Unboxing Ephesians 5:21-33

My husband and I are currently attending a minister and spouse marriage retreat. I won’t say which retreat or where it is, as the rest of the retreat has been fantastic and the last thing I want to do is bad-mouth the retreat or the good people facilitating it.

As expected with most Christian marriage and/or women’s retreats I’ve attended, one of the sessions was on Ephesians 5, verses 21-33 (please take a moment to read it now if you are not familiar with the passage already). To their credit it, they included verse 21; most sessions I’ve attended start with verse 22. Also as expected, the leader took this rich, liberating, culturally subversive passage of Scripture and deflated it, folded it, and pounded it down until it fit neatly into the box we tend to label “Prescription for Marital Gender Roles”.

I usually sit through these sessions full of nervous energy, impulsively tapping my foot and biting my tongue, resenting the anemic presentation of a passage that is anything but!

Not today.

I sat quietly and listened calmly. I know the script by now. I jotted down notes. I admit that I giggled to myself while writing down this one…

“Proof texting: based on verse 29, men should be doing all the cooking.”

After all, the verse describes men “feeding” the body, just as Christ cares for the church. 😋

After the main part of the session, we split into small groups by gender. The leader of the session happened to be leading my group. And I mentally high-fived God.

We trudged our way through the questions… giving mostly flat, predictable answers to the mostly flat, predictable questions on the page. The divorcees in the group also imparted their somber, cautionary wisdom. At 35, it was evident that I was the youngest woman in the group, so I initially hesitated to share what was on my mind regarding the verses and the teaching presented on them.

As we were going around the circle answering the last question on the page (regarding “headship”), the leader asked, “Any final thoughts?” This is when the distinct burning-in-my-soul was roused and signaled that the time for biting my tongue was finally over. I drew a prayerful breath and spoke the following (as closely as I can quote myself after the fact):

“Yes, I have thoughts… I think we would be remiss if we walked away from this session without appreciating what this text is REALLY about. What do we know about first century Greco-Roman culture?”

(At this point, I was already wishing I could interrupt myself to consult with Google because I wasn’t even certain “Greco-Roman” was the right term, but I forged on…)

“I can tell you one thing for sure, women were typically treated worse than 2nd-class citizens. It was a deeply patriarchal culture. Men ruled. Women submitted. Paul wasn’t saying anything new by saying that women will submit to and respect their husbands. That was a given in that culture (which, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing). But what he says next was OUTRAGEOUS and scandalous and offensive: Paul dares to insist that men LOVE their wives! And not just any old love, but they should imitate Jesus Christ’s love for the church. SACRIFICIAL, SELFLESS, UNCONDITIONAL, CHERISHING LOVE. In Ephesians 5, God absolutely turns convention on its head! God was telling the men, through Paul, to crucify their privilege as men in that extremely male-dominated culture, to submit themselves in love to their wives. A faaaaaaar more demanding, will-yielding submission than the women were subject to (in case anyone is keeping score on which gender is called to greater submission. *Ahem*.). If we insist on applying this passage as a prescription for male/female marital roles, so be it, but we must not fail to see the bigger picture of this passage… that marriage is close to God’s heart; that God saw fit to reach a holy hand deep down into the muck and mire of overwhelming patriarchy that gripped society then (and in many places yet today) to pull us up, out, and away from it. Why do we in the church so often choose to remain in the muck and mire? Why do we focus so much energy on wifely submission and less on mutual submission in the context of marriage AND in the context of our faith communities? Ladies, there is so much more here for us and for our marriages. Let us embrace what Ephesians 5 is really all about!”


I feel compelled to document the experience here because what I witnessed today was a room full of women considerably older than myself who have had one narrow interpretation of this passage drilled into their minds and hearts their entire lives as Christians. I am not saying the interpretation that is typically taught is *totally* wrong or bad, but there is more to it; it is, at best, incomplete. And that incompleteness has done harm over the decades.

The simple, unpolished explanation I offered above was just that–simple and unpolished–and yet, by God’s grace, I believe it added something important that was missing from the discussion.

There is still more that could be said about these verses, and said far better than I can articulate on my own, especially “off-the-cuff” as I did today. I want to pray more, discuss more, read more, and learn more about this and countless other passages in our Bible.

But I am glad I spoke up. I am glad the other women appreciated my humble effort to shed light on what can be a powder keg of a topic, and that they received it along with the rest of the teaching presented today. My prayer is for this discussion to continue, and that we (the church) will hold dear what it has to offer all of us, women and men alike.

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