Wives be submissive to your husbands.  Slaves obey your masters.  To twenty-first century Americans, these are among the most offensive verses in the Bible.  Both are found in the same passage, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, and repeated in Colossians 3:18-4:1.

Every three years, this Ephesians passage comes up in the Catholic cycle of Sunday scripture readings.  One of the women who was a reader in the church I grew up in refused to read these verses.  Every time she was assigned to read this passage, she would skip right over them!

Nobody in our church, even the priest, seemed to have a problem with her protest.  In fact, most expressed support: right on sister, good for her!

These verses are more than just offensive.  In the past, they’ve been used to justify slavery, the subjugation of women, and many other terrible abuses.  This makes the Bible look patriarchal and oppressive. 

No wonder so many people reject it and the worldview it presents.

However—and this is a HUGE however—in context, this passage isn’t patriarchal and oppressive at all.  In fact, when you unpack the historical context, it’s the exact opposite. 

What does the context reveal?  Three shocking things:

First, this passage is modeled on something called “The Household Codes”.  Roman society was rigidly hierarchical.  Everyone had their assigned place.  And anything that upset this order constituted a threat to the Empire itself.  These codes were taken very seriously.

In the culture Ephesians addresses, this rigid hierarchy was simply assumed.  Wives had to be submissive to their husbands.  Children had to be obedient to their parents.  Slaves had to serve their masters.  The Bible isn’t advocating anything new here.  It isn’t advocating for an oppressive system that wasn’t already there.  Inequality was just a given, enforced by the mighty Roman Empire. 

So why does this passage repeat the obvious?

As a number of ancient sources attest, the early church was a “discipleship of equals”—which would have been in direct defiance of these Household Codes.  In other words, the church constituted a real threat to the Roman system, to the Empire.  Many in that culture would view the church with deep suspicion.  It would appear to them that the church was fomenting a political revolution. 

The reason Ephesians states the obvious is to provide “cover” for the church.  Here was a group that already found itself at the bottom of the hierarchy—nobody in the Empire was more marginalized or oppressed than the early church.  Now they were behaving in a way that seemed intent on undoing the very fabric of the Empire, eliminating all hierarchical difference—in a bold move, the least were given the same status and respect as the greatest.  Already suffering vicious persecution, the writer of Ephesians is trying to “turn down the heat”, to make the church appear less suspect.  By including these codes, Ephesians is in effect saying: we are no threat to you; we have no interest in political revolution, in overthrowing the Empire.

The Bible isn’t endorsing these values—the church had already adopted the exact opposite value system.

It’s simply acknowledging them to let the Roman officials know that the church isn’t intent on political overthrow, that its members are good citizens.

Second, take a close look at what the passage does with these codes.  It adds to them, and in a provocative way.  The Household Codes focused on the responsibilities of wives, children, and slaves to their “superiors”.  But the Bible also focuses on the responsibilities of husbands, parents, and masters to their “inferiors”.  It even puts greater emphasis on them.  Only three verses are devoted to the wife being submissive to her husband (already a given in the Household Codes).  But eight verses are devoted to how a husband is supposed to love and revere his wife!

What these eight verses actually say is even more stunning.  Husbands are to love their wives as they love their own bodies.  They are even to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her.  They are to adore their wives so fully that they would lay down their lives for them—literally and figuratively.  In other words, they are to completely submit themselves for the good of their wives.

Like Christ Himself, those who have higher positions have a greater responsibility to humbly submit and devote themselves to those who are more marginalized.

Third, the way this whole passage is framed completely relativizes the Household Codes.  It tells us to defer to one another as Christ has deferred to us, He Who emptied Himself of all His “superiority” as God in order to give Himself for us. 

It ends by declaring that we only have one Lord, in whom there is no partiality.  We are all equal in Him.  This echoes what Paul says in Galatians 3:28: there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  All are one in Christ.

Intended, in part, to provide “cover” for a church that is already radically egalitarian, the way this passage is framed subverts any and all forms of oppression.  Christ’s Lordship, a Lordship of undying love, renders husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves—everyone—equal in God’s sight. 

Given the rigidly hierarchical nature of that culture, it is difficult to imagine a more forceful expression of the dignity and equality of every individual. 

Ironically, though not intent on political revolution, the church’s values would ultimately undo the hierarchy of the Household Codes (and as some historians suggest, the Empire itself).  But it would do it through personal transformation.  It would be a revolution of the heart.

Thus, in what has often been taken to be one of its most offensively oppressive passages, the Bible turns out to be stunningly liberating and transformational.  Those who used this passage to justify slavery or patriarchy, grossly misunderstood or grossly distorted it’s true message, and with devastating consequences.  (Another reason it’s so critical to interpret Scripture in context.)

In a previous blog I asked why the Bible is so boring.  One of the things I pointed out there is that the reason we often find it boring is that we don’t understand the context.  It goes right over our head.  We miss its true meaning. 

Frankly, when I first started reading the Bible, I thought it was dull, irrelevant, antiquated.  I didn’t get its appeal.  And I was troubled by passages like this one.  They didn’t seem to line up with a loving God.

However, this was one of the first passages whose meaning was unpacked for me through an understanding of the context.  It was thrilling to discover the treasure hidden in these verses.  Scripture came alive for me and I couldn’t wait to unlock more.

Many people I know, probably many of you, are troubled by what the Bible says.  It turns you off. 

But having studied it in context, I can tell you that more often than not, especially in the New Testament, the Bible turns out to be thrillingly relevant and surprisingly transformative.

In context, it radically subverts all forms of oppression.

In context, it liberates our hearts. 

In context, it points the fact that, in Christ, we are all one.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

Read More