A Canonical Reading of Ephesians 5:21-33

Having historically been thought to be a unified text, the Bible underwent critical attack during the eighteenth century via the historical-critical method which sought to isolate passages and focus specifically on the original intention and context of its genesis. Thus, difficult passages were no longer read in light of the whole canon and were interpreted independent of how the church had traditionally received and used them. In addition to this turn of events, biblical hermeneutics has increasingly recognized the subtle ways in which our present context influences how we understand a text. It also means that particular passage, such as Ephesians 5:21-33 which raises a great deal of difficultly and controversy, must be proved credible for every contemporary audience. Neither solely a corrupted verse in conformity to Greco-Roman patriarchy nor an uncontaminated passage in the plain sense, we must ask how this canonized passage bears witness to the good news of Christ and in what way it is fruitful for the church.

In comparison to 1 Cor. 11:2-6 and 1 Tim. 2:9-15, only Eph. 5:21-33 is developed in christological terms. The point being, if any form of human hierarchy is binding, specifically relating to gender in this case, it would have to be warranted by Christ himself. Read in reference to how the New Testament as a whole gives witness to the proper form of interpersonal relationships, this passage is immediately in tension with the consistent challenging of hierarchy portrayed in the Gospels. Even Ephesians regularly speaks of “mutual submission” in Christ, an affirmation that seems inconsistent with the subordination of wives to husbands. Granted, since all human beings are different, subordination might look drastically different and uneven from one person to the next when lived out practically. Given that hierarchy in some form is inevitable, it is plausible that this passage speaks to how all persons are to behave submissively in their respective place. But the broader passage exhorts all to service of one another. The fact that wives are singled out is a particular oddity and a serious problem.

Even the analogy between husbands and wives to Christ and the church is a fuzzy parallel. In what sense is the husband a “savior” or “sanctifier” of his wife in the same way Christ is of the church? The author concludes that such logic is faulty theological grounds for deeming husbands the head of their wives. It would be less troubling of course if both parties were exemplified to be mutually subordinate, but in this instance husbands are encouraged to display love whereas wives are told to be unilaterally obedient. Furthermore, Jesus was never preferential in who he called to mutual love and service. His commands were equally binding for all his followers. There was no longer any justification for hierarchal relations. As a result, set within a broader canonical context, this passage is theologically unstable.

So in what way is this passage profitable in any canonical sense? It seems clear that the writer of Ephesians was attempting to articulate the lordship of Christ in concrete terms but undermines this agenda in the process. As mentioned above, there are real practical difficulties in trying to apply what it means to be “mutually submissive.” Eventually certain people are provisionally elevated above others when subordination occurs. Even Jesus seems to suggest that it is not always pertinent to be subordinate in every situation but, at times, to challenge and even claim authority. Since it is not possible for everyone to be subordinate in the same way all the time it must be admitted that there is a great deal of ambivalence and fluidity to living out mutual service. Hence it is not reducible to a sole definition abstracted outside of context but must be worked out in time. Furthermore, this understanding of service is in agreement with the provisional responsibility Christians have towards political systems of society. As Jesus’ examples suggest, are relationship to authority will often leave the powers that be perplexed and enraged.

As follows, Ephesians 5 is not the final word or the end of the discussion to this matter but rather the beginning. This passage bears witness to the reality and difficulty of trying to hear God in the midst of life and figuring out what it means to be a disciple of Christ in every given situation.

*This has been a summary of Ian McFarlands “A Canonical Reading of Ephesians 5:21-33: Theological Gleanings” in Theology Today (Oct 2000)


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