by Robert Brow March 1999

Ephesians 5:21-6:9

This section has three pairs of submissions of wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and slave owners. There have always been brutal autocratic husbands, parents, and slave owners. But at their best men have recognized at least some kind of minimal caring submission in their dealings with their wives, children, and slaves.

The question is how is the relationship to be transformed by Christian love? If we picture a brutal male-chauvinist husband being converted, the direction of change is clear -oi andres agapan tas eauton gunaikas- the men are to love their own women (5:28)

All three pairs of relationships come under one principle -upotassomenoi allylois en phobo Christou- putting yourselves under, submitting to one another in obedience to Christ (5:21). But what does -upostassomenoi- submitting mean? So we try out three models of submission to begin our exploration. We might later find a better model to adopt, but we begin with what he have.

(a) Equal rights model. This political idea became familiar to us in the French Revolution. On the assumption that all people are made equal, submission to others means giving them equal status and rights, whatever their racial, social, or gender status.

This model is a good foundation for civil rights, but it is hard to see how it could work in relationships involving different functions. In a football team it is impossible to make the quarterback equal to the linebackers, or to give the coach equal rights to be the kicker. Ephesians is written in the context of very complex functional differences where equality is hard to apply (4:11-12). In marriage an equality of rights at law can be legislated, but it hardly works in the bearing of children.

(b) Superior-Subordinate Model  In this model it is assumed that slaves are by nature subordinate to slave-owners, children are by nature subordinate to parents, and similarly wives must submit themselves by adopting a subordinate position to their husbands. But this model also requires that a Christian husband, parent, or slave owner/employer accepts a loving responsibility -en phobo Christou- in fear of, obedience to Christ (5:21). Husbands must love and treat their wives as Christ treats the church (5:25), parents -my parorgizete ta tekna umon- don't provoke your children to anger (6:4), and slave owners/employers should rule their employees -anientes tyn apeilyn- without terrorising them (6:9).

Almost certainly influenced by this model of the necessary subordination of women, some manuscripts add the word -upotassesthosan- let the women submit to their own husbands (5:22). This suggests a permanent submission of women in marriage.

(c) Loving to Free Model  In this model Christian love is defined as caring for the freedom of the other. This allows a development in the status of the loved one. As opposed to keeping children permanently submissive (the worst scenario in model b), loving parents free their children to grow into adult responsibilities such as driving a car, handling their own finances, and making career choices or marriage decisions.

Similarly employees are encouraged to develop skills and take over increasing responsibilities. In the letter to Philemon the runaway slave is to be accepted back as -adelphon agapyton- a beloved brother (Philemon 15-16). And since Paul refers to Onesiphus with the words -peri tou emou teknou- concerning my own child, we can imagine he would want the previous slave to grow into all the new freedoms and responsibilities that Philemon can now give him.

This also puts a different complexion on marriage. Inevitably in the first century a woman was married into a subordinate position where she was expected to bear and raise children. Christian love would mean that her husband did everything he could to free her to develop her gifts as a person in her own right. Paul for example pictures a tenfold mutuality between Christian husbands and their wives (1 Corinthians 7:1-16).

In evaluating models (b) and (c) much will depend on the meaning of the word -kephaly- head (5:23). -anyr estin kephaly tys gunaikos os o Christos kephaly tys ekklesias, autos sotyr tou somatos- a man's headship is involved in saving his wife in the same way as Christ saves (frees) the Church (5:23). The question is whether our relationship to Christ is to be defined by a permanent subservient submission in every detail of our life?

In one model of the Church headship comes down from Christ, -y kephaly- the head, through a hierarchy of absolute obedience. And in that model a woman is permanently subservient to men in the hierarchy. Or does Christ treat us a brothers and sisters in the family business, and we are given increasing responsibility (as in the Gospel parables of the servants)?

Similarly in model (b) the headship of a man over his wife is immutably defined by nature. Wives are to be permanently subject to their husbands in all things. In model (c) both husbands and wives love by freeing the other for the total mutuality of 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.

Model (c) therefore allows for an infinity of ever changing headship mutualities. She or he may cook, do chores, mind the children, drive the car, keep the accounts and pay the bills, go out to work, cease paid work to pursue an education, become prime minister or president. And in each function either he or she may exercise headship.

It is interesting how models (b) and (c) also operate in business. The old style management style was an autocratic hierarchy of men, each with a female secretary. In the most successful modern corporations the male or female Chief Executive Officer serves all the others in the team by freeing them to exercise as much creativity in decision making as possible from the bottom. Instead of a one man headship, headship is diffused all over the body, with every person in mutual submission to all others.

Since this is the picture we get of mutuality in the body of Christ earlier in the Epistle (Ephesians 4:1-13), I opt for model(c)as the most likely explanation of what the writer had in mind for our three mutual submissions in this section (5:21-6:9).

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