Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ephesians on Wives

Excerpt from chapter 7 of second Paul volume:

Ephesians 5:22-33 goes on to talk not only about the relationship between husbands and wives in the church but, even more significantly, about the relationship between Christ and the church. Indeed, most of what Ephesians says in these twelve verses is perhaps more about Christ and the church, only using the husband-wife relationship as a metaphor for this more significant relationship. As far as the husband-wife relationship, Ephesians assumes the standard relationship of wife to husband in the Mediterranean world and then sanctifies it, makes it holy. There is nothing uniquely biblical or Christian to say that “the husband is the head of the wife” (5:23). Again, Aristotle had said very similar things three hundred years before when he spoke of the “rule” of the husband in the household.

What is distinctly Christian in Paul’s day was thus the heightened value he gave to women, not the subordination of the wife to the husband, willingly or not.  Ephesians actually has very little to say to wives here. It merely seems to tell wives to submit to the authority of their husbands as all must submit to Christ’s authority (5:24), then it moves on to give instructions to the husband. In the last chapter, we asked whether this structure was more a matter of ancient culture or what God’s ideal might be for the present. While various Christians will disagree, we argued that because such structures will not exist in the kingdom of God, God would be pleased for us to abolish them now.

There is no reason for such structures either in relation to the intellect or potential leadership ability of women. The only reasons anyone might suggest are either cultural or simply because it is the rule. But in Western culture, giving women the same potential authority as men is not a detraction from the witness of the gospel.  In our context, husband headship simply for its own sake actually diminishes the world’s estimation of Christ. And the example of Jesus and Paul quickly suggests that God does not usually make rules for their own sake, especially when the rule is a potential hindrance to the gospel. We thus take the prophetic stance that taking the household codes out of their own world and applying it to our quite different one is contrary to the gospel and the trajectory of the kingdom.

Ephesians admonishes husbands to love their wives, even to the degree that Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for it (5:25). Some women have suggested that they would willingly submit to their husbands if they had this attitude.  Certainly both husbands and wives should have this kind of love for each other. At the same time, we want to challenge such women in the same way we might have challenged slaves before the American Civil War. The woman who responds in this way is like the slave of the early 1800s who might have said, “If my master treated me like a brother or sister, I would gladly serve him.”

But the full gospel today goes way beyond, “masters, treat your slaves as if they are your brothers.” It is time for us to play the gospel out in a fuller way than even the New Testament church did in its day. It sells the kingdom short and can bury your God-given potential in the ground. Some of those most opposed to women in ministry are not men, but women who enjoy not having to take the lead, even though they have more spiritual wisdom than their husbands several times over. God does not expect every woman to lead any more than he expects every man to lead. But every woman and man should heed the charge of 1 Thessalonians 5:19 not to “put out the Spirit’s fire”!

If God calls you as a woman to lead, you had best not disobey. If God has given you the greater wisdom in a moment of decision, why impoverish those who might benefit? If you as a husband can see your wife's greater wisdom in a moment of decision, what value is there in resisting it? Clearly we must be sensitive to our circumstances. God is a God of peace. But God also is not a God of timidity!


JohnM said...

"There is nothing uniquely biblical or Christian to say that “the husband is the head of the wife” (5:23)."
True enough. Neither is there anything uniquely 1st century Mediterranean world about it.

Ken Schenck said...

If I'm reading your response correctly, you have put your finger on the issue. Is this something built into the structure of the universe for all time (something I do not think can be supported on any empirical basis) or is this a feature of fallen human culture?

JohnM said...

I don't think we can write off Paul's instructions to the Ephesians as accomidating his contemporary culture. Note that even as Paul counterculturally emphasized the value and dignity of women he apparently did not see fit to counterculturally correct anyones understanding of the fundamental husband-wife relationship.

Whether or not empirical proof is possible I suppose would depend upon what you accept as empirical method or as proof. I wonder though, are we to automatically regard all aspects of all human cultures as competley fallen? If not, why single this one out (surely the majority report in history), or at least the burden of proof, empirical or otherwise, is on those who would do so.

Ken Schenck said...

Time will tell. My sense is that this is the direction the Spirit is taking history, so we will see eventually whether I'm a false prophet or not ;-)