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PFOA: Ephesians 5:21-5:32

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. ... Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.”
Eph. 5:22, 23, NIV.

This is a familiar passage to many. It has been embedded into the wedding liturgy, used in marriage vows and is the text for many exhortations. The language is simple and clear, so text is understood and applied literally. But have we got it right?

Remember that Paul was writing this in a 1st Century Roman prison to an audience of predominately non-Jewish Christians. What were their social norms and culture like then? Even more than Jewish society, it was male-dominated. Women and children had few rights and were relegated to a status not much better than slaves. They were submissive to the authority of men. Even today, in many societies, women are subjugated to men: they have less education if any, are normally house-bound and may not go out without the escort of a male. They have little say in decision-making, and are married off young to men of wealth where possible, upon payment of a dowry.

When the liberating gospel message was received, women who came to faith learnt that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile. These Christian women felt that they have been freed and did not need to submit to their husband, with dire consequences. In Titus 2:5, Paul elaborated – such behaviour “brings shame on the Word of God”.

On the other hand, that culture saw the wife as “property” of the husband and he was free to do whatever he pleased with her – leading to mistreatment and beatings by him and his family members. So Paul’s teaching was contrary to the then-contemporary culture – husbands are to love their wives!

When we interpret a passage of scripture, we must pay attention to the context. If the context in which Paul wrote “Wives, submit to your husbands” and “Husbands, love your wives” is so different from our situation today, how should we understand these injunctons? Are these timeless principles to be followed without variation?

I’m glad that Paul prefaced this section of his letter with verse 21, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. This is the theological principle that is applicable for all time. It is because of Christ, His person and work, that we submit to one another. May we reflect on this.