Queer Ephesians 5.21-33: Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord

Ephesians’ teaching on gender roles is perhaps the most controversial element of the letter. But that controversy is because of a consistent reading out of the context of the whole of Ephesians. When we read this section in its theological context, this passage can be good news and a good challenge for queer people. It speaks of our unity in Christ which we are called to manifest in our relationships. What could be queerer than mutual subjection to others who are also ourselves?


Gender roles will continue to be a difficult topic for the Church for many years to come, as will the imbalance of power dynamics in all aspects of human life, with the potential for abuse and the idolatrous assumption of Christ’s role in many painful ways. But Ephesians offers us a way forward. Remember that in all things you are called to manifest the unity of your common faith in Jesus Christ, your common identity in him, your common participation in his body. And subject yourselves, without exception, each and every one of you, to each other, as you subject yourselves to him.

Of all the posts in this Queer Ephesians series, this is probably the one which people who have been talking to me about it have most keenly expected. The last part of Ephesians 5 is one of the most difficult texts in the whole canon for those who feel they do not fit into society’s traditional essentialist understanding of sex and gender roles. It has been used and is still used by many Churches to browbeat women into submission and to exclude those who do not conform to the clear categories outlined in the text. It is used to reinforce the idea that Christians can only be truly Christians whilst operating within the hetero-patriarchy.

In short, this is one of the texts that it is most tempting for the Church to bash queer people on the head with. And it is also one of the texts which we are most tempted to simply reject as not applying to our own lives.

And that might be true. I have a lot of respect for queer people who say, honestly and intelligently, that Ephesians 5 has much to say about male-female marriages, but nothing to say about queer relationships.

But I don’t think that is true. In my opinion, this isn’t a text that is really about straight cisgendered marriage at all. That is certainly the application that is used to demonstrate the theological and tropological message. But the actual message is something far more profound. It is something which calls queer people to sit up and take note… and it is something from which we can draw encouragement and strength.


Be Subject to One Another

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

There is one verse at the beginning of this section which is almost universally overlooked in heteropatriarchal exegesis. However, it is a controlling verse. It acts like a subtitle, guiding us in our reading of what follows. And it is not what you might expect. Given how Ephesians 5 is usually read, we might expect something like, “Man and woman he created them”, or “Marriage is an holy state”, but this isn’t what Ephesians give us.

Instead it gives us this: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21).

Now, remember that throughout the letter the key theological theme has been our unity in Christ, the challenge of love that this presents, and the challenge to come ever closer to realising that unity and love in our lives. Well, here, Ephesians plugs this idea straight into the most personal aspects of our existence.

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We are called to be “subject to one another” (v.21). Note that the emphasis here is mutuality. Ephesians does not set up this discussion by justifying imbalanced power dynamics. Rather, it begins with mutual service, our obligation to give practical reality to the unity we have in Christ by loving one another with mutuality. Indeed, the very fact that this passage begins with the concept of mutual subjection holes below the waterline any exegesis which sets it up as a justification of domination.

We are reminded that our “reverence for Christ” (v.21) requires us to subject ourselves to all Christians… and it requires them to subject themselves to us. Put another way, Ephesians makes it entirely clear from the outset of this section that any talk of “power”, “rule”, “authority” or “dominion” are utterly alien to a Christian understanding of family dynamics. To ascribe these things to any member of a family is to fail in “reverence for Christ”, to set a member of the family up as an idol in Christ’s place.

There is an argument that Fathers in families represent Christ in exercising authority. And yet again this is to misunderstand a fundamental theological line which has run throughout Ephesians. All Christians are part of the body of Christ. Christ is really present in all believers in their unity and vocation to love. Therefore there is no need for a particular person to exercise Christ’s authority within the family. Christ is truly present in the family of believers because they are believers, not because one of them has authority over the others.

Mutual subjection, out of love, recognising the presence of Christ among and in us, who is the only one who exercises dominion over us. This is the starting point of Ephesians when it comes to gender and power dynamics.

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Wives: The Uncontroversial Bit

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For 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. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

It is now necessary for us to read the following application of this theology, remembering the theological objective of Ephesians 5, all that we have just discussed. We must not make the same mistake as many of the heteropatriarchal readings and separate this section from its theological context.

So, we begin with the fact that Ephesians 5 separates this section according to two gender roles, wives and husbands. Note that it does not separate according to sex. This is almost certainly because the link was presumed, but we cannot, however hard we try, read this text as being about women and men, two sexes, because it does not claim to be. It claims to be about two particular expressions of gender, and these expressions of gender not in isolation, but in relationship. Our exegesis is therefore moving on from the heteropatriarchal norm, because we are acknowledging that this is (i) talking about more than simply sex difference and (ii) talking about more than essential identities but relationships.

The first paragraph (vv.22-24) portrays the subjection of the wife in pretty clear terms, and I think it would be dishonest to try to argue that it wasn’t arguing that the wife is subject to the husband in a way analogous to the Church’s subjection to Christ.

However, this is where the exegetical magic happens. We can either, as many queer scholars have done, disapply this text, saying that Ephesians is talking into a particular socially constructed gender context, or that it simply doesn’t apply to queer relationships. Or we can read it as many heteropatriarchal scholars have done, forgetting to link this paragraph to either the theology of the rest of the letter or the paragraph that comes after.

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Or, we can do something incredibly brave, and attempt to read the next paragraph as something that knits the whole together. We have had a controlling verse, highlighting the theme of mutual subjection in reverence to Christ (v.21), then a socially quite uncontroversial passage showing how this might work out in a way not at all shocking to the audience (vv.22-24). But now, Ephesians is going to blow their minds.


Husbands: Ephesians Blows Their Minds

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because 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.’ 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

This paragraph also begins with what seems like clear gender roles that would not have shocked the audience, who might have heard these verses in isolation as many conservatives do today. Husbands are to “love your wives” (v.25) also analogously to Christ’s relationship to the Church, in a self-sacrificial way. Husbands’ goal is the holiness of the family (vv.25 and 27), and much is made of “with the washing of water by the word” (v.26) by conservatives who believe men are called to lead family worship.

However, Ephesians 5 starts to do something rather stronger at v.27 which these readings miss. It begins to identify the body of the husband with the body of the wife. At first, it does this gently, using the concept of love, in much the same way as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’: “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies” (v.28). It is a powerful call to respect and love, but still seems to retain the distinctness of the two people: A must love B as if she was him.

Then it gets a little bit more blurred: “he who loves his wife loves himself” (v.28). Now the two distinct persons are somehow one unified object of actions. Whatever happens to A happens also to B.

And then Ephesians goes for the theological slam dunk. “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church” (v.29). Having eased the audience in, Ephesians explicitly identifies the relationship between the two individuals with the relationship between Christ and the Church. And we know that this is a profound unity and indwelling “because we are members of his body” (v.30).

This is the point at which some of the audience are probably cottoning on that this is a far more profound statement on the nature of Christian unity than they were prepared for. Not only do the audience have to come to terms with the fact that they are all radically united with each other in Christ, but they even have to apply this to their families, despite all the secular and pagan cultural roles and philosophy which have formed them. This is a profoundly shocking passage for the heteropatriarchal paterfamilias (father of the family) of the ancient world.

And it gets worse. He has probably nodded along to the description in vv.22-24 of how his wife should be subject to him, as many conservatives might today. But now, he realises he has been caught up in the rhetoric! If his wife is so profoundly unified to him in Christ, then the injunction that she be subject to him is tantamount to saying that he be subject to her who is himself, and she be subject to him who is herself! The dividing line between person A and person B is broken down! There is only Christ, effecting his profound unity upon the whole Church and even the family! Christ is submitting them both to themselves and one another, and in so doing, he submits them to himself. The controlling verse “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ” (v.21) has landed, and it has landed with a thump.

And to cement this, Ephesians quotes the rationale for marriage, emphasising the central role unity: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (v.31). In Christ, it is nonsense to say that one be subject to the other, and that one should have authority over the other. Not only is to do so to fail in “reverence for Christ” (v.21), but it is to fail to acknowledge the unity effected in believers through Christ that makes a nonsense out of such power dynamics.

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Ephesians expects the objection that this is all too complicated, that it is making an unnecessarily convoluted argument when it says, “This is a great mystery” (v.32). And Ephesians makes it clear that it is not considering family in isolation from its wider theology when it says, “and I am applying it to Christ and the Church” (v.32).
What we see here is a powerful piece of rhetoric, subverting pagan gender roles with a powerful theology of Christian unity and mutual submission.

But this is not an excuse for disrespect of lack of love. Again, as with the post on Queer Ethics, Ephesians is conscious that this wonderful unity might be taken the wrong way. If I am united with my husband or wife, I can love only myself or respect only myself, and it will not matter, because I am really loving or respecting them at the same time. That is why Ephesians includes this powerful “however” in v.33.

Regardless of this unity, husbands should still love their wives, and wives should still respect their husbands, as wives love their husbands and husbands respect their wives. The wonderful union is not an excuse for taking people for granted.


Good News for Queer People

What then for queer people? Well, I think this has a lot to say to us, mainly because of its not really being a passage about husbands and wives and the roles they are called to adopt.

What matters for Ephesians is that, in all things, including our personal relationships, we acknowledge the powerful unity that is effected between and in us in Christ. The unity that is important is our Christian unity. The unity of relationships is simply and expression of that deeper unity. And Christian unity consists in mutual submission. It is not about power and authority. If we think along those lines, then we are replacing Christ with a familial idol. Nor is it about the harmony of the sexes in their respective roles. If we think along those lines then we are superimposing a debate that is completely alien to Ephesians onto this passage, and ignoring what it really does have to say.

“This is a great mystery” (v.32), how we are called to express our union in Christ in all aspects of our lives. It is painful and at times damning. We are constantly called to reassess each and every detail of our lives to ask whether we are making that unity visible, even in our intimate relationships.

Does this have consequences for our understanding of sex and romantic love and commitment? Yes, of course it does. I am with a man who is in many ways much more hench than me, and I really struggle at times to theologically work through my struggles around gender roles. But if I try to use Ephesians to help me work through that question, without considering its teaching on the more profound unity that exists between Evan and myself… well, I am going to miss the point entirely.

Gender roles will continue to be a difficult topic for the Church for many years to come, as will the imbalance of power dynamics in all aspects of human life, with the potential for abuse and the idolatrous assumption of Christ’s role in many painful ways.

But Ephesians offers us a way forward. Remember that in all things you are called to manifest the unity of your common faith in Jesus Christ, your common identity in him, your common participation in his body. And subject yourselves, without exception, each and every one of you, to each other, as you subject yourselves to him.

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