Subverting Submission: A Rhetorical Analysis of Ephesians 5

Most of the scholarship surrounding Ephesians 5 revolves around the "revisionist versus traditionalist" axis. One side, hating the idea of unqualified female submission to a Jewish form of male chauvinism, reject the passage as spurious or semi-spurious. They develop possible literary hypothesis upon possible literary hypothesis, without hard evidence, to prove that Paul did not, in fact write it. And then, based on their leaning tower of hypotheses, they reject it as non-apostolic, therefore non-canonical, and therefore non-binding on Christians.

The other side, convinced of the much more probable hypothesis that Paul indeed did write it- or if he did not, one of his close disciples did- rightfully side with the catholic Church and accept it as canonical. They believe that God is, in fact, speaking through it to the Church today, and we need to listen to it as a foundational document for the Church. But, they read it in such a way that it supports something close to a ancient Jewish "second class status" for women.

One side wrongly approaches Biblical authenticity, but rightly discerns the Gospel message of liberation. The other side rightly approaches Biblical authenticity, but wrongly discerns the message. What shall we do?

Is there any way to reconcile this Paul:

"For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:26-29, circa 48-49 CE)

With this Paul?

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit 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 Savior. Just as the church submits 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 splendor, 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." (Ephesians 5:21-33, circa 54-63 CE)

What if both sides are right in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. What if, an older, wiser Paul, toughened by a decade of debate and persecution, wrote Ephesians with the same CORE MESSAGE as Galatians, but a different way of getting there?

My hypothesis is that a younger Paul wrote Galatians, and preached openly and loudly the complete abolition of social structures of oppression that separated and demeaned Jew from Greek, Slave from Free, Female from Male. And when Paul proclaimed this, it exploded like a social nuclear bomb in the communities he preached in. To traditionalists (both Jewish Rabbis and their Roman overlords), he sounded like an anarchist. To the oppressed, it sounded like he was giving them a free pass to get even with those who had oppressed them.

The result? Chaos in the Church. Pissed off traditionalists are trying to put a cap on it all, and tell everyone Paul is a false apostle. Angry women are berating husbands in public assembly. The rich are leaving the poor behind, while the poor are hating the rich. Everyone is emphasizing ecstatic experience over the Love of Christ (this is all what is behind 1Corinthians 10, 11, 14, and 1Timothy 2).

Everything is coming unhinged socially, and Paul is getting challenged intellectually by traditionalist Rabbis about his social teaching.

Something must be done.

So, Paul does something very "postmodern". Rather than trying a full frontal assault on the social system like he did in Galatians, he decides to deconstruct the social systems by using its own logic against it. He decides to use the logic of submission to subvert submission.

And, this is what you find in Ephesians 5. If you are reading it as a "straight", "up-front", "literal" reading, then you will not get it. You will think that the Paul is contradicting himself while trying to uphold traditional gender roles of female submission. I say this, because, even on the most traditionalist reading, the text does not fully support what traditionalists want it to say.

In verse 21-22 (one sentence in Greek) it literally says "Submitting to one another in respect of Christ, the wives are to be to their husbands as to the Lord". So, it starts with the idea of MUTUAL submission. Now, many traditionalist translations will hide this by repeating the verb "submit" (which is only used once), and separating verse 21 and 22 as two separate sentences. Then, they will place verse 21 with the section above, and put verse 22 with the husbands and wives paragraph. Check out the NIV or NASB on this.

Now, this is a mistranslation that borders on un-ethical, and it makes the passage sound like it un-equivocally supports female submission. But it doesn't. It starts with the principal of mutual submission. So, this is one strike against the traditionalist interpretation.

Next, the passage does go on and strongly advocate female submission. But then Paul throws in the second monkey wrench. He gives the husbands a condition too. He pulls out the relationship of Christ to the Church, and says, not only should wives be to husbands like the Church is to Christ (something supported by traditionalists). But, husbands are to be to their wives like Christ is to the Church as well. That means giving up themselves- to the very last- for the good of their wives.

That puts a big hitch in a straight traditionalist reading of Ephesians 5.

Finally, Paul puts a third hitch in the traditionalist reading. In verse 33 Paul puts a condition on the wife's obedience and respect for the husband. He must earn it by loving her like Christ loves the Church. He literally says "Nevertheless, also each one of y'all is to love his own wife as himself, and the wife in order that she should respect the husband". It essentially says that the wife's respect of the husband is conditional upon the husband's love of his wife. It is not unconditional submission, but conditioned upon the selfless love of the husband.

And, back to verse 21, all of this is held within the bounds of mutual submission.

So, even a straight textual reading of the passage blows huge holes in a traditionalist reading of the passage. And yet, in verse 24 Paul drops a huge traditionalist bomb "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands."

In everything? Everything?

How does that fit with the rest of the passage?

Now, it is at this point you have to make a faith choice about the passage. Is the passage trying to sneak a traditionalist message in through liberating clothes? Or, is the passage trying to sneak a liberating message in through traditionalist clothes?

I opt for the latter, and I think there is a rhetorical reason for this. You see, I do not think that this is a straight, literal passage. Rather, I think Paul is having a conversation with traditionalists here in which he is using their own logic of female submission to destroy the whole system of submission. I think Paul is deconstructing their argument with rhetorical genius, and I think that if you use this hermeneutic to unlock the passage, it makes sense of everything in it.

In fact, when viewed from the standpoint of rhetorical deconstruction, you can see how Paul is creating the same message as Galatians 3, but coming from a different direction. I think his conversation actually looks something like this:

TRADITIONALIST: Paul, you are upsetting the world with this egalitarianism. We know from the Rabbis and the Torah that a wife is to submit to her husband!

PAUL: You know, that is what I have been saying all along. Submission. Everyone should submit to one another.

TRADITIONALIST: Perhaps. But, don't you agree that wives must submit to their husbands?

PAUL: Of course! They should submit in everything. A woman is to her husband as the Church is to Christ. Do you not agree?

TRADITIONALIST: Certainly. The relationship of the Church to Christ is a perfect analogy. The husband is Lord, and the wife submits.

PAUL: We are in agreement. And we know how our Lord treats the Church, right?


PAUL: He gives up his life for her. He gives up everything. Everything he does is for HER good, not his own, right?


PAUL: No buts here. We agree. Christ is our model. So we need to follow the logic. Yes, a wife submits in everything, but the husband gives himself completely in everything. Right?

TRADITIONALIST: I don't see how…

PAUL: Of course you do, silly. We are in agreement here. Complete surrender of self based on the relationship between Christ and the Church. That is what we are REALLY talking about here, because marriage is a mirror of the Church. You don’t want to disagree with the Lord, do you?

TRADITIONALIST: Well, no, I don't…

PAUL: Then we agree! It would simply be dishonoring for a husband to fall short of the standard of Christ, wouldn't it? After all, he does bear Christ's role, right?


PAUL: Then, that means that the woman's submission is conditioned on the husband treating her as Christ would. If a husband does not love her with that kind of love, he destroys her whole basis for submission. It is the husband's responsibility to do the right thing.

TRADITIONALIST: But the wife has the responsibility to…

PAUL: To submit in everything. Of course. We agree. But, we know that her husband must lay down his very life, submit everything he has and is, for her sake. He is to treat her as his own body. That is the only way this works. Right?


PAUL: And so we see that they are both equal in Christ. This is not an equality that asserts our rights and uses each other to get what we want. This is an equality that equally submits, surrenders, respects, and loves one another. That is the only way a wife can submit to her husband in everything, if she has a husband who is surrendering everything back to her.

TRADITIONALIST: But, that's not what I meant to say…

PAUL: Of course it is. We both agree. [Walks away with sly smirk on his face]

Thus, I believe that Paul subverts submission through submission and gets the Ephesians to the exact same place as he got the Galatians. This is the only interpretation I know of that makes sense of all of the evidence here. Paul is not a traditionalist. He is a rhetorical genius.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.