children and masters / slaves. The radical implication is that in Christ there are new relationships now formed, cutting across existing authority and power structures. Each ‘weaker’ group are now, together with the powerful group, ‘all members of one body’ – the body of Christ (v. 30).
  • Each weaker group are addressed personally, recognising their agency. Normally they would not be addressed at all. Their obligation is primarily to the Lord in how they relate to those in power over them.
  • Paul places particular obligations and restrictions on the groups in power.
  • With husbands, Christ’s treatment of his bride, the Church, informs the husband’s function as head of his wife (p. 93)
  • The remarkable ‘twist’ is how the husband takes the role of Christ’s bride and ‘is therefore charged with treating his wife as he has been treated by his own head.’ (p. 93).
  • As Christ is saviour (23) who gave himself up for her (25, the church), so the husband is instructed to lay down his life for his wife. And love her as Christ loved the church (25)
  • Christ’s love is illustrated by his sanctification of the church (5:26-27)

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

  • These are images of domestic chores performed by women:
    • giving a bath
    • providing clothing
    • doing laundry
  • So the husband is being told to do women’s work in how he cares for his wife. The point is fully with the teaching of Paul elsewhere and, more importantly, of Jesus himself. Those in power are to become humble servants of others

He promotes a model of servanthood and low status, consistent with the humility of Christ’s incarnation, precisely for men, who have power and position in the Greco-Roman social system. (p. 23).

  • There is little new being said to wives – they are to submit as expected within the culture. But this submission is drastically relativised by mutual submission of verse 21. It consists of honouring and respecting her husband.
  • But her identity and status is transformed by the commands given to husbands. Those commands are the core of the text and they are anything but what was expected within the culture – they are revolutionary (p. 102)
  • So Paul is placing new and challenging obligations on those who have power (husbands), NOT to defend their own status and authority, but to give up privilege and status and serve the other in love.

[My comment – This is where interpretations that end up defending male ‘headship = leadership’ and insisting on female submission to that ‘authority’ tragically actually reverse the thrust of Paul’s upside-down kingdom ethic].

  • The wonderful irony of this passage is how men are being told to act like women – in terms of ‘low status’ service of the weaker other.
  • This is a profoundly ‘Christian’ calling.
  • She is now honoured just as if she were his body – he is to treat her exactly as if she were a man (his body) – in terms of honouring her, loving her and serving her.

So what of ‘headship’?  Does the Genesis account that Paul references, somehow root female submission in a creation ordinance (as John Stott says and complementarians in general claim)?

  • Genesis 2:18-22 is the basis for the instructions to wives – the woman is created from the man. She receives life from him
  • The instructions to men are based on Genesis 2:23-25 – where the husband and wife are declared to be ‘one flesh’
  • Both ‘head’ and ‘body’ are metaphors [to press ‘head’ to mean ‘leadership’ is unwarranted and distorts Paul’s argument]
  • ‘Head’ – the wife receives life from her head. The metaphor works perfectly. The woman in Ephesians draws her life from man, and the Church draws its life from Christ. This is not an image of authority but of life.  ‘She reciprocates in gratitude and honour expressed in submission.’ (p. 102)

The primary focus in the Ephesian household code is on the husband’s role. The language both reflects the model of Jesus’s servanthood and exploits the metaphor of ‘head’ to create a similar effect as in the episode where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. (p. 165)

And this to finish.

In effect, Paul flips the patron metaphor of being the wife’s head (protector and source of life) … He has given an explicit application of Jesus’s summary of the law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12 NRSV). Paul applies Jesus’s teaching literally to the men: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28 NRSV). Paul’s caveat is that she is his body. The intertextuality between Ephesians 5:28 and the Jesus tradition is transparent. (p. 166).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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