Father Knows Best: Paul’s idea of marriage creeps me out

c. Religion News Service 2013
Reprinted with permission

Hey Rev!

As a single man and non-practicing Christian I had real trouble accepting Paul’s advice to husbands and wives. I said as much to the priest that presided over our wedding, because I did not want anything by Paul read during the ceremony. The priest agreed but he did encourage me to go back and reread that passage (Ephesians 5) as I grew both in my marriage and in my faith (I returned to the church around the time I met my wife). So, yes, as a married man and practicing Christian I sense something profound, when Paul writes that the relationship of the husband to the wife is as the relationship of Christ to the church, but I still get creeped out when he says “just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their husbands in everything.” What is your take on this passage? And more importantly, what does your wife think of it?

- Confused about Paul

Scholarly consensus is that Ephesians was not written by the historical Paul of Tarsus. Rather, like the students of a master painter who sign their own works with the master’s name, most scholars figure that a subsequent individual or community wrote this Epistle and then attached Paul’s name to it. (Similarly, most New Testament experts agree that the infamous prohibition on women speaking in church in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is a later, non-Pauline addition.) This makes a seductive argument available to us regarding Paul: he didn’t write that sexist stuff, so put your mind at rest!

Appealing as it is, that line of reasoning has always felt like a cop-out to me. That’s because it has no fewer than two significant problems. First, while it helps us to feel good about Paul of Tarsus, it does nothing to help us feel good about scripture: whether we like it or not, the Christian movement has included all of the letters attributed to Paul in the Bible and, thereby, identified them as holy texts. Similarly, the “that wasn’t really Paul” argument is of no assistance whatsoever when we encounter other passages in the Bible which may be read as condoning or even celebrating misogyny (see, for instance, the stories which Phyllis Trible unforgettably named the “Texts of Terror”). Second, as you observe, CAP, there is often beauty and wisdom even in the creepiest parts of the Bible. Ephesians’ analogy between husband and wife and Christ and Church genuinely is inspiring.

These two problems put together tell us that, if we are going to take the faith which our ancestors preserved for us via scripture seriously, then we need to do better than writing off Ephesians as counterfeit. We need to wrestle with the Bible in its messy entirety.

My thinking around this act of holy wrestling has been profoundly influenced by Sandra Schneiders’ classic book, “The Revelatory Text.” Scheiders argues passionately and persuasively that agreeing with 2 Timothy that, “all scripture is inspired by God” does not mean subscribing to a “dictation” model, wherein the authors of the Bible were simply God’s stenographers. Rather, she invites us to understand “inspiration” as meaning that the Bible was written under “the influence of the Spirit of God.” Perhaps we could picture the individual or the community who wrote Ephesians working under a Divine gravitational pull.

What is liberating about Schneiders’ argument is that it leaves room for human participation — and for human error — in scripture. It insists that the creators of the Bible were, indeed, active artists rather than passive recipients of a Divine memorandum. As importantly, it insists that you and I are called to be active interpreters of scripture rather than passive consumers of God’s instruction manual.

“One can read [scripture],” Schneiders says, “primarily for information or in view of transformation, that is to be intellectually enlightened or to be personally converted.”

Her words are particularly helpful when we come to text such as Ephesians 5. That text is a disaster as information. But, as a vehicle for transformation, its reflections on mystery and on love hold huge potential.

All of this is to say, CAP, that Ephesians 5 is one of the many texts in the Bible which I believe that we are called to take seriously but not literally. As to what my wife thinks about it, I’m disinclined to speak on her behalf. After all, she isn’t subject to me. You may just have to ask her yourself.

(Martin Elfert is a writer for Spokane Faith and Values in Spokane, Wash.)

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One Response to “Father Knows Best: Paul’s idea of marriage creeps me out”

  1. John

    “Scholarly consensus is that Ephesians was not written by the historical Paul of Tarsus. ” Depends on the body of scholars you listen to. The large group I listen to consent that he did write it.


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