Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:21-33

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June 11, 2014 by mattwilcoxen

WIFE-SUBMIT-A couple weeks ago I was given the task of preaching a sermon on Ephesians 5:21-33, a classic Pauline text that works beautifully for weddings–unless of course you object to the line that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (5:24).

So I preached the text. You can have a listen here. I share it not out of the belief that it’s a great piece of preaching, but because there were some people that found my treatment of this passage helpful. In fact, I received from one young woman the highest compliment I may ever receive. She said, “You gave a really good explanation of the passage that was completely Christ-centred.” Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I was right, though I think my reading is really on to something.

I’d love to know what you have to think about my exegesis of this passage. My goal is to be faithful to the Bible, not to acquiesce to contemporary culture. Feel free to think through this passage with me in the comments.

For those of you who won’t listen to the audio, here is a bullet point summary of the exegetical and homiletic moves I made:

1. The management of the home (the family) was seen in the ancient world as essential for the stability and flourishing of the state.

2. There are central entailments of the Christian message that were perceived to threaten the stability of the state: the breaking down of social, class, ethnic, and gender boundaries. Everyone is equal before God by virtue of what Christ has done.

3. Paul doesn’t want non-Christians to think of Christians as destroying culture’s institutions; he wants the message about Jesus to receive a hearing. He believes that the gospel transforms culture’s institutions from the inside out, rather than destroys them.

4. When Paul adopts the widespread “household code” genre of writing in Eph 5:21-33, he is speaking the content of the gospel into the form of the culture of his day. The content is radically refashioning the form.

5. The content that Paul pours into the patriarchal form amounts to something like this: Christians use power to empower others because that is how the Lord Jesus used power. Men in a patriarchal society are not to consolidate power but, like Christ, to put it to work self-sacrificially to empower their wives. This is the main point of the passage, and the emphasis on women submitting is predicated on this new power dynamic.

6. The passage does not, therefore, endorse a dominant patriarchalism (itself something that comes only after the Fall). The passage does not endorse the ancient form, but rather it speaks the gospel content to that form. (We might assume that this would gradually transform the form, too.)

7. Separating content from form, we can translate to today: the stronger spouse should use power self-sacrificially to empower the weaker spouse. That is the point, and we can apply it in a variety of ways. In actual fact, there are a number of ways that a wife may be stronger than her husband, and ways that the husband is stronger than his wife. The two are to give freely from their strengths and receive openly in their weaknesses.

And that’s essentially it. What do you think?


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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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