The last half of Philip B. Payne’s book Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters begins an exegesis of Paul’s later writings in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy and deals with some of the most contentious passages dividing the Church over the role of women.

Chapter 15 “Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19: Husband-Wife Relationships” focuses upon the text of Ephesians, though Payne shows that the parallel expressions in both of these passages indicate they are addressing the same issues. Thus, whatever bears upon the one passage must bear upon the other. Payne chooses to deal primarily with the longer passage of Ephesians.

After noting differences between family life in Paul’s day with that of contemporary culture, Payne opines “While Paul’s wording was framed in order to speak to people in his own social structure, one must not assume that he intended to make those social structures normative for all societies. If Paul were writing today, he would probably give different commands to uphold the same principles.” As I understand and have experienced, what traditional Christianity has done is make normative what was not intended, thus missing the principles that Paul was actually getting at in the text. This is a very insightful hermeneutical principle:

commands issued may be culturally relative, but the principles behind them could be timeless. Moreover, while complementarians (a term that, with some slight nuances, merely denotes a hierarchical structure of male authority over the female in the home and in the Church) charge that cultural background is overused by biblical egalitarians to support their case, Payne might suggest complementarians under use it and end up with an inconsistent hermeneutic. Of course, inconsistency begets inconsistency and the outworking of this in life becomes clear. Payne states:

Advocates of a hierarchical structure in marriage of wives to their husbands in effect endorse the patriarchal structure of marriage that was pervasive in Paul’s day. If they were consistent, they probably would also advocate the corresponding dictates of the patriarchal structure (as many used to do) that children, even much older children, ought to be subordinate to their parents, and that slaves ought to be subordinate to their masters….The risk in interpreting “the husband is the head of the wife” as establishing an authority structure in the context of these “house codes” is that one thereby embraces “a very odd understanding of what marriage is: a relationship in which a wife is basically a person controlled by her husband in every respect in the same way as children and slaves.” (quoting Howard Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, all of which is an essential read for those wishing to engage the many issues surrounding biblical egalitarianism.)

Payne lays out Paul’s vision of marriage showing that it was in sharp contrast to the culture of the day and warns readers to “consider the evidence [laid down by Payne, pp. 113-139] for reading this passage without reading back into Paul’s words the association of ‘head’ as ‘leader’ that fits English, but is dubious for Greek.” Unless and until this can be done, then there is little hope that a different model can emerge other than the traditional hierarchical one so prevalent in today’s Christian churches and households.

Paul spends a great deal of effort emphasizing unity and love as major underlying themes for the ethical precepts he issues for house codes, principles that are in direct opposition to first-century practices. “True love for one’s wife,” says Payne, “is not compatible with a husband completely controlling her life, just as true love is not compatible with a master completely controlling his slave’s life or for a parent completely controlling his mature child’s life.”

In fact, if Paul were supporting hierarchical structures so prevalent in the first-century, then he likely would not have written Eph 5:21 “submitting to one another” using the reciprocal pronoun. Even if it is conceptually incoherent for reciprocity in relationships to be aligned with hierarchal structures, it is practically inconceivable in the first-century. Payne goes to great lengths to show the “combination of ‘to place oneself under’ with the reciprocal pronoun defies social stratification, but [the reciprocal pronoun] fits perfectly with Paul’s view of mutuality in the body of Christ in Ephesians.” And, contra Wayne Grudem who argues for a one-directional model of submission, Payne insists that reciprocity applies equally to all parties involved, not merely to some while others are excluded. “If Paul had intended ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2) to be always one way, the same people always bearing the burdens of others but their burdens never being borne by others, he would not have used the reciprocal pronoun.” Thus, mutuality inheres in Paul’s use of the reciprocal pronoun; to deny it violates the essence of reciprocity and defies Paul’s grammar.

When “submit” is taken to mean “under the authority of another” and “head” is understood as “leader” instead of “source,” it is easy to continue advocating hierarchy in relationships as the”natural reading” (pace Grudem) of Ephesians 5. What we must not assume, Payne suggests, is that the notion of authority is what Paul intended when using ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō) in Ephesians 5:21ff. Instead, what we should discern from the context is that submission means “voluntary yielding for the sake of love.” [It’s noteworthy that 1 Corinthians 16:15 shows τάσσω (tassō), the root of ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō) indicates “devotion,” not “under the authority of.”]

Payne’s proposal, that we take “submit” to mean “voluntary yielding for the sake of love,” fits all relationships addressed in Ephesians 5:21-6:4: everyone to each other (5:21); wives to husbands (5:22), the Church to Christ (5:24), husbands to wives (5:25-33), children to parents (6:1-4), and slaves to masters (6:5-9). Incidentally, the logic of this suggests: 1) If Paul’s injunction for every believer to submit to one another involves husbands (and clearly it would), then husbands loving their wives is tantamount to submitting to them, given Payne’s definition of submission as “voluntarily yielding for the sake of love.” The basis for and grounding of Paul’s appeal beginning in 5:21 and extending through 6:9, therefore, is not authority but love. Thus, all acts of Christian love expressed toward Christians must be mutual with no hint of “under the authority of another.” Otherwise, Christian teaching hardly offers anything unique for house codes, since it does not extend past the cultural mores of the day.

There is far more in this chapter that I would like to address, but space and time do not allow. More to follow in the next post.

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