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You asked for a sermon on What Did Paul Really Say About Women?


Ephesians 5: 21-33   Galatians 3:28


1] Last year 120 women in Canada were murdered by their husbands (or ex-husbands, lovers or “live-ins”). One-third of these slain women had been raped or strangled or sodomized. Wife-abuse is dreadful I hear of it often; women who have had to leave home on account of the beatings they have endured from their “spouse”. Recently I have heard the stories of women from the more effusive, more demonstrative Christian denominations whose husbands abuse them and then throw Ephesians 5 at them: “Wives, be subject to your husbands…”. Scripture is brought forward to legitimate the shabbiest treatment of a human being who is supposed to be one’s dearest.

Even where there isn’t abuse, the verse from Ephesians is still cited as legitimating the superiority of husband over wife (and by extension, usually, the superiority of male over female). It is assumed now that the husband is boss over his wife; he is chief, master, sovereign, while she in turn is subject, servant, even serf. In any case, he is the ruler and she is the ruled. By extension it is assumed that males ought to be company presidents and females office clerks; males prime ministers and females backbenchers.

When women justly rise up against this they lay much of the blame for it at the feet of St.Paul. Feminists hate him. He is the nasty fellow responsible for any and all notions of inferiority visited upon women.


2] Before we deal with the apostle this morning we should glance briefly at the history of the treatment of women. As a matter of fact the treatment accorded women has not been uniformly bad. At different periods of history some societies have been matriarchal; that is, those societies were ruled by women. On the other hand, any society under Arab rule has rendered women shockingly inferior. During the golden age of feudalism (in the middleages) women could own real estate and could serve as lord of the manor. Nevertheless during the 17th century the status of women declined; and during the 19th century it declined abysmally.

In his letter to the church in Galatia (which letter is traditionally known as the charter of Christian liberty) Paul states without qualification that in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female. Regardless of how any society or any subgroup in a society treats women, in Christ men and women stand on level ground. In Christ there is neither male domination nor female subservience. When the apostle exclaims, “In Christ there is neither male nor female” he is not saying that sexual differentiation has been blurred (men are still men, women still women, and vivez la difference!); he is insisting that in Christ any notion of gender superiority is groundless, false, iniquitous.

The truth is, Paul has been blamed for the social enslavement of women when few people have done as much for their liberation.


3] If you doubt this you need only consider the mindset of ancient Greece. Socrates maintained that being born a woman is divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal. To be sure, Socrates did say that a woman could serve in the armed forces — after all, he argued, a female dog is as useful to a shepherd as a male dog.

Aristotle noticed that a swarm of bees is led by one bee in particular; it has to be a king bee, since males are by nature more fit to command than are females. Aristotle maintained that men show their courage by giving orders, while women show their courage by following orders.

In ancient Athens women took no part in public affairs, never appeared with men at meals, never appeared with men on social occasions.

The Greek Stoic philosophers who came after Socrates and Aristotle maintained that women are but a distraction and a temptation.

Things were better in ancient Sparta. In fact at one point Sparta’s women owned two-thirds of the nation’s land. Things were better too in ancient Egypt. But Sparta and Egypt never did influence the world as Athens did.

In the Roman era (following the Greek era) a woman was permitted to accompany her husband socially but was still regarded as humanly inferior.

In Jewish circles it was little better. While the Hebrew bible depicted many women as heroes (Deborah, Ruth, Rahab) rabbinic teaching (that is, the teaching of the rabbis in contrast to the teaching of scripture) generally devalued women. It was regarded improper for a man to speak to a woman in public, even if she were his wife. If a married woman spoke to a man on the street, said the rabbis, her husband could divorce her on the grounds that her conversation was incipient adultery.


4] How revolutionary Jesus was! Every day he spoke with women in public. They spoke with him. He included women (both married and single) in his band of disciples. They traipsed around with him and supported him. Scandalous behaviour! He permitted a woman (in public, no less) to wipe his feet with her hair, when a woman whose hair wasn’t tied up was looked upon as a seductress.

Paul certainly knew the gospel accounts of Jesus. Paul certainly knew how revolutionary Jesus had been, and just as certainly he endorsed it. Paul mentions female believers by name — itself part of the Jesus revolution. He speaks of Syntyche and Euodia, two women in the congregation in Philippi “who struggled beside me (not under me!) in the gospel.” These women were on a par with the apostle himself in his ministry. Paul speaks of Prisca and Aquila as “fellowworkers in Jesus Christ.” Prisca and Aquila were a married couple. Two things leap out at us here. One, Paul mentions the woman’s name, Prisca, ahead of her husband’s. (How often do people today refer to the Shepherds as “Maureen and Victor” — in that order?) Two, he addresses her as Prisca, not as Priscilla, Priscilla being a diminutive which, like any diminutive, suggests that someone is not quite grown up. At the conclusion of his Roman letter Paul mentions several church leaders by name, among whom are eight women.

As all of you know, one qualification for being an apostle was to have been an eye-witness of the resurrection of Jesus. Women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. (By the way, in view of this how anyone could question women’s ordination to the ministry is beyond me.) Women regularly preached and prayed aloud in early Christian worship. Women regularly exercised leadership in the earliest church. The revolution which Jesus launched Paul did not stifle. He practiced what he preached. In Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female.


5] It is time for us to examine the text which has been misread so widely and which has been the occasion of so much suffering.

(i) The first thing we must notice is really profound: in Ephesians 5 verse 21 precedes verse 22! The instruction to husbands and wives is preceded by the instruction to everyone, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” THIS IS FOUNDATIONAL. Before any puffed-up husband reminds his wife that she is supposed to subject herself to him, he needs to be told that he too is supposed to subject himself to her. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”; this is the foundational statement which controls everything that follows. Mutual subordination, mutual subjection, mutual self-denial is what the gospel requires of every Christian.

Males who think they can use the text as a pretext for abusing their wives or coercing women must understand one thing: “be subject to” does not mean “obey” (see below). Paul never says that a wife is to obey her husband.

(ii) Second point. When Paul says that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, domineering males conclude that since Christ is sole, sovereign lord of the church, therefore the husband is sole, sovereign lord of his wife. Not so! Nevertheless, Paul certainly maintains that there is a similarity between Christ’s being head of the church and the husband’s being head of his wife. There is an aspect to Christ’s headship which is the model for the husband’s headship. It’s clear, isn’t it, that our understanding of this passage hinges on our understanding of the meaning of “head” and the meaning of the verb “subject”.

In everyday English “head” can mean literally that part of my body which is attached to my neck, or it can mean figuratively chief, boss, director, commander, controller, ruler, governor. The head-waiter is the fellow who bosses the other waiters. The head of the Royal Bank is the chief of the bank whose word has to be obeyed.

The Greek word Paul uses for head is KEPHALE. It literally means that part of the body which is attached to the neck. But KEPHALE never means, even figuratively, chief or ruler or boss. The Greek word which means chief or ruler or boss is ARCHON — and Paul never says that the husband is the ARCHON, ruler or boss, of his wife. Never! He says, figuratively, that the husband is the KEPHALE of his wife.

Then what is the figurative meaning of KEPHALE? Figuratively, KEPHALE means source of being, origin of being; it does NOT mean someone of superior rank. Jesus Christ is head of the church in that he is the source of the church’s being, the origin of the church’s existence. When Paul says that the husband is head of the wife he has in mind the second creation saga in Genesis 2. There the man or husband is spoken of as the source or origin of the woman’s existence. (In the first creation saga man and woman are created together. In the second, however, woman is made from man (from his rib). Man is the source of woman’s life. (Paul refers to the second creation saga elsewhere in his epistles.)) His point here is that she “comes” from him, NOT that the husband is the wife’s boss or commander or ruler.

The older testament was first written in Hebrew, later translated into Greek for the benefit of Jews who didn’t know Hebrew (most of them). Paul knows Hebrew (he was trained by Rabbi Gamaliel); yet Paul always quotes the o.t. in Greek, there being little point in quoting it in a language his readers could not understand (Hebrew).

Now the Hebrew word for head is ROSH. Where head (ROSH) has the force of chief, ruler, boss, commander, etc., the Greek o.t. uses ARCHON. Where ROSH has the force of “source of life” or even “example” (a meaning found in military contexts) it customarily uses KEPHALE. Paul speaks of the husband as the KEPHALE of his wife, never as the ARCHON of his wife.

The predominant theme of Ephesians is the unity of Christ and his people. (It is not to be denied that Christ is ruler or sovereign over the church. But this is not the theme of the epistle.) This predominant theme — unity — forms the context of the passage under discussion. Paul emphasizes this unity between husband and wife and between Christ and the church by quoting Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh”) in Ephesians 5:31-32: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church.”

KEPHPALE, “head”, is also used figuratively in military contexts to speak of the front-line soldier who is first in line of fire: the shock-troop in World War I who was first over the top, absorbing enemy fire, the G.I. in World War II who was first on the Normandy beach on D-Day. Today we would say the point man. During the unpleasantness on the Oka reserve two summers ago an officer of the Canadian Army walked deliberately, purposefully, toward the native barricades telling his armed foes that he and his men were moving down the road, barricades or not. The officer who was out in front incurred the greatest risk. In fact he was defenceless. He was the head soldier. It is precisely in this sense that Paul uses the military analogy of head, KEPHALE. All of us know that Paul was exceedingly fond of military metaphors. He loved to compare the Christian life to soldiering.

The husband is head of his wife, then, in the sense that he is like that soldier who incurs the greatest vulnerability, the greatest risk, who is most self-forgetful — all for the sake of others. The husband is head of his wife in that he renounces all concern for safety and self-protection for the sake of his wife. (The husband is head of his wife in that he is willing to “take in on the chin” for her.) Note what Paul says in verse 23: “For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, and is its saviour.” To be sure, Jesus Christ is both Saviour and Lord. But the one aspect of Jesus Christ to which Paul refers in this discussion is Christ’s saviourhood. As saviour, Jesus renounced all security, safety, self-protection. For the sake of his people, the church, he incurred extraordinary vulnerability. This is what the husband must do for his wife. Remember, the husband is head of his wife not in the sense of ARCHON, ruler, chief, boss, but in the sense of KEPHALE, the soldier who will incur extraordinary risk for the sake of those to whom he has pledged himself.

(iii) What about the word “subject”? What does it mean? It does not mean “obey”. The Greek verb “to obey” is HUPAKOUO. Paul uses it frequently. He maintains for instance, that children are to obey their parents. BUT NOWHERE DOES PAUL SAY THAT A WIFE IS TO OBEY HER HUSBAND. The verb “be subject to” is HUPOTASSO. It means to give of oneself, even to give of oneself sacrificially. It means to renounce oneself, deny oneself, surrender one’s rights for the sake of someone else. But it does not mean to lie down in front of a brute and say, “Step on me”. Christians recognize that other people — all sorts of other people — have a claim on us. Our spouses therefore have a claim on us too. To be subject to someone is to recognize that that person has a claim on us. The Christian wife recognizes that her husband has a claim on her. He is a needy person; she has resources for helping him. He should be able to count on her help. She must be willing to deny herself for the sake of her needy husband. But this never means “You have licence to abuse me”.

The verb “be subject to” (HUPOTASSO) also has a military background. Imagine a platoon of soldiers moving through enemy territory. Every soldier in the platoon has been trained for a task which is essential to the wellbeing of the entire platoon. If one soldier hangs back, then the entire platoon is endangered. A soldier who did this and then tried to excuse himself on the grounds that he was trying to protect himself, that it wasn’t in his interests to expose himself to risk, that his first concern was to guarantee his own survival — such a soldier would be reminded quickly that it was his responsibility to subject himself to his platoon-mates. He should suspend his self-interest for the sake of his mates who need him. He should support them, do whatever he can to help them, demonstrate his allegiance to them.

The wife is to subject herself to her husband not in the sense of being docile or wimpish or self-deprecating, but rather by recognizing his claim upon her — just as the church subjects itself to Christ and demonstrates its allegiance to him. The wife is to support her husband, do whatever she can to help him, not let him down. And she does this willingly and gladly. But it’s not a matter of gritting one’s teeth and submitting oneself to a brute. No wife is called to submit to a brute. Glad self-renunciation has nothing to do with docile self-victimization.

We must be sure to notice that not only does Paul urge wives to subject themselves to their husbands; he also urges husbands to love their wives. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The word Paul uses for love, AGAPAO, means self-bestowal, self-giving, at whatever cost. It is the word used in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave…(himself)…”. The husband who loves his wife to the point of giving himself up for her is precisely the husband who is not going to brutalize his wife or insist that she remain under his thumb.


6] I want to remind you again that it is not to be denied that Jesus Christ is sovereign over the church, its sole ruler and lord. But this truth is not the theme of the Ephesian letter. The theme here is the unity of Christ and his people. The theme of the passage we are discussing today is the unity of husband and wife. Paul underscores the theme of unity by quoting Genesis 2:24: “‘…a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church…”. “The two shall become one.” There is no suggestion of hierarchy in the Genesis passage Paul quotes; here; neither is there any suggestion of hierarchy in the Ephesian passage Paul himself writes.


7] I am aware that you asked for a sermon on what Paul really said about women, not merely what he said about wives. There are other texts therefore which we shall have to examine (for instance, the issue of hats and hair-styles). But this will have to wait for another day.


8] The apostle’s last word to us today is the first line of the passage we have been examining: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Husband and wife alike recognize the other’s claim in the other’s need, and want only to help at whatever cost.


                                                                       Victor A. Shepherd                                         

January 1993