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Subject to Whom?

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
August 14, 1994

Ephesians 5:21-33

I really did not want to preach on this text.  Judy and I just celebrated our 14th anniversary and I would hate to mess up 14 good years of work by saying the wrong thing here.  We enlightened husbands believe in equalitarian roles, not merely as an ideal or principle, but out of actual experience--because our wives tell us to.  (And we do what we are told.) But the language of subjection does not fit well with our modern sensibilities, and notions of husband as head of the wife run counter to current values of gender equality and equal rights.  So what do we do with this passage other than write it off as the antiquated and chauvinistic views of Paul (the assumed author)?

While I have been gone for the last 4 weeks, only 3 of them were vacation.  The 4th was a clergy self-assessment course offered by the Alban Institute.  In that course the instructor talked about different spiritual disciplines for clergy.  One of the methods he promoted was journaling in a conversational style, writing to God, your subconscious, your ministry or some other entity with which or whom you may be struggling.  And as I have a lot of questions about this text, I decided to address my concerns directly to the author to see if that might somehow help me in my struggle.

So I wrote a letter and addressed it to Paul, even though many scholars believe it was written by an admirer of his.  I just happen to have a copy with me this morning so I thought I would share it with you.  This is what it said:

Dear Paul:
     I am having great difficulty interpreting your instructions to married couples as recorded in your letter to the Ephesians.  It is not that I do not understand what you wrote, but that I have a hard time accepting it.     If I understand the Gospel message correctly, we are all equal in the eyes of God because Christ died for each and everyone of us, regardless of sex, color, wealth, status, etc.  As a certain apostle once wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  Further, it is clear from the way Jesus interacted with women, such as Mary Magdalene or the Samaritan woman at the well, that he considered them to be full persons of their own right and not second class citizens.  Therefore, I am somewhat troubled by your statement that wives are to be subject to their husbands.  You seem to contradict the vision of equality so strongly evident elsewhere in the Gospels.

The implication of that passage, particularly when read together with the following passage about children obeying their parents and slaves obeying their masters, is that women are subservient to their husbands just as children are to their parents and slaves to their masters.  Is not the relationship of husband and wife fundamentally different from that of parent and child or master and slave?  Personally, I prefer to see marriage as a relationship of equal partnership.

Perhaps I do not fully understand what you mean by "subject."  I know sometimes things get lost in the translation.  Is there a better English word?  Surely you do not mean that my wife is subject to me in the same way she is or I am to God.  As the husband, that would make me very uncomfortable.  I know I am fallible and am prone to error, therefore, I do not want the responsibility of approving my wife's decisions or determining what is right for her.

You state that husbands should love their wives, which is all fine and good.  As a husband, I love my wife dearly and I do cherish her as part of my flesh.  Yet I am mystified by your choice of words.  Why do you speak of love when addressing the husbands but subjection when addressing the wives?  Somehow, it seems rather lopsided.  If the roles were reversed--wives love your husbands, husbands be subject to your wives--I know I would not like it.

I could tell you many horror stories of how this passage and others like it in the New Testament have been used to compel abused wives to return home to their husbands who had very strange ways of expressing "love" to their wives.  Did you ever consider the plight of such women who are "subject" to physical and sexual abuse?

Further, the image of Christ and the church with which you compare marriage, while poetic, only seems to strengthen the dominance of the husband over the wife.  Did you really mean that a wife should serve her husband the ways a Christian serves Christ?  I'm sorry, but I do not like being put in that kind of position.  (If I told my wife that she had to serve me in that way, I'd probably get kicked out of the house!)  It is not that I do not like being served or that my wife minds serving me, but not all the time and not with that kind of devotion.  Sometimes, believe it or not, I prefer to be the one that serves her.

I guess what it comes down to is this:  I grew up in a different time and place than you.  I have always believed that a Christian marriage is one where both parties love each other, respect each other and are equal partners in building a family dedicated to serving the realm of God.  And so I honestly struggle with your words, desiring to be faithful to scripture and yet true to my heart.

I hope I have not been disrespectful in my questions and that you will take them in the Christian spirit in which they were written.
                                   Dan, a loving husband


That is what I wrote.  And since I had written it, I decided I might as well as mail it, never mind that the addressee had been dead for 1900 years.  Somehow, it just made me feel better, like writing a letter to Santa Claus.

Well imagine my surprise when I received a reply!  It arrived in a mysterious way, without a postmark or anything.  Just appeared there on my computer screen.  I have no idea of how it got there, but since it was, I made a print out of it.  Would you like to hear it?  I thought you might.  It states:

Dear Dan:
     Grace to you and blessings upon the God in whom we find our unity.

Thank you for your thoughtful and sincere letter.  You are obviously a person of great intelligence and wisdom and charm ...  [Why do you laugh?  Do you think I wrote this?  OK, that is not what it really says.  I will read it as written.] You are obviously trying to find answers to difficult questions of faith .  I will try as best I can to answer them.

I would certainly agree with your understanding of the Gospel, though I would go a bit further and say that we have always been equal in God's eyes, even before Christ came to earth. Christ's death, therefore, did not make us equal, since we already were, rather it is through Christ that all humanity and all things on heaven and on earth may be united as God intended them to be.  I wrote what you call Ephesians to show people how Christ can break down the dividing walls of hostility that separate us one from the other,  be it Jew from Greek, slave from free, parent from child or husband from wife.  In the passage you cite, my interest was to help couples to live in harmony with one another, united in their marriage as Christ is united with the church.

It is one of the great misfortunes of history, however, that changes in time and culture become stumbling blocks so that people often have great difficulty understanding what is said or done in another time or culture.  For instance, in your culture a firm handshake is taken as a sign of strong character and will.  In the culture of the people who occupied your homeland before you, a handshake was meaningless. Your ancestors, therefore, misjudged many a Native American because their handshake was weak.  So I think it is important that you take into full account the historical context in which I wrote those words which cause you so much trouble.  I think it will help.

In the Hebrew society in which the church was born, women were viewed differently than they are in yours.  Some say our women were treated like a piece of property which is a great over-simplification, but does have some truth.  For instance, a man wishing to marry a woman had to pay the father a dowry and a virgin woman was worth considerably more than a non-virgin.  Thus the Hebrews had a law that a man who took a woman's virginity prior to marriage had to marry the woman (and pay the dowry)  But if the father did not approve the marriage, the man was required to pay him the dowry for a virgin anyway since the father would no longer be able to request it of a future suitor.  The effect, if not the purpose, of the law was to protect the monetary value of women to their fathers.

More importantly, the rights of women in my society were also more limited than in yours.  Where a woman in your society can freely divorce a man and then, more times than not, be guaranteed financial support from the ex-husband, in or time the initiative for divorce lay solely with the husband who could divorce a wife for any "indecency".  Once divorced, a woman had little chance of remarrying and very limited means of earning a living.

Other ways in which the rights of women were severely limited:
 --By law, though not always be practice, she had no choice in whom she married.
 --If a woman took an oath, it could be invalidated by her husband, if she were married, or by her father if she were not.
 --If a wife's husband died before her, then she came under the household and authority of the nearest male relative of the deceased.
 --A woman generally could not own property and was rarely considered legally responsible.

You see, throughout their entire lives, women were under the control of men.  As you point out, Jesus interacted with women much differently. In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus clearly showed that the proper place of women is not necessarily in the kitchen, but where they choose to be.  Mary chose to be amongst the disciples, learning from Jesus.  There were many other women who traveled with Jesus and assisted in his ministry as mentioned both by Mark and Luke.  No other rabbi would have ever allowed such to happen.

I also had several women work side by side with me as I mentioned in my letters to the Romans and Philippians.  Priscilla worked alongside her husband Aquilla in spreading the Gospel.  In my first letter to the Corinthians, I advised the church to allow women to pray and prophesy in the church, albeit with their heads covered.  Such action was unthinkable in the synagogue where woman were even forbidden to enter the main sanctuary.

My point is that women enjoyed a status in the church never before conceived possible.  They say that change is like a good wine, you can only drink so much at a time or you will loose your senses.  In those early years we were forming an entirely new community of faith, but that community was built upon some very powerful traditions that could not be entirely discarded.  One of those traditions was the family with a father who served as the clear head of the household.

Now there were some groups within the church who said, since we are all equal, we should abolish the family structure.  They nearly, as you say, threw the baby out with the bath water.  They opposed marriage and the bearing of children, advocating instead a monastic life of sexual abstinence free of all physical gratification.  It was clear to me and other leaders of the church that such belief, if widely accepted, would destroy the church.  I appealed, therefore, to the traditional family values which were familiar and had stood the test of time.  At the same time, I wanted to show that our faith in Christ had real implications for relationships within the family, therefore, I spoke of husbands loving their wives, parents not provoking their children and masters not threatening their slaves.

The overall principle in all of these relationships which you failed to  note is one of mutual subjection, as I stated very clearly, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."  No, I do not know of a better English word, less it be "submit."  In either case, it means precisely what it says, to earnestly seek to fulfill the desires and needs of the other person.  I agree, if it were entirely a one-way relationship, it would be unfair.  True, I do not tell husbands to be subject to their wives, but ask yourself, can you truly love your wife as part of your body without submitting to her desires  and needs equally as your own?

So you see, love requires mutual submission.  While I was not writing with battered wives in mind, I think the same principle applies there.  A man who abuses his wife obviously does not love her as his own body, therefore, it would be absurd to expect such a woman to subject herself to him.  It saddens me deeply to know that my writing has been so misinterpreted.  Certainly we would not have allowed such unchristian behavior to continue within the church.

In regards to my use of the relationship of Christ to the church, as with all analogies, it has its limitations.  You have not taken into account, however, the true nature of that relationship.  Need I remind you of the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet or the sacrifice of his life on the cross?  If more husbands had that kind of relationship with their wives, there would be many fewer marital problems.  So you see, it is not a case of one-way servanthood, but of mutual giving to each other.

I hope when you see the whole picture, Dan, you will see that I am not advocating that women be subservient to their husbands, but rather that husbands and wives be subservient to each other.  I stated that in the strongest language I could that would be
understood and accepted in my day.  It is your task to bring that message in the best way which can be understood in your day.
                              The peace of Christ be with you,

So there you have it, Paul's vision, perhaps, of a Christian marriage. Well you pray with me?  Lord of Love, we pray for all our married people here today.  May they find in their marriage the fulfillment that comes from being truly valued and respected as a true partner in their relationship.  We pray for marriage as an institution in our society that will be respected and treasured.  May all couples experience in their relationships the kind of devotion Christ showed to us.  And we pray for those who have experienced a painful separation from a loved one.  May they be at peace and be healed of any pain or grief that inhibits them from enjoying the fullness of life you intend for all.  Amen.


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