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What does Paul mean by 'wives, submit to your husbands'?

31 August 2015 | by Nicholas King SJ

The second reading for last Sunday - which included St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, 5:21-32 - caused something of a flutter, for it seemed to justify the views of those who regard women as inferior members of the human race.

Some priests refuse to have it read in church, on the grounds that it is not of our time; but that is rank cowardice, for it is in our scriptures, and we may not run away from the challenge.

What can we do?

Well, it is essential not to wrest “proof-texts” from our biblical documents and wave them before the noses of our infuriated opponents. Our task, rather, is to look at this (or any) difficult text in its entire context. It comes from the lovely document that we call “Ephesians”, which if Paul did not write it, as many scholars contend, was certainly from the pen of someone who well understood the Apostle. The overall message has to do with God’s work of reconciliation in the world, and how Christians are to play their part in it. They have to live in the real world; but this does not mean that they have to “buy in” to secular culture.

The last half of the letter, from about 4:17 onwards, explores how they are going to go about walking the tightrope. They are to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love, just as Christ loved us”. There are all kinds of behaviours to avoid (and you must look at the early part of chapter 5 to see them), and one important rule: to “be subordinated to each other in the fear of Christ”

That is the context in which we have to read what otherwise sounds like rather embarrassing injunctions to keep women, children and slaves in their places. If you look carefully, this text is thoroughly subversive in the context of the Graeco-Roman world. It is true that children are told to be obedient (6:1); but it is also true that their parents are in the next breath told not to provoke their offspring to anger (6:4).

It is true, and even rather embarrassing, that slaves are told to be “obedient to those who are your lords in the flesh” (6:5); but the alert reader will notice that word “flesh”, which in Paul stands for humanity as closed to God, while “spirit” is humanity when it is open to God. Not only that, but the word translated as “lords” is deeply significant, and the depth of meaning is missed by those versions that render it as “slave-masters”, for the author goes on to make it absolutely clear (6:7) that there is only one “Lord”, and that God is the Lord both of slaves and of their owners.

Does this help with the difficulty of submissive women? It certainly does, for as soon as the author has apparently put women in their place, the men are firmly reminded that, even though they may be the “head” of the women (though the meaning of this idea is never explained), the men are ordered to “love” their wives, and to be like Christ who “handed himself over for the Church”; men are to “love their wives as their own bodies; the one who loves his life loves himself”. The call to the males is to generous, self-sacrificing love.

Anyone who thinks that this phrase means that men can rule over women as they pleased has simply not been paying attention.

Nicholas King SJ is a leading biblical scholar and a Visiting Fellow at Campion Hall in Oxford



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