Men and women, equal in Jesus’s church.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 September 2018

Ephesians 5.21-33.

At this point in Ephesians Paul gets into male/female relationships, which in ancient times were unhealthy and domineering, and—no big surprise—they’re just the same way today.

We got a lot of relationships which are structured as unequal partnerships, where the man’s bossing the woman around and thinks he’s entitled to because he’s the man; or where the woman’s bossing the man around and thinks she’s entitled to because she’s smarter. Or whatever excuse works for the domineering spouse: They make all the money, they do all the work, they’re tougher, they’re bolder, they’re stronger, they deserve to be the alpha. It’s entirely Darwinian, which means it’s entirely unChristian.

What Paul taught instead is mutual submission: If you really do love one another, you don’t boss each other around! You take one another’s needs and wants into consideration. You help each other out. You care for one another. Like when you pamper yourself at a nice restaurant or a day spa. And not in some warped passive-aggressive tough love kind of way, where you claim you’re doing what’s best for one another, but really you’re manipulating them into doing what you prefer. Their will, their wishes, don’t come into consideration.

But—again, no big surprise—centuries of Christians have taken this passage, pushed aside what Paul meant by it, and try to overlay their own domineering or sexist impulses. “Love my wife like Christ loves the church? Sure! After all, he’s the church’s boss. So I get to be her boss.” Utterly missing the point, and back we go to the same problems the Ephesians had before Paul wrote this letter. ’Cause selfishness regularly undermines the scriptures.

Well let’s get to those scriptures.

Women, love your men.

Since this bit starts with a participle, ypotassómenoi/“being submitted,” first-year Greek students and those who dabble in Greek immediately figure, “Oh, the NIV got this wrong! This isn’t a command”—

Ephesians 5.21 NIV
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

—“it’s describing how you oughta behave: ‘Since you’re already submitted to one another’ or that sort of thing.” Yeah, that’s not how Greek works. When you get an imperative commanding-type verb (like plirústhe/“be filled!” Ep 5.18), it means the text to follow is also gonna have that commanding tone to it, and this applies to all the participles which follow. Because we need to be filled, we also need to be singing, Ep 5.19 be thanksgiving, Ep 5.20 and be submitted. Ep 5.21

Now yeah, the NIV’s “Wives, submit to your own husbands” Ep 5.22 NIV did insert “submit” into the text. It’s implied, so it’s not an invalid interpretation. It’s just… y’know, they never bother to insert “submit” into any of the instructions for the men, even though the ypotassómenoi of verse 21 is just as much implied in Paul‘s instructions to the men. And you gotta wonder why they didn’t bother. Is it because they figured men would naturally get the point after it was made explicit to the women how they need to submit? Or (which fits human nature way too well) is it because it’s kinda handy for sexists to have “Wives, submit” in a verse they can easily pull out of context and use to boss around women?

Not to pick on the NIV too much, ’cause plenty of other translations do it too.

Well. In griping about the ulterior motives of various interpreters, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact Paul did want the women of the church to submit to their men. But not in a weird, unhealthy, meek way: This isn’t about obeying the guys. This is about including the guys. Women, don’t just take over the church, plan and run everything, and ignore any of the men’s suggestions and contributions. Don’t use the excuse, “You can do the men’s things around here, and we’ll do the women’s things”—that’s just as sexist, segregationist, and discriminatory as when men are domineering women. Be inclusive. Accept men’s feedback. Work together, not as two competing teams. We’ve all following the same Lord Jesus, remember?

Ephesians 5.21-24 KWL
21 Be submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ:
22 Women to their own men, like they are to the Master,
23 because a man is a woman’s head like Christ is the church’s head:
He’s the body’s savior.
24 But just as the church submits to Christ, women do likewise to the men about everything.

Being “the church’s head” tends to get misinterpreted as Jesus being our boss. That’d be wrong. Paul immediately explained he’s our head in that he’s our savior. He frees us from sin, rescues us from death, supplies our needs, heals our disease, and otherwise provides for us. He’s our head in that he’s our resource—he gets us the stuff so we can live abundant lives.

Yeah, that makes it sound like men oughta be the breadwinners in our relationships, right? Well not necessarily. But men should be a resource, and it shouldn’t only be our income! Men should provide moral and emotional and spiritual support to our women. We suck at that, y’know. Thinking our income makes up for that lack of support is simply Mammonism. If mean are gonna be the spiritual heads of our homes, we’d better darned well get spiritual, and stop depriving our women of the resources we should be providing ’em.

When men suck at spiritual leadership, it stands to reason women step in to fill the vacuum. Which is utterly unfair to the women, but that’s what we see far too often in households: Irreligious men and devout women. Worse, irreligious men who still think they can boss around their women because “a man is a woman’s head”—even though they aren’t fulfilling that role at all, and are twisting that verse to support their unmerited household dictatorships. When such men are running a church, that church isn’t gonna resemble Jesus at all. It’s gonna suck. Like their families.

Women shouldn’t stand for this. They do, but only because they’ve been bullied into it, or because they bought the misinterpretation. And sometimes they like the misinterpretation: If the man won’t let his woman do anything, some of ’em are kinda happy to do nothing, and have no responsibilities. It’s messed up, but I’ve seen it happen among my family members. But what should be happening is women need to stage a mass exodus from sexist churches, and see how the boys like it once there are no more girls in their he-man-woman-hater’s clubs.

Men, love your women.

For first-century men, women as equal partners in the family and church was a new idea to most of them. Historically, they didn’t do that well with it. The culture’s sexist patterns wormed its way back into the church mighty fast, which is how the early church got it into their heads that only men can be priests. Paul was trying to fix that by highlighting how men oughta love their women like Christ loves his church. Which, y’might recall, has men in it. He doesn’t tamp the men down because he deems us “inferior” in any way. On the contrary: He’s trying to bring us up to his level!

Ephesians 5.25-27 KWL
25 Men, love the women, just as Christ loves the church,
and gave himself up for us 26 so he might make us holy,
cleansing us with the washing of water in God’s word,
27 so he might present himself a glorious church—
one not having a spot, wrinkle, nor anything of that sort,
but so we can be holy and blameless.

See, first-century women were woefully undereducated. Pharisee men were supposed to be teaching their daughters the Law, ’cause one day these daughters would grow up and raise kids and have to teach them the Law. But too frequently, cultural attitudes were that women were only for making babies and menial tasks; leave the thinking to the men. Jesus let women study at his feet, Lk 10.39 up front with the men; but at best, Pharisees kept women segregated in the back of synagogue—and too many churches still did the same. Men were supposed to fix that problem—same as Jesus was fixing his church.

But taking no interest in our women’s discipleship, our women’s knowledge of the scriptures, our women’s ability to minister and prophesy and share Jesus with others, our women’s commissions from Jesus himself to lead: That is not loving women as Christ loves his church. Because Jesus isn’t making second-tier Christians. How dare we do any such thing?

Ephesians 5.28-30 KWL
28 This is how the men ought to love their women—
like their own bodies. One who loves his woman, loves himself.
29 For nobody ever hates their own body, but feeds and cares for it—
like Christ does the church, 30 for we’re bodyparts of his body.

I’ve always had a problem with verse 29, because I’ve known plenty of people who do hate their own bodies. But this is one of those verses we’re not meant to take literally. People generally don’t try to harm themselves. We generally treat ourselves well, and if we can’t afford (or don’t wanna spend the money on) the best of everything, we’ll at least make ourselves generally comfortable. So if we’re loving others exactly as we love ourselves, Mk 12.31 it stands to reason we wouldn’t have some double standard where I get the best of everything, but my woman gets the second-best. Nuh-uh. She gets what I get. Or better; she gets what I’d want to get for myself, but I can do without so she’d be happy.

And the very same applies to spiritual things. When men love their women, the women get what the men get, or better. They aren’t deprived because “that’s just for the men”—other than the church’s urinals, there is no such thing that’s just for the men.

I know; “What about men’s bible studies?” I’m not saying you can’t have men’s and women’s bible studies if you so choose. But y’know, if a woman wants to observe the men’s study, there should be nothing in the discussion which she shouldn’t be able to see or hear: It shouldn’t be offensive to women. And it definitely shouldn’t go over her head: I’ve seen churches where the men‘s studies were scholarly and the women’s studies were superficial. I don’t know whether that was because the women had inadequate leadership, or structured so the women could deliberately be kept behind the men, but either way, it felt evil. The U.S. Supreme Court was right in declaring that separate is inherently unequal, but we should do our darnedest to make sure women are not getting second-class anything.

We’re one body. Men and women both.

When God created humanity, he made it male and female. Ge 1.27 Not male, with women as a subspecies. They were created to be equal. They became unequal when humanity fell, but Jesus came to undo that. We’re to help him, not dismiss Jesus because parts of our fallen culture still demands women fall behind.

Paul says as much when he highlights a verse from Genesis reminding us that God created Eve from Adam’s body, and that when men and women come together (and don’t just interpret this sexually!) we return to being, in a sense, one body.

Ephesians 5.31-33 KWL
31 “For this reason a man leaves father and mother and will be joined to his woman,
and the two will unite into one body.” Ge 2.24 32 This is a great mystery.
And I say it applies to Christ and to the church. 33 And you too.
Each and every one with his own woman must therefore love her as himself,
and this way the woman must respect the man.

Jesus’s church is made up of men and women, and as such is one body. Not two, where there’s a men’s church and a women’s church and Jesus is taught and ministered differently. Not two in the household either! All our patriarchal and sexist rubbish has gotta go. Jesus expects better of us. And if we truly love one another as he calls us to, we’re gonna do better instead of still fighting to domineer one another. It’s a partnership, not a fight. Stop fighting!