Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. . . . Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
In a recent blog post called “Religion Lies about Women,” Paula Kirby took issue with a statement by former President Jimmy Carter that criticized the role of religion in perpectuating gender discrimination. Her point was that such discrimination was not a distortion of authentic religious teaching; it is a foundational element.
As evidence, she quotes Ephesians 5:22-24, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For 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. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” She dismisses the claims of many modern Christians that the admonition to wives is softened by the verses about a husband loving the wife as he loves his own body. And she skips over the first part of the passage, which calls on husbands and wives to “be subject to one another.”
The real meaning of the passage, she says, is clear in the larger context of teachings about slaves submitting to their masters and children submitting to parents. “Only religion could attempt to present such a loathsome idea” as slavery, “as though it were not a blot on the dignity of humankind, and the requirement for women always to submit to their menfolk is no less repugnant.” She calls such teaching “cynical” and “wicked.”
Clearly, such teaching is both cynical and wicked. But what about her larger point, that the subservience of women is not just an aberration or a misinterpretation; it is a foundational element of Christianity?
First, as any serious student of the Bible knows, Ephesians was not written by the Apostle Paul. Interestingly, one of the ways we know that Paul didn’t write it is for the very reason that Kirby condemns it. Paul was committed to Jesus’ radically egalitarian vision of the Kingdom of God, which is at odds with the acceptance of slavery and the subjection of women found in Ephesians. Even after we add back the introductory sentence often omitted by critics, that we should “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” the Fifth chapter of Ephesians still falls short of the radically egalitarian nature of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by Paul.
Second, biblical writings on the place of women need to be judged in historical context. The question is not how biblical views of women compare to our western democratic vision, but how they compared to the views of other ancient writers and civilizations. The Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. Given its historical context, the biblical witness can be read as an empowering document. Relative to the surrounding culture, the early church elevated the status of women. If we look at the biblical trajectory, rather than reading it as a static document, we get a very different picture.
Finally, we don’t judge the present value of any other realm of human endeavor based on what people in that same endeavor said or did two or three thousand years ago. We don’t judge the value of modern science or medicine by what ancient practitioners said or did thousands of years ago.
This asymmetrical critique makes sense if the criticism is aimed at biblical literalists. For those Christians who read the Bible as if it were a textbook of science, history and sociology, the critique Kirby presents is completely valid. For the rest of us, it is simply absurd.
Christians have a lot to answer for over the past two thousand years. We have often been less than faithful disciples. Even when many Christians were bending the arc of justice ahead of the historical curve, we were not far enough in front. And other times, as in the matter of gay rights, many of us have lagged behind. And we have to answer for those failings. But it is unfair to judge the Christians of today based on how a critic chooses to interpret a two thousand year old text.