Thursday, May 19, 2011

Adiaphora Extended II: Ephesians 5:21-33

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 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 Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Context is everything. Each of these links provides various contexts within which one should consider what the author of the above passage is saying. First, a general look at marriage in the Greco-Roman world; then, a look at marriage (roughly) in Second Temple Judaism; finally the preceding long passage on the Christian life of which the teachings on marriage are a part.

In general, the author of Ephesians (I am setting to one side, for the nonce, the question of the authorship of this epistle; my very non-expert opinion is that its author is not St. Paul, but certainly someone writing under his theological influence, and perhaps even under his authority) sees the common life of Christians as something wholly distinct from the rest of the world (which the author calls "evil"). There are admonitions against sexual immorality, against gluttony and drunkenness, all as markers not of a moral life lived for its own sake, but as markers of the new creation of all things in which they participate through baptism (and here, the author makes a direct link to the descent and ascension of Christ).

The passage on marriage is interesting in any number of ways. First, it takes marriage for granted as an already-existing institution the fundamental nature of which has been altered, as are all things in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before the author says anything specifically about the differing roles in marriage comes the following: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." This sets a further context for considering the passage that follows. Furthermore, consider the construction in light of the general comments on marriage in pagan and Jewish antiquity. Here, the author is quite clearly distinguishing Christian marriage from other known and accepted practices. Because of the patriarchal nature of Greco-Roman society as well as Second Temple Judaism, the admonition to be subject to one another already sets up a contrast with the surrounding cultures (if, indeed, this letter was written for Ephesus, this would have been even more of a contrast because of the pagan population of the city; my annotated Bible notes that earliest manuscripts omit "to Ephesus", so its original destination may well be in some doubt). Rather than the man completely dominating the marriage contract, with the woman viewed as property to be paid for (the bride-price) and picked up by the husband on her wedding night like a delivery (not to mention the absence of any legal protection for the wife in either legal setting), the author sets up marriage as a relationship of mutual submission in which both husband and wife are fully engaged subjects. This mutuality is called for not out of any inherent integrity the husband and wife have in and for themselves. Nor is it a part of marriage as it is, or should be. Rather, this mutuality is to be done for the sake of Christ.

The opening lines of the marriage service in the United Methodist Book of Worship reads as follows:
Friends, we are gathered together in the sight of God to witness and bless the joining together of - and - in Christian marriage. The covenant of marriage was established by God, who created us male and female for each other. With his presence and power Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee, and in his sacrificial love gave us the example for the love of husband and wife. - and - come to give themselves to one another in this holy covenant.(emphasis added)
The italicized portion of this greeting is, taking this passage as one's starting point for a uniquely Christian view of marriage, unbiblical. Rather than an institution created by God, marriage is an institution that has always existed, and is transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Right here, at the very beginning of the Christian era, the institution is being reimagined in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. While any good feminist - and some not-feminists, too! - would point out that beginning with the submission of the wife leaves the overlying structure of patriarchy intact (and would be quite right so to do), I maintain that this is a revisioned patriarchy, reinterpreted in the light of the patriarchy of God, revealed as graceful kenosis, rather than arbitrary and capricious dominance.

I would immediately follow that observation with the qualifier that, in actual practice, this verse concerning wifely submission, ripped out of any and all contexts, has become a very large stick with which to beat (often quite literally) women down, both within marriage itself, and in society at large. Which is all the more reason to do a couple things here. First, consider it in light of the cross-currents of contexts in which it occurs; second, to take the lead on how we think about marriage as Christians not from anything specific that the author of Ephesians says about the roles of husband and wife (although I maintain there is still much good here to be mined), but rather to consider the theological setting in which the author wishes married couples to see themselves - to live their lives out of the faith granted in the grace of crucified and risen Christ.

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