Ancient Roman society was profoundly hierarchical, and this can grate on readers today when they encounter certain biblical passages. Prime among these are ancient household codes, which delineate the duties and responsibilities of family members to one another. Part of the purpose of these passages in their historical context was to show how Christians fit within ancient Roman society.
Margaret Y. MacDonald, one of the pre-eminent interpreters of the household codes today, writes in her book The Power of Children about how “discussion of the apologetic functions of the New Testament household codes has frequently led to consideration of how the codes may be framing messages intended to be communicated directly or indirectly to the neighbors of believers who are wondering what exactly is going on in these household cells.” But she goes on to say that “what is emerging especially clearly is not simply the accommodating nature of the household codes, but elements of resistance that stand out more sharply when ideological correlations are noted.”
The “elements of resistance” in the Letter to the Ephesians are grounded in the family’s allegiance to Christ above allegiance to the Roman emperor, for subjection to one another is “out of reverence for Christ,” not out of concern for the good order of the empire. Christians certainly wanted to make clear that they did not intend to subvert the basic harmony of Rome; but the fact that their family life was based in obedience to Christ, the true Lord, did indeed manifest an element of subversion.
The second “element of resistance” in Ephesians, however, has to do with the relationship of wife to husband. On the surface, the teaching in Ephesians promotes the basic hierarchical relationship between husbands and wives in the ancient Roman Empire: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” Some Christians read the passage today as a statement about a wife’s inferiority and subordination to her husband. But this passage calls husbands and wives to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The passage is not about the objectification of women.
Ephesians cites Gn 2:24 when it speaks of the unity of husband and wife. Recall that when Jesus spoke of marriage in Mt 19:4 and 8, he too cited Genesis, proclaiming that unity was intended “at the beginning” of creation for male and female. Yet Jesus’ teaching applies not only to divorce but to the wholeness and oneness their primal relationship was intended to celebrate. The unity of man and woman that God established in the garden was not marked by domination and objectification but by mutuality.
Reflect on Christ, the letter says, as the example for husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The husband’s model is the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ for the church. And wives are to “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” But subjection to Christ is subjection to the one who offers himself for us, who loves us until death. This is marriage as idealized through Christ, but in neither element of this relationship is there room for objectification of the other or claims of superiority, since we are called to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” True relationships never serve brutish whims.
This is the same unity that Christ creates with the church, as Ephesians notes throughout. Yet even in this profound marriage between Christ and the church, there can be confusion and disagreement. When Jesus tells his disciples that they will eat his flesh and drink his blood, they respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” It is only by being subject and open to the Spirit that we are able to grasp Jesus’ teaching, that it brings us to life. Openness to the other, even when understanding is missing, brings about unity.
When asked if they too wished “to go away,” Peter answered Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But in order to bring this unity to the church, Christ himself, subject to the will of the Father, offered himself for us. Our unity is not a participation in an object, but subjection to the “head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.”