Unexpurgating Mutual Submission

Last May, I got a kick out of Nadia Bolz-Weber and Tony Jones reflecting on the Revised Common Lectionary’s tendency to omit passages of scripture that are potentially offensive or not politically correct.  For example, passages such as James 5 are omitted: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.  Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. ”  We don’t like judgment, especially judgment against comfortable wealthy lifestyles, so we avoid happily censor such passages. 

Tonight at Upper Room I’m preaching on Ephesians 5:21-6:9, expurgated from the Lectionary because of its language about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves submitting to their masters.   Certainly in history the passage has been abused to justify slavery and misogyny.   Because of that history, when we hear “wives, submit to your husbands”, we assume it will lead to situations like the permission of  marital rape in Afghanistan.  Thus the lectionary omits the passage and people avoid talking about it.  But how are we supposed to teach people to interpret texts like this responsibly if we don’t preach on them? 

The key verse in the entire passage is verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Verses 22, in the Greek, doesn’t even have the verb “submit” in it.  Literally, it’s a continuation of verse 21, as though it could say, “for example, wives to your husbands . . . . ”  The passage offers a call to mutual submission, following the pattern of Christ’s self-offering on behalf of the world – not a one-sided submission.  In fact, the attention Paul gives to the husband’s love of the wife is much more than other ancient writers would have given.  Paul’s call to love and mutual-submission was counter-cultural to the one-sided submission expected by much of Greek and Roman society. 

Mutual submission is counter-cultural today, as well.  Our culture has gone from having one spouse submit to the other to having neither spouse submit.  Instead, both often seek their own independent will and fulfillment.  This is one reason why so many marriages end in divorce today: each spouse isn’t really seeking the good of the other, they’re seeking their own good.  It is counter-cultural now, just as it was in the first century to say: “submit to one another.” It’s counter-cultural because it requires denying the self, not just by one partner, but by both.  Self-dential for mutual submission is even more offensive to a culture that exalts in the individual self than the idea of a wife submitting to her husband is to an egalitarian culture.

Hence Paul’s call to love our spouses as “Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her.” Mutual submission is about dying to self and living in love, which is never a pleasant process.  It is offensive, and that’s why we need to hear it.

1 comment
  1. I often go after the “expurgated” texts, for precisely the reasons you cite. The challenge in interpretation lies not in knowing how to approach the easy passages, but the hard ones.

    For this one, emphasizing Paul’s focus on mutuality is essential.

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