wives, be subject to your husbands...

by Drew Tatusko - Notes from Off Center
Theresa Seeber asks a lot of vital and important questions that demand our constant attention. I believe an improper and incoherent set of answers to these questions and a corrosive understanding of Scripture have done nothing but destroy the fabric of our relationships from the inside out. We have taken Ephesians 5:21-33 and used it to support patriarchy and destructive views of obedience in the Church.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Question 1: What problem was the author of Ephesians addressing here? Why go into this to the specific church at the time in a specific culture where patriarchy was normative? The trap that we have set for ourselves is that we are trying to take letters written for specific purposes for specific situations and then assuming that these personal letters are eternal Truth. I think that’s patently absurd because it leads to incoherent positions that require consistent qualification. According to the worldview here and in 1 Corinthians women should also wear head coverings, cover their bodies completely, and sit in a separate place than men. See how Muslims worship Allah. Not many evangelical churches do these practices thinking they were unimportant. That patently false and incoherent.

Let's turn the problem back to us. Why are we so sure that wives should do whatever the hell their husbands tell them, yet those other ritual practices are optional? Perhaps the answer is that maintaining patriarchy is more important to a flawed and fallen image of masculinity in Western culture.

This is Christ’s sacrifice – sacrificing the divine will to be subject to human authority in order to redeem it. Likewise, the husband needs to sacrifice his will to that of his wife’s. Is it possible to have authority through submission as an act of love? Common sense says no, but common sense is flawed. The resurrection is absurd and thus, husbands need to be as absurd with their self-sacrificial love. It’s a paradoxical and radical kind of authority expressed here that fundamentally destroys patriarchy from the inside out.

Question 2: Is it possible for any human being to “make” another human being pure? No. Not if Christ is the one means for this to be possible. This is about caring for your wife as you care for your own body. This means that you have to live a life of love and self-sacrifice and work to see that your wife is doing likewise. This is not as a command to lord purity laws over your wife, but to support her flourishing as a child of God.

Question 3: The entire passage ends with a confession that this is a mystery! The kernel of truth is the mystery itself expressed simply as: “Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.” Respect does not mean “obey whatever he says.” What if your husband is not acting in relationship to you as Christ acts with respect to the church? What if your husband is lording over you in a way that Jesus himself did not behave towards women who were cast out of their own towns and religious practices due to their “unclean” status? We have a failed and sinful tradition of assuming that obedience in marriage is like that of a child and men have gotten away with treating their wives as children, NOT as one flesh of mutual giving and receiving of self-sacrificial love and respect. So are you a child or a wife? Perhaps you are neither, but a slave?

Finally, this passage is a metaphor about what imitating God in Christ should look like. Period. That’s why it is a mystery (which the Catholic church would translate as a sacrament). So why not let it be a mystery and live in love? Don’t be a slave or a child, but a wife. Respect means that you do not let your husband get away with behaving unlike Christ. So see how it was that Christ treated the women around him, and then hold your husband to a higher standard because unlike the women that Jesus came into contact with, you and he are “one flesh.” Not to hold him accountable for that is not an act of respect. It is an act of ignorance. Here wives are to respect their husbands for the sake of God and not the husband himself.

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