You’re At A Wedding, So You’re Going To Hear About Ephesians

Pity the Christian pastor. He — and for the purposes of this essay, it’ll always be a he — has a bright, eager young couple before him and, behind them, a church full of family and friends happy to share in the joy of their wedding. The ceremony he’s performed many times before is nonetheless unique for this woman and this man. If he knows the couple, he can add a few anecdotes and a couple of personal references that enhance the atmosphere in which they’ll take their vows, and he’ll always be sure to send them on their marital way with the admonition to love, honor, respect and be faithful to one another ’til death do them part. Thankfully, most of them will by now have recognized that asking the woman to obey her husband is unScriptural, but if the couple is married in Moscow, it’s likely that she’ll have to agree to that. Our good evangelical pastor will know, of course, that half of the marriages he and his brethren perform will end in divorce, just like the marriages begun by non-Christian pastors, justices of the peace, and the ordained fringe, but he’ll hope this couple makes it. So to be sure, he will usually quote from Ephesians 5, which assures women that they must submit to their husbands and admonishes men to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. He may, if he’s brave, go into the verses that follow, which are a heady and difficult metaphor that, if taken literally, charges the husband with his wife’s spiritual well-being and purity and, if taken reasonably and in context, still leave everyone wondering just where the husband’s role ends and Christ’s takes over. He’ll be sure the woman knows that submission to her guy is God’s plan, although nowadays he’ll offer a tepid warning that she must never be subject to violence or abuse — only subject, by virtue of her sex, to her husband. And he’ll tell the man to show “true Biblical manhood” by loving his wife as an equal, never lording — at least not too much — his authority over her. He’ll have the Bible on his side, and most of the audience will know that they’ve attended a truly Christian wedding. They’ll never really notice that he doesn’t mention the verse that precedes the ones about wives submitting and husbands loving: Ephesians 5:21, which, in introducing the sometimes-difficult metaphorical nature of the twelve verses that follow, says unequivocally: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Submit. To one another. Even for the Biblical literalist, this is clear — the husbands and wives addressed in the next section are charged initially with submitting to EACH OTHER, and to do so as a sign of their love for Christ Jesus. Hermeneutically and logically, this is the foundational statement through which subsequent verses must be interpreted. It’s Bible Study 101 — unless the practice of it undermines the masculinist view of marriage today that insists that the purpose of the passage is not mutual submission, but unilateral submission; hierarchy, not an egalitarian, symbiotic living out of the Christian life in the family. Alas, it’s the masculinist view of marriage that prevails, and the winds of the hierarchy it promotes are blowing through the church with perhaps even greater gusto than in decades past. The New Reformers and the Christian Patriarchs have ramped up their insistence that marriage is founded on the literal words of Ephesians 5:22-28, wherein the wife is indeed told to submit to her husband and the husband is — it’s right there on the page — told to just love his wife, regardless of the metaphorical confusion of the verses that continue through v. 33 that quizzically seems to make them way more accountable for their wife’s spiritual condition than the rest of Scripture would allow. This is the sort of confusion that makes it possible for Doug Wilson’s son-in-law, Ben Merkle, to a write an odious and silly piece suggesting that if a woman cries out and acts up during what he unfortunately calls “child labor” but what grownups call “childbirth,” it’s the fault of the husband for not adequately preparing her spiritually, as — say it with me now! — Ephesians 5 insists. That hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Wilson accolytes have read this and taken it to heart is grievous, but a Church captured by willful ignorance and willing conformity to culture tends to have that happen. But the Biblical literalist, the one who looks at “the plain words on the paper” and who eschews any idea of context — the truth that the recipients of Paul’s letter were steeped in a culture that promoted the kind of pagan goddess worship that had women running roughshod over men in an attempt to work out their “religion” — has a problem. First, it’s undeniable, right there in the text, that marital submission is to be mutual (v. 21). That sets the hermeneutical and practical understanding of the verses that follow. Second, if the text following is to be “taken literally,” then women don’t have to love their husbands, just submit to them, and ONLY husbands have to demonstrate love in the marriage, while never submitting. If the submission in v. 22 is unequivocally unilateral, then the love in v. 25 is as well. Interestingly, it often works out that way in patriarchal marriage — the woman submits but finds herself unable to love the man in authority over her, and the man loves his compliant wife while failing to develop any particular, real respect for her. The third problem is that this understanding of Ephesians 5:21-33 is that what is clearly, in. vv. 29-33, a metaphor — which, by definition, cannot be taken literally without doing grave violence to the idea it hopes to represent — is taken literally (although the idea in v. 31 that a man move to his wife’s people and not the reverse, as initially stated in Genesis, is rarely considered), which results in a very odd, and alien to the doctrine of soteriology and sanctification, determination that the husband be the mediator between the wife and Christ. Paul echoes what the rest of the New Testament teaches: There is only one mediator between God and humankind, and that’s the human One, Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). The husband cannot save or sanctify his wife, and a wooden,lifeless, literal and lacking-in-context insistence on the hierarchical and unbalanced submission and love of a “just the words on the page” of Ephesians 5:22-33 does damage to the text’s intention, purposely ignores v.21, violates the testimony of the Gospel of salvation, and, not incidentally, results in marriages that reflect not Christ’s love for and union with the Body, but a weird, sometimes oppressive, always inaccurate coupling that looks a whole lot more like the culture around it than the Body from which it sprung. It’s what people expect, though, and it’s what our beleaguered pastor feels he must offer in marriage ceremonies — a bland, literal complementarianism that satisfies the couple — it’s a “Christian” wedding after all! — and reassures the congregation. That he and others like him fail to see the redemptive, wholistic, glorious mutuality of Ephesians 5 is not just tragic, not just unfortunate, and not just the predictable result of decades of insistence on “the woman’s place in the home.” It’s also too often a recipe for abuse, alienation, anger and anxiety — the very things that Holy Spirit of Christ has promised to deliver us from. Ephesians 5 is a beautiful passage — when understood properly. In the hands of the inept, the unwilling, the weary and the comfortable, though, this part of God’s Word has begun many a Christian marriage on a rocky, unwavering path to failure. Marriage can only flourish when both people love, both people submit, both people trust, and both people nourish each other. That’s the theme of the Gospel and the testimony of the New Testament, but it seems hidden from, or perhaps by, today’s pastoral body — to their shame and to our disgrace.

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