My wife and I had Ephesians 5:21-33 read at our wedding. From our perspective, there is no better description of practical marriage than these verses. But some of our friends were taken aback by this choice. They wondered how we could possibly believe such an outdated, patriarchal, male dominated view of marriage? Twenty-two years later and this section of Ephesians often provokes a similar, if not even more heated, response. However, when we take time to really read and understand what Paul is saying we realize that what may appear at first glance as oppressive is in actuality life giving.
For starters, we need to make sure we don't ignore verse 21, which gives us the full context of what is to follow. Paul says, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Paul is about to describe a number of different household relationships (husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters), but the underlying principle for all of them is mutual submission. Now this may sound like an oxymoron. When we hear the word "submission," we automatically think of a power differential, of one person imposing his or her will on another person. That was the world Paul lived in, and it is the world we live in today.
However, Christianity has always been counter cultural. Jesus continually turned the power structures of his day on their head, and Paul is doing the same thing here. Since mutual submission is such a strange concept to grasp, Paul then goes on to show specifically how it is done, and he begins with the most fundamental of human relationships: that of husband and wife.
It is here that Paul shows some remarkable insights into basic human nature. He understands that men and women are (dare I even say it) different. Not only are we different physically, but we are also different emotionally. Of course Paul is making a generalization here, and we will always be able to find exceptions, but in general men and women have different emotional needs when it comes to human interactions and relationships. Men typically want to be respected and women want to be loved. Consequently, the way a husband is meant to submit to his wife is going to look different than how a wife submits to her husband. Paul will now take each one in turn.
He begins with the wife. Starting in verse 22, Paul says, "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything." For nearly 2000 years men have done this verse a great disservice by taking out of context. They have used it as a justification for abusing their wives and forcefully imposing their wills upon them. But that was not Paul's intention at all. When he says that, "the husband is the head of the wife," we need to keep reading that sentence. He doesn't say, "the husband is the head of the wife as the king is head of his vassals." Instead, he sets Christ and the church up as the model for headship.
When we use Christ's relationship with his church as our model, everything changes drastically. When we read the New Testament, how does Jesus express his headship? Does he do it by ordering his disciples around? No. Does he make them do things for him that he doesn't want to do himself? No. Does he call them names or ridicule them? No. He demonstrates his headship most clearly on the cross, by suffering and dying for his church. So ultimately headship is not about imposing one's will, but rather it is about sacrificing for the good of the other. The husband thus demonstrates his headship when he is willing to sacrifice his own wants and desires in order to do what is best for his wife. Under this model, the wife's submission is not burdensome at all, because she knows that her husband's driving force is her own wellbeing. When she affirms his headship by submitting to his authority, she affirms her husband as well.
Paul then goes on to tell the husbands how they must submit to their wives. He says in verse 25, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." Once again we see a sacrificial model of headship being presented. Husbands are called to love their wives with the love of Christ. This agape love is unconditional and unwavering. It is not "I love you if..." or, "I love you when..." but rather, "I love you always." A husband's top priority is never himself, but rather his wife.
Brothers and sisters, when we think of headship and authority, whether it is in the family, in the workplace, or in the church, this is the model we must use. As the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church, I have been called to the spiritual headship of our community. This is a burden and a responsibility that I do not take lightly. My prayer is that every decision that I make would be made for the good of the body. My decisions may not always be popular, but with the guidance of God the Holy Spirit I will always seek to make the best ones. As we continue on this journey together and as you learn to submit to the authority which has been placed upon me as your Rector, please know that I am submitting myself not only to my bishop, Holy Scripture, and Christ himself, but to you as well.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.