Though we didn’t resolve any particular issue, we have successfully navigated the troubled waters of sexuality in our denominational debate, and then we raised and aired the issues related to gun violence in our society. Whew. Maybe we raised more questions than we answered, to be honest. But at least we discussed the issues from a variety of perspectives and managed to remain a caring community of faith with room for all. That in and of itself was a grand achievement. At least I’m counting it as one. And then next week we turn, with no little relief, to more informative issues about the ordering of our church life and practice.
Next week. Which means that this week we’re still on the edge. But with a subject that shouldn’t raise such feelings of division and debate, right? We’re dealing with the role of women in the church and in the family, from a biblical point of view. Oh. That. Well, um. Of all the subjects in which I am not an expert women is right up there at the top of the list. Trust me on this. So, I don’t speak with authority on the issue of women in general, neither do I claim to understand all the issues that women face in our society, or throughout history, the struggles faced and overcome, the mountains they had and still have to climb. I can’t speak of the psychology of women, how their minds work, or what gives them joy or makes them feel valued. Partly because I’m not very good about figuring that out, and partly because in my experience women, like men, are individuals who have their own minds and hearts.
What I do know is the Bible, and how to read it. And I know that the Bible has been used to oppress women in some significant ways in ages past and today. So, what I can do is help us take another look and see whether it is inherent in the text that women are subordinate to men. And if the text does imply such a thing, that whether that is the result of a patriarchal culture surrounding the writers or whether it is indeed the word of God for us and for all time. I don’t mean to suggest that such a determination is a simple one, but it is certain worth the struggle to get it right.
Ephesians 5:15-33 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind-- yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
I chose a passage both longer and shorter than the usual take on this subject. It is shorter because this is part of what is called the “household code”, and it goes from 5:22 through 6:9 It is called the household code because Paul took a common legal statement and reinterpreted it. There are many household codes from the time, all of them designed to determine the relative status of various members of the household - the women, the children, the servants and slaves. It is about order, about organizing society in a way that keeps everyone in their place. At least that is the intention of the code for everyone but Paul. Paul is interested in how the order can be Christ-like. We might differ with his results, but that he intends a Christian take to the way things are is clear.
Especially when you go back and grab the context for this part of the whole conversation to the Ephesians. That’s why I went back to verse fifteen. These verses are not considered a part of the code, and yet they help us put the code in a larger context. “Be careful then,” writes Paul, “how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Paul intends us to be aware that our faith is not separate from our life. This idea that faith is an intellectual exercise, about thoughts we have, beliefs we hold, and not about how we live is an anathema to Paul. He says that is absurd, that how we live isn’t shaped by how we believe, by our faith. (See Romans 6 for example) So, be careful how you live, he says. Let your life bear witness to your faith.
There’s no time to waste, he argues, the days are evil because we are on the brink of the new age. He isn’t interested in fixing what is wrong in this world, but preparing us for living in the next one. Consequently he doesn’t challenge the social order, but asks how can we make it as much like the kingdom of heaven as possible. And his answer is mutual love. Mutual. Love.
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Whatever comes next can only be understood in the context of this verse. Be subject to one another. There is a mutuality, and an equality in the faith that Paul expresses. Which means that we have to listen deeply to the rest of what is written to hear beyond the surface.
“Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Two things of note in interpreting this verse. First, in the culture in which he was writing, women did not have legal rights, except through a husband or father. Paul was simply describing the world as it was. The husband was head of the wife. That was a legal truth, the rightness or wrongness of this was not under discussion. It just was. However, Paul wanted to redefine that headship. It was not, or rather no longer was for the benefit of the head. Instead there is now a responsibility laid upon the one in this position. And that responsibility was to be as Christ-like as possible. It was now about sacrifice and about surrender. It was about service to the other, to the ones in care.
Paul goes on to define this new level of care when he says “husbands love your wives.” But not just love them, love them like Christ loved the church. Love them like Christ loved you. There is an inherent indebtedness. This is not about power, not about authority, except as Jesus defined authority, as one who serves. That the church has been complicit in misinterpreting this concept is a painful truth. Sending women back to abusers as a way of honoring God’s command to be subject is a gross misapplication of this idea. Of this truth.
In the end we are not to subject ourselves to any person but Christ. It is the Christ in the husband that the wife is commanded to be subject to. Not the man himself, with his sinfulness and self-centeredness. And the husband is subject to, in the command to love, the Christ in his wife. This is what Christians marriage is about, individually and mutually seeking to live as Christ to one another and the world. Challenging one another when we fall short, and acknowledging when we come close.
Even Paul begins to stumble when the implications of this become more clear. “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” In other words, I barely know what I’m talking about! This escapes me. But it is real, it is true. We are the church, in our relationships with one another and with the world. We are the church in that we seek after and claim the Christ who dwells within.
Be careful then how you live. May it be in a way that brings glory to the cause of Christ, always.