Spouses, Slaves and Submission: Reading Ephesians in the 21st Century

Two Sundays ago many Christians heard a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians which opens the door to the very different world in which the Church first emerged:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 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 Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands (5:21-24)

The Lectionary had proven surprisingly topical for Australians. The previous week, news had come that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney was proposing a marriage service in which wives would promise to "submit" to their husbands, language which runs counter to the current liturgy authorised in most of the Anglican Church of Australia, where identical vows are offered by both bride and groom. 

The framers of the Lectionary did not see fit to continue their selections from that ancient compendium of household advice into the following chapter, where children (not just minors) are urged to obey parents, and then this:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart (6:5-6)

The logic is identical, and in all these cases the writer (not the apostle Paul himself, in the view of most critical scholars, but an early follower) also makes demands of the figure to whom authority is given; husbands must love the wives, fathers should not provoke their children, and slave-owners are not to threaten their slaves.

In the ancient context, this was fairly enlightened stuff. While the fundamental structures of ancient Greco-Roman society are accepted, the early Christians are here urged to inhabit them with moderation and mutual consideration. If we get past the myth of immediacy which suggests we can judge the author as though they had our own sensibilities, we can perhaps be sympathetic to the positions outlined, at least as a survival strategy for the emerging Christian movement in a potentially hostile world. But the social institutions or hierarchies are not themselves being advocated or established in Ephesians; rather the recipients of the letter are all being advised to face what the world had given them with the virtues of patience and charity. 

To develop a theological sense of how power relations should be assessed, and supported or opposed or transformed, requires far more than a de-contexualized citation of such proof texts.

In this new debate however, as in those over the ordination of women, leading Sydney Anglicans have argued for a notion of male "headship" derived from passages such as these, taking the ancient authors' advice about 1st century existence within a given social order as a prescription for the 21st century social order itself. 

Most Australians, including those whose bible knowledge may be less well-developed than their common sense, are rightly disturbed by such suggestions. They understand that we should not tolerate promotion of inequality between men and women, or slavery for that matter. 

Most Christians, Anglicans included, think as much too, and have for many years. Although Archbishop Peter Jensen is reported as saying egalitarianism is a phenomenon of the last 3-4 decades, the "obey" provision was being eased out of Anglican liturgy as long ago as 1928, when a revised Prayer Book was then proposed for the hardly-radical Church of England.

This proposal then illustrates not the real meaning of scripture, but the idiosyncrasies of one part of Anglicanism. Many will perceive dangers for women in these proposals. But there are dangers for the Churches too. If the Bible is seen as the preserve of a fundamentalism not so much genuinely conservative as creatively reactionary, the capacity of Christians to use scripture as a basis for seeking social relations characterised by mutuality, justice and love is compromised for all, not only for the fundamentalists. 


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