The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Headship and Submission, pt. 1

Your feet are going to be on the ground;
Your head is there to move you around…
--R.E.M., “Stand”

Somebody asked me about what it means in the Bible when it says that “the husband is the head of the wife.”

Here’s the passage in bad English, the Joe Fremer translation of Ephesians 5:21-33—
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21 Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ--
22 The women: to their husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the Church, Himself Savior of the body; 24 but as the Church subjects herself to Christ, so too the women to their husbands in all things.

25 The men: love your wives, exactly as Christ loved the Church and handed Himself over [to trial and execution] for her sake. 26 He did this so that He could set her apart as holy, by cleaning her in the washing of water-in-word. 27 His goal was to present her to Himself as a shiny Church, free of spot or stain or anything like that. On the contrary, she would be holy and blameless. 28 Thus also husbands have the obligation to love their own wives as they love their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no man hates his own flesh, but he nourishes it and takes care of it, and that’s just what the Christ does for the Church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 For this reason a man will leave father and mother and join to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is big; for now, I am speaking in connection with Christ and His Church. 33 Anyway, back to you: each one [submitting to one another]: let each husband love his wife just like he loves himself; and let the wife fear her husband.

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I’m not going to debate the finer points of my translation choices; the coarser points are these:
1. Subject oneself: middle, not passive, taking my cue from the first word in the header. Yes, one could use the passive voice (I think I’ve seen render verse 24 “is subject to” or “is subjected to”). But the tenor of the whole section is we are talking about voluntary self-subjection to the will of another. This is not a static hierarchy, the stronger subjugating the weaker. Mao said power is what flows from the end of a gun; but Jesus said that power in His kingdom is a matter of service. Ambition in His Kingdom is a climb to the bottom, to be the servant of all.

2. Verse 21 is the header for this entire section. (And the section continues into chapter 6.) Two major English versions that I have fail to reflect this in their section headings, putting a heading at verse 22. Headings are put in by human editors to be helpful, but this time, it is not helpful, because the topic “husbands and wives” is a subtopic of the main topic: Our New Walk as the Body of Christ is One of Mutual Self-Subjection Under Him.

3. PHOBOS is fear. “Reverence,” “respect,” OK, sure, but let’s not Nerf this one down. What’s missed in attempts to soften this is the fact that the same word is used in verse 21 and in verse 33. The whole undertaking is begun and ended in fear: Church fears Christ, woman fears husband: a big mystery. Later he will (still on topic!) be talking about slaves and masters, and there he will use the Pauline phrase “fear and trembling,” clearly a different grade of fear than the Church has for her Master.

4. The item in square brackets in verse 33 supplies something that is implied by the kind of conjunction that begins that verse. He started to steer off topic a little bit, but now he’s returning, not just to instruction for husbands, but the broader topic of mutual submission in the Body of Christ. I get this from the progression of the pronouns: you-plural the-(collectively), considered on a case-by-case basis, each of you do this… Combining the collective focus (the forest) and the individual focus (the trees) in this way suggests to me that he has, so to speak, returned to the broader topic, and is about to sum it up for everybody.

You could outline it like this:
Eph. 5:21-6:9 Our New Walk as the Body of Christ is One
of Mutual Self-Subjection Under Him
5:22-24 Wives
5:25-32 Husbands
5:33 All Spouses
6:1-3 Children
6:4 Fathers
6:5-8 Slaves
6:9 Masters
Yes, mutual! This doesn’t mean we have to take turns. (“I was the slave yesterday, so today I’m the boss and you’re the slave!”). It means that our assigned roles: assigned by society, by circumstances of hap, or by circumstances of birth, have within them ways that we, under Christ, can conduct ourselves so to give preference to another, to yield the right-of-way. It’s a dance: one must lead, one must follow; but the leader must lead with an accommodation to the needs of his partner, and so submit to her in the way that he leads.

Next time: Why I Don’t Use “Obey” in Wedding Vows.

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