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August 3, 2008

 Ephesians 5:21-33


            On Sunday nights, we have been involved in a series of lessons entitled The Life and Letters of Paul.  Tonight, we will be considering Paul’s second missionary journey.  On that particular journey with Silas, Paul came to a place called Berea.  The book of Acts tells us that something happened there unlike anything that had happened in the other churches.  The Scripture says that when Paul preached to the Christians in Berea, they listened to what he had to say and then went home to search the Scriptures to see if he was right.  I want to encourage you to do that always but especially with the message this morning.

            I do not pretend to think for one moment that everyone here is going to agree with what I have to say today, but I do want you to stay with me.  Put on your thinking cap, take a few notes, and search the Scriptures when you get home.  Decide what you think about the issue of women, men, and submission, as presented in the letters of Paul.

            When I was in seminary, I read a book by Dr. Frank Stagg called Women in the World of Jesus.  Dr. Stagg was a wonderful professor of the New Testament.  He pointed out that in the first century, women were primarily treated as property.  Women had no say about whom they would marry.  Marital arrangements were always made between two men: the father of the bride and perhaps the groom, or the father of the bride and the father of the groom.  The woman simply went into the marriage, expected to be a model wife.  This meant, of course, that she was treated basically as property.  She could own no property and had virtually no rights of her own.  That is not unlike the situation in the southern part of the United States until the Civil War.  Women were not allowed to purchase property.  They could not own property unless their father or husband had willed it to them. 

This arrangement meant that women were treated in the same way that a horse would be treated.  Many of the laws that surrounded marriage reflected that very notion.  For example, when someone committed adultery, people did not think the man had committed adultery against the woman.  Adultery was a sin that was committed one man against another.  Basically, if you committed adultery, it was like stealing someone’s horse, taking someone’s property.  You think of horse theft as a sin against the person who owns the horse.  Adultery was viewed very much that way. 

In the teachings of Jesus, we find indication that he elevated the status of women.  For example, at one point when he is teaching about divorce, he says that when a man divorces his wife and marries another woman, that man commits adultery against his wife.  That idea was unheard of in the first century.  Jesus increased the worth of women through that very teaching, through that simple phrase “against her.”

            I was reminded of a story about a young man who grew up on an isolated horse ranch in West Texas.  Because his mother died soon after he was born, he grew up with only the hands that worked the horses for his father.  He did not know any women – no aunts, no sisters, no grandmother.  When he was eighteen years old, his father took him to town.  For the first time in his life, he saw a girl. 

He told his dad, “Dad, I sure would like to have one of those.” 

            His dad answered, “I’ll try to get you one.”  The father arranged a marriage between his son and a young woman.  He cut out forty acres off the backside of his ranch, built a little house, and gave the boy some horses.  The father told his son, “This is your place.  These are your horses.  This is your wife.  Live happily ever after.”

            The father did not hear from this son for several weeks.  One day he decided to ride out to the ranch and see how the couple was doing.  When he got out there, the son was working his horses. 

The father said, “Tell me how marriage is going.”

            The son answered, “Dad, that just didn’t work out too well.”

            “What do you mean it ‘didn’t work out too well’?”

            “The third day I had her here, she fell and broke her leg.  I had to put her down.”          

Yes, it is a terrible story, one I will probably get in trouble for at lunchtime today.  It illustrates the point that women were often treated simply as property.

            Against that backdrop, I want you to turn with me Ephesians 5, beginning at Verse 21.  Hear now the Word of God.


Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are all members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you must also love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. 


            Chapter 6, Verse 1 of Ephesians continues with instructions about the relationship between children and parents.  Verse 4 instructs fathers not to exasperate their children or provoke them to wrath.  Verse 5 opens a discussion about the relationship between slaves and their masters.

            About three weeks ago in Denton, Texas, a Southern Baptist preacher and professor stood in the pulpit of a Baptist church and preached on this text in Ephesians.  In the course of the message, this preacher said that spousal abuse occurs because women are unwilling to submit themselves to their husbands.  He said that when that happens, the husband has but two choices:  being sinful as he is, he can simply acquiesce and allow his wife to have her way or he can resort to abuse.  I do not know how that interpretation strikes you, but to me, it is horrible.  It is an erroneous understanding of the Scripture and a gross misinterpretation of Christian marriage.

            Why would such a passage such as this one be in the New Testament?  Let me point out to you that we find four similar passages in the New Testament: Colossians 3:18-4:1; Titus 2:1-10; I Peter 2:18-3:7; and here in Ephesians 5.  These four passages are called the Domestic Code or sometimes the Household Code.  It follows a pattern that is not unique to Christianity.  The Christian community did not originate this code.  It came to Christians from a long tradition.  We find it in stoic philosophy, in the writings of Philo, and in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.  All of those writings predate the formation of the Christian church or come immediately after its formation.  This teaching was the norm for first century households among both the Greeks and the Romans.  It came to the Christian church from the Hellenistic synagogues, those where the primary language was Greek.  In every case, three relationships are discussed:  the relationship between husband and wife, the relationship between parent and child, and the relationship between master and slave.

How are we to understand this?  We have three options.  One option is to say that this is the way the family is supposed to be, as outlined here.  Take it just like it is.  As many of you know, the Southern Baptist Convention generally adopts this first option.  The current version of the Baptist Faith and Message does just that, taking this first-century teaching and moving it right over the twenty-first century with no questions asked.  It is an easy approach, but not one I recommend.

A second option is one that may surprise you.  I have heard others say quite often that we should just understand that Paul was a male chauvinist and ignore this teaching, dismiss it outright.  This is the stuff of bigotry, and it should be completely eliminated.  You might raise the question, “How do you preach on this passage?”  If you follow the lectionary that most liturgical churches follow, you will never preach on this passage.  These passages are always omitted because they are so difficult.  We cannot do that if we are going to be faithful to the Scriptures. 

I choose the third option, which is paying close attention to what the Scripture says, considering it the Word of God, and looking at the passage in its historical and cultural context.  We will never understand it or understand how it applies to our lives as a church or to our lives as Christian families unless we look at it in its historical and cultural contexts.  The Christian church must consider and try to understand this Scripture as the inspired Word of God.

            Two key principles are important in reference to the topic of submission.  First, look at the context.  In two places, I Corinthians and I Timothy, the Apostle Paul says that women should not speak in public, they should keep their heads covered, and they should not adorn themselves.  Many people believe all of that is true, while some believe part of it is true.  Still others just get mad.  Consider what we know about Corinth and Ephesus.  Both were large seaport cities.  Huge temples were set up to worship Greek fertility goddesses there.  The Corinthians worshipped Aphrodite.  The Ephesians worshipped Diane or Artemis.  Attached to those temples were very large groups of cultic prostitutes.  When sailors came into those seaports, where do you think they went to worship?  They went to those temples up the hill.  In order to worship those fertility goddesses, they engaged in cultic prostitution, took part in sexual intercourse with those women. 

Why would the Apostle Paul tell Christian women to cover their heads, to refrain from speaking, and to dress simply without adornment?  He simply wants them to be modest so that no confusion will occur.  The Christian church was quite vulnerable.  Consider other places where the Apostle Paul had established churches, such as Philippi.  Lydia was the leader of the church.  When Paul writes the letter to the Philippians, he mentions the two church leaders Euodias and Syntyche, both women.  He directs his comments to specific situations with specific problems.  He does not want the Christian women in these fledging churches to be confused with cultic prostitutes. 

            The second principle in biblical interpretation is that the same Holy Spirit that inspired the writing of the Scriptures also inspires our reading and our interpretation of the Scriptures.  When we come to the Scriptures, we have to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and allow the Holy Spirit to help us.

            What was the dilemma of the early church?  One problem was the way the church was perceived by the outside world.  The early church was suspect by many people in the culture – Romans, Greeks, and Jews – at several points.  One, people in the early church were charged with incest.  They called each other “Brother” and “Sister.”  Their notions about loving each other became misinterpreted as incest.  Second, they were accused of cannibalism because of a ritual meal, the Lord’s Supper, in which they celebrated the offering of the body and blood of Jesus.  Third, because the Christians refused to worship Caesar as Lord, they were considered to be insurrectionists, troublemakers.  People understood the church as being subversive.  That was especially true in the terms of all of the people attracted to the church, those who came to follow the Christ, people who came to be members of the Way:  Roman soldiers, members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the rich and the poor, tax collectors and Pharisees, and especially women and slaves.  Those outside looked at the church and said, “They are causing trouble.”  Acts 17 says these people turned the world upside down.  That was one of the great fears of people who were not Christians.  They believed that the church was going to undo everything.

            How does a church respond to that?  In some points, they were unmovable.  Consider a letter written from a man named Pliny the Younger back to the Emperor Trageon near the end of the first century.  That letter talks about two women whom he refers to as deacons who came to his attention.  Pliny the Younger reports that they were arrested, persecuted, and executed because they refused to say that Caesar was lord.  That document gives verification that women were serving as deacons in the early church.  Scripture also tells us that women served as deacons.   Romans 16:1 tells us that Phoebe was a deacon. 

How did the Christians respond to the charge that they were trying to upset the household?  One way was to include this Household Code in their epistles.  Notice that the epistles that included the Household Code were all written after the persecutions began.  It is as if the church were saying, “Listen, let’s not upset the applecart here.  Let’s try our best to keep as much stability as we can.” 

The church did the same in relationship to the government.  Paul wrote in Romans 13 that the church was expected to obey the emperor and pay taxes.  Peter even wrote that Christians were to pray for the emperor, even after the persecutions had started.  He said, “Endure, and in time things will change.”  By the time you get to the book of Revelation, the Roman Empire is referred to as a “beast.”  The Roman Empire did not change. 

In regard to the Domestic Code or the Household Code, Christians were not trying to upset the order of things.  Why?  They believed Christ was going to return quite soon.  They said that if the slaves would just wait, everybody would be free because Christ was going to return and give freedom to everybody.  If women and children would simply do what the Code required, the time would come when Christ would return.  We would all be one family in Christ Jesus, one family in God.

            It is interesting that these same passages, used 150 years ago, focused on the parts addressing slavery.  These passages were used to condone slavery, to promote slavery, especially in the South.  The Southern Baptist Convention, about ten or twelve years ago, apologized for slavery.  If I am not mistaken, Congress passed a resolution this week, doing the same.  That is about 150 years too late, I would say.  Now, the tendency is to simply take the first century model and transfer it to the twenty-first century.

            When we look at the Domestic Code, it is important for us to look around the edges.  We can read some Scripture references.  Galatians 3:28 comes in what I believe is Paul’s earliest letter.  He says there, “In Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”  In other words, Paul says, “In Christ, everybody is equal.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  We are all the same before Christ.”  In a letter to Philemon, Paul writes to a slave owner about a runaway slave, Onesimus, saying, “Take him back. Treat him as a brother” (Philemon 1:16).  Paul even says that he has regarded him as a brother. 

People are astounded to find out that the great apostle wrote about the sexual relationship between husbands and wives in I Corinthians 7.  He says that husbands and wives are to submit to each other, that the husband is not the master of his body, but his wife is.  She is not the master of her body but her husband is.  He goes on to say that marriage partners should not deny conjugal rights except for a season of prayer.  Then you are to come together again.  He makes no mention of Monday night football there.  “Not tonight, honey.  Let’s pray.” 

We find in Colossians 4:5 a good understanding about the purpose of the Domestic Code in the first place.  Paul says to the outside world, “We are to live as people who are wise.”  It is as if Paul is saying, “Listen, could we please just do this so that we will not arouse more suspicion?”

The key passage by far in my mind is Ephesians 5:21, where I began the reading earlier.  “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Most translations put that section with the passages that are before, and it is fine to put it there.  It certainly is a transitional passage into Paul’s discussion of marriage.  This verse sets the tone for everything he has to say here.  Paul knows that mutual submission, submission to each other, is the way that marriage in the Christian life works best.  In fact, the Greek text requires that.  Verse 22 has no verb.  The passage read together should be something like, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord.”  Verse 22 completes the thought of Verse 21. 

            What does this mean for us?  A Chinese exchange student visiting in an American home was asked her reaction to the experience.  She said, “It is one of the saddest I have ever had.  Everybody has their own iPod, their own television set, their own computer.  They do not share anything.  They come home and maybe eat a meal together.  Then everybody goes into their own little world.  In China, we share everything.  The family is together.”  Her response is a commentary on what happens if we just take away the old order and do not understand what the gospel is trying to tell us about the new order. 

If we simply remove the Domestic Code, we are left with chaos.  If we understand what the Scriptures say here, we have something far more valuable.  All through this passage, you see how this idea about mutual submission is embedded.  Paul says to husbands, “Love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.  Love your wives as you would love your own body.”  The women are never told to love their husbands.  Why?  They had no part in choosing their husband.  In Titus 2:4, Paul says, “Tell the older women to teach the younger women how to love their husbands.”  Mutual submission creates an atmosphere so that marriage can really be what God intends it to be.  Mutual submission results in a growing love.  Both the husband and wife will bring their strengths to the marriage.

I found out early in my marriage that if I would just pay attention to Clare, I would be a better man and a better father.  God did not give her to me, did not bring her into my life, to give me somebody who would do what I asked her to do.  He gave me a dear, precious, cherished companion.  When I came home from work, I would immediately go to her.  She would tell me what I needed to know about my children to help me be a better father.  She had her finger right on the pulse of the family.  How foolish it would have been for me if I had ignored that. 

            I remember a time when our daughter, Betsy, went on a mission trip to Romania with members from Morningside.  She fell in love with a guy in Romania.  When she got back to the airport in Atlanta, she gave us a perfunctory kiss and went straight to a telephone.  She used my long-distance calling card to call back to Romania. 

Afterwards, I asked, “Whom did you call?”

She answered, “Maybe the guy I am going to marry.” 

I was just about to go through the ceiling, but my dear wife put her hand on my arm and said, “Kirk, he is still in Romania.  She did not bring him home.”

            We stopped at Barnes and Nobel on the way home and bought software to learn the Romanian language on the computer.  She used it one time, sent one e-mail.  If you need to learn the Romanian language, I have the software for you.  By the time school started, she was dating another guy.  I wish he had been in Romania.

            Being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ in a marriage is harder to do.  It is a harder way to live.  It takes more work.  My goodness though, it is more satisfying.  It is the way God intends marriage to be.  Mutual submission is the way two people become one.  A husband and wife can be best friends.  They can be as a couple, far more intimate.  I am not talking just about sexual intimacy.  They can talk to each other about anything; nothing is unspeakable.  They can share every emotion.  They can have common goals and common values.  Both are students and both are teachers, always learning from each other.  Most importantly, they can pray together and pray for each other.

            The Apostle Paul uses a term several times that I find especially helpful: “the church in your house.”  This is the model for the church and for the church in our homes.  A plaque on the wall in our home says, “Christ is the head of this house.  He is the unseen guest at every meal.  He is the silent listener to every conversation.”  Christ teaches us how to submit.  Philippians 2:6 says, “He did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he humbled himself and took the form of a servant.”  Paul makes exactly the same comment in Ephesians.  We are to be servants to each other.  When we do that, we follow the example of Christ.  He is not only our model for submission, but he is also the one to whom we submit.  “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  That, I believe, is the model for Christian marriage.



Kirk H. Neely

© August 2008

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