Most Abused Scripture Passages: Ephesians 5

I have for some time intended to document my frustration with the carelessness and disregard with which some people treat the scriptures and, in particular, certain famous passages. In his Mother's Day sermon, Pastor Simpson used Ephesians 5. He handled it correctly (our church is fortunate), but I was reminded of some of the ways I've seen the passage handled in the past, and of my intention to write about this subject.

Marriage too has been on my mind of late, primarily since this May-July this year see me attending three wedding ceremonies in as many months (which is rather unusually many for me).

Note first of all that this passage (and the entire book of Ephesians, really) is primarily talking about the church. The passage certainly does speak to marriage, but people who ignore the larger context often get confused about what it says about marriage. The worst offenders quote just verses 22-24:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

These three verses, out of context, have been used to prooftext all manner of dire heresy. I will not dignify most of it with specific responses, except to say that anyone who quotes just these three verses in isolation from the rest of the context is invariably up to no good.

The bare minimum you can quote at one go and have a reasonable chance of doing the passage anything resembling justice is verses 21-33:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

You can see there the mutual nature of the relationship. It's not entirely symetrical, but it is very much cooperative on both sides. And yes, I have looked at verse 21 in the Greek, and it says the same thing as the English translation I quoted. If there is a word there that someone could reasonably take issue with it is "reverence", which could also be rendered "fear". Doing a detailed study on fearing the Lord would take us far off track, and in any case it would not change the basic meaning of this passage. People have been known to take issue with the word "submit", but again any wording that can reasonably be chosen (e.g., place yourselves under one another) would not change the basic meaning of this passage. "One another" is the part of this verse that we cannot get around, and it is borne out in any case by the verses that follow.

Now with that said, the wording and emphasis are quite different on the two sides of the relationship, because the man fills one role in the family and the woman another. And it is true that the man is to be the head of the household (and this is even more clear in other passages). Yet the relationship is very much reciprocal in nature, and if a man is treating his wife as some kind of servant or lesser partner, he is absolutely missing the mark.

It is worth mentioning too that the very closeness of relationship herein implied is fundamentally alien to popular culture's concept of marriage, wherein a much greater separation and individuality is retained.

But we still have not touched upon the main point of the passage. Paul explicitely states in verse 32 what should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the general flow of the whole letter: he is talking about the church. A proper treatment of this passage really should look at 5:21 — 6:9 as a unit. 5:21, in particular, is a concise statement of the whole passage, which is expanded then in three main parts: 5:22-33 (wives and husbands), 6:1-4 (children and parents), and 6:5-9 (slaves and masters) — all of which is talking primarily about proper relationships among believers within the church, and all of which also ties back into what was said in chapter 4.

So if you see a man use Ephesians 5:22 as an excuse to live his live selfishly, making decisions without consulting with his wife, expecting her to work a side job in addition to doing all the cooking and laundry and whatnot while he sits in a chair, and generally treating her badly, tell him to go back and read it again.

Wow, it feels good to vent. There are plenty of other frequently abused passages in scripture. Perhaps I should write up a few more in the coming months.

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. The "NIV" and "New International Version" trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.


DiFFeReNT said...

I know this is old, but....
You are spot on. Thanks for this post.
I visited a church today that abused this passage and felt like documenting it - but you beat me to it!
God bless