by Sarah Sumner

Marriage is a mystery: The Bible says that husband and wife become “one flesh,” as head and body, in the likeness of Christ and the church. The husband is the head; the wife is the body. Together they project a spiritual image, a bizarre picture of a male-headed female body.

The language of “one flesh” and “head” is metaphorical, of course. And as Eugene Peterson wisely puts it, “A metaphor, instead of pinning down meaning, lets it loose. The metaphor does not so much define or label as it does expand.”

But as metaphors expand into mystery, we become impatient, and we start reading into the metaphor things that are not there.

For example, it is often assumed that the word head means “leader”—though the Bible never says the husband is the “leader” of his wife. The mystery of one flesh is exchanged for a business model in which the husband is the boss and the wife his assistant.

In addition, many evangelicals assume that the husband is the head of the house. But the Bible does not say that. It says that the husband is the head “of the wife” (Eph. 5:23). He is the head of her. That makes sense in light of the biblical picture of one flesh. It’s nonsensical, by contrast, for anyone to think that the husband is one flesh with his household.

The back-and-forth crossfire in the gender wars can, in part, be traced to our tendency to attempt to solve an uncomfortable mystery rather than honoring the biblical metaphor that describes it. But a careful look at the biblical teaching on marriage may well transcend the gridlock that we’re in. Let’s take Ephesians 5 as a prime example.

One Tricky Passage

Most evangelicals would probably agree that Ephesians 5 contains the most vivid biblical teaching on marriage. Many, however, argue over which verse—Ephesians 5:21 (“be subject to one another”) or 5:22 (translated as “wives, be subject to your own husbands”)—marks the beginning of the paragraph on marriage. This disagreement is significant because the first line of the paragraph, particularly in this case, may determine the practical meaning of the passage.

Everyone agrees that chapter 5 begins by addressing a general audience of believers. Verse 1 says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Verse 2, “And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us. … ” If we skip down a ways, we find that Ephesians 5:18-21, still addressing a general audience, forms a single sentence in the Greek. The New American Standard Bible renders it this way:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

It’s inconsistent to say that the first four commandments—not to be drunk with wine, to speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, to sing and make melody with our hearts to the Lord, and to give thanks to God for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—apply to everyone equally while the fifth and final commandment—to be subject to one another as a matter of fearing the Lord—is suddenly one-directional, applying only to some, but not to others. Yes, we need leaders in the church. But the verse is pretty clear that mutual submission in the Christian community applies to all Christians generally.

If we look at the Greek, the very next verse says literally, “Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). In the Greek there is no verb. Wives do what? To find out, we have to refer to verse 21. In Ephesians 5:21, the verb is “be subject,” so that’s what it is in verse 22. This, by the way, explains why many scholars believe that Ephesians 5:21-22 are inseparably interconnected. The verb in verse 22 must be supplied by verse 21. Otherwise, Ephesians 5:22 is verbless.

So, then, where does the paragraph begin? In Ephesians 5:21, where the verb is supplied? Or in Ephesians 5:22, where Paul addresses wives?

If we start with Ephesians 5:21, it appears that a husband and wife should “be subject to one another” within marriage. Egalitarians refer to this dynamic as “mutual submission.” They say husbands are commanded to submit to their own wives just as wives are commanded to submit to their own husbands.

However, if we start with Ephesians 5:22, it appears that only a wife should be subject to her own husband, since the passage doesn’t tell the husband specifically to be subject to his wife. Notice that both sides agree that God commands the wife to be subject to her own husband. Evangelical feminists are not so feministic as to deny the biblical mandate for wives to be submissive to their husbands.

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