Perhaps I don’t emphasize the obvious enough, but I presume everyone here knows that this reading is not about putting down women. The verse before the controversial one, where it says, “wives, submit to your husbands,” it says, “submit to one another.” There are three verses on the wife’s submission, nine on the husband loving his wife. The husband is called to imitate Christ, laying down his life for his bride, nourishing and cherishing her, loving her as he loves himself. All of this needs to be said.
But today I would like to go a step further, with a couple thoughts on what Paul says about women. (My most serious scholarly work is on gender and marriage in the Greco-Roman and especially medieval worlds.)
First: it is widely said – by those who do not simply ignore these verses – that Paul is simply working with the cultural norm. In his society, they say, women were second-class citizens; Paul does his best to fill that cultural norm with love. Similarly, a few verses later he will talk about slaves; Paul is not – I definitely agree with this – supporting slavery (and definitely not the chattel race slavery of American history, a particularly odious variant). He’s doing his best to bring love to an imperfect system, just as we should.
That is certainly partly right. We can learn a lot from that approach. But it might be a little too simple. Even its take on ancient slavery, and worker-employer relationships, is a bit too simple.
What if we turn this approach on its head? Instead of saying that submissive wives were the norm in Paul’s culture – what if the opposite was the norm? I don’t know many submissive wives; in my experience, it is more often husbands who submit to domineering women. (Please – I’m not denying there are abusive relationships! Just questioning whether that is the “norm” that Paul is assuming.)
Maybe – maybe, I don’t know – he tells husbands to love their wives because that is what husbands are most likely not to do. Husbands’ hearts wander – even when they are letting the wife dominate the home and family. And maybe Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands because that is their more common sin: not a wandering heart, but an uncooperative attitude.
I would really like to do a read through Ovid, the great myth writer of Paul’s time, to see how submissive, and how hen-pecking, Hera is. (I know that Zeus’s heart is always wandering: “love your wives” is definitely not just accepting the cultural norm in those Greco-Roman myths.)
But today I did a Bible study on women in Proverbs, to find the Hebrew norm. I found three models.
First, there are many warnings about adulterous women, defined by flattery and deception. She lies and takes. Notice that adultery can be a metaphor for other things, too, not just sex. In this cultural norm – normal today, but apparently normal then, too – women use men to get what they want. “Submission” might partly mean, don’t be like that.
The second model in Proverbs, also mentioned many times, is the “contentious” or “brawling” woman. “It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.” “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house” (that is, even if you have a big house). “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”
This sounds to me like hen pecking: drip, drip, drip, till she gets what she wants. Submission might also partly mean, don’t be like that.
Finally, the third model in Proverbs is the virtuous wife: Proverbs ends with a long beautiful description of her. (Kimberly Hahn has a fine book of meditations on this passage.) This woman is smart and provident and very active.
She is always “doing good.” She makes things with her hands. She acquires good food for her family. She does many business transactions: buying fields and vineyards, selling the things she has made, making sure she finds the best candles for her home.
She is strong – “she girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.” (“Girding your loins” meant putting on a belt: their flowing garments were fine for sitting around, but needed a belt if you were going to get anything done.) “Strength and honor are her clothing.” She cares for the poor.
She is wise – “she opens her mouth with wisdom” (not silent) “and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” She helps her husband achieve success in the world.
Above all, “she looks carefully to the way of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.” Really, all of this defines how Proverbs sees “idleness”: the good woman does not sit around, she is smart and provident and active and wise. And so “the heart of her husband safely trusts in her.”
This is not a cultural norm of women who don’t know how to think. It describes a kind of submission – her husband can trust her, unlike the manipulative or hen-pecking wife – but this “submissive” wife is anything but a push-over. Rather, she works with her husband, and supports him, with her intelligence and activity. Maybe that’s what Ephesians means by “submit.”
If I were to write another article about Ephesians 5, I would point out that the deeper teaching here is about the fruit of the Spirit, the work of grace in healing and elevating the lives of the faithful. When Christ sanctifies Christian women, he doesn’t make them brainless bumps on a log. He makes them women their husbands can rely on.
Where in your life could you practice an active, intelligent, counter-cultural submission?