Ephesians 5:22-33 and Genesis 2:23-24

We have seen that Eph 5:22-33 reflects a complex matrix of equality and hierarchy, and we have seen that Paul was commanding wives to submit and husbands to love for evangelistic purposes, concluding that while it was normal for Paul it was not normative for all. Does Gen 2:23-24 require us to change our conclusion? It is what Paul quotes in the end of our passage in Ephesians in support of the relationship of Christ and the church. We should consider what it says and how Paul used it, and, if necessary, alter our conclusion.

First of all, does Paul quote Gen 2:23-24 or v. 24 only? It seems that there is enough support for including v. 23. It is fairly attested, and it is used early by Irenaeus. Genesis 2:24 reads, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The text follows a poem, which reads, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . .” (Gen 2:23, NRSV). At this point in the narrative, Adam has now been given a suitable helper, and she was made from his own body. He said this poem, and then the narrative contains the comment found in v. 24. It is making the point that a man becomes one with his wife, so that they are one unit together. While she was produced out of man, man joins with her to create one being. Paul picks up on this joining and applies it to Christ and the church, which is by extension also applied back to marriage. Christ and the church are understood allegorically based on Gen 2:24; the two have become one flesh.

Now, up until Eph 5:31, there is no talk of “flesh,” but only “body.” Paul states that “we are members of [Christ’s] body” (Eph 5:30, NRSV). Without the words of Gen 2:23, there is a swift and abrupt change from “body” to “flesh.” It is interesting that Irenaeus quotes this section with the words of Gen 2:23, giving it an early attestation. If it is original, it could be explained to be taken out either by accident, skipping from autou at the end of v. 30 and picking up at the autou from the end of the longer variant reading, or intentionally, since it could have been used by later Gnostics and editors who were fighting against Gnosticism took it out. That Irenaeus quotes it despite the Gnostic theology that was present during his time strongly indicates that it was original, for he held to it as pre-dating Gnosticism, and, therefore it was part of Scripture. The context permits the inclusion of this longer reading, the argument seems to require it, and it was held by Irenaeus to be part of the text. If we include it, these extra words soften the abrupt change from “body” to “flesh” by transitioning from “body” to “flesh and bones” to “flesh.” The argument without these extra words stands incomplete, for then the quotation of v. 24 seems to be awkwardly inserted.

It seems, then, that we should include the extra words, so that it would read in this way: “. . . because we are members of his body, from his flesh and from his bones. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (italics are the added text; NRSV).

Now what? Paul is arguing that while the wife came from the husband’s own substance originally, the husband and wife become one unit, and therefore, they operate as such. Issues of power and authority are drained from the situation. In marriage, the husband and wife are equals, they are part of the same unit, and they work together. This relationship is understood between Christ and the church as seen in Gen 2:23-24, albeit allegorically. Christ is understood to be the husband in Gen 2:23-24. The church comes from Christ, but then the two are united into one flesh. The emphasis rests on the unity of the two in the one new person. By comparison, as a result of this unity, the husband is required to love, not rule, domineer, or master, his wife, just as Christ cares for the church. This unity between Christ and the church is a mystery according to Paul. It’s not that it is incomprehensible, but rather, it’s a matter of revelation. Even though they are one person, Christ is still the head. However, there is no emphasis given on the authority of the head over the body. Instead, the emphasis is on nurturing and caring for the body on the part of the head. While the husband is the head, by way of analogy, and he is responsible for caring for his wife, the two are joined together in one flesh. In the marital relationship, they are equals, for they are one.

In conclusion, Paul’s use of Gen 2:23-24 supports equality, not hierarchy. But Paul still supported patriarchy. Therefore, even though Paul understood equality or unity in marriage, something else was going on that spurred him on to command wives to submit to their husbands. The biblical understanding for Paul was equality in marriage, but to meet the needs of evangelism, the proclamatory purpose, he commands the wives to submit. He was meeting the needs of particular circumstances. The general, timeless theological principle, however, rests on Gen 2:23-24, which emphasizes unity. And there is yet another timeless principle: evangelistic concerns take precedence over individual rights. When necessary, but not to the detriment of the individual, certain rights ought to be given up if it will benefit the message of the gospel. Even still, Paul’s command for wives to submit must be read alongside of Paul’s command for husbands to love. The two commands go hand-in-hand as a paired effort in the marriage relationship to effectively communicate the proclamation to the rulers and authorities.

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Ephesians 5:22-33: Normal for Paul, But Normative for All?

We have seen thus far that Eph 5:22-33 is a complex matrix of equality and hierarchy. We have also seen that Paul’s instructions to both the wives and the husbands had evangelistic purposes. What it comes down to is whether it is God’s sanctioned pattern for all marriages universally. Was it to be applicable to every situation in all places throughout time, or was it meant solely for the people who originally received the words in the letter? We need to determine if Eph 5:22-33 is normative for everyone. It was, as we have seen, normal for Paul. The people of the Greco-Roman empire held a patriarchal view of marriage and family. Therefore, it makes sense that Paul would reflect such a value system. In this vein we can say that Eph 5:22-33 was normal for Paul. But were his words as Scripture to be interpreted as normative for all?

Paul did not always do as he proclaimed. Given particular circumstances, he would give up certain rights if it was for the advantage of the gospel. In Acts 15, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas win the case that Gentiles are not required to be circumcised in order to be saved. Yet, in Acts 16, Paul circumcised Timothy, given the circumstances. Paul had Timothy give up his right for the sake of the gospel. Paul had priorities and would give up his right for the sake of the gospel if necessary (1 Cor 9). Paul thought love and self-sacrifice should take priority (Phil 1-2). Paul proclaimed certain rights, but then went against what he argued for.

In Ephesians, Paul proclaims that in Christ every member is equal. Paul also emphasizes that the church is responsible for proclaiming God’s diverse wisdom to the rulers and authorities. Husbands and wives both participate in this evangelism. Each of their actions combine to form part of this proclamation. If the wives are proclaiming a completely socially corrosive role by not submitting to their husbands, the gospel would be discredited. Paul acknowledges equality, but, for the sake of the gospel, instructs wives to actively and willfully give up their right and intentionally place themselves under their husbands. But this submission is part of a mutual and reciprocal relationship, where the husbands neither rule nor dominate but love their wives. In marriage, in Christ, it is not about hierarchy, for there is no longer a power struggle, yet on account of love and self-sacrifice and because the gospel is more important, Paul commands the wives to submit. Given the social context, this command was normal. Although it was normal for Paul, I believe it was not normative for all, because Paul was operating off of larger set principles that, given the circumstances, required him to command wives to submit. In other cultures and contexts, the new humanity in Christ might have a different manifestation of the proclamation.

In today’s American culture, family homes are not always seen as patriarchal, and, therefore, it is not necessarily directly applicable for wives to submit to their husbands as Paul commanded, but the underlying theological principle still stands. Christians in America need to learn to submit to each other, especially for the sake of the gospel, which means we may need to give up our rights at times. Maybe Christian wives in America will need to give up their rights and voluntarily submit to their husbands; the way Eph 5:22-33 is applied today will be based on individual circumstances. At the heart of the issue, Christian marriages certainly should not be concerned with who wears the pants in the family, because it is not about decision-making and power anymore, not in Christ, but, instead, Christian marriages and relationships in general are all about proclaiming God’s diverse wisdom, which is our priority over and above our own rights.

What have we concluded? While Eph 5:22-33 is a complex matrix of equality and hierarchy, Paul was making the church’s proclamation the highest priority, so that wives, although they were equal, were commanded to submit to their husbands for the sake of the gospel. We cannot arrive at this conclusion unless we read Scripture and consider the cultural context of the letter. Even still, Paul’s words are counter-cultural, even though they reflect the broader cultural values. Even though Eph 5:22-33 may not be normative for all, we still have some other things to consider, like Paul’s use of Genesis 2:23-24. Perhaps it will tip the scales and require us to say that in all actuality Eph 5:22-33 is to be interpreted as normative for all. But for now, let it be enough to conclude on the evidence provided thus far that it seems like it was not intended to be normative. We will adjust our conclusion, if necessary, according to the evidence that is to come.

Paul, Witness, Empire, and Ephesians 5:22-33

We have stated that Eph 5:22-33 is a complex matrix of hierarchy and equality. We have demonstrated the importance of considering the cultural background. It is not enough to read the words of the text if we are to understand and interpret Scripture, including Paul. He did not write in a vacuum. He was influenced by culture, and he wrote some things that stand in contrast to culture. Therefore, Paul’s words must be interpreted in light of what was going on during his own time in the Greco-Roman Empire.

When we read Paul’s instructions for wives to submit to their husbands even though they are equal, we must ask, “Why?” The same is true for Paul’s instruction for husbands to love, not rule, their wives. What influenced Paul to write such things? It is easy to see why Paul’s words would reflect the general cultural value of his time–patriarchy. Husbands were understood in that culture to be the household rulers. They were in charge of everything, they had ownership of anything in their homes, and this included their wives. However, the reason why Paul gave a counter-cultural set of commands remains to be seen. He did what other ancient household codes did not–he gave wives, children, and slaves a place of moral responsibility and addressed them directly, whereas ancient codes addressed the husband only. In our conversation, wives are seen as equals to their husbands in terms of membership in the body of Christ. Their relationship with each other is directly impacted by their involvement in the body of Christ. In other words, their relationship to Christ has a bearing on their marriage. In a culture where wives were understood to be inferior to their husbands, Paul demonstrates that because of the mysterious administration of the grace of God wives are equal to their husbands. What is troubling is that despite this equality, Paul still echoes the cultural value. Perhaps this is because the Romans had a strong tendency to squash any group or religion that caused disruption in the empire. They were suspicious of small groups as well. If Paul did command wives differently than he did, if he told them to love their husbands but not be subject to their husbands, with the result that Christian wives became known for being unruly, a disruption could have ensued, and the Romans would have likely put an end to Christianity. Another possibility could be that such disruption would at the very least discredit the Christian faith, thus destroying the reception of the gospel in a culture that valued husband leadership. Therefore, Paul was likely permitting this tension between hierarchy and equality for evangelistic reasons. Without it, Christianity would be discredited or even wiped out. As Christian wives, part of their witness or testimony was to put aside their right as equals and voluntarily submit to their husbands. Paul was therefore giving wives a special function in marriage. As Christian husbands, part of their witness was to treat their wives as equals, because that is what they are, and therefore they deserve to be loved. Now the question is this: did God authorize hierarchy for all generations, or was it a result of the times and therefore it no longer applies? We will answer this question later. For now, it should suffice to say that Paul was meeting an evangelistic need by commanding wives to submit and husbands to love.

Paul, the Greco-Roman Empire, and Ephesians 5:22-33

Was Paul a son of his times? The Greco-Roman empire generally held husbands to be the authority of the household, including over his wife. Might Paul be reflecting such a widespread attitude in Eph 5:22-33? The text certainly lends itself towards such an understanding. The phrase, “wives submit to your husbands,” the reference to the husband as the “head,” and the demand for the wife to respect her husband all sound like Paul is reflecting the general Greco-Roman cultural value that husbands are in authority over their wives. However, in comparison, Paul’s commands to both the wives and the husbands were counter-cultural to an extent. To what are we comparing Eph 5:22-33? We are comparing the Ephesian household rules to other ancient household codes. We observe that Paul’s commands to the wives reflect the broader cultural value of the empire, but they also do what the other codes do not, they actually address the wives as responsible moral agents. Furthermore, Paul’s commands to the husband is different, for he does not command the husbands to rule their wives, but rather, to love them. Yes, Paul was a son of his times, and yet, when his commands are read against the backdrop of the other ancient household codes, his patriarchalism is softened and the equality between the husband and wife is strengthened. What we see is a complex matrix of hierarchy and equality. It remains, however, to see or explain why Paul would differ in this way from other ancient household codes. Why does Paul address wives as responsible moral agents? Why does Paul not instruct the husbands to rule their wives, but rather, to love them instead? If they are equals, why did Paul command wives to submit to their husbands? Now is not the time for answering these questions. But what have we gleaned from the current conversation? Paul cannot be understood by reading his words alone. We must understand him in light of his culture. It is part of the hermeneutical task. Any interpretation that fails to take into account the culture Paul lived and wrote within is only partially correct at best.

Equality, Hierarchy, Marriage, and Ephesians 5:22-33

Is it possible to have equality and hierarchy in marriage? The debate that goes on about Eph 5:22-33 rests on hierarchy vs. equality. Complementarians view hierarchy as the biblical understanding for marriage in Eph 5:22-33. Egalitarians view equality as the biblical interpretation. Could both be right to a certain extent? I have stated it before, it seems that Eph 5:22-33 is a complex matrix of complementarian and egalitarian theology. Ephesians 5:22-33 shows both hierarchy and equality. Is it possible to have both? Yes, it is. Look at a soccer team or a basketball team. There is a hierarchy–coach(s), captain(s), player(s). Clearly, not everyone on the team has the same authority, and therefore they are not all equals. Yet, there is equality. If the team wins the championship, everyone on the team wins the same reward. Therefore, we can have hierarchy and equality together. How does this apply to marriage? Perhaps there is a pattern of authority for husbands and wives to follow according to Eph 5:22-33, but at the same time, both are equal members of the body of Christ. Marriage is between two equals in this sense, but it also entails a hierarchical structure. The question is, how will this hierarchy work itself out in the marriage? Will the husband be inconsiderate in decision making, if indeed he is the one making decisions? Will the wife submit to her husband and respect him? Or vice versa? These questions are to be answered at a different time. For now, it is enough to point out that both hierarchy and equality are evident in Eph 5:22-33.

Ephesians 5:22-33, Complementarian or Egalitarian?

When we read Ephesians 5:22-33, are we to understand a complementarian or egalitarian point of view? By complementarian we mean a God ordained marital hierarchy of authority, and by egalitarian we mean a God ordained equality of authority in marriage. These terms are anachronistic, so do not be fooled into thinking that Paul was a complementarian or an egalitarian. But Paul was a son of the times. Husbands throughout the Roman Empire were considered to be the rulers, masters, and authority figures of the wives. Judaism was no less patriarchal. Therefore, in a way, Paul was a complementarian. However, Paul understood a special change that was made for those who become believers. Slaves and masters become equals as Christians, for example; the hierarchy is lost, so that the church is filled with and comprised of equals. So it is with husbands and wives. In this way, Paul was an egalitarian. When we come to terms with marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, are we imposing our own understanding of life, marriage, and theology onto this Scripture when we claim that Paul is either complementarian or egalitarian? Furthermore, do we have to choose between these options? Since they are anachronistic, I think not. Rather, we should do our absolute best to keep our presuppositions on the sidelines and do all that we can to allow Ephesians 5:22-33 to speak on its own, to speak for itself, and to be interpreted in light of the context of the passage, its rhetorical intent within the letter, and the argument of the letter as a whole. It seems that if we are successful at this task, then we will find that Ephesians 5:22-33 is a complex matrix of complementarian and egalitarian theology. In fact, it would be best not to use these terms at all. Instead, we should speak of Ephesians 5:22-33 as demonstrating a blend of subordination and equality. After all, the key theme of its immediate context is willful subordination amongst a group of equals.

Conclusion to Ephesians Sentence by Sentence

It took a long time, but the task has been completed. The series I started a couple of years ago is now done. Ephesians has been translated, explained and applied one sentence at a time. From here, we must go beyond the words themselves and look at the history, the culture, the geography, and the rhetoric. Such things will not be part of this series, but they should be part of our studies.

I am hoping that this series will make it into a book form. In its current first draft form, it runs about 110 pages. It needs to be formatted and edited, with discussion questions, diagrams, and other supplements added, but the major task has been completed.