Thursday, January 20, 2011

Too Slick to Handle

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5.29-30)

(Longer than I’d like… about a passage NOBODY likes.)

Black Ice

That Ephesians 5 turns up in the daily readings just as “black ice” warnings peak is a rich irony indeed. The euphemism refers to thin sheets of ice frozen atop pavement. It’s not really black. It’s invisible. Artificial light penetrates the icy layer, making it imperceptible to motorists and pedestrians until they lose traction and often don’t have time to slow down before losing control. Yesterday, I awoke in an Indianapolis hotel room, turned on the news, and learned two highways had been closed due to black-ice collisions. Then I opened today’s readings, and when I got to Ephesians 5.22 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord”), I could see spinouts and crashes everywhere. Paul’s “Instructions to Christian Households” (as the NIV coyly labels it) is, without doubt, among the most treacherous of New Testament passages. Even when we cautiously inch across it, probability we’ll be rattled runs very high. The thin metaphor frosted atop Paul’s underlying message is simply too slick to handle.

Modern readers who successfully navigate this perilous patch are no less shaken than those who impulsively hit their brakes and careen into trouble. What persuades Paul that marriage—which he presents as an inherently inequitable arrangement—is the most apt means of conveying Christ’s unparalleled love and our duty to one another? The gender disparity he takes for granted is (let’s not mince words) rank. He tells wives to submit to their husbands “as the church submits to Christ,” (v24) and instructs husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (v25) She submits; he loves. She answers to him; he oversees her. She’s “the Church;” he’s “Christ.” Ugh. A passing mention would be plenty to send us reeling. But, for some reason, Paul won’t let it go. He spends 11 verses (22-33) banging on his comparison, reiterating the same point again and again, doing a more egregious job of it each time. It’s no wonder feminist and equality-minded Christians—which should be all of us—dismiss his hoary idea outright. Meanwhile, LGBT believers don’t know what to make of it, as the metaphor holds no resonance with same-sex unions.

The Benefit of the Doubt

With flares going up like caution signals around black ice, do we back up and search for a safer detour to the same end—i.e., Christ's great love for us, our equality as believers, and our responsibility to care for one another? We can. The epistles contain numerous passages stressing this doctrine. But since we’re already here, it may be worthwhile to throw some road salt at Paul's slick patch, melt the ice, and regain our traction. Beneath its sexist surface lies a remarkable observation about Christ’s care for every believer. Read verses 29 and 30 with an open mind: “After all no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.”

Stripping Paul’s point of its infamous framework requires grace on our part. We’re in the odd position of doing for him what he constantly urges us to do for less astute believers. Rather than take offense, we offer patience and understanding. (Poor Paul. His refusal to quit his sorry metaphor proves he’s in over his head. We’ve all been there, done that, have we not?) So, in the spirit of Christ-like charity, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? First, we know he’s convinced Christ's sacrifice destroyed social, ethnic, and gender barriers. His passion for equality crystallizes in Galatians 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Second, our revulsion at Paul’s misogynist slant holds him to a cultural standard completely alien to his time. What we’re asking of him via hindsight exceeds his experience.

Unconventional, Unmerited Passion

For argument’s sake, though, let’s suppose Paul foresees the day when gender equality gains acceptance. Does he also foresee his letters surviving centuries needed to achieve that? If so, will the Ephesians comprehend his prescient vision of equality? Paul never indicates he’s consciously writing for the ages. And were his metaphor to reflect our times, his readers wouldn’t get it. Ancient marriages aren’t built on love and respect. They’re contracts families enter into for perpetuity (or acquisition) of wealth and lineage. Daughters are bartering chips traded by parents with little thought to their happiness. Their sole obligation centers on submitting to their husbands’ demands. Should a wife displease her husband, he can break the contract and keep her dowry as a severance fee. He’s free to remarry; her options are few to none. Lost virginity stamps her as “used” and her lost dowry hobbles her family’s ability to muster another, notably more costly one to offset her tarnished appeal.

Once we’re reminded of the dehumanizing aspects of first-century matrimony, as well as Paul’s commitment to social equality evidenced elsewhere, we may want to reassess our response to this passage. Our knee-jerk reaction may be the problem. Spinning out on the passage's slick surface, we may get so turned around we come at it backwards, assuming marriage is the topic and Christ's Body the metaphor. When we regain our bearings, however, we realize Paul's not misusing the Church’s relationship with Christ to advocate sexism. In fact, he's not talking about marriage at all. He's evoking the most commonplace, conventional union of his day to heighten our awareness of Christ’s singularly unconventional passion for us—women and men alike.

Loved by Choice

Don’t worry if all of this makes you itchy under the collar. You’re not alone; I’m close to breaking our in a rash myself, as this next curve risks total wipeout. (Hold on tight now.) Since Paul knows no congregation better than the Ephesians, it’s doubtful his metaphor troubles them; he specifically chose it for them. Yet if they are outraged by anything, it’s not his diminution of women. It's his conviction that husbands should love their wives! Instructing Ephesian men to replicate Christ's love for the Church amounts to telling them, “Forget custom. Go way out of your way to care and provide for your spouses. Choose to love them like Christ loves both of you.” That’s the core principle here. Finally, the rubber meets the road.

We free this text of its surface chauvinism by ignoring everything Paul says about wifely subservience and husbandly superiority. None of it can be taken literally, because the contractual nature of ancient wedlock no longer exists. We can shout, “Hallelujah for that!” and shelve the premise alongside other anachronisms Paul addresses—e.g., treatment of slaves, eating meat offered to idols, and engaging temple prostitutes in pagan rites. Once the black ice melts, what’s below secures our steps with a gripping revelation we can’t afford to skim over: Christ goes out of the way—way out of the way—to love us. We are loved by choice. On purpose. Without merit. Christ loves us because we’re part of Christ. “After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.”

Membership in Christ’s Body equalizes all of us, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, and orientation. As equals, our concerns cannot supersede the concerns of others. For me to care more about myself reveals an exalted self-opinion. I’m out of joint with Christ’s Body. For you to put your needs first reveals an inflated sense of importance. You’re out of joint with Christ’s Body. And we’re both out of synch with Christ’s leadership. That’s why Paul opens this passage by making it abundantly clear what he’s driving at: “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.” (v21) There’s no mention of gender, marital roles, cultural traditions—not one. In the final analysis, all of this marital and gender craziness distills into one abiding truth. Service to one another is an act of worship to God. We answer those who insist Paul's antiquated metaphor has doctrinal relevance with, "It's got nothing to do with women, men, or marital relations. It's about Christ's unfailing passion for us and service among equals in the Body of Christ." We answer those who rage at the apparent gender bias in Paul's parallel the same way.

Too many centuries divide Paul and us. Too much has changed, all for the good, we hope. Having deserted the archaic customs and attitudes that ice Paul's metaphor, we've every cause to detest how it reads. But once we regain traction and approach the text from the right direction, how can we not love what it actually says?

Paul’s obsolete marriage metaphor sends us into a tailspin and we miss what he’s driving at. Beneath the icy layer lies a gripping revelation.


jake said...

If I wasn't worried I'd freak out the dogs and wake Cody, I would literally applaud. I'll have to settle for a golf-clap instead.

Wow-za, Tim! A FAN-frickin'-TASTIC post!!!

Philomena Ewing said...

Tim, You show great courage in taking this one on ! It is a passage that always has made me cringe but I have tried to accept that it is just an anachronism born out of it's own time. Your interpretation works well.
I had to look up egregious - well worth it ! Thank you.
By the way, how are Cody and Max doing in the snow ?


Grant said...

"...our revulsion at Paul’s misogynist slant holds him to a cultural standard completely alien to his time. What we’re asking of him via hindsight exceeds his experience."

Tim, this is probably the best study of this passage I've seen. Well done. I've too often heard it taken out of context and presented as a model for marriage... Ouch!

Tim said...

Jake, thank you so much. (I'm glad you let Cody and the pets sleep, though!) With both of us coming from traditions that tend to read and do--rather than read, reason, and do--you understand how liberating it is to explore texts like this, which triggered rather severe, overly simplistic teachings in some places. (Grant's comment echoes this tendency, too.)

Phil, another thanks for the kind words. I don't think it's possible not to cringe at this passage, which is always a good thing, as it invites us to dig under what troubles us to see if there's anything valuable going on. A lot of times, there isn't--it's just anachronistic stuff that serves no use. But every now and then, as happens here, our efforts are rewarded. It's the whole baby and bath water thing. If we write it off, we lose the beauty buried beneath it.

PS: Egregious - I love that word; such a polite way of saying "really bad." And Cody and Max are loving the flakes as they blow by the windows; Walt and I laugh that snowfall is "cat TV."

Grant, I'm humbled. As I re-read Ephesians 5, the first flare for me was how this whole (alleged) marriage doctrine just appears from nowhere--without any mention of a problem that it (allegedly) addresses. Paul doesn't tie his comments to behavior, so it's apparently not intended for direction or discipline. Taken with what immediately precedes it, it's clearly metaphor. That's when v29-30 jumped out. It was one of those "Aha!" moments that we all love. As I mentioned above, I've grown up hearing the interpretation you describe, and I've always thought, "That's the recipe for a miserable marriage"--mostly based on my parents', which is definitely a partnership of equals, helpers to one another. And, for marriage and all relationships, it's really what Paul's describing. Too bad for us that he used actual marriage (of his day) to explain it!

Thanks to all of you for adding your thoughts here.