EPHESIANS AND THE RELATIONSHIP OF HUSBAND AND WIFE

The relationship between husband and wife as discussed in Ephesians 5:21-33 was underlying the controversy in 1998 and again in 2000 when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) adopted revised statements of faith, called the “The Baptist Faith and Message”.  The SBC used Ephesians 5:21-33 as a component of the basis for the portion their statement that dealt with marriage and some news accounts portrayed this faith statement as redefining a woman’s participation and a requirement for submission to the husband in marriage.  In examining the meanings of the actual scripture in context to other Biblical teachings and scholarly work it is apparent that the press accounts of the SBC statement and underlying Scripture in many cases do not reflect the actual Ephesians message.  In fact, the message of Ephesians defines a vertical relationship submission in a context not typical of human relationships, but modeled after a submission to Christ.

This writing will examine at a top level the meanings of the epistle to the Ephesians for husband-wife relationships without regard to the controversy of Paul’s authorship.  The primary approach will be an examination the application of the teachings in the modern world, what metaphors may or may not have been used, and the underlying context of the meaning of the epistle in relation to other New Testament content around the relationship between husband and wife.

It is perhaps inappropriate to interpret the message of Ephesians in the modern context of the equality of men and women.  This is a social construct of today’s society and such interpretation may impact the ability to understand the Biblical truth.  Paul’s theology around male-female roles is unrelated to the truth held in the teachings to be gained.

For instance, Paul could be interpreted in Ephesians 6:5-9 as upholding a right to hold slaves.  While this is clearly not applicable in the modern world, the context used was similar to that used in chapter five in that it mirrors the idea of submission to Christ.  In 1 Timothy there is a similar passage which could be considered modernly controversial:

“Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. And it was the woman, not Adam, who was deceived by Satan, and sin was the result. But women will be saved through childbearing and by continuing to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.” (NLV 1Tim 11-15)

Out of context and without proper reference to the time and situation of the author, this could be misinterpreted when overlain to modern society.   Women barred from teaching, business, on the basis of this passage written at a specific cultural point in time would most like do more damage to Christianity than it would to fulfill the will of God.

But the Biblical truth can be interpreted directly into the non-Ephesian life.  In Ephesians 5:25 there is a statement that helps identify the biblical truth of the message Paul was conveying, “And you husbands must love your wives with the same love Christ showed the church. He gave up his life for her…”. (NLV)  This shows the nature of the relationship between spouses that is being taught.  But the most controversial verses for modern interpretation in Ephesians may be 23 and 24:

“For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of his body, the church; he gave his life to be her Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives must submit to your husbands in everything.”(NLV)

 

In a modern secular viewpoint, these verses seem to say that wife’s should be entirely submissive.  But this is where it is important to understand historical Christian verses modern context.  Ephesians was written during an exceptionally morally corrupt period and the Ephesians were exceptionally morally corrupt.  The author Helmut Koester wrote in Introduction to the New Testament, “There is a corrective to Gnosticism is Ephesians, namely its moralism.” Ephesians could then be considered as an attempt at correction to the immorality, mysticism and dualism that had pocketed existence in early Christianity and thus an epistle very tailored to the specific needs of its audience. Thus, the most likely Ephesians interpretation in modern day should be a truth that, according to author Gilbert Bilezikian, is “reciprocal servanthood under the sole lordship of Christ”.

It is important, however, to consider that the New Testament contains other teachings that show both further Biblical context the husband-wife relationship which should be taken under further which can be applied to a husband wife relationship and these can be interpreted as teaching that the husband does have authority.  In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul wrote, “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”  And in Colossians 3:18-19 it is stated, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.”  In 1 Peter 3:1-6:

“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement. Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. “

Again, these particular teachings are in letters to the fledgling churches and reflective of the time in which they were written.  The relationship to the Ephesians verses is important when considered in that historical context, as is the applicability of Biblical truths derived from proper exegetical interpretation of these epistles.

Like many of the books of the Bible, Ephesians contains metaphors.  As was the custom of writing in the first century, these metaphors are used to provide a way to interpret the message and teachings.  In The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-3, author Gregory W Dawes examines the “living” and “dead” metaphorical concepts with the metaphors in Ephesians paying particular attention to the way “head”, “body”, and “mystery” are used.  Dawes proposes that the use of the Greek words in the original manuscripts have some metaphorical inconsistencies.  These potential inconsistencies, while not destroying the original truths of the message, may in fact lead to different ways of interpretation and applicability of the passages to husband and wife relationships.

A further examination of metaphorical usage of key epistle terms of “head” and “submission” was published by Peter O’Brien in The Letter to the Ephesians.  O’Brien writes, “The mere presence of the terms ‘head’ and ‘submission’ … does not of itself establish stereotypes of masculine and feminine behavior.”  O’Brien goes on to explain the cultural diversity in husband and wife roles and how a husbands role in a given society is to be modeled after Christ’s place in His church.

The conclusion that may be drawn from the use of metaphors is that were used by the author to draw an allegory to spousal relationship and bond to that of Christ’s relationship with his church.  In the context of the New Testament, this reinforces man’s vertical relationship with God.

The Bible contains several role relationships that mirror the relationship between Christ and the Christian and God and Christ.  The author of Ephesians follows this and other New Testament models in the teachings of the vertical husband-wife relationships.  This relationship also entails the responsibility of the husband, as Christ is responsible for his church and God for man.  The submission of both husband and wife is the submission to God.  The interpretation can be made that the husband must submit more to the wife in this context, as his submission is modeled on the responsibility as well and accountability for his family. In conclusion, when considering authority of Christ, in both Paul’s and modern time, the submissiveness of both husband and wife can be interpreted as a single effort which, like marriage, entails a responsibility to God from both parties.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Southern Baptist Convention.  “The Baptist Faith and Message,”  (2000)

Koester, Helmut.  Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature of Early Christianity. (Berlin, Germany: Gruyter &Company, 1982/2000)

Williams, George.  Complete Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI :Kregel, 1994)

Ferguson. Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, (Grand Rapids Michichigan:  Eerdmans Publishing)

Gilbert Bilezikian, “Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family”, (Baker Academic Grand Rapids)

Dawes, Gregory. The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998)

O’Brien, Peter. The Letter to the Ephesians. (Grand Rapids Michigan:  Eerdmans Publishing)

Southern Baptist Convention.  “The Baptist Faith and Message,”  (2000): 11

Koester, Helmut.  Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature of Early Christianity. (Berlin, Germany: Gruyter &Company, 1982/2000), 278

Williams, George.  Complete Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI :Kregel, 1994), 921

Ibid, Koester, 275

Ferguson. Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, (Grand Rapids Michichigan:  Eerdmans Publishing)310

Gilbert Bilezikian, “Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family”, (Baker Academic Grand Rapids), 185

Dawes, Gregory. The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998)

O’Brien, Peter. The Letter to the Ephesians. (Grand Rapids Michichigan:  Eerdmans Publishing), 414

 

 

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