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Scripture Deep Dive: Why Does Ephesians Say ‘Wives Should Be Subordinate to Their Husbands?’

When reading scripture, there are sometimes stories or verses that can bristle our modern ears. Father Dave takes a deep dive into one of those readings, specifically Ephesians 5:21-33.

In this letter, Paul states in part, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord…” and then later says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” 

Father Dave first reminds us, “There’s quite a bit in the scriptures that are contrary to what our normal, modern experience of life is. Because they were revealed by God, but written by human people of a certain time and place, inevitably we’re not going to understand or appreciate them in the same way that those people would.” He gives the example of the mustard seed in Luke’s gospel, and how in our current age we probably would not know what size the seed was.

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He then explains how this reading from Ephesians could be controversial at the time, but not for the reasons we may think. It was assumed in that time that wives were to be subordinate to their husbands, so it is the surrounding passages that are of note. “When we hear what Paul is saying in Ephesians, almost every wife in the congregation would probably stand up and cheer,” Father Dave says. “Because we tend to take that one sentence out of context, ‘Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.’ The lead off line is, ‘Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ That is completely unheard of in the time of Paul, in that society. There was no way that a man would ever choose to be subordinate to a woman, that is what’s groundbreaking.”

He continues, “Then comes the end, ‘Your husband will love you as Christ loved the church, handing himself over for her to sanctify her.’ This husband is now called to make his wife holy. That’s what sanctify means: not to make himself holy, but to make her holy.” Contrary to our current perspectives, this passage was quite challenging for the men of that time. 

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Father Dave also addresses this disconnect between different times in history and says, “There are many modern people today that would say, ‘Well, if that’s in the Bible, and that’s God’s word. How could God get that so badly wrong?’ Like when we hear references to slavery, for instance, also in the scriptures.” He explains, “God is a loving parent that has been trying for thousands of years to teach us these complex ways of living in step with God, and we as little children are slow to understand.”

“If God is going to wait around for us to get everything right, he’s never going to incarnate and never going to come to us. So whenever God appears, he’s going to be dealing with some of our limitations. One of those is certainly the limitations of a woman’s role in society.”