Ephesians and Egalitarianism

While we talk openly on this blog about our egalitarian views, after reading the question posed on Lauran's last post, I realized we may not yet have articulated the Biblical basis for our belief that men and women are equal partners in God's kingdom. I thought it might be useful to spell it out a little more clearly in case anyone was curious.

Let me make some disclaimers. First, I am not a Bible scholar. I don't speak Greek or Hebrew, nor do I think it is necessary to be a Biblical scholar in order to intelligently engage with Scripture. If you would like more scholarly approaches to Biblical egalitarianism, you should check out Christians for Biblical Equality. They have many sources, ranging from scholarly to more ordinary commentaries about what the Bible says about equality between men and women. Second, I am not interested in portraying the views of those who disagree with me as non-Biblical, rather they just do not fit with my interpretation of Scripture. I am sure if you are reading this and find yourself disagreeing with what I say that you feel just as strongly that God has revealed truth to you as I feel God has revealed it to me. I am open to your viewpoints as long as they are expressed in a respectful way, which leads me to Ephesians.

Most of the big arguments against egalitarianism draw heavily from Ephesians 5:23-24: "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything." This verse on its own, out of context, seems to deny emphatically the idea that men and women (specifically husbands and wives) are equals, but the book of Ephesians is actually one of my favorite books when it comes to discussions about Biblical equality.

God has gifted me as a teacher, specifically an English teacher, so one of the talents I bring to the table here is my ability to read and analyze a text carefully (in English). Unfortunately, when it comes to studying the Bible, we treat it unlike just about every other text we read for what seem to me like some fairly arbitrary reasons, like limiting our study to a specific verse or chapter or section of a chapter. All of these are late additions to the Bible, which in my opinion have done great damage to our interpretation of it. Now instead of approaching Ephesians 5:23-24 in an isolated context, I would rather speak to the book as a whole first because I believe it sheds important light on specific passages. These are not isolated verses, rather they are part of a greater context.

If I could summarize the entire book of Ephesians in brief, I would say that Paul is trying to tell the mostly Greek church at Ephesus not to think of themselves as different or inferior to Jewish believers because of their Gentile heritage. Christ is the Head of us all, and we are all equal inheritors of his grace and authority. Because of this amazing privilege, we should act accordingly, not living according to the ways of the world or falling prey to sin. Furthermore, we are to treat each other with respect, love, and mutual submission. In Chapter 5, Paul examines three important traditionally power-based relationships and applies this teaching to these specific contexts. He finally ends with some words of encouragement, urging us to fight lies and evil with truth, faith, and Scripture. I know this is a very rough synopsis, but I think it is a fair one for capturing the overall message of the book in a short amount of space.

I think it is worth noting how often Paul notes that Christ is Head. Even a cursory reading of the first few chapters will highlight this aspect of the text. As I would tell my English classes, if it keeps being repeated, he must want us to remember it. It is also worth noting that as always, Paul's focus seems to be on the grace of Christ which allows all of us, Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free, sinner or saint, to be one in Christ. Notice also the strong emphasis on unity within the body, another of Paul's favorite themes in the Epistles. By the time we get to chapter 5, one thing is abundantly clear: Christ is our Head. We are his body. Together we are one, regardless of our statuses in society or our personal histories.

Many people when focusing on the end of chapter 5, verse 22 and following, forget about 5:21 just before it, where Paul urges all believers: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." This is a general instruction to all believers, meaning no one is exempt. We are all to practice mutual submission, which seems a logical idea given all that Paul has previously stated about Christ being our Head and we being equals in the body of Christ. As equals, it only makes sense that we treat each other with respect and submit to each other in love. I trust I have not said anything controversial here.

The rest of the passage seems to apply this idea of mutual submission to three very specific relationships that would have been of great importance to Paul and his contemporaries and functioned in the society of his day as basic power-based relationships, where one person has authority over the other. The three relationships he focuses on are the husband-wife, parent-child, and master-servant (or slave) dynamics. In his time, the first person listed in these relationships would have been seen as the authority in the relationship. Therefore, he is not rattling any feathers when he tells wives, children, and slaves to obey their husbands, parents, and masters. It is only in a modern context that these verses might be seen as controversial or problematic.

That being said, where Paul does seem to challenge the status quo is in his instructions to husbands, parents, and masters. I won't worry about the latter two although the instructions are similar in spirit to those he gives husbands: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her [...]" (5:25). He goes on to elaborate telling husbands twice to love their wives as much as they love themselves... in other words, as equals. I think the logic I am following here is clear. If a husband loves his wife like himself, he loves equally to himself. This is one of the most controversial instructions Paul gives in the entire letter. He is basically telling husbands that even though in their worldly cultures (which he has already should not supersede our Christian lives) they are seen as superior to women, that they should treat their wives as equals.

Furthermore, he tells us to love our wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church. Christ paints a perfect picture of submission, one Paul refers to quite beautifully in Philippians 2, written about the same time as Ephesians: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." Paul clearly states here that Christ's love is submissive. Christ had all the authority of God, but out of love, he gave up claim to all his power and authority, which is infinitely more than my cultural power as a white male. He submitted to the authority of earthly rulers like Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. He served those who were considered to be the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor, and the worst of sinners. Paul says that is how husbands are to love their wives. This is the most controversial thing he says in the entire book.

To wrap it up and put it into a more contemporary context, I, as a husband, have been granted a position of power and authority in my marriage because of the patriarchal culture I live in, not as much power as the patriarchal Ephesian culture, but power nonetheless. My position of power is constantly reinforced by sexist stereotypes that infiltrate every aspect of society, even (perhaps especially) the church, which takes the whole "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" things to whole new heights as though the Bible invented this absurd concept. My society seeks to divide me from others by my gender, class, race, and a whole number of other factors. God gives me two very clear instructions in Ephesians that contradict this worldly teaching. First, we are all one in Christ, and he is our head. (In Galatians, another letter Paul wrote while in prison, he says, "There is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free.") I must resist the forces that seek to divide me by emphasizing how different I am from everyone else, like perhaps that I am from a different planet, say Mars for example. Second, I must submit out of love to everyone, this is especially true for me given my cultural privilege as a male. Like Jesus, I must make myself nothing, denying my power and privilege out of love for others, especially my wife, who in a patriarchal culture is not treated equally to me. In other words, I must treat her as more worthy than me by loving her sacrificially as Christ loved the church.

Nothing about this implies to me that I am supposed to be in charge of my wife, but because God has commanded her to submit to me also, neither one of us should become a tyrant. Both of us are to love, respect, and submit to each other as we are to love, respect, and submit to all of those united in Christ's love. This seems fairly straightforward to me. What does not make sense to me is how this endorses traditional patriarchy. Rather, it recognizes its existence and proposes a radical alternative, a society based on unity and mutually submissive love, regardless or class, race, age, or gender. That is why I love Ephesians. It is one of the most radically counter-cultural statements of equality and unity in the Bible.

While we often fail, my wife and I try to center our marriage around Christ, around love, around unity, and around mutual submission. If I am to be a leader in any way, it is simply this. I should be the first to sacrifice myself -- my agenda, my will, my prejudices -- because I am the one most in danger of becoming a tyrant, self-centered and authoritative, simply because my culture says I should be. Thank God for continuing to liberate me from myself and empowering me to love my wife like God loves me.

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Why I'm a Ms.

Sometime during undergrad I got really turned off to being identified as Miss and decided to go by Ms. Particularly when I started teaching Ms. was more amenable. Now I'm married and technically a Mrs., but I still go by Ms.


I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I've been filling out tons of forms. They all request you to tick "Miss", "Ms." or "Mrs." as a female. Men tick "Mr." and are done with it. When I can, of course, I tick "Dr." I choose "Ms." but in some cases that still implies I am divorced, which is not the case.

So I could quote Gloria Steinem or give an etymology lesson (btw, "Mrs." comes from a word that denoted ownership of the woman by her husband... gross), but that's not really what this is about.

I'm married. I made the choice to take the legal step(s) involved (even though it is primarily a spiritual covenant). I don't have a reason to hide my marital status, nor do I ever want to. And I'll admit that when we first got married I was excited to be called "Mrs."

But my name is so important to me. That's why we both hyphenated. I didn't have to drop my name to show I was married, and neither did he. One brand new, awesome name, combining the two. So why wouldn't I obsess over my title?

There are so many things that reflect the inequity of the choices men and women have. So when I have this great choice to adopt a title simply identifying me as a woman (not a married vs. single woman) I'll take it. The world is not set up to openly assist women and men in declaring themselves as they sit fit, so in this instance it's really important to me.

As an aside, though my husband has been "Mr." the whole time (single and married), you know the trials we went through trying to change his name. And now, many forms ask for a maiden name, suggesting only women change theirs. He crosses it out and puts "former" or "other" names.

Being called Ms. doesn't make me less married. It simply reflects my desire for equality in the world, a desire to identify as a partner not as one belonging to someone else. It's not a statement of independence, but of interdependence.

So it all means something. Every little bit.

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