Pastoral Message – August 22, 2021
All words are said, and should be understood, in context. The same words may have very different meanings depending on whether they are said in anger or in jest. Similarly, the reactions to those words might vary from outrage or insult to a hearty laugh. The point is that, without context, it is often impossible to truly understand why specific words are being communicated. Context can be determined by the tone of the speaker, her demeanor, the circumstances of a communication event, as well as the attitudes and expectations of both the speaker and the listener. For example, actors often make inappropriate statements while performing in plays or movies. Given the context, it is easy to understand that the actors are merely reading from the script rather than expressing personal views.
However, when words are taken out of context, their meaning can be lost or misconstrued. Paul certainly raises more than a few eyebrows when he writes, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of his wife…so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.” As the disciples said in the Gospel, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Some might ask, “Who does Paul think that he is telling women to obey their husbands?” “Can he seriously think that God placed men in a superior position to women?” Neither my wife, nor many wives I know would accept that as written. Yet, taken out of context, that is exactly what the words say. However, if we dig beyond the basic translation, we see a very different understanding.
First, the word which is translated as “subordinate” is actually the Greek verb hupotassomai which is a military term that essentially means “to deploy” oneself “in support of a fight against the enemy.” One commentator suggests that Paul’s intent would be more accurately conveyed if the passages were written as, “Wives, deploy yourselves and go to battle for your husbands against the enemy.” This makes sense, because most First Century Christians were women whose husbands were Non-Christians. Paul is instructing the wives to place themselves in service to defend their husbands against the evils of the world. They must deploy themselves against “the powers of darkness” that hold their Non-Christian husbands in the bondage of sin and to try to convert them to the faith.
Second, todays passage begins with Paul telling everyone to be “subordinate” to one another. Basically, we should not allow pride and arrogance to control how we manage our relationships with others. But then Paul speaks to the most intimate relationship of all: marriage. Paul makes his statement about wives being “subordinate” but immediately places that statement in context by describing the profound and sacrificial love that a husband must feel for his wife. He equates that love to the love of Christ, particularly the intense love that Christ has for His Church and by reminding the Ephesians that Christ showed His love by handing “himself over” for the Church. Therefore, Paul says that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” A husband who loves so intensely and perfectly would never do the slightest thing to even mildly upset his wife, much less insult or harm her in any way. Because his love is focused entirely on her, he desires to protect and cherish her with every ounce of his being. It is in this context that a wife can feel great peace and comfort in being “subordinate” to her husband.
Finally, Paul’s goals in many of his letters were to challenge existing beliefs and hierarchy, not support them. In the first century, there is no need for anyone to tell wives to obey their husbands; obedience was already an expectation in that culture. On the other hand, Paul’s statement that a husband should love his wife as he loved himself would have been a hard pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire. In this letter, Paul was actually proposing radical equality in human relationships which would have come as quite a shock to the Greco-Roman culture of that time which told men to own their wives and rule them. Men of that culture could not have conceived of a such a radically interdependent relationship with their wives.
And so, to all the wives out there who are distressed by this week’s reading, try not to get too caught up in words like “subordinate” or the modern day interpretation of that word. Rather than being insulted, please try to prepare yourselves for battle in protection of your spouses (and your children) against the dark, strange, and dangerous world and keep them under the shelter of our faith.