Yesterday I received an email asking how my wife and I interpret and apply Ephesians 5.22ff. I do not deny that this passage is more “complementarian” in it’s message, but I do deny that it legitimates universalizing complementarian principles. Once I was talking to a professor who told me, “I’d love to be an egalitarian, except there are a few passages of Scripture that prevent me.” I responded half-jokingly, “I’d love to be a complementarian, but my wife won’t let me.” In part, this is true because I live in world where women are educated, they have vocations, and unlike the days of the Apostle it can be observed that women are truly equal to men (except maybe in slam dunking a basketball). As Paul sought to neutralize the impact of slavery, yet we condemn it (to some extent since human trafficking is worse than ever), so I think he aimed to neutralize the impact of excessive patriarchy, something I think should be discarded where possible. Anyways, this is how I responded to the question of interpreting and applying Ephesians 5.22ff:
It is important to realize that much of what the Apostle Paul writes in vv. 21-33 would have been common place in a Greco-Roman culture where young women were married in their teens, often mothers at a very young age, and rarely afforded the opportunity of education or self-sustaining vocation. So when he says things like “the husband is the head of every wife” and “wives be subject to your own husband” he is addressing a particular culture, a particular worldview, which he shared. It would be helpful to imagine a church in Iran or Iraq where women are not given the same opportunities as they are in the United States.
What would not have surprised this audience is that he places women in the inferior position and asks them to submit to their husbands in all things. What would have been surprising is the call for husbands to use this authority as Christ shows his authority over the church. Men had all the rights and privileges, so most “household codes” in the Greco-Roman world settled with men being in authority. To call men to live for their wives as Christ did for his church is almost a tongue-in-cheek neutralizer in my opinion. It is as if Paul says, “Yes, women, submit fully to your husbands, and husbands you should give yourselves to the same extent that Christ have himself to the church, for which he died!”
This call to love as Christ loved make it quite difficult to lord over one’s wife. Although Paul is shaped by the Adam-Eve narrative (from Adam comes Eve) he knows that in Christ there is no room for anything other than self-sacrificial love of one’s spouse.
I should note that while Paul does use the Adam-Eve narrative as a way of showing female dependence, elsewhere he backtracks a bit. In 1 Corinthians 11.1-10 he makes essentially the same argument only to say in vv. 11-12, “However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.” So while he does see value in the Eve from Adam story he notes that all subsequent men owe their existence to women (as mothers) and that “in the Lord” the created order is inferior to our oneness in Christ (which we see in his statement in Galatians 3.28 that there is neither male nor female in Christ).
So when I interpret Ephesians 5.22ff. I do so with all of Paul’s works in mind, including the statements above which neutralize any use of this text that may seek to portray inferiority of women. Overall I think Paul mixes his arguments depending on the pastoral situation so we have to read him as a whole, not limiting ourselves to isolated passages. As a whole the genders are interdependent and in Christ there is no superiority. While Paul may call for functional hierarchy based on creation, I think “in Christ” there is a higher calling of mutual submission and sacrifice. Even in this passage the call to love one’s wife as Christ loves the church neutralizes any effort by husbands to say, “Well, I am the man so you should submit and that settles it.”
Miranda and I aim for the egalitarianism of Galatians 3.28, 1 Corinthians 11.11-12 as interpretive guides to those passages that would seem to indicate the inferiority of women. Neither of us has an ultimate trump card. If we need to take the time to wrestle through tough disagreements we do, but I never end an argument with “I’m the man, so deal with it.”
Also, I should add, women aren’t limited as they were in Ephesus in Paul’s day. Women can be educated, employed quite well, and fend for themselves, so that needs to be considered. The cultural side of Paul’s point is relativized.
Finally, we must read passages like Romans 16 where Paul mentions a prominent woman deaconess in v. 2 named Phoebe and a female apostle in v. 7 named Junia. These women are co-laborers with Paul, and they are going to serve in one of the more “progressive” cities of the empire-Rome itself. So even Paul changes his tune about women depending on what situation he is addressing.