Wifely Submission within the Rhetorical Context of Ephesians

It is often stated that wives are to submit to their husbands. Appeals are made to Eph 5:22-24 to justify such a statement. This passage of Scripture is interpreted to mean that husbands lead and wives follow, and such is the biblical stance, the God-ordained structure for marriage; deviating from this structure is considered unbiblical and displeasing to the Lord. Although many people believe Eph 5:22-24 solidify the submissive role of wives in a God-ordained marriage relationship, the rhetorical context of Ephesians leads us to interpret this passage differently, so that husbands and wives are seen as equals, in which a power struggle is entirely absent, and together they are striving to fulfill the role of the church–to do good works and to show God’s diverse wisdom, the mystery that is the gospel. We will look at the rhetorical context and see both how Eph 5:22-24 fits and ought to be interpreted with respect to the letter’s rhetoric.

The Letter to the Ephesians is an epideictic piece of rhetoric. As such, it seeks not to deliberate or to prove, but, rather, it seeks to praise. In this case, it seeks to praise God for the deeds he has done through Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity, as explicitly demonstrated in the Church. The deeds are first mentioned in the exordium (Eph 1:3-23) and later expounded and amplified in more detail in the narratio (Eph 2:1-3:21). God has brought his children from death to life, saving them from their sins, seating them with Christ at his right hand in the heavenly places. The moral end of these deeds, established in the narratio, is twofold: for the Church both to do the good deeds God prepared for them to do and to proclaim God’s diverse wisdom to the world. This moral end is expounded and amplified in more detail in the exhortatio (Eph 4:1-6:9). The Church is to be unified, to live according to the new person, to imitate God, and to live wisely. The peroratio (Eph 6:10-20) summarizes the whole of the narratio and the exhortatio, just as the exordium does, but it does so in an eloquently concluding fashion: God continues to do good deeds by providing the armor necessary for overcoming the wiles of the devil, and the armor metaphorically depicted stems from God’s other deeds, the moral end of those deeds, and the exhortations comprising the moral end. Ephesians praises God for what he has done, tells of those deeds and their purpose, proclaims in more details their purpose, and ties it all together in the call to be strengthened by God, use His armor, and withstand the devil.

Wifely submission is part of the Ephesian haustafel (Eph 5:21-6:9), which is part of the fourth section of the exhortatio (Eph 5:15-6:9), which calls the audience to live wisely, making the most of the times, which are evil. Living wisely is stated as not getting drunk with wine but being filled by the Spirit, which entails speaking and singing in hymnody, giving thanks, and submitting to each other (Eph 5:15-21). The haustafel explains what it means to submit to each other. Within this haustafel, there are three pairings: wives-husbands (Eph 5:22-33); children-parents (Eph 6:1-4); and slaves-masters (Eph 6:5-9). The wifely submission is stated first in Eph 5:22-24 and reiterated, albeit with different terms, in Eph 5:33. Submission for the husbands to their wives is redefined as love, for parents to their children it is redefined as nourish and discipline, and for masters to their slaves it is redefined as not threatening. Children are instructed to submit by obeying their parents, and slaves are instructed to submit by obeying their masters. Wives are instructed to submit by fearing or respecting their husbands.

On the surface, the wifely submission appears to solidify the statement that the Lord wants wives to follow their husbands and not the other way around. Let it be known that Eph 5:22 does not explicitly state, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” The verb to submit is absent from Eph 5:22. Indeed, this verse has no verb; it is supplied from Eph 5:21 (middle voice of to submit). As a result, whatever meaning is evident in the preceding verse must be carried over into the next. Ephesians 5:21 calls all believers to submit to each other. Therefore, Eph 5:22-24, provides a mere example of what it means for all believers to submit to each other in the case of the marital relationship, specifically for wives. This submission is substantiated by an appeal to the Christ-Church relationship. Christ is the head of the Church, so the husband is the head of the wife; the Church submits to Christ, so the wife submits to the husband. But things are not always as they seem. The rhetorical composition leads us to a different conclusion than the prima facie interpretation. There are four contextual factors involved: the context of the haustafel; the context of the head analogy as found in both the exordium and the exhortatio; the context of the narratio’s moral goal and its amplification in the exhortatio; and the context of the peroratio.

In the haustafel, both the children and the slaves are instructed to obey. Wives, however, are not. Something is different. Submission is not synonymous with obedience. Furthermore, submission is not merely respecting leadership of a superior. Submission in this context is mutual for all parties, whether children or parents, slaves or masters, or wives or husbands. Within the context of the haustafel, we have to conclude that wifely submission is something different than we might expect. In fact, the terminology changes later. Ephesians 5:33 summarizes the wife-husband pairing within the haustafel. It instructs wives not to submit but to respect or fear their husbands while husbands are instructed to love their wives. This change in vocabulary forces us to interpret the wifely submission differently. Wifely submission entails not obedience, not inferiority, but respect.

It is noteworthy that in the wives-husbands pairing husbands are neither instructed to lead nor to rule, but, rather, they are told to love their wives. Their love is to be modeled after Christ’s love for the Church. Christ loved the Church sacrificially, seeking to cleanse the Church and present her to himself as a holy, blameless, spotless, and glorious being. Additionally, their love for their wives is to be just as it is for their neighbors: “Thusly, husbands ought to love their own wives as they love their own bodies. The one who loves his own wife loves himself” (cf. Eph 5:28; contra. Lev 19:18, “. . . but you will love your neighbor as yourself”). Christ has this very love for the Church. He nourishes and cherishes the Church (Eph 5:29). The author quotes Gen 2:24, which says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will be in one flesh” (Eph 5:31). This one flesh is a great mystery, the gospel, as far as the Christ-Church entity is concerned, but it is reflected in the marital relationship, since both the Church and the wives are reliant upon their heads for growth and nourishment, and Christ and the husbands sacrificially love their bodies. Therefore, wifely submission entails respect but also reliance.

In the exordium, all things are subordinated under Christ’s feet, and Christ is appointed as head over all things in the Church, which is His body (Eph 1:22). Two things are happening here: first, everything in this world is subordinated under Christ (the verb is the active voice for to subordinate, to submit); second, Christ is made the head, and the Church is His body. However, it is the Christ-Church entity that rules over everything in this world. At first glance, it appears that submission is indeed about superiority and it is linked to the head-body metaphor as such. This understanding misses the point. The Church has been caused to sit down with Christ in the heavenly places (cf. Eph 2:6) and therefore shares in the superiority over everything in the world. The metaphor of the head-body is kept separate from this discussion of superiority. Later, in the exhortatio, the Christ-Church relationship is mentioned again, well before the haustafel. Christ is stated to be the head of the Church (Eph 4:15). It is from the head, Christ, that the body, the Church, is fit and brought together in order to grow in love (Eph 5:16). The analogy of the head has nothing to do with superiority; it has everything to do with growth. The Church relies on Christ for growth. In the exordium, the analogy demonstrates that Christ and the Church are a connected entity. In the exhortatio, the analogy demonstrates the Church’s dependence upon Christ within the connected entity for growth. If wives are to model the Church, which depends on Christ for growth, then their submission is done for growth as well.

In the narratio, it is established that the Church is to do good works (Eph 2:10) and to make known God’s diverse wisdom (Eph 3:10). This twofold statement is the moral end of all of God’s deeds. Living wisely, being filled with the Spirit, i.e., submitting, is one of the good works believers within the Church are called to do, and it is one way that believers within the Church can participate in making known God’s diverse wisdom. However, this participation does not mean that it is God’s wisdom for wives to submit and for husbands to lead. On the contrary, wifely submission was one way for wives to participate in the proclaiming of the gospel, which is the mystery. God’s wisdom is not for wives to submit, but for the Church to spread the gospel. The author of Ephesians is giving wives a role in this evangelistic goal.

In the peroratio, the speech is brought to a close. The contents of the narratio and exhortatio are summarized in an elaborate and eloquent series of metaphors. This grand metaphor, the armor of God, is utilized for the purpose of making requests for the author to speak the mystery boldly. The author thus reiterates the twofold moral end of God’s deeds, which is in the background throughout the entire speech–good deeds and evangelism. The author of Ephesians wants to gain the ability to speak boldly and confidently when he attempt to make known the mystery, which is the gospel. This concern is evident in the instruction for wives to submit, for they are participating both in the good deed of submission and making known the mystery.

Given the various literary contexts between the haustafel, exordium, narratio, exhortatio, and peroratio, we can conclude that wifely submission entails respect and reliance, not obedience and inferiority. In fact, wives are seen as equals. The author of Ephesians takes power out of the situation. There is no power struggle. Everyone submits to each other as equals, including wives to their husbands and husbands to their wives. This submission is part of a greater plan to do good and to proclaim the gospel. We have shown that Eph 5:22-33 does not mean husbands lead and wives follow, but instead the letter’s rhetoric disarms such a prima facie reading.

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Ephesians 5:22, Wifely Submission

I have engaged with a commenter at a different blog on wifely submission in Eph 5:22. The author of the post sparking my first comment said,

Men, treat and love  your wife just as Jesus did the church.  (tall order!) and wives, let a man lead out of respect for the Lord.  When you let a man be what God calls him to be and you line up with that who are you submitting to?? THE LORD!

I responded as a matter of conversation that ὑποτάσσω does not mean “lead” or “let lead.” This verb means to submit to, to subject to, to fall in line. A soldier does not let the superior officer lead him or her. No, the soldier finds the place where he or she belongs and takes that position. I do see the point that to submit is in practice to let someone else lead. The issue here is about emphasis. Paul did not say, “Wives let your husbands lead.” The emphasis of what Paul is saying is active submission, actively placing oneself under someone else. To say, “let him lead,” is rather weak, as if to say, “You could lead, but let him do it instead.”

I have already commented on this verse elsewhere. The point here, however, is the force of ὑποτάσσω in Eph 5:22. To understand ὑποτάσσω to mean “let him lead” is incorrect, as it bears a different nuance than what is intended. If Paul intended “let him lead,” he would have used a different word, such as ἐξάγω. Paul, being a male, probably did not share the nuance of the female commenter when he used ὑποτάσσω. Furthermore, the word itself refers to one’s own action and not to the action of the other person. The command is to the wives, not to the husbands. Paul is instructing wives to submit, i.e., to actively place themselves under their husbands. The emphasis is on their own activity. It should not be downplayed or lessened.

Not only here and at the aforementioned blog post, debate on the use of ὑποτάσσω in Eph 5:21-33 continues even among scholars. However, none of the scholars, not even female scholars such as Margaret MacDonald, argue that ὑποτάσσω means “let him lead.” Indeed, she translates it as “be subject to” (Colossians and Ephesians [SP 17; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2008], 326).

External and Internal Considerations for Ephesians 5:22-33

Concerning Eph 5:22-33, we have considered external factors, such as ancient household codes and the Greco-Roman empire, and canonical issues, such as interpretations from Gen 2:23-24 as well as from Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Philippians. Thus far, we have seen that Eph 5:22-33 is a mixed bag containing elements of both equality and hierarchy. Now we must consider internal factors, which, I believe, take precedence over the external. Internally, we will examine the composition of the letter based on ancient rhetorical practices.

The Letter to the Ephesians is repetitive, which reflects the style of ancient Asiatic rhetoric. The letter is also, at the very least, a eulogy, a berakah, or a blessing. The letter has hortatory material, but it is not the main focus of the letter. It is focused on praising God for what he has done, and his work leads to a moral goal for all Christians. Therefore, the letter falls into the class of epideictic rhetoric as it is a letter of praise that considers in many details God’s work and why he is to be praised while also explaining the moral end of God’s work for Christians.

We will look at the Letter to the Ephesians in several segments, allowing each part in the composition and argument of the letter to inform our interpretation of Eph 5:22-33. We will especially focus on how Eph 5:22-33 functions in the letter.

We will examine the exordium (Eph 1:3-23), narratio (Eph 2:1-3:21), exhortatio (4:1-6:9), and peroratio (Eph 4:1-6:20).

Ephesians 5:22-33 and Paul

We stated that hierarchy was normal for Paul. His culture was such that wives were expected to be ruled by their husbands. It was normal for Paul to command wives to submit to their husbands, then, in Eph 5:22-33. We also stated that it was not meant to be normative. As cultures change, the commands change too, but the commands were based on theological principles that do apply to all cultures. But let’s rethink this conclusion by asking some questions.

Was Paul actually attempting to intentionally fulfill an evangelistic purpose by commanding wives to submit? If so, why does he not explicitly mention this intention?

Was Paul aware of the worldview impressed upon him by his surrounding culture, i.e. that wives should be submissive? If so, why does he accept it without questioning it? If so, how does that correlate with his appeal to Scripture, which, even in Gen 2:24, demonstrates hierarchy (albeit implied)?

It seems to me that Paul may have been attempting to fulfill an evangelistic purpose, but not necessarily. Furthermore, why does he give wives a standard role but a rather counter-cultural role for husbands (love, don’t rule)? We simply cannot demonstrate whether Paul was aware of the cultural values that were impressed upon him. However, he did make an appeal to Scripture. The question is, was Paul allowing his worldview to interpret Gen 2:24? I think not. It is pretty clear, even though it is implicit, that Gen 2:24 upholds the passivity of the wife, to an extent. But now the question is, was the author of Genesis merely reflecting the patriarchal culture that he (or she) was living in when writing its text, or was it God’s intentional design from creation for all people universally? This question is difficult.

What are we arriving at? It’s simple: Eph 5:22-33 is a complex matrix of hierarchy and equality. It’s a mixed bag. The evidence bears weight for both sides.

Hold On, Wait a Sec: Ephesians 5:22-33 and Genesis 2:24

We determined that Paul’s use of Gen 2:(23-)24 demonstrates that he was looking at Scripture and seeing the unity of the relationship. Hold on, wait a second. Genesis 2:24 was seen by many to have the passive submission of the wife and active motion of the husband. Implicit in Gen 2:24 is wifely submission. As we have stated before, in this text (Eph 5:22-33) is a complex matrix of hierarchy and equality. Even Gen 2:24 demonstrates this complex matrix, for while the two become one flesh, i.e. they are one unit and are therefore equal partners, there is still a level of submission and a level of action, and the two partners partake in the unity on different levels. It seems that Gen 2:24 in Eph 5:22-33 is emphasizing the unity, for Paul then describes the relationship of the church with Christ as a great mystery (although his statement applies also to marriage). Then Paul says, “Nevertheless, . . .” (5:33). It seems that the development of the argument goes like this:

01) Paul is arguing for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church

02) Paul’s point is that husbands are to take action, for Christ took action and the church received the action

03) Genesis 2:24 demonstrates that the wife receives the action without doing anything (the husband does the work)

04) But despite her passivity, she is still joined with the husband into one flesh

05) This union is a great mystery whether we are looking at the union between husbands and wives or Christ and the church

06) Nevertheless, white they are equal partners, there are still roles to fulfill in marriage: husbands love; wives respect.

Therefore, Paul’s use of Gen 2:24 is not quite how we put it originally. Yes, it places some emphasis on equality, but it does not solve the issue and do away with hierarchy. It demonstrates that we are still dealing with a complex matrix.

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.

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.