Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
This passage leaves us scratching our heads due to the content and the way the it has been used over the centuries. Of course the injunctions to husbands were never preached on as much as those to wives, the context of ancient Rome, with its brutal patriarchy and slavery based economy (more disturbing passages there!), is different to our own, but what does one do with this passage?
Some preach against it: the writer was wrong just as we sometimes get it wrong; the way this text has been used to oppress just proves the point. Others try and look at the writer’s context and say it is so different to our own that we can’t take anything from the passage – he may have been right then but he’s not right now. Others still see this passage as having divine origin and words of divine truth and would wish to uphold the literal truth of the passage. All these approaches have their merits and problems.
I think, however, it’s a passage we have to wrestle with – there are plenty of those in the Scriptures after all. There is a truth in being subject to each other – responsible to each other for our journeys of discipleship. There is a truth in that our marriages (which may be rather more complex than in the writer’s time – my own, for example, may not have been approved of by the writer) need to reflect God’s love poured out in Christ. There is a truth in seeing the relationship between Christ and the Church as being as sacred, strong and intimate as the marital bond.
Maybe we have to struggle to separate out timeless truths in the passage from problematic patriarchal pronouncements recognising the harm that these have caused. Of course this approach is no easier than the others outlined above but I think God wants us to wrestle with difficult passages, and difficult questions so that we are both changed and challenged.
Lord of the Church remind us of the bond you have with us, as close as the marital bond, as fierce as a husband’s love, or a wife’s fierce tenderness. Open our hearts and minds, so that when we struggle with Biblical passages, you meet us in that struggle, and strengthen our faith. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston, Minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland
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