Wives and participles and Bible and I’m done defending Paul

I thought I might write a post exploring how the original Greek of Ephesians 5:21-33 comes across a little less patriarchal―or at least a little more ambiguous in some ways―than our English translations suggest. 

And there are plenty of things that could be said to this effect. 

I could write about how Paul’s call to submit in verses 21-22 is not actually a command form, as many translations would have you think. For example, these all sound like commands:

  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (NIV).
  • “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (NRSV).
  • “And submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord” (CEB).

In the Greek, however, the word translated as “submit” or “be subject” in verse 21 is actually in its participle form, not its command form. This means that a more literal translation might start off, “being subject to one another…” or “while y’all are submitting yourselves to one another…” or something along those lines. The action is ongoing and assumed, not instructed or commanded. 

I could also point out that verse 22, in the Greek, doesn’t actually have a verb. In other words, a literal translation would not read “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands,” but rather just “wives to your own husbands.” Our translations take the verb “submit” from the previous verse and fill it in here. 

Similarly, moving on a couple verses later, verse 24 also lacks a verb. While the NIV reads, “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” a more literal translation would read, “as the church submits to Christ, so also the wives to the husbands in everything.” The part about the wives has no verb in Greek, but translations take “submit” from the part about the church and add it in. 

I could write about how these details come together to make verses 21-24 sound less harsh and commanding toward women than one might think. 

I could also point out that the first time Paul actually does use a command form is in verse 25: “husbands, (y’all) love (your) wives, just as Christ also loved the church and handed himself over on her behalf.” It’s directed toward the husbands, not the wives.  

Husbands are commanded to love their wives, whereas wives are just assumed to submit to their husbands. Thus, maybe Paul isn’t trying to control women’s actions so much as influence and instruct men to be better and more loving husbands―which, of course, if we share for a moment Paul’s assumption of heterosexual marriage, benefits their wives. 

I could also say that, in reading this passage in Greek―perhaps because of the Greek itself, or perhaps just because the act of translating forces me to read more slowly and carefully―I was struck by how much this passage is not actually about marriage, but about Christ and the church. 

I could say―and I think I would not be wrong―that Paul’s main point here is to work from the cultural assumptions he shares with his readers about marriage, and to use these assumptions to say some important things about Christ’s relationship with the church. What he really wants to do here is help the church community better understand what Christ’s love is like.

He wants people to know that Christ’s love is deep, great, and sacrificial―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good husband loves his wife. He wants people to see how the church is invited to submit to Christ’s leadership and follow Christ’s example―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good wife submits to her husband. He wants to help them understand the profound, intimate unity between Christ and the church―not unlike the profound, intimate unity between two marriage partners. 

So here we are, with many things to say that might seem to make this passage more palatable, especially to women―and, perhaps, to all modern-day humans who have no particular interest in building their marriages on the dubious foundation of ancient Greco-Roman gender roles.

Ultimately, though, via something of a fraught and winding journey, I find myself now in a place where I no longer feel the need to try to soften Paul’s words or make them sound better. And it’s very freeing to be able to say that.

I find myself no longer able to deny what I very much wish were not true about Paul: the fact that he says some patriarchal, sexist stuff. 

(Or, more precisely: he says some stuff that likely made things a bit better for women of his time, compared to what they would have experienced otherwise―but which, when we try to apply it to our lives and marriages today, tends to have the opposite effect.)

After all, Ephesians 5:21-33 might be (relatively) indirect and gentle toward women in its tone in Greek―and it might be about Christ and the church more than it is about marriage―but there is a parallel passage in the book of Colossians that offers none of these sorts of caveats. And I don’t think we can speak honestly about Paul’s words toward women if we’re only willing to talk about one passage and not the other. 

Colossians 3:18 really does directly command wives to be subject to their husbands. There is no nuance of missing verbs, or participle forms, or anything like that. There is no analogy to Christ and the church that we can focus on to make us feel less uncomfortable.

There isn’t really any getting around Paul’s patriarchal instructions.

And I think I’m done trying to argue otherwise. I think I’m done defending Paul―trying to make excuses for him, sanitize his writing, make him sound more palatable and less sexist.

Paul really does, in both Ephesians and Colossians, write about husbands and wives in the same breath as masters and slaves, and parents and children―each, in Paul’s mind, clearly a hierarchical relationship in which there is some kind of analogous power dynamic. Paul takes commonly known Greco-Roman household codes and makes some Christian edits to them, but he does not really make an effort to change the hierarchical assumptions they are built on. 

(The master/slave part, of course, is a whole other can of worms―a critically important one, and one I’m also not particularly interested in trying to sanitize or explain away. But that’s another post for another time.) 

When I read passages like this, as a woman, I don’t think that I can settle for trying to find ways to make them sound gentler and more palatable as I apply them to my own life. The core of what they say and assume about women and men and relationships exists in too much friction with everything I am and want to be, everything I have experienced as good in this world, and everything I see Jesus saying and doing.

And I think that Paul’s letters are best read in relation to all these things. They are not meant to be read in isolation from the words and life of Jesus, or from our own lives and experiences. And they are especially not meant to be read in isolation from the lives and experiences of the people who are most vulnerable to being dehumanized, marginalized, or otherwise abused by them.

 We can take the Bible very seriously and believe very deeply in its truth while also admitting that there are some passages which, if applied in our time and culture in any kind of direct and straightforward way, diminish the humanity and dignity of women, or people of color, or LGBTQ+ people. And we can lament this and seek to walk a different path, rather than making excuses for it. 

The Bible is a complex set of books, not meant to be read like a list of instructions or do’s and don’t’s. It’s a lot more complicated than that―and a lot deeper and more interesting.

It’s meant to be read in community, among a wide diversity of people who are all empowered to speak freely and candidly. And in this diverse community that reads and understands the Bible together, women’s voices should be at the center of the conversation when it comes to passages like this one. 

(For that matter, communities would also do well to center the voices of single people and of LGBTQ+ people―people whose experiences of gender, sexuality, and relationships may be very different from the experiences of people in heterosexual marriages.)

The Bible is both a deep well from which to draw living water, and a set of ancient texts written in times and places very different from ours. There are so many things we can learn from it and so many ways it can be life-giving for us. And we can do this learning and life-receiving without needing to share all of each human biblical author’s assumptions about how things are or how things should be. 

So, I’m done trying to explain away Paul’s patriarchy. But I’m not done reading his writings and being inspired by them. I’m not done pondering what truths about God, life, and community lie among them. 

May we learn, in diverse communities together, with every voice heard and honored, to read and love the Bible in all of its beauty and its complications, without needing to airbrush its ugly parts or try to reduce its maddening, wonderful complexity.

4 thoughts on “Wives and participles and Bible and I’m done defending Paul”

  1. Wow, Liz – you’ve blown my mind (again). Thank you for taking a fresh look at source materials with your formidable reasoning skills. These familiar texts have been weaponized against women in support of male hierarchies that need to be bulldozed. Thank you, too, for showing so clearly that critique does not need to undermine the inspiration or importance of the passages – sort of like disagreement does not need to undermine a committed relationship. Love to hear more about this (and whatever else you’re thinking about) from you!

    1. Thanks, Tom! Yes, bulldoze the hierarchies!
      I like your analogy about disagreement in a committed relationship, too – thank you for that.

  2. Liz, my girlfriends and I are going over this passage and I referred back to this post because I loved it so much. YES to the Bible being read in a variety of contexts and diverse perspectives and I love yours on this one. Miss you and hope you’re doing well. Just subscribed to receive your emails too 🙂

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