The Rev. Frank Logue
King of Peace Episcopal Church
Kingsland, Georgia
August 24, 2003 

A Text of Terror  [1]
Ephesians 5:21-33 

Wives submit to your husbands. The reading goes on and we’ll get to the rest of it. But, for now, let’s just look at “wives, submit to your husbands.” It is a line of scripture that has been used as justification for men to physically and emotionally abuse their wives. Intent of the author aside, Ephesians 5:22 has become a text of terror. 

The problem at first glance is the word “submit.” But, the word submit is used in English translations of Ephesians 5:22 including the King James and the New International Version. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible we use for our readings used “be subject” in place of submit, as does the New Jerusalem Bible and the Revised English Bible. What I found when I looked at the original Greek for this passage blew me away, but for just a moment more, I want to stick with the English translations.  

Wives submit to your husbands has been taken to its illogical extreme on more than one occasion. Two weeks ago, I caught a news item on CNN, which gave an example. Ohio State Troopers had trouble getting Catherine Donkers to pull over on the Ohio Turnpike for a routine traffic stop.  

The difficult traffic stop became news partly because the state troopers in car video cameras recorded the action as Donkers refused to pull over during a three-mile pursuit, which always makes for good TV, from a CNN perspective. But the hook to the story was that the woman who admitted to breastfeeding, talking on the cell phone and taking notes while driving down a busy Turnpike running late to a meeting had a new excuse. Donkers claimed she was doing nothing wrong because her husband has told her it was OK.  

Donkers and her husband are members of the First Christian Fellowship of Eternal Sovereignty, which has a history of challenging state laws. Catherine Donkers, as it turns out, was slow in reacting to the Troopers attempts to pull her over as she was calling her husband on the phone to get his permission to pull to the side of the road as instructed by the police.  

The 29-year old wife and mother was charged with child endangerment, driving without a license and breaking child restraint laws. Representing herself in court, she refused to stand or speak during preliminary motions in court until her husband gave her permission from the front row of the courtroom. Her common law husband, Brad Barnhill said, “According to our faith, I’m the head of the household. I’m responsible for what she does, and no one can punish her except me.” The court did not agree and sentenced Catherine Donkers to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. 

That is only one example of how far “Wives submit to your husbands” has been taken. This verse has been a major proof text used to keep women in abusive marriages. But what does the Greek say? The word behind our translations “be subject” and “submit” is hypotasso. That’s not much help as it comes from the roots hypo (meaning “under”) and tasso (meaning to “put in place”). To hypotasso means to put someone in place under someone else. I like the New American Bible’s translation “subordinate.” 

The real surprise in the Greek was not the meaning of the word. The real surprise was that that Greek word hypotasso does not even occur in verse 22 at all. The verb comes from verse 21, which says “Be subject one to another out of reverence for Christ.” Verse 22 is a clause appended to that sentence. In the original Greek there was no punctuation at all, but we must assume the author thought of verses 21 and 22 as being separated by a comma. My literal translation of the Greek of verses 21 and 22 would read, “Be placed under one another in the fear of Christ (comma) the wives to their own husbands as to the lord.” 

To put this passage into perspective, it helps to know what was going on in the culture of first century Rome. In the Greco-Roman culture of the day, the household was seen as the most basic unit of the economy. In fact, our word “ecomony” comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means to manage a house. The Greek philosopher Cicero wrote, “The origin of society is in the joining of man and woman, next in children, then in the household, all things held in common; this is the founda­tion of the city and, so to speak, the seed-bed of the State.”[2]   

This was the basic Greek and then Roman philosophers outlook on life. If the households were all in order, then the city and state were in order. What happened within ones home mattered greatly to the larger world. In that context, any philosopher worth his salt had written a household code, some basic thoughts on how a household unit should run. In true patriarchal language, these were addressed to the man of the house, filling him in on how he should run his affairs. The passage from our reading from Ephesians is an early Christian household code. Much scholarly ink has been spilt trying to decide whether this Ephesians household code was more like the similar codes of the Stoics or the Neopythagoreans, etc. 

I do believe that this household code’s very existence is due in part to the early Christian Church wanting to show how it too could be a responsible member of Roman society.  

All the other Roman households have got a code, can’t we have one too. Can we Dad? Can we? 

But this is a household code with a difference. Rather than some rules of the house, Ephesians 5 provides an extended metaphor comparing the marriage of man and wife to Christ and the Church. As the church is subject to Christ, so the wife is subject to the husband. The husband in return is to love their wife as their own body. Remember this is a metaphor and Christ’s body is the Church. So we read, “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.”  

That last line is particularly interesting because it is not entirely true. Jesus did not care for his own physical body more than he cared for the Body of Christ, the believers. Jesus willingly took on abuse of his body because of love for the church. But this isn’t applied to wives who have endured abuse due to a misreading of this passage. This applies to husbands who are to love their wives as much as their own bodies. Ephesians even plays with the marriage contracts a bit in this verse as ancient marriage contracts often obligated the husband to provide clothing and nourishment for his wife. That same word for nourishment (ektrepho) is used here. Just as you would nourish and tenderly care for yourself, you are to do this for your wife. From the first verse saying you are to be subject one to another, to the ending of “Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” this passage speaks of a mutuality in a Christian household unlike what you find in many ancient household codes.[3] 

Where does that leave us? First,the writer of this letter to the Ephesians was not a feminist and I can’t turn him into one with a careful translation. But what we do find in this whole passage, verse 22 included is a mutuality and respect that strikes me as very biblical. Go back to Genesis chapter one and you’ll read that God created man—male and female—in his image.  

In chapter two of Genesis, we get the somewhat comical search of a companion for man. God stands Adam in the garden and each animal passes by. Adam is to look for what the King James Version calls a helpmeet. Literally a helper who is equal and corresponding to him. The animals pass by and perhaps he saw the dog as a potential best friend, but there was no helpmeet among any of them. Then God creates bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, a woman who will be his helpmeet and we are told, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  

In the perfect world of the Garden of Eden there was mutuality between man and wife. Eve was created from Adam’s own body a profound mystery. In Ephesians this mystery is compared to Christ and the Church. Jesus had a self-giving love for each of us. That self-giving love is what the Greek’s named agape. In Agape the person cares more for the object of their love than for themselves, not in an abusive way, but in a giving of your own self to the one you love. Ephesians 5 calls us to place that agape, that self-giving love in the center of a Christian household. Put yourselves under the place of one another.

If we husbands would do our part and love our wives as Christ loved the church, then there would be no problem with this passage. But we are all fallen creatures and we all fall short of the mark. The answer is not to ignore the standard held out in Ephesians 5, but to strive to make that self-giving love the center of your household. 

For those who are single, divorced, and widowed, you don’t get off any easier for not having a spouse. Jesus called each of those who follow him to follow in agape, in self-giving love. Jesus gave all his followers, you included, a new commandment in John chapter 15. He said, “love one another as I have loved you.” Ephesians 5 is a much abused passage that tries to apply love of one another to a Christian household, but Jesus did not stop there and neither can we.  

Love one another is all-inclusive. We are to share the love God has shown us with everyone. In fact, we are to share that self-giving agape love God has shown us with everyone, even if we happen to be married to them. 


Note: If you liked this sermon (or even if you didn't) you may also want to read the sermons Male and Female No More and Abba, Father.

[1] I owe the title to Phyllis Trible’s book, Texts of Terror, which reclaims four ignored stories of the Old Testament offering sympathetic readings of stories of abused women: Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed woman of Judges 19-21, and the daughter of Jephthah. Those are stories of women being abused, while the present reading is one, which has been used to excuse abuse.

[2] Cicero, De Officiis 1.17.54

[3] In fairness, I should note that Plutarch wrote, that a husband should not rule his wife like property but in the same way the soul directs the body. A degree a mutuality was not completely unknown to philosophy of the time.


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