This is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love
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BEN: I like the way in your discussion of Ephes. 5.21ff. you point out how Paul is busily renovating the traditional patriarchal orientation of the extended family in his day, not merely baptizing that structure and calling it good. The exposition of ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is helpful, and it shows the direction Paul is pointing the family in. I have a doctoral student who has done a detailed study of Paul’s use of isotes in all its occurrences in Greek literature in that period, and it always means equality, not fairness.
In other words Paul in Colossians is even saying, masters treat your slaves as your equals, and serve them as they serve you. Now this is just as revolutionary as Ephes. 5.21. Unless you see Paul the pastor as starting with the existing household codes and then modifying them in light of the Gospel in a more equitable direction, you’ve missed the thrust of passages like Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6. Would you agree? Paul is not trying to change society directly, but indirectly by changing what happens in the Christian home and house church meetings— right?
PATRICK: Right. I used the title ‘Subversive Love’ to describe what’s going on. It isn’t as if Paul is confronting Greco-Roman culture head-on, I don’t think that’s his primary motive. He’s working out the good news of the gospel within fledging Christian communities in relation to different sets of relationships that commonly appear in the household codes. But he must have been well aware that the implications were revolutionary. The way Christians are to relate to one another necessarily undermines the patriarchal and hierarchical structures of existing household codes. The new communities were to be characterised by mutual submission (5:21) – a profoundly Christian concept. Love, humility, service of others, dying to the self – these are all Christ-like characteristics that all believers are called to.
So when it comes to husbands and wives, it is not as though husbands are somehow exempt from Christian submission! There’s a long history of interpretation that tries hard to separate 5:21 (all submit to one another) and 5:22 (wives submit to husbands). Some Bibles even insert a heading after verse 21 that breaks up the text – which, as you know, is one long sentence in Greek from verses 18-23. Yes, wives are told to submit to husbands (and children / slaves to obey parents / masters), not the other way around. But this is best read not as some Pauline mandate for a timeless ‘gender role’. The apostle is recognising cultural realities of the household codes but subverting them as he calls believers to follow the way of Jesus in whatever social role they happen to find themselves in.
The irony of so much discussion of this text is that it is not really focused on changing the behaviour wives at all – but it IS focused on challenging the behaviour and attitudes of husbands. They are told four times in nine verses to love their wives.
That husbands were to love wives self-sacrificially turns Greco-Roman ideas of status and patronage on their head. He is to treat his wife as he has been treated by his own head (Christ). The husbands ‘headship’ takes the form of loving and caring for his wife as his own body. It’s a subversion of cultural expectations – he nurtures her. He is to treat her as he, the man with all the power and privilege, has been treated.
Unless we get this sense of radical subversion I don’t think we’ve heard this text. And this is where many complementarian readings miss Paul’s gospel edge. They end up reinforcing the very Greco-Roman cultural norms that Paul is busy subverting.