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.