Friday, June 24, 2022

Mutual Subordination (Ephesians 5:21-33)

Jesus Christ leads us on the difficult path of freedom which is based on truth, expressed through love, and leads to eternal life.

This freedom in Christ means both freedom from and freedom for. Jesus sets us free from the causes and consequences of evil. We may look at the six false Olympian gods as causes of evil. They bully, bribe, and deceive us, as irresistibly as possible, to view the world in self-centered terms, to treat others as means to our own ends, to understand leadership as bossiness, and to understand bosses as having greater dignity and being more important than those they boss. 

Jesus calls and enables us to be free for others. He particularly frees us to love others; that is, to commit ourselves to nurturing and protecting all persons with whom we interact.

In his Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), Paul writes the truth about the freedom in Christ of husbands and wives to love one another in a rightly ordered way. Paul begins this section of his letter (v. 21) by providing us with a heading for it. The Revised Standard Version translates Paul as writing, “be subject to one another.” The New International Version translates the verse, “submit to one another.” We better understand the Greek word Paul uses (hypotassomenoi) as meaning, “be subordinate to one another.”

The word subordinate points to an external order. What Paul is saying here is not that we are to kowtow to one another. Instead, Paul wants each of us rightly ordering ourselves in relationship to Jesus. Rightly ordered in relationship to Jesus, we will practice the right mutual subordination to one another. 

Paul dedicates only three verses (vs. 22-24) to the right ordering of a wife to her husband in Christ. Just as a wife relates to Christ as head of the church, so she should freely subordinate herself to her husband as head of the family.

The word head is rich in connotations. One unavoidable aspect of it is decider. Just as a wife relates to Jesus as decider of the church, so she should relate to her husband as decider of the family. This would rule out harping, carping, hen-pecking, and otherwise being uncooperative in an obviously headstrong or subtly discouraging way. 

These words concerning wifely subordination are not a new law. They are not yet another example of moral-code thinking. Through these words of Paul, Jesus calls and enables each wife to relate to her husband as final decider in the family just as Jesus calls and enables her and her husband together to relate to him as final decider in relationship to them. 

Paul then takes nine verses (vs. 25-33) to explain to husbands how to rightly subordinate themselves in relationship to their wives in Christ. Husbands, he writes, are to relate to their wives just as Christ relates to the church (and to husbands as members of it). To be clear, Paul says that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). We can forget here any thought that being decider means husbands get to be bossy, take advantage of their wives, think of their wives as slaves, take the biggest and best of everything, control the money, or expect their wives to do all the boring work around the house and with the children. So too we can forget thinking that Paul here is encouraging wives to be fawning submissive doormats.

Paul says that Jesus freely sacrificed himself for the church to make her radiant, without imperfection, and holy (v. 27). Like Jesus, husbands are to sacrifice themselves, do all they can do, to enable their wives to become the clearest witnesses to Christ that Christ calls them to be. There is nothing, then, that a rightly-ordered husband would not do to enable his wife to answer Christ’s call in the most knowledgeable, skillful, and joyful way possible. This would include encouraging his wife to express herself on any decision and to be as responsible for as wide a variety of decisions as possible. Wives, when rightly ordered in relationship to Christ, help their husbands do this for them. 

A wife’s relationship to Jesus might not be rightly ordered; consequently, her relationship to her husband will not be either. She may be too submissive or too bossy rather than the strong, competent, joyful subordinate Christ calls her to be. 

A husband’s relationship to Jesus might not be rightly ordered; consequently, his relationship to his wife will not be either. He may be too weak or too bossy rather than being able to provide his wife (and family) the right guidance, coordination, and inspiration they need to witness clearly to Christ. 

Of course, none of us enjoys a perfectly ordered relationship to Jesus, so all of us who are married have work to do on our relationship to both Jesus and our spouses. The question is whether we are moving in the right direction. 

Copyright © 2022 by Steven Farsaci.
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