Paul is sometimes known as the “apostle of grace,” and rightly so. In his letters, he consistently marvels at the graciousness of a righteous God toward the unrighteous, as demonstrated decisively in the cross. He wants all believers, individually and communally, to fully and personally grasp the significance of that grace, and in response, to live cruciform or “cross-shaped” lives.
It’s unfortunate, then, how we sometimes come to Ephesians 5 as if all Paul wanted to do was set out rules for Christian households.
As I’ve suggested in recent posts, Paul’s moral instruction to households in Ephesians 5 and 6 is the practical application of what comes before. We are first to be amazed at being included in God’s eternal plan for bringing unity to a broken creation. Then, as a consequence, we should desire to live in a way that befits that calling, in communities characterized by humble submission to one another. I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the church in Philippi: “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4, NIV). This, I believe, is what Paul means by mutual submission (Eph 5:21).
When Paul then works out the implications of mutual submission for Christian households, it’s important to remember the social and cultural context into which he speaks. The Roman paterfamilias, the male head of the household, had the kind of unilateral authority (in principle if not always in practice) over his wife, children, and slaves that we would find horrifying today. If we fail to recognize this, we may read Paul as establishing patriarchal rules and roles, as opposed to speaking into social norms that already exist.
Thus, when Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands (5:22-24), children to obey their parents (6:1-3), and slaves to obey their masters (6:5-8), he’s not telling them to do anything that they don’t already do. Submit to the paterfamilias? Of course. But he wants them to do it with a new attitude: as Christians, everything they do must now be done as unto the Lord (5:22; 6:1,5,7), that is, as a way of honoring their commitment to Christ.
The greater challenge by far is issued to the paterfamilias. Paul has separate instructions for husbands, fathers, and masters — but remember, these roles are all occupied by the same person. Quite apart from the picture of a domineering master, husbands are to exhibit a cross-shaped sacrificial love for their wives (5:25). And that doesn’t mean, “Rule over your wives as you see fit; just be ready to rescue her from disaster as needed.” It means love her sacrificially all the time.
I don’t think it’s fair to read Paul as imposing patriarchy on Christian families; again, he is trying to lay out the implications of the gospel for households that are already patriarchal in their structure. At best, one might accuse Paul of not directly challenging patriarchal norms. But does that imply, by default, that he is endorsing those norms?
Not necessarily. More on that in the next post.