Sexual ethics in the early church
The idea of a wife’s submission to her husband is drawn from Ephesians 5:22. Perhaps this text has been taken out of context and distorted more than any other New Testament passage.
Both historically and contemporaneously, this scripture has been misused to try to justify mistreatment and abuse of women, including cruelty, violence and rape.
However, if we turn to this letter, written to believers in Ephesus, and read within its context and with an understanding of its history, a very different picture emerges.
The letter offers guidance for husbands and wives, including the instruction that husbands love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (25-28). This reciprocity, if valued equally, would necessarily exclude abuse.
Indeed, earlier in the letter it is written, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (21). Ephesians is answering questions of sexual ethics in the early church; in other words, it is permissible to have sex with your spouse and only your spouse.
Still, this late letter in the tradition of Paul to this early church constructs household codes to try to fit the Christian message into their existing culture, which was male-dominated and a far cry from what Paul himself penned in Galatians: “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).
— Lesley Ann Earles, First Presbyterian Church, Jacksonville
Marriage requires mutual submission
It’s interesting that even a heathen king (Abimelech, Genesis 29:16) recognized that the man was a “covering” to his wife (Genesis 20:16). To “submit” means that one hides beneath, or under, the other for protection and safety. It’s a military term.
God is love, and within marriage love is to be given and received. Of course man sinned, and now men and women are born with the desire to rule over each other.
God lives in a family (Father, Son, Holy Ghost), and these three are ONE. They function in complete harmony with one another. Order is the most precious thing in the universe.
Earthly relationships, especially marriages, are characterized by disorder and constant jockeying for the top spot. Marriage is a Great Mystery, but it speaks of the relationship between Christ and the Church, or the Head and the Body (Ephesians 5:21-33).
When a wife submits to her husband it means that she recognizes that Christ is the head of her husband, that her husband is her head, and that God is the head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3).
Marriage requires mutual submission, but the man and the woman are given roles in which they must function. When the husband loves his wife “as or like” Christ loves the Church, and if the wife is willing to follow his lead, together they put the two-headed monster to death.
Anything with two heads belongs in a museum.
— Bob McClain, Living By Faith Ministry, Oxford