Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mystery of Submission - Ephesians 5 (part 4 of 16)

Continued from here.

Details for Wives

So why does Paul continue writing details for wives after telling the church that submission is part of living in the Spirit? If it is obvious we are to submit to one another, why not just stop writing in verse 21? Why the specific instruction to wives? Well, as I read it, I think he’s showing how verse 21 is applied in marriage, in case some believe Kingdom living only happens when we gather. We will see how it applies to wives now, and then how it applies to husbands later.

Verse 22 says, Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.

Wives are to “order under” their husbands. It is a posture of humility to defer to him, be associated with him. What is interesting is that “submit” is in the middle-voice, a voice not in English. We have passive voice in English, “The ball was hit.” We have active voice, “I hit the ball.” But middle voice is different. It is what is done to oneself, “The ball hit itself.” Wives are to take it upon themselves to submit; the submission is not to be enacted upon them, forcing them to comply. So while a commander of an army is to make his subordinates submit, this is not the case in marriage. Because God is our commander, we submit to one another, we choose to order ourselves under those we love, including wives to husbands.

I like that Paul adds the little word “own.” Wives are to submit to their own husbands. It may be easier to submit to other men in the assembly, men who you don’t have to live with, who don’t hurt you with their tone or disrespect. It’s always easier to be kind to people less intimate. So Paul adds a nice little detail. Submit of yourselves to the one who is closest to you, the one who is likely the most difficult to submit to: your own husband.[1]

I think it also reasonable to say Paul adds "own husband" here because he's moving from the plural "wives" to the singular. It could be confusing to say "wives submit to your husbands," allowing people to suggest that married women should submit to all married men. Instead, Paul clarifies, "own," and we are left with the picture of the matrimonial "one flesh" in tact.

The rest of the phrase carries a simile, or a comparative phrase, “as you do to the Lord.” This could be read several ways:

1) Submit to your husband in the same way you obey the Lord,

2) Submit to your husband for the reputation of the Lord (cf. Eph 6: 1, 7), or

3) Submit unto the Lord through submitting to your husband (like verse 21, out of “reverence for Christ”).

I think choice (1) goes against the character of the rest of the passage. Not only does it lean against the paradox of verse 21 where we are informed to “submit to one another,” but it curiously leaves out ideas of “obedience” to the husband as we have to the Lord, an obedience we find in the later context of children and slaves in Ephesians 6. Choice (2) and (3) work in relation to the rest of the passage, a throwback to our “reverence for Christ,” and also works with what we understand about God’s sovereignty and protective hand. When we submit to one another it is always a risk. And if people are found untrustworthy, then we make stricter boundaries for them, including husbands and wives. But in general, submission is scary because it makes us vulnerable. Yet this is the kind of vulnerability that Jesus the Messiah demonstrated to his Father as well as to his disciples (entrusting them with his message, washing their feet) and asks us to do the same. This is the kingdom life of love, trust, authenticity.

In the next post, I'll talk briefly about some cultural background...

[1] I’ve heard many teachers say Paul says “own husband” to specialize the submission Paul is talking about here. Yet in light of the discussion on verse 21, I cannot justify this as a specialized submission. I don’t even know what that would mean, “Submit even more”? But Paul doesn’t say that even though he could easily do so. Also, in light of Paul’s other writings about humility and respect for one another, I am most convinced by the view that says Paul is making a practical admonition that, yes, as a follower of Jesus, humility and kindness is also needed to be applied to your husband (even if he isn’t perfect).