OT: Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18
NT: Ephesians 5.21-33
Marriage: Going Against the Grain
I officiate my fair share of weddings. One of the many things couples often agonize over is which Scriptures to read at their wedding, so I make suggestions to them. Today’s reading from Ephesians is about husbands and wives, but it is not one I have ever recommended for a wedding. Let’s read it.
How many of you have heard that at a wedding? I have. Perhaps you read it at your own wedding. I don’t suggest it to couples because not because it’s out of place at a wedding but because I’ve heard such horrible sermons about it in the past from people who completely misunderstand it. I actually think it could be a beautiful wedding scripture, but we need to set some things straight first.
First, men and women were both created equally in God’s image. According to Genesis, both were created by God out of love. One is not more important than the other. They are equal. For crying out loud, if I hear one more time that it was Eve’s fault that Adam ate the fruit I think I’ll just go sit under an apple tree. Because being hit on the head by falling apples would be less painful than having that conversation again. They both ate the fruit.
Second, don’t pick and choose. This is one of those infamous passages people like to pull one sentence out of and therefore totally miss the point. And you can guess how that goes. Guys pull out verse 22: Wives, be subject to your husbands. Ladies pull out verse 25: Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. And somehow those verses become weapons we launch at one another in moments of anger or disappointment. You can’t pick and choose one verse from a larger context. This passage is about something much bigger.
Third, this is about marriage. Not just marriage in a general religious sense, but marriage in the ancient world in a legal sense. Our society is once again fighting about the legalities and religious nature of marriage, and guess what…that’s nothing new! Two thousand years ago, Romans and Greeks and Jews all lived in the same communities but had different ideas about marriage. What a shocker!
According to historical records from the time of Ephesians, marriage regulations existed for three main groups of people--Romans, Greeks, and Jews. Romans were Roman citizens. People of the Roman empire. A married Roman woman was considered legally subject to either her father or her husband. But if she was not married and had no living father, a Roman woman was considered legally independent and lived subject to no one. As a result, marriage wasn’t very popular. Women chose not be married, so the Emperor Augustus passed a new Roman law requiring men and women of a certain age to marry. The law even required those who divorced or were widows to remarry within a certain time frame. So if you’re upset about the state getting too involved in marriage today, know that it was way worse in ancient Rome.
In Greek culture, it was ever worse for women. Aristotle taught that women were by nature inferior to men, and therefore wives should submit to husbands. There was no follow-up saying husbands should submit to wives. Their law simply said that wives must submit to husbands. They were to do so even if the husband was unfaithful, as it was common and accepted practice for husbands to engage in casual adultery with slave girls. And this week we learned things haven’t really changed that much, as 40 million people’s names were hacked from a website called Ashley Madison that sells affairs for married people.
Last but not least, in Jewish marriages, marriage was technically viewed from a legal point of view as a transference of property. Everything she owned belonged to her husband. However, a Jewish husband did have to sign a marriage contract (a pre-nup, if you will) saying that in the event of his death everything that belonged to him would be hers. Believe it or not, that was progressive for the day!
Now that all the women in church today are sufficiently offended and the men are sufficiently frightened as a result of their wife’s offense, let’s talk about where Ephesians fits into this scenario.
New Testament scholar Craig Keener says that in such a context where women were routinely viewed as inferior to men, it wouldn’t have been surprising for anyone to read verse 22: Wives, submit to your husbands. That would have been common practice anyway.
But to tell husbands to submit to their wives as in verse 25, to love them as Christ loved, that was a radical redefinition of the way their culture viewed marriage! The man who society told to be head of the household was instead being told by God to be its servant. God is full of surprises! The Bible is rarely what it seems and never the same as the world around it, because it is a counter-cultural book. It goes against the grain.
So the next time you’re at a wedding where this is read or you’re in a heated conversation where you start throwing around Bible verses like swords, “Wives should submit to their husbands…husbands should submit to their wives,” remember the radical and counter-cultural intent of Ephesians—to throw society’s notion of one gender being dominant over the other out the window. Instead, Ephesians tells us, “Be subject to one another.” Only those who are equals can be subject to one another.
That’s why I think it could actually be a powerful wedding scripture. God leads us to view our partner as an equal to whom we mutually submit in love for a lifetime. But it can also be a powerful testimony to a church family.
Do you remember what reason Ephesians gives after it says, “Be subject to one another.” It says, “Be subject to one another…out of reverence for Christ.” As we discussed last week, reverence is more than respect, different from fear. It’s a sense of utter astonishment. We are subject to one another because we are in total awe of Jesus Christ, and if he loves us then what business do any of us have doing anything except loving one another, treating one another as equals, and being subject to one another in mutual relationships?