Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Marriage in Metaphors: Ephesians 5

In two recent posts I have responded to the touchy, controversial, and ever-popular subject of "submission" in Ephesians 5:21-22 (Post 1 and Post 2). There are three reasons why I am going ahead with the third part to this mini-series: 1) I said that was going to write three posts; 2) My wife and I had a long discussion about this passage a few days ago that got the cogs in my brain moving again; and 3) To work out my thoughts on the issue in the public forum. Two further comments about #3: 1) This blog is not really all that "public" yet; and 2) What I really mean in #3 is disagree with me and do so vigorously if you so choose...I'm a big boy!

So with that ridiculous intro behind us, let's jump in. First, I will cover two metaphors that concern wives (5.21 and 5.33) and two for husbands (5.25 and 5.28). Then, I will try to see the bigger picture that the author of Ephesians possibly had in mind. Third, I will attempt to make some modern application of the difficult ancient text.

1 Metaphors for Wives

1.1.1 "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord" (5.22)

I think that several things come to mind immediately when thinking about this metaphor. This submission is voluntary; no matter one's view of God's foreknowledge, from the human perspective we voluntarily choose to submit ourselves to God. This is not coercion or anything like it; what is in view here is a wife choosing to put herself under her husband in some way. Even in this early stage of the argument, the husband is not off the hook. If wives are to submit to their husbands like the Church submits to Christ, then what does that say about husbands? Further, what does that say about submission to a non-Christ-like husband? I would answer the first question by saying that husbands have a lot to live up to and I would respond to the second by saying that this passage in no way, shape, or form advises women to remain under a husband who is abusive, negligent, etc. In addition, I would further point out that Ephesians 5 cannot be faithfully seen as advocating that wives be doormats. The Church is not a "doormat" to Jesus! The Church is loved deeply by God and cared for to the "nth" degree! Lastly, this verse calls for wives to put their husbands' interests first, just as the Church should always put the interests and purposes of Christ and his gospel before any self-serving motivations.

1.1.2 "the wife must respect her husband" (5.33)

Today's readers of the Bible will likely prefer this verse to verse 21, and who could blame them. In English "respect" is a much more positive word than "submit." It should be pointed out, however, that the Greek word here is phobeō, which means either "fear" or "respect" generally. Now it would certainly be true that a wife would fear her husband if he was a bad guy (think Maury-show bad), but that certainly is not what is in view here. Instead, wives are called on to respect, or show reverence to their husbands. Again, this is a high calling for husbands since to get respect you have to earn it and give it. Isn't it interesting that even in the instructions to the wives there are implicit (but important!) injunctions for husbands!

1.2 Metaphors for Husbands

1.2.1 "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church" (5.25)

This first metaphor for husbands is daunting. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church! The natural question is, of course, how did Christ love the church? The last part of v.25 answers our question: he "gave himself up for her." That is the ultimate self-sacrificial love. "Love" here certainly means more than warm feelings or general concern. It means wanting what is best for the other so much so that no action is too much of a risk personally. Husbands are called to lay their lives down for their wives. What a high calling! It also seems self evident that Christ loved the church for the church's own benefit, not his own. Verses 26 and 27 indicate this quite well: [Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her] to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish..." Jesus did what he did for the sake of the church and husbands should do what they are supposed to do (namely, to love their wives!) for the benefit of their wives! To put it a slightly different way, husbands are to always have and act upon the best interests of their wives.

1.2.2 "husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies" (5.28)

This definition of love gets a little more nitty gritty now. No longer is the author of Ephesians pontificating about the love of Christ; now he's connected his exhortation with something everyone has knowledge of and access to -- one's own body. It is a generally true that people don't hurt themselves on purpose but take care of themselves as best they know how (there are exceptions, of course, but, as usual, the exceptions prove the rule). Verse 29 says it better than I will ever be able to: "After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church." That last phrase is important; just in case we didn't get the metaphor clearly enough, we are hit again with Christ's exemplary love. Again, this sort of behavior indicates that husbands ought to put the interests of their wives above their own. And in a final attempt to convince, the end of v. 28 highlights the outcome of husbands loving their wives as themselves -- "he who loves his wife loves himself." I don't think there are many comments needed here. Loving someone will make them more likely to love back, pure and simple.

2 The bigger picture

It seems to me that the author of Ephesians is riffing on the Pauline idea found in Philippians 2:3 ("Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves"). Please don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying that Ephesians 5 is dependent on Philippians 2.3. I am saying, however, that Philippians 2.3 forms the general Pauline rule and Ephesians 5.21-33 (as well as 6.1-9) is a specific application of this rule. Paul seems to have viewed the church as an entity made up of people who were always looking out for one another. So what else would one expect to find when they came to a Pauline passage on marriage? We don't find here a message of husbands "lording it over" their wives or wives "standing over against" their husbands. We also don't find here husbands "rolling over like whipped puppies" and "wives being subservient." Instead we see a picture of two people who are always thinking about what is best for each other. The author chose to use words like "submit," "respect," and "love" to communicate this. We may have wished he had chosen other words...but he didn't, so we have to deal with what we have as best we can.

3 What does this mean now?

First of all, Ephesians 5 only means something to those of us who view the Bible as in some way authoritative over us. I believe that the Bible has preserved for us reliable apostolic witnesses and as such it is formative in my life as a Christian. Secondly, this passage obviously has a limited scope: its applicable directly to married people. For a wider application it would be better to examine the general rule in Philippians 2.3 or elsewhere. So how might this work out today, in the twenty-first century?

When a single friend asks me about marriage, I usually (at some point in the conversation) say this: "The best thing about marriage is putting the interests of your spouse first. The worst thing about marriage is putting the interests of your spouse first." What I mean is that there is nothing better than bringing genuine joy to one's spouse but there is nothing harder than overcoming one's natural inclination toward self-serving behavior. However, over time and with many tears and sessions in the school of hard knocks, the reciprocal beauty of marriage takes over. The wife is looking out for what's best for the husband and the husband is doing likewise. Please don't get me wrong: this is hard work for both parties. But the benefits of submitting, respecting, and loving one another far out weigh the draw backs.

On this topic Mike Huckabee said the following: "
Biblically, marriage is [a] 100/100 deal. Each partner gives 100 percent of their devotion to the other and that's why marriage is an important institution, because it teaches us how to love" (via While I agree that marriage is best when both spouses give their all and that marriage is a tutor specialized in the subject of love, the "100/100" language is not really realistic. Now from a "are they both giving it their all?" standpoint, the language is fine. But from the "brass tacks" standpoint, that's simply not how marriage works. Each spouse comes into the marriage better at some things than the other. One is better with money, one is better with socializing, one is better with cleaning, one is better at planning, one is this, one is that. So each doesn't make decisions about 100 percent of the issues and each doesn't get his/her way 100 percent of the time. The beauty of a good marriage, though, is that it is give-and-take. While one may be getting the best end of the stick at any given moment, the other knows in good faith that he/she will get his/her turn too.

When both spouses are putting the interests of the other first, then they are both happy and, I believe, living out today the ancient words found in Ephesians 5.

Some other good posts on this subject by:
Jim West (here and here)
Tim Richchuiti (here and here and here)
Owen Weddle (here)
Chris Spinks (here) and
The Big Daddy Weave (here)

Click here to read other post that I have written on this issue.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Much here to interact with. I’ll have to paint in broad strokes, however, if I want to keep the response to a responsible size. I’ll go heading by heading.

#1 and its subpoints:
I think the whole discussion of metaphors would be much stronger if we looked at the role of husbands and wives in the first century. The author is not talking to 21st century husbands and wives. In light of the first century context much of what he says is old hat; much else is revolutionary. That which is old hat is the stuff he says to the wives. I imagine the Ephesian wives hearing this would not have been shaken in any way. Household codes have been telling them to submit to their husbands for man generations. That the author couches it in Christian language is a bit novel, but the exhortation to the wives is nothing new. What is a bit radical are the words to the husbands. It was not really a social requirement for husbands to love their wives. They could and did, but they did not have to. Exhorting husbands to love their wives and couching it in Christ/Church language was bold. It would have been this section of the passage that would have had the ears of the first listeners. The same can be said for the rest of the Haustafeln in Ephesians: it is the words to husbands, fathers, and masters that is radical, not the words to the wives, children, and slaves.

I’d be interested to know what difference you see between hypotasso (by the way, not in v. 22 in the critical Greek text, likely assuming it from v. 21, which says something about the relationship between the two verses) and agapao. You eventually describe them in similar ways—“putting the interest of the other first.” If they essentially mean the same thing in the original language and context, why can they not be translated with the same or similar words in today’s English? Similarly, you write, “I don't think there are many comments needed here. Loving someone will make them more likely to love back, pure and simple.” I think some comment is needed. If you describe submit and love in similar ways, why do you not also write something similar in regards to the discussion on submission? Why not “Submitting to someone will make them more likely to submit back, pure and simple”? I find it interesting, especially in light of the similar descriptions of love and submit, that when discussing the husbands’ duty to love, you work in some comments about the wives reciprocating that love. But, in the discussion on submission there are no comments on the husbands’ reciprocation. Why?

Philippians 2:3 is a great foundation for much of this sort of language. I think it echoes the sentiments of Eph 5:21, which more directly relate to the passage at hand.

Here we see the language of reciprocation more clearly. I think that language could just as easily found its way into the “exegesis” section of the discussion. I think the text itself allows, even calls for it. I do wonder, though, if the imagery of give-and-take or “best end of the stick” or “he/she will get his/her turn” maintains distinctions that the text is working toward abolishing. The whole of Ephesians is about the unity of the body of Christ and how that body is itself empowered with the same power that raised Christ to the right hand of God (1:17-21). I’ll grant that in the day-to-day parts of life, spouses bring different strengths to the table, but I get the sense that the author has in mind something bigger than the daily mundane tasks of cleaning and bill-paying. There is a unity (one-bodiedness) in marriage as there is in the Christ/Church relationship (a great mystery, by the way [5:32]). In Ephesians it is sometimes Christ in whom God will reconcile the world (1:10) and sometimes the Church (3:10). Though obviously distinct entitities, God’s fullness, God’s glory, God’s power is found in the Church AND in Christ Jesus (3:18-21). Likewise, God’s fullness, power, and glory is found in wives AND husbands; not sometimes wives, sometimes husbands. I am sure you are not arguing against this sort of unity, but the language and imagery of your post, I think, misplaces the emphasis of Ephesians. Ephesians is a grand (even univeral) epistle, even with respect to the household codes, in my opinion. We ought to call attention to that.

Thanks again for the space to talk these things out. Sorry I am so wordy.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I do regret not writing about the first century context more. I do however feel that I made references to the roles of husbands in the "submit" and "respect" part of my post. I did not couch my words the same in each section so this may not have been as obvious as I hoped it would have been, but I do mention that it is a high calling for a husband to have your wife submit to you as to the Lord. That says a lot about what sort of husband is in view here. Again, I guess I could have teased this out more (which I did later) but it is there, at least in some sense.

Your comments about the unity of marriage are instructive. Perhaps I should have simply left Huckabee's comments aside, which is why I went down the day-to-day road that I did. In light of your comments here, I would still say that the reciprocal way of relating of which I wrote is an expression of this unity. It shows love and respect for both parties, it engenders togetherness and support for one another, and it adds to the cohesiveness of the marriage bond.

Plus, honestly, my wife really like point #3! :)