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.

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