I love the way that J. B. Phillips translated John 1:1--"At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning." In his book, "Your God is Too Small," Phillips says that one can think of Jesus Christ as the unimaginably infinite God focused or expressed in terms we can understand, in terms of time and space and human personality. The corollary to that is that Jesus was not a featureless Everyman but was, like any human, a specific individual in a specific culture at a specific point in history. In his case, he was a first-century Galilean Jewish male craftsman. Thank God, the Bible doesn't record his eye or hair color, his height or weight, or even if he was right or left-handed, so no one may give himself airs for resembling Jesus even in a superficial way. But for the rest, it does mean that his timeless truths were couched in the language and thought-forms of the time so that he would be understood and his words remembered and transmitted. Anti-theist Sam Harris said that if the Bible were the Word of God why doesn't it say something about electricity? Why stop there? Why doesn't it include something about quantum physics? Could it be because (a) the Bible is not teaching an alternate or outdated form of science but values and morals and meaning and (b) no one could understand it or use such knowledge for the same reason that a gas-powered engine or an electrically-powered computer would be useless 2000 years ago? Jesus was speaking in his time but his words are still relevant today. It helps tremendously, though, to understand the original context, culture and language.
Peter Enns, a Presbyterian Old Testament professor, has proposed using the incarnation of the living Word of God in Jesus as an analogy for the inspiration of the written Word of God. In other words, if God was expressing himself to people living 2000 to 4000 years ago, and did so in the form of a book, it is reasonable that he would use the cultural, literary, and thought-forms of the time. That means God's Word takes the form of ancient Semitic texts reflecting the various cultures that dominated the underlying Jewish sub-culture. It's a common-sense rule for communication: speak the language of your audience if you want them to get your message. And most of what the Bible says comes through loud and clear no matter what the reader's culture. But understanding the Bible's context clarifies a lot.
Keep that in mind as we approach this Least Popular Commandment: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22). First, let us look at the cultural form in which we find this passage. It is a list of household duties, a common document of the time. We find examples of this in the ethical writings of Greek philosophers as well as in Jewish literature of the time. There are cultural differences. The Greek versions only address the husband on how he should rule his wife, children and slaves. The Jewish versions add protections for these weaker members of the household. So Paul is using the Jewish form of a household duties table, as he does in Colossians 3:18-4:1. But he is making some modifications.
For one thing, he takes the instructions for husbands and wives, which he stated in 19 words in Colossians, and expands them to 200 words. So he has been thinking more deeply on the matter since he wrote Colossians. For another, by addressing wives, children and slaves directly, and giving them specific instructions, Paul is saying that they, too, are serving God directly. Their roles are different but that doesn't mean they are less important than the roles of husbands, parents and masters. Paul is not calling for an overturning of the roles of his society but a reinterpretation of those roles, their significance, and their duties. Paul is being realistic. Basic roles in society don't go away. But what they mean and how they are carried out can be changed.
Now in order to see how Paul is changing the roles, let's look at the actual wording Paul uses. And if we are going to be absolutely literal in our treatment of this passage, we should note that the Greek word "hupotasso" which means "submit," doesn't actually appear in verse 22. It is part of a much longer sentence that begins in verse 17 and should be read, "So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is, and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking among yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melodies to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always in all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being subject to each other in reverence for Christ, wives to their husbands as to the Lord…" Most translations chop Paul's run-on sentence into shorter sentences, and all add "submit" in verse 22 to make it better English.
But I wanted you to hear the commandment in context. It is a subordinate clause. The main command is to be filled with the Spirit. All the other activities--singing, giving thanks, being subject to each other--are examples of being filled with the Spirit of the God who is Love. As part of this Spirit-filled living, we Christians are to defer to one another. The subjection of wives is, again, just one example of it. And the command for us to mutually submit to one another sets the tone for everything that follows.
Wives are indeed told to submit themselves to their husbands but not because, as in the larger culture, he has an inherent right to her subjection, nor because, as Greek philosophers like Aristotle said, women are inferior to men. She is to do this as she is subject to Christ, who is the Savior and head of the church, his body. This would be arbitrary if it weren't for the fact that Paul commands husbands to love their wives. This was not typical at the time. Most marriages were arranged. Often love did grow over time but it was not a requirement. The family was run like a business. The wife's job was to have and raise children and to run the domestic side of the household. The husband didn't have to love her, or remain sexually exclusive to her, though that was the ideal. So when Paul makes loving one's wife a commandment, it is a significant redefinition of the role of husband.
Nor is he primarily talking about romantic love, though I am sure Paul expects this to a natural part of it. Still, Paul doesn't use the Greek word for erotic love or even the word for familial affection; he uses "agape," the word for selfless love. And he underlines this by adding "just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." So Paul is saying that the man must love his wife with the same self-sacrificial love that Christ displayed in going to the cross. This is a much higher standard than any of the Greek or Jewish household duty tables lays down for men.
Paul goes on to make a parallel between the church as the body of Christ and one's wife. He cites the same passage in Genesis 2 that Jesus did when talking about divorce. The man and wife become one flesh. The wife is no longer to be seen as mere property the way the culture and the law saw her. Husbands, he is saying, she is flesh of your flesh. She is part of you and just as you don't hate your body but nourish and tenderly care for it, so, too, that is how you should see and treat your wife. Nourish her. Tenderly care for her.
This principle continues throughout the other household relationships. It was not surprising that Paul tells children to obey their parents. But it is surprising to hear him command fathers not to provoke anger in their children. In the Roman Empire, a father's authority was absolute. He could sell his child as a slave, punish him or her as severely as he liked, chain him up and even kill his child. You still see this in cultures where a father can execute a child, usually a daughter, who has dishonored the family. Paul could not overturn the laws of the Empire but he could change the way Christians were expected to act. And by telling fathers not to provoke their children to rage and resentment, he was saying, "Take your child's feelings into account. Don't be unreasonable. Listen to their side." That is a big change in the usual approach to being a father in the first-century.
And while I haven't the time to go in depth into the issue of the then-universal practice of slavery, notice that, in addition to the expected rule that slaves obey their masters, Paul tells masters to "do the same things to them." That is, he tells them to treat their slaves the same way that masters expect to be treated, the law of Christian love. He tells them not to threaten their slaves and to remember that they have a master as well, God, who judges everyone according to the same standards. And while Paul doesn't call for slave revolt, as many others did, early Christians became known for their peculiar custom of freeing slaves, especially on holy days. They even made slaves into their bishops. So despite Paul not being as outspoken on this matter as we moderns wish, the message was getting through: though you have different roles in society, you are all one, all equal in the eyes of God. Christ's command to love one another as he loves us has no exceptions.
Society has changed. Roles have changed. In the West, women are no longer owned by their fathers and then their husbands. And though women are still under-represented in leadership and still make about 30% less than men in the same jobs, it is possible to have a marriage of equals. It would be interesting to see what Paul would write to our society. But the principles underlying what he wrote to his own culture haven't changed. We are to love and respect and listen to and treat fairly and defer to each other in reverence to Christ. I defer to my wife on legal and other matters in which she knows more than me. She defers to me on medical and other matters on which I am better informed. We make decisions together. I suspect most wise and happy couples have done pretty much the same throughout history. The official version, recorded in laws and customs, is never the whole story.
To separate the commandment for wives to submit to their husbands from the commandment for husbands to love their wives self-sacrificially, or from the commandment that all Christians defer to each other, makes nonsense out of the whole thing. It would be like one of the 3 Musketeers insisting on the "one for all" part of their code while ignoring the phrase "and all for one." They are not only complimentary, they are necessary counterbalances to each other. You wouldn't consent to get married if only you promised to love, comfort, honor and stay faithful to your spouse while the other person was allowed to opt out of all that. Similarly, it makes no sense to require one party in a Christian relationship to emulate Christ but not the other. We are all one in Christ. We are to treat everyone, even our enemies, with love. Every time we treat our spouse badly, we are, in essence, damaging the image of Christ that is supposed to be reflected in our marriage. Would we treat Christ with contempt? Would we seek to undermine him, or insult him or lash out physically at him? Would he treat us that way? Then neither should we.
Jesus made it real simple. He commanded us to love God with all we are and to love each other as he, Christ, loves us. The rest is working out how to apply that in every culture, in every time, in every situation, in every life. That may not be always be obvious. So pray a lot. Read all the Bible. Assess the facts honestly. Think clearly. And when in doubt, do the most loving thing. You may not always be perfectly right, but you won't be too far off.