Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind — yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:15-33 NRSV)
I promised several friends that I would tackle the elephant in the room head on and I still intend to do that. The elephant is of course the language in the epistle text above (that I will designate in what follows as “Paul’s letter”) about the roles of husbands and wives in marriage. But I want to get at that elephant by making a distinction that some may find provocative. I want to distinguish between Christian and secular liberalism.
Those of you who consider yourself political conservatives don’t get a free pass here because many politically conservative Christians qualify as Christian liberals in the way I am using that phrase. You have the same heart that has long animated the area in which I now live — the heart that made Rochester, NY a major station of the Underground Railroad, the heart that raised up a Susan B. Anthony, the heart of Christians in the long Reform stream of the Church concerned about the emancipation of all persons held in bondage. So, if you think of yourself as conservative, this most likely applies to you, too.
So I begin with a crucial distinction between Christian and secular liberalism. The two often agree on the course we should steer, but if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that they are driven by contradictory gospels. The gospel of Jesus — and here I use Paul’s discussion of the meaning of our baptism — is that “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). But secular liberalism is driven by a gospel of inclusivity that’s been shorn of its Christian roots. It truncates our gospel, rendering it: “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Period. The Christian gospel is that our differences are perfected in Christ Jesus; the modern secular gospel is that our differences are irrelevant and need to be ignored or suppressed. Secular liberalism — in contrast with Christian liberalism — says that, in order to live peacefully with one another, we have to live as though the things that make others unique, the things that make them different from us, have no meaning, or at least should not matter to us.
Which leads me to Paul’s letter. Paul provides what could be the slogan for Christian liberalism: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What a wonderful summary of how we are to live. I pray the Spirit writes that upon all of our hearts. But then Paul invites that elephant into the room …
In our time, some find offensive Paul’s claim that the husband is the head of the wife. On the surface, that seems to cut against the emancipation of women that remains an unfinished project of Christian liberalism, though it’s made great progress in the past 150 years. And surely the language is problematic in our time if we, as some do, interpret the text as though it was dropped down from heaven as a source of general principles we are to follow without regard to either the early church’s or our particularity. But it is inappropriate to mine Scripture in that way. That way of respecting Scripture’s authority arises from a fallacy concerning how we know what we know. Instead, we respect Scriptural authority by listening to Scripture as our own story, the story of our life with God, a story of which we are a part, a story which is ongoing, requiring interpretation in every generation.
With that interpretative task in mind, let’s look first at Paul’s purpose. The subject of his letter is not the hierarchical relationship between a man and woman in marriage. His subject is the Church — his letter is about how to be the Church. Here let me add an aside: this text has historically been among the most important biblical sources in our reflections on how we are to be the Church: for example, the recent reflections by the Anglican Communion called the Windsor Report — on how to be the Church — relied heavily on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. For Paul’s subject is just that — how are we the Church we are called to be? And we discover that to be the Church is to be one and holy; through the sharing of our bread in a particular way, we say YES to God and are made one. At the same time we are made Holy. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 1ff) into a “community of character”. But how does that happen? How do we cooperate with that transformation? Paul answers by making an analogy between the Church and marriage, a common biblical analogy that most in his society could understand. Naming the male as head of the family is only an elephant for our generation.
But in naming the male as the head and the woman as the body, the word “head” does not simply mean ‘one in authority,’ though in Roman society in certainly meant that. Rather, Paul presupposes something profound about how we become individuals of virtue so that we can together constitute a community of character. This insight comes from Aristotle: we can only learn how to be virtuous by imitating someone who is virtuous. Courage, temperance, prudence, justice, faith, hope, and charity — these are empty words to us until we see them performed for us by another who embodies these habits. We become virtuous only by imitating someone who already is virtuous. And only by being virtuous, do we embrace the fullness of life that we seek and God has given freely. Notice there is no pretense here that holy friendships consist of people who are equal in wisdom, skill, or power. There is a oneness in Christ but an asymmetry in craft. There is equality in one’s status before God, but not in these things we learn only through mimesis.
Rather, the opposite is true. Holy friendships that accept the fullness of life God has given freely consist of relationships in which the differences between friends are essential to their growth in virtue. I learn to be more courageous, more prudent, more temperate, more just, more faithful, more hopeful, more overflowing in charity — only through friendships with those who exceed me in those qualities. Because I love them, I strive to be more like them in these things, and, as a result, I grow. Anyone who has ever been a parent or a child gets this. The virtuous life by which we say Yes to God is not a proposition but a craft we learn only from exemplars.
This understanding of how virtue is formed helps us to better understand the meaning of “head” as Paul uses it in his letter to the Church at Ephesus. The predominant meaning of “head” in New Testament times was not “one in authority” but “source of life and energy.” The “head” of a friendship was the one further along in the art of virtue — the source of the life and energy that enables both friends to grow in character. In New Testament times, women were rarely educated and often married much older men, so it made sense for their generation to presuppose that the male is the one whose example leads a couple towards the virtue necessary for a full life.
Yet our generation lives in a different world. We are much more skeptical of the premise that headship has to do intrinsically with maleness, and we recognize especially that learning relationships are reciprocal. Authority is moral, inextricable from one’s location on the journey towards virtue. Headship is not a static thing, but an earned and often dynamic thing. Moreover, we understand that God may bless the Church through diverse forms of family life, some led by a solitary parent, some led by males, some led by females. We see headship performed within our community in ways that unmask the myths justifying patriarchy — its content has little to do with testosterone and everything to do with the mastery of virtue.
What are we to make of this? When we love one another, we learn from each other and so grow in virtue together. A rightly ordered marriage — a rightly ordered family — is marked by ethical leadership and reciprocity. But reciprocity is not the same thing as equality, if by equality we mean that our differences don’t exist or don’t matter. Rather, our differences are the very engine of our spiritual growth. To love our neighbor — to love our wife, to love our husband — is to love them in all their uniqueness, and that requires that we do the hard work of discovering how God has made them different from us — and how that difference is a gift by which God intends to draw us closer.
With these things in mind, let’s return to Paul’s analogy. In a marriage, the head is to love the other as Christ loved the Church. If you are the head of a family as I’ve described it, that’s both good news and bad news. It’s good because it means that the other is to love you just as the Church loves Christ. We use words like trust and fidelity to describe that kind of love. But it’s challenging because it means the way you are to love is to abandon yourself for the sake of the other who holds your hand, trusting in God’s promise in and through you. The Head goes to the Cross for the Body. Indeed, if you’re the head, Paul says your role is not to dominate but to cleanse, wash, and edify, to nourish and tenderly care for your beloved in such a way that they grow in grace as they grow in age, so that, when the world looks at the two of you — at your family, your holy union points to God.
True love knows this. True love celebrates difference. True love grows in wisdom. True love leads to families of character, and families of character lead to communities of character. Such love transforms us into the Church. So let’s practice true love. If you truly worship the God revealed in Christ, then be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
 I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas for the phrase “community of character” and also the account of virtue given here, principally through A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) and Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).
 I rely here on Wood, D.R.W., & Marshall, I.H. (1996). New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. “The head (Heb. rù’š; Gk. kephalē is not regarded as the seat of the intellect, but as the source of life (Mt. 14:8, 11; Jn. 19:30). Thus to lift up the head is to grant life in the sense of success (Jdg. 8:28; Ps. 27:6; Gn. 40:13, but cf. the pun in v. 19), or to expect it in God himself (Ps. 24:7, 9; Lk. 21:28). To cover the head by the hand or with dust and ashes is to mourn the loss of life (2 Sa. 13:19; La. 2:10). Figuratively, headship denotes superiority of rank and authority over another (Jdg. 11:11; 2 Sa. 22:44); though when Christ is spoken of as head of his body the church (Eph. 5:23; Col. 2:19), of every man (1 Cor. 11:3), of the entire universe (hyper panta, Eph. 1:22), and of every cosmic power (Col. 2:10), and when man is spoken of as the head of the woman (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23; cf. Gn. 2:21f.), the basic meaning of head as the source of all life and energy is predominant.”
Hi, Craig. I feel like I’m sympathetic with what you’re doing here, and I hope my comments don’t detract from what you’re doing. But, I’ll admit at the same time that I might take a slightly different approach. First, I don’t think the lexical evidence regarding head as “source” in the time of the NT is really all that convincing. The predominant uses of it long before and immediately prior to the times of the NT show it to be fairly similar in lexical range to our own usage, meaning that “source” is a possible meaning but by no means… Read more »
Thanks for your thoughts, Zach. I’m a preacher and aspiring theologian, and not a biblical historian, so I rely on the work of biblical scholars as I think theologically about questions such as this. In this case, the assertion I made in this sermon was based on a Word study I did using my Logos software. See note #1 above. While mimesis may be absent from this pericope, it is pervasive in the Pauline corpus (I am setting aside discussion of the authorship of Ephesians, simply noting that Tom Wright argues for Pauline authorship, over and against many who insist… Read more »
I have seem much more made of the idea that the phrase “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is the grammatical context for each of the following “wives submit…husbands love” sections. Is this true? I like the idea of “Christian liberalism” as opposed to secular liberalism – the main difference being…Jesus! Could you say that at the heart of Christian liberalism lies the Sermon on the Mount? I heard Woody Anderson speak on the SOTM this summer. He drew our attention back to the Great Commission where Jesus says “… teaching them *to obey* everything I… Read more »
Charlie, I actually did refer to the Sermon on the Mount in my oral delivery of this. I agree that it is the heart of Christian liberalism, or, perhaps better, the recapitulation of Israel’s prophetic spirit into which we’ve been grafted. And obedience is indeed a word we 21st century Westerners don’t like but which can’t be extricated from our calling to follow Jesus. But of course it’s easy to obey one whom you love and trust completely…except when it isn’t.