The Magisterium of the Church has faithfully preserved the tradition of sound Scriptural interpretation. Pope Benedict summarized the four necessary components of properly interpreting the scriptures in a February 2010 audience; “the literal or historical, the allegorical or Christological, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical, which orients a person to eternal life. Today it has been rediscovered that these senses are dimensions of the one meaning of Sacred Scripture and that it is right to interpret Sacred Scripture by seeking the four dimensions of its words” (Audience 2-10-10). This renewal in Biblical studies had started even before the Second Vatican Council, when, for example, Pope Pius XII reminded the Church that “the interpreter [of scripture] must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences.”
Interpreting the text in its historical context is thus a prerequisite for the correct interpretation of Scripture as a whole. This tends to get lost in today’s discussion of marriage in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The question of the culture and peoples to whom Paul was writing, and the intended message that he wished to convey to them at that time and place in history, may be given short shrift as our own impressions of Ephesians 5 are bantered about using no more than our personal mindsets and modern sensibilities. I hope here to give another “shot” at interpreting Ephesians 5:21-33 in a way that brings the true revelation of Scripture to bear on modern marriages, by situating it in the cultural and family milieu of the first century, and the broader theological thought of St. Paul which is also indispensable here.
Trying to build on this historical context, let us remember first of all that Christianity entered the world of ancient cultures where “human rights” as we know them were a foreign concept. On the other hand, power and authority were well understood, and while not all men enjoyed positions of power or authority, to say the least, even fewer were the women who could claim any such position. In short, it is imperative to consider whether there would be any purpose for the proclamation of the Gospel by the Apostles to set as a priority that no woman enjoyed any power or authority over a man (as Paul actually says in the specific context of 1 Timothy 2:12), when the culture and the world all around already insisted on this as the status quo.
Because the context of this ancient culture is lost, people think that Ephesians 5:21-33 is primarily a theological “argument” trying to get insubordinate wives (and servants and children) to submit to authority. But is this really St. Paul’s goal? This was already happening rather ubiquitously. The culture already insisted upon it and it was indeed the standard practice (happily or unhappily). Let us consider that the point of this passage would not be that subservient roles need to be reinforced. No. Let us consider that Paul’s point was that, insofar as these authority structures were being followed already, they needed to be followed in a new way. True, Paul did not seem to think the external state of affairs is what needed to change. Equally true, he was saying the internal disposition towards this patriarchal societal structure did need to change. All things must be now be done “in Christ.” Regardless of whether the “subordinate” roles in marriage or society are naturally created by God, as Paul seems to say quite clearly, or whether they were actually imposed artificially by men, they all need to be reevaluated in the light of the Gospel. Power and authority need to be reevaluated in light of the Gospel.
This brings us to the relevant question. Whether or not the deconstruction of subservient expectations in today’s societies and marriages was the result of Christianity - whether our current notions of equality be good, bad, or indifferent - how do we reevaluate the present state of affairs in light of the Gospel? The internal disposition is still the first priority. If external practices in marriage, family, or society need to change, it does no good to impose them from the outside. So this may be how to frame the question of interpreting Ephesians 5 today; our first concern should not be to change who is submitting to whose decisions, but to insist that whichever decisions are subjected to whomever, that the reason for doing so be constantly reconsidered in the light of the Gospel. And the Gospel refers all things to Christ.
Therefore, in order to paraphrase Ephesians 5:21-33 in a way that might help modern husbands and wives reevaluate their own lives in light of the Gospel, let us go back to the historical context, and paraphrase this passage in a way that would still capture the meaning that St. Paul intended to convey to the peoples in first century Ephesus. We might consider an amplified version of Paul's intended to say, bringing out several elements: 1) their societally accepted language of power and authority, well known in the ancient world yet often re-interpreted by Jesus himself, 2) the broader theological thought that Paul expressed in Ephesians 1 (and 1 Corinthians 12-13) about the headship of Christ, and 3) Paul’s personal imperatives to all Christians based on the Christological morality of Philippians 2, in imitation of Christ’s humility referenced at the very beginning of Ephesians 5. Such an amplified paraphrase may then allow us to translate the passage for our society in a more meaningful way. So if Paul were to elaborate more on what was going through his mind when he wrote this Epistle in the first century, perhaps Ephesians 5:21-33 would read more like this:
(21) Whenever any of you accepts the authority of another, do it for reverence of Christ, and not for any other reason, any reason which is an excuse for selfishness. For Christ was completely selfless, and yet he is the one in authority over all of us. (22) Wives, when you accept the authority of your husbands, do not do it for any utilitarian or compromising reason. Do it as a means of glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ. (23) For God has given a husband a natural power over his wife and family to serve them, the same way that Christ has a natural power over the Church to save it through his self-sacrifice. For no authority can be used to command another to sin. (24) Therefore the way the Church accepts Jesus Christ as Lord, in this manner is the way you should accept the authority of your husband. (25) Husband, do not think that Christ your Lord will let you love and honor your wife half-heartedly. Christ commands you to love your wife as he loved the Church. (26) His sacrifice did not lead her into sin, such that indignity and corruption would lead her to condemnation. Rather, his sacrifice made her holy, and his power, through water and the word, was used to cleanse her. (27) Christ cleansed the church precisely so that he could wed her. She became his immaculate bride, such was his intention to unite her to himself in holiness. (28) For Christ and the Church are united so closely that they are even one body, as will be quoted from Scripture in a moment. As there is no selfishness in saying Christ loves himself through loving his body the Church, so a man loves himself unselfishly through loving and cherishing his wife, so closely are husband and wife to be united in Christ. (29) Therefore husbands, if you would not use the natural powers of your arms and legs in any way that would harm yourself, learn from Christ’s selfless love of the Church, that, you are commanded not to use your natural power over your wife and family in any way whatsoever that would harm them who have become your own flesh. (30) Christ has made us into his own body, (31) and this was prophesied by Scripture, that the reason “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” is because (32) this is a natural sign of the great mystery of Christ united to the Church, whom he loved in selflessness. (33) Therefore husbands, as natural as it seems to you to use the natural powers of your arms and legs for your own happiness, so naturally does Christ take care of his own body. So, if you are to reverence Christ and not sin through selfishness against him who has authority over you, then you should use your authority only as you would use your natural powers, to love your own flesh, that is your wife and family. And let a wife see that she not dishonor Christ as he is to be found in being united to her husband in a selfless union of holiness. For if any of you disrupt the unity of your own family by not loving or not respecting, then you do not reverence Christ.
If the interpretive points employed in this suggested paraphrase are tenable, one point in particular, if accepted, may allow us to translate the meaning of this passage for modern marriages. If the “headship” of a husband in marriage is indeed a “natural power” of some sort, and thus a “natural” thing - that is, created by God as good, but most definitely corrupted by sin - then we may in fact take the liberty of avoiding discussion of this “power” (“authority” is the same ancient word) in favor of using our modern language or rights and responsibilities. Let us operate on the principle that we must accept the supernatural as the means of healing the natural. If St. Paul’s “headship” (whatever it means) is natural, but thrown off-kilter by sin, it will be restored by grace, so long as we accept God’s supernatural plan in Christ. As it is restored in Christ’s plan (not according to our notions), then one need not worry about painting a detailed picture of how a husband exercises this “natural power,” or how one defers to it or accepts it. For the key point here is that however this is specifically done, it can’t be done perfectly without first deferring to the grace of Christ. Put Christ first, and the rest will fall in place (“naturally” we may say).
A further reason to take this approach is found in the simplicity of the original text. St. Paul began by stating every Christian should “submit” to their natural authorities out of reverence for Christ, yet he does not repeat the word in his survey of head-body relationships. Where he could have repeated “wives submit” as a command, he only says “wives… to husbands as to the Lord.” In contrast, what words are repeated over and over in the passage? “For Christ; as Christ; to Christ!” It is not just the word “submit” that expects to fill in the ellipses; it is the whole first sentence. If there is present some theological “argument” trying to root out insubordination against family cultural norms, the argument itself has been relegated to Christ and his Church as the supreme rule. “If any should accept the authority of another, then do it for reverence of Christ, and not for any other ultimate reason!”
Here then let us put aside even the question of Christ’s authority, knowing that, in our terms, he has taken responsibility for our salvation. We will take the approach of paraphrasing Ephesians 5:21-33 in general terms of marital responsibilities, speaking of “gifts” as a grace-implied euphemism for personal “strengths.”
Every person, married or unmarried, has been given their own gifts and responsibilities, and each must fulfill their own without usurping those of others, as a way of serving Christ, our loving savior. Wives put all your gifts at the service of your husband. For the Lord has given him responsibilities which you yourself cannot fulfill. Thus model your relationship on that of Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ dispossessed himself of every gift for the good of the Church, which is, for the salvation it is members. As gratefully, therefore, as the church receives the gifts and graces of the Lord Jesus, encourage that care for your family which your husband provides in the specific ways that God has enabled him. Husbands, you must do everything that you can for your wife out of Christ-like love, putting your gifts to whatever task Christ calls you to. Christ gave you an example of sacrifice when he “handed himself over” for the Church, “to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word.” He paid for the holiness of the Church that he might make her his bride, united so closely that they are as one body. You are “one flesh” with your wife, and loving her is the only Christ-like way that you can fulfill yourself for Christ’s sake. Thus both you and she may fulfill your responsibilities for your family with the gifts God has given you. So the simplest way I can summarize this, if husbands and wives seek to be faithful to the grace of the mystery of Christ's redemption, is that a husband should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.Having used so many words to come to a perspective which does not get caught up in the ancient fascination with power and authority (so much ink being spilled on the “head of the household” question), I will dismiss the whole project of this interpretation to conclude on another passage of St. Paul. The Christological hymn of Philippians 2 has already been referenced here. In our culture I think that is a much better passage overall for directing either engaged or married couples in the ways of holiness and happiness. We see in the end, here, that while the ancient world was obsessed with power and authority as the only worthwhile “gifts,” the real issue then is the same now: humility. We recognize many more kinds of strengths and gifts today. That is great. Yet, how can we deal with the fact that to each is given different gifts, and that in terms of strengths and weakness, we are most certainly NOT all equal? And where husbands and wives feel threatened by gifts that the other has been given - be it physical strength, verbal persuasiveness, personal charisma, a brilliant intellect, or an unrivaled wit - the only answer is for all to be convinced that their gifts must be used in service of Christ. All must discern their responsibilities in light of the Gospel, and try their best to fulfill them! And each should be more concerned about discerning one’s own gifts and responsibilities, more than worrying about whether the other is fulfilling theirs.