Yesterday, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from Rebecca Laughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion addressing Ephesians 5.22ff and the idea of women submitted to their husbands. Laughlin’s premise is that “Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not in gendered psychology but Christ-centered theology.” As a result, “Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of ‘traditional’ gender roles that have often amounted to privileging men and patronizing women.”
Insofar as the article represents Laughlin’s work, I want whole-heartedly support the direction of Laughlin’s interprets of Ephesians 5. The Roman world was a highly patriarchal society that placed a large amount of power and responsibility upon men and an emphasis on manliness, although it is not a perfect match with modern, Western visions of masculinity. In instructing husbands to love their wife as Christ loved and gave himself for the the church, Paul is making an implicit echo to the narrative traditions of Jesus who was a servant of humanity. While Paul could not have directly told husbands to be a servant of the wife as this would have deeply offended the sensibilities of Roman masculinity, calling them to act as Christ would be calling them to adopt the behaviors and attitudes of a servant.
However, I want to push our understanding of Paul’s instructions a bit further. It is important to keep in that Paul’s instructions to the wives in v. 22 did not include the verb for submit, but rather ὑποτάσσω is in v. 21 when Paul instructs the whole church to submit to each other. Through ellipsis, Paul’s instruction towards wives assumes this action of submission mentioned in the previous. Now, some have taken this as a basis to understand Paul instructing both men and women to be in mutual submission; if Paul calls the church to submit to each other and the wife is to submit each other, then does not also Paul consider the husband needing to submit to his wife. While I want to affirm the sentiment trying to be expressed in this interpretation and agree with the egalitarian values being sought, I would suggest that it is actually not a good interpretation of what Paul says towards husbands.
Rather than trying to suggest that Paul is teaching the idea of “mutual submission,” I am putting forward the idea that we need to shift what type of authority we are thinking and speaking of when we hear the word “submission.” We often hear the word submission against the background of a authoritarian hierarchy of command: the one who is in submission does anything and everything that the one with authority commands. I would push back against this interpretation in favor of a different type of authority: a pedagogical authority of learning. In short, it is perhaps best to state that Paul calling for the relationship between husband and wife should be formed in a Christ-centered manner where the husband takes on the role of the wise, sagacious teacher and the wife submits as a form of discipleship and learning.
We can begin to see this by digging a little deeper into what Paul means by “submission” in Ephesians 5. When he instructs the whole church to submit to each other, it comes on the heels of his casting the vision for their worship in 5.17-21:
So do not be foolish, but comprehend (συνίετε) what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NRSV except text in bolded font)
Here, Paul encourages believers to push towards comprehension of God’s will and then provides three instructions that can be placed within the setting of worship: (1) being filling with the Holy Spirit, (2) musical worship, and (3) thanksgiving. While we might be inclined to see the enouragement to be filled with the Spirit as some sort of moment of experiential or ecstatic overwhelming by the Spirit, Paul’s principle understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in worship is as the one who enables believers to instruct and build up each other. We see this most evident in 1 Corinthians 14.26-32. As many people are variously gifted by the Spirit, so the whole church is taught by God through the Spirit’s gifts. We see this theme brought up elsewhere in Ephesians in 4.7-16. Christ’s work through the Holy Spirit is a gift given to teach and instruct the whole body of Christ.
So, when Paul calls the Church to submit to each other, Paul is referring to the manner in which fellow believers should learn from each other through the Spirit at work in them. Hence, Paul says they are to submit out of the fear of Christ, which is an echo of Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (NRSV) That Paul have Proverbs 9.10 in mind is further evident by the fact the Septuagint uses word σύνεσις for knowledge, which is a cognate συνίημι which Paul uses in Ephesians 5.17. Their submission to each other was a pedagogical submission to Christ through the fullest expression of the Holy Spirit, much like the disciples submitted to the rabbinic instruction of Christ.
While ὑποτάσσω was not a customary term for describing the teacher-disciple relationship and was more regularly used to refer to more traditional hierarchical relationships of command, it could occasionally be used to refer to the type of learning that people had from teachers of wisdom. For instance, consider what the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said in Discourses 3.7.34:
Make us admire you, make us want to emulate you, as Socrates did with his followers. He was someone who truly knew how to govern his fellow men, because he led people to submit (ὑποτεταχότας) their desires to him, their aversions, their motives to act or not to act.1
Now, previously, Paul had described Jesus has put everything into submission in Ephesians 1.22. So, we may consider that Paul’s usage of ὑποτάσσω in 5.21 as referring to the way this submission to Christ is taking place in worship through the teaching of the Spirit. Believers are bringing their life into conformity to Christ through how they learn from each other.
So, when Paul then extends this submission to the wife’s relationship with her husband, Paul still has in mind this same pedagogical submission to Christ. In other words, Paul is essentially saying: “Wives, learn about God through your husbands.” We see a similar sentiment expressed in 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 when he talks about women being submissive rather than speaking. Paul has just told the whole church to be silent when another person is speaking by the inspiration of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 14.26-31. So, likewise for the women, instead of interrupting the worship if they needed to learn (μαθεῖν) something, Paul tells them to learn from their husbands at home.2 In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul envisions the whole church learning from each other AND for women to be able to learn from their husbands at home. Just as Paul transition between the whole church’s learning to the wives’ learning in 1 Corinthians, Paul does the same move in Ephesians 5.21-24.
The reason for this is best explained not by some intrinsic order of creation where only men should be teachers and women should be learners. Rather, what Paul is describing taking place among the Body of Christ is quite revolutionary for the day. The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, a slightly younger contemporary of Paul, made the argument that women should be able to learn philosophy alongside men because philosophy can also be deeply useful to the work that they do.3 To open up women to the place of discipleship and learning, Paul was doing something quite counter-cultural: women were just as capable of learning the Gospel of Jesus Christ and all its wisdom as men were. When the intellectual power of half the population was kept in the intellectual dark, Paul’s instructions to women is actually a statement of liberation: learn from your husbands the things of God. They are not reserved just for men.
This pedagogical relationship of wife to husband is then explicitly connected to the church’s pedagogical submission to Christ in Ephesians 5.24. Furthermore, the submission ‘in everything’ (ἐν παντί) Paul instucts them in corresponds to thanksgiving in worship in v. 20 in all times (πάντοτε) and for everything (ὑπὲρ πάντων). So, when Paul calls the women to submit, quite literally “in all,” he is talking about submission at all times and in regarding to everything that God has given. This is not a blank-check for the husband’s arbitrary authority to boss and command their wife to do whatever the husband things the wife should do, but rather that women were to learn about all aspects about the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ at all times through their husbands. In essence, Paul is saying to women “You are free to learn everything that men do. There is nothing off limits.” In their learning of Christ, women are called to submit to their husbands in regards to learning everything from God in all times.
Before pushing forward into what Paul says to the husbands, it is important to note that Paul does not live in a post-modern world where every person’s thoughts and teachings about God’s were considered to be equally valid. Thus, we don’t need to hear Paul saying that women should just accept anything and everything their husbands are saying about God and Christ. There is true teaching and false teaching in Paul’s mind. We can imagine that in Paul’s mind, any husband who would share a teaching about God that is in utter defiance with the whole Body of Christ, inspired by the Spirit, was teaching should not have been listened to. The women would have had the Church’s teaching to compare their husband’s teaching to, so if they say anything discrepancy that showed their husband was in error or in sin, they should follow what the Spirit is is teaching and not the error and sin of their husband.
So, there is no reason for us to think just anything the husband teaches should have been accepted arbitrarily. However, for Paul, the wife should not be the one trying to argue with their husband if there is some sin or error in what the husband is teaching. It is this type of resistance against the husband that I think Paul is forbidding in 1 Timothy 2.11-12. Rather than trying to counter the husband’s teaching when they are in error and sin, to whom Paul had just given instructions against men and their anger in 1 Timothy 2.8, they should not seek to forget the appropriate way to learn about God through a humble, submissive attitude rather than an argumentative, conflictual attitude.
Paul then appeals to the example of Eve in 1 Timothy 2.13-15, not as a demonstration of the inherent order of the relationships between men and women, but as a prototype of what happens when someone who is confused by God’s will. Notice the difference between what Eve says to the serpent that God commands about the tree of knowledge in Genesis 3.3 what God told Adam in Genesis 2.16: the initial question by the serpent manipulatively leads to Eve’s confusion about God’s will.4 Instead of seeking to argue with the husband and try to usurp the role of teaching, the wife can trust that there is salvation through the childbearing (διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας), which is an echo of Genesis 3.15 and an allusion to Christ as the fulfillment, if only they continue their in faith, love, and holiness with modesty as the model virtue of a learning disciple.
I would put forward that in 1 Timothy 2.10-15, Paul assumes that the husband can act like one of the two other roles in the creation narrative: the role of Adam who receives the instruction from God and transmits it to Eve or the role of serpent who deceives Eve. If the husband is closer to the deceptive seducer, or even an angry abuser that Paul warns against in 1 Timothy 2.10, rather than Adam, the wife can still trust that God will continue to work and save her through Christ. She does not need to try to fight and argue to take over the role of teacher of her husband if she sees her husband is closer to the child of the serpent, that is the devil, but she should seek to continue to live her life in God’s will. The presence of the word μείνωσιν in 1 Timothy 2.15 can be used to describe a person who continues in the faith depite hardships and challenges, and in this case, is probably Paul referring to a woman continuing in the faith in case their husband is a faithless child of the devil that would deceive her rather than an Adam who would teach her what is true.
This leads me to return back to Ephesians 5 and looking at what Paul says to the husband. In calling the husband to love and give himself up like Christ did for the church in Ephesians 5.25, Paul’s instructions would not have not just been understood just as some sort of moral exhortation to be a sacrificial guy. Teachers of wisdom in the Greco-Roman world were expected to exemplify the very wisdom they taught in their lives. Furthermore, Jesus himself warns about teachers trying to judge and correct the ‘minor’ sins of others while they themselves have a near monopoly on that sin (Matthew 7.1-5). Teachers were expected and exhorted to exemplify the very wisdom that they taught. And so, men were to exemplify the wisdom of God in Christ, the servant of humanity, in their own relationship to their wife.
This would explain what Paul says in Ephesians 5.26 is connected to 5.25 with a ἵνα purpose clause. Paul speaks of Jesus cleansing the Church by his word. While Paul is explicitly speaking about what Christ does to and for the Church, since he has given Christ as a model for the husbands, what Christ is doing for the church, husbands should do for their wives. Thus, the model of Christ when realized by the husband will lead to cleansing of the wive by the husbands words, that is their teaching, but only if the husband himself exemplifies the wisdom of Christ in his life that his words teach of. If there is a massive dissonance between the spiritual life of the husband and what they teach such that they do not wholly reflect Christ, there would be no spiritual power in their relationship to their spouse. The second ἵνα clause of Ephesians 5.27 then expresses Paul’s abiding concern that the husbands should be an embodied representative of Christ and His wisdom to his wife so that he may have a glorious wife who is holy and blemish, just as Christ presents a glorious church to himself.
What should be noted up to this point is how much Paul is framing his instructions to husbands by explicitly describing what Christ has done and is doing, while it is implicit that this is what he is calling the husbands to do. For Paul, Jesus was not some person who gives us theological evidence of am model for men to be kings over their wives as if Jesus is the embodiment of the order of creation. Rather, that men should become as Christ in their relationship to the wives such that how they treat their wives is spiritually Jesus Himself loving the church.
It is here that want to take an exegetical recess and wander into theology for just a moment. I recall something that one of my professors as Alan Torrance taught when I was at the University of St. Andrews. He would present to us the class the question “Why is it that Jesus was incarnated as a male?” His answer: “Because He became like the least of these.” I appreciated that answer, but I would like to push it just a bit further on that to make someone more explicit. “Why is it that Jesus was incarnated as a male?” The Incarnation was God’s response to redeem humanity from our sin, and so Jesus took on the gender that was more responsible for the sin tearing about the fabric of God’s creation and God’s image: men. Jesus came to redeem all sinners, especially many men who had fallen into deep sin and have caused untold traumas and horrors throughout human history and have lost what God created Adam to be. Ceasing to become like Adam in the garden, many men have become more like the serpent in the garden. And so, the last Adam comes to redeem humanity from the fallen Adam.
To return back to Ephesians 5, I would put forward that Paul’s instructions towards husbands is built on the assumption that in Christ they are being redeemed from the violence and abuse that men had inflicted and were inflicting in the highly patriarchal Roman society. That Paul is more spiritually concerned about men more than women is evident that he gives more than twice the space to address husbands than wives in Ephesians 5. This concern becomes more evident in Ephesians 5.28-31 when he talks about the body. Just as Paul calls for men to raise their worshipful hands in a holy manner rather than a raised, abusive hand of anger and abuse in 1 Timothy 2.10, likewise Paul exhorts husbands to in Ephesians 5.28-31 to take tender care of her wife’s body. Paul is recognizing the abusive tendencies among many men in the Roman society, and he spends time encouraging the men to not inflict physical harm on their wive’s body.
It was often the case that corporal punishment was a tactic used to try to teach others.5 So, Paul’s instructions to husbands in treated their wives’ bodies with care is also Paul outline what type of pedagogical training they should and should not give to their spouses. They should not try to teach through inflicting abuse, but rather as Christ gave Himself up to those who would abuse Him, so the husband should endure abuse for his wife.
In summary, then, I would put forward that that Pauline passages regularly used for the subjection of women such as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 Timothy 2 is in fact Paul address pedagogical matters by seeking to bring women into the wisdom of Christ through how they are trained to learn about Christ and the way a faithful husband would disciple them. Paul’s overriding concern is that Christ become known and experienced and manifest, that Christ becomes all in all, including in the way a man teaches their wife as a member of the Church as the spiritual embodiment of Jesus Christ, who taught and redeemed the whole Church. For Paul, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not some basic axiom that then provides us some sort of disembodied salvation, but Jesus is bringing into submission the whole creation and filling it with God’s glory. As such, Paul understands the relationship of husband and wife in a Christ-o-centric way.
Attempts to try to read Paul providing some inherent order of authority between the genders in fact replaces Christ with the idols of order, power, and dominance that manifest themselves through one’s hermeneutic. Paul nowhere says says he is describing a fixed, universal relationship between men and women. Paul is not a child of the Enlightenment. In fact, Paul thinks the present order of the world is passing away (1 Cor. 7.31) to make way for the new creation in Christ. In trying to find some fixed order and relationship between men and women in Paul’s letters and other parts of the Bible, many Christians have been unwittingly serving an idol of their own making and, as a result, are vulnerable to the seduction of the serpent to become children of the serpent. Just look at John MacArthur who told Beth Moore to “Go home!” a few weeks back. Just as the serpent deceived Eve and as a result of the sin, women experienced a curse that would make them subject to the domination of the husband (Gen 3.16), so John MacArthur sought to do the same work the ancient serpent did. Let those who are the children of God do as Christ does and those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
- Translation by Robin Hard.
- As a side note, Paul’s purpose for instructing women to be silent is most likely rooted in how women would have had a hard time comprehending everything that was being said and taught since they had been systematically excluded from such a form of learning in the Greco-Roman society. Paul was not restricting women from speaking at during worship if they were given inspired speech or prayer by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 11), but rather restricting them from interrupting worship as he had done the whole church, even if they were having a hard time comprehending what was being taught.
- See what is catalogued as the third lecture by Musonius Rufus.
- To be clear, I am arguing that when Paul says Eve was deceived, he is referring to the whole exchange between the serpent and Eve and not just solely getting her to eat the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
- W. Martin Bloomer, “Corporal Punishment in the Ancient School.” Pages 184-198 in A Companion to Ancient Education, ed. Martin Bloomer, (Malden, MA; Oxford; West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).