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”[1]. 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.”[2] 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.



[1] 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).

[2] 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.”

4 Responses

  1. Zachary Guiliano

    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 a sure meaning in this context, although it can be argued (W. Grudem’s article in *Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood* covers a lot of this ground in good detail, though I think a perusal of the TDNT, the LSJ, and the BAGD also shows it). I feel like it could be argued for theologically, due to the analogy between husband/Christ, but it is not lexically self-evident. I was curious, though, about your reference to the “head of a friendship” and wondered if you had a specific author in mind from that statement. If you do, please share, as it piqued my curiosity.

    Second, I am drawn to the idea you posited, i.e., that imitation and ethical growth is key to the whole thing, although the emphasis on imitation seems to be somewhat absent from the context of the passage, which raises a few flags for me which I’m still mulling over. It instead drew my mind elsewhere, as I think the point you make about education is rather key in other discourses. I’m thinking particularly of one of the early chapters of Foucault’s *The Care of the Self*, where he covers some of the recommendations that Greco-Roman philosophy gave to husbands in the antique world with regard to their relationship with their wives, namely, that they ought to encourage their wives to grow in wisdom, that they ought to help educate them and provide a good example for them in terms of ethical action. Women did tend to be less educated than men in the time, although that particular imbalance was primarily evident among the upper classes, as poor couples tended to be on more of an even playing field. So, it seems to me that this emphasis on imitation seems to play more naturally into an elite philosophical context.

    But, I wonder if we might apply something of the same idea by drawing out the analogy between Christ and the Church a bit further, particularly with some of the ubiquitous theological discussions of the spiritual life based on obedience (the early stage), as opposed to that which is based on love (the perfect stage). But, I will save that portion for another time, as I’ve written a bit here that you might want to respond to.

  2. Craig Uffman

    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 it is much later). I took a course in “Mimesis in Paul” from Susan Eastman at Duke in which we traced it throughout his work; that was a major turning point for me, and, as a result, I’m convinced that mimesis underlies much of Paul’s teaching on how to evangelize and how to be the Church. In that seminar, we traced the significance of mimesis and “pedagogue” in external literature (such as Philo), too, and that background is what led me to connect Paul’s emphasis on mimesis with Aristotle’s virtue ethics. I could provide Eastman’s reading list if that would be useful to you in your research.

    Because of space limits, I did not make a point in my text that I did make in my oral delivery that may bear on your question about the relationship between virtue and authority in antiquity. Both in Jewish and Roman society, all political identity flowed through the male. Women were like chattel property, especially in Roman society. It matters less if the reality of the education gap exists in the non-elite because the cultural norms ordering family life presupposed the possibility of wisdom for the male and were skeptical of such possibility for the female. Hauerwas and Pinches (cited above) make this point in their discussion of Aristotle. I also make Robert Stark’s point about just how subversive Paul’s account of marriage was of Roman culture by redefining the relationship with his analogy between Christ-groom and Church-bride.

    I agree with your suggestion about how I might have proceeded by drawing out the analogy between Christ and the Church. I might have done that had this piece originated with a theologically and biblically advanced audience in mind, but, alas, that was not my original audience. A key goal of mine in this was pastoral – I have many within my cure who deny the authority of Scripture selectively because of questions such as the one treated in my text. Rather than wrestle with how the text might be the Word of God for us even today, they set it aside entirely as nonsense. I’m told that this sermon was a blessing for them in that it penetrated those barriers and enabled them to hear the text as truthful.

    One thought I’ve been pondering about this connection I’ve made between virtue and headship. It comports with human experience, I believe. For we can point to actual communities and see headship assumed and performed on the basis of the relative virtue of the partners. I have in mind, for one example, the frequent report of non-elite families marked by matriarchy; sociologically, the high death or incarceration rate or loss rate due to addiction among males results in headship by the female that is unquestioned within the community. It would be interesting to study that phenomenon and reflect on this text as I have interpreted it.

  3. Charlie Clauss

    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 have commanded.” We have not often caught the “obey” part (Evangelicals often see the word _teaching_ and miss _obey_), and wrestling with the SOTM is a great way to ask what obedience looks like. What causes me to bring that up here is that before Jesus says “teach…obey,” he says “baptize.” Obedience is a difficult thing apart from being baptized into Christ!

    This also makes me want to say that the road to virtue needs examples, but Jesus is not just a good example! The part of the Church that have been overly influenced by secular liberalism (yes TEC, I’m talking about you!) tend to only see Jesus as “an example.” If true, this is a cruel joke – the only hope we have of following Jesus’ example is to be baptized into him.

    I’d like to hear more about “perfected differences” – what an evocative idea!

  4. Craig Uffman

    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.


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