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Gender and headship in eschatological perspective

Following a vigorous and invigorating discussion of Trinity, subordination and headship at a small theological forum last week, I sat down this morning to have a look at Ephesians 5:22-33 again. It occurs to me that I have never really considered the possibility of assimilating the gender issue into the narrative-historical hermeneutic that has been central to my thinking about the New Testament over the last ten years—I wrote Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul well before I got into that groove/rut. Ephesians is a thoroughly eschatological text, and if we read the household teaching as an integral part of the letter as a whole rather than as free-standing ethical instruction, it may appear that in urging submission to one another, Paul may have had a particular end in view. Let’s give it a go.

To begin with, both Jews and Gentiles have “obtained an inheritance”, which they will acquire possession of at some point in the future (1:11-14). This is the central argument in chapters 1-3, and it puts an eschatological outcome firmly in view. It depends on the fact that Christ has been raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of God, above all spiritual and political powers, not only in the present age but also in the age to come. All things have been put under his feet, and he has been given “as head above all things for the church, which is his body” (1:20-23).

This is not headship as “authority over”. I stick to my view that in Hellenistic Greek, when a person is said to be “head” in relation to another or other persons, the meaning is most likely to be that the person is “prominent” or “pre-eminent”, especially in terms of social status or visibility. Paul’s argument is that Jesus has been elevated to a position of pre-eminence by his resurrection from the dead, above (huper) all things, for the sake of the church. The point is made explicitly in the related passage in Colossians:

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col. 1:18)

Through the Jewish-Gentile church the “manifold wisdom of God” will be “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). That is, I think, the early church was the means by which the God of Israel intended to challenge the powers that dominated the present age of Greek-Roman paganism.

That’s the theory. Now for the practice.

The Ephesians are to live in the light of this calling to be the means by which the eschatological purpose of God is to be achieved. Chapters 4-6 set out the requirements for this radical way of life” “I… urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1). They are to seek unity and maturity as a body which grows into Christ as its head (4:2-16). They must not act as the Gentiles do—they must put off that old self and put on a new self (4:22-24).

The sexually immoral and covetous will have no inheritance in the coming “kingdom of Christ and God” (5:3-5); the wrath of God is about to come upon the “sons of disobedience”, but Paul’s readers are children of light (5:6-8; cf. 2:1-3). So they should look carefully how they walk, redeeming the time, “because the days are evil”. They are living through a particularly difficult period in the story of the people of God. They should be filled with the Spirit, they should address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, they should give thanks at all times, and they should be subordinate or submit to one another (hupotassomenoi) “out of reverence for Christ” (5:15-21).

This focus on Christ runs through the household instructions. Wives should submit to their own husbands “as to the Lord”; children should obey their parents “in the Lord”; slaves should obey their masters as they would Christ (5:22; 6:1, 5). Conversely, husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church; fathers should raise their children “in the disciples and instruction of the Lord”; and masters should keep in mind that they too have a master in heaven (5:25; 6:4, 9). I do not think that it makes sense to interpret Ephesians 5:21 as urging mutual submission. The subsequent instructions simply do not bear this out, and Colossians 3:18-19 is unambiguous: “Wives submit (hupotassesthe) to your husbands…. Husbands love your wives…”.

The exhortation to husbands to love their wives, moreover, has a strong eschatological orientation. Through his self-giving love Christ sanctified the church “so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:27). The reference is to the vindication of the church at Christ’s parousia, as is again apparent from Colossians:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…. (Col. 1:21–23; cf. 1 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 3:13)

The implication may be that husbands should love their wives in such a way that they will likewise be found holy and without blemish when the church has to stand before the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10).

Finally, Paul urges the Ephesians to put on the “whole armour of God” in order that they may be able to stand firm in the coming “evil day”. The day when the Ephesians will inherit the kingdom—that is, share in the reign of God over the nations—will be a day of wrath, and they will not survive it to stand before the judgment seat of Christ if they do not arm themselves with these spiritual qualities.

So I suggest that the teaching regarding the conduct of household relationships that we find in 5:21-6:9 is framed eschatologically; it is put in place primarily for the purpose of ensuring that the church will effectively negotiate the coming eschatological crisis. If the husband is “head” of his wife, it is because he has a status comparable to that of Christ in relation to the church—and therefore he has a responsibility not merely to love his wife but, at least implicitly, to serve her soteriological interests, if I may put it that way. Likewise, the wife submits to her husband with one eye on the parousia—ultimately, she is submitting to the Lord who will vindicate her when he “comes” to inaugurate the new, post-eschatological age of the people of God.

Paul puts forward a similar argument in 1 Corinthians 7. The appointed time has grown short, a time of distress lies ahead, the “present form of this world is passing away” (7:26, 29, 31). Therefore, it is his rule in all the churches that the circumcised should not seek to be uncircumcised (and vice versa—the rule cuts both ways!), slaves might as well stay as they are, the married should not separate, and the single would be better off staying as they.

Paul’s household ethics, therefore, may be contingent not on culture, which is a standard recourse for egalitarians, but on eschatology. The argument would go roughly like this…. Patriarchy is not part of the original creation but a consequence of disobedience. In Christ both men and women—as also both Jews and Greeks, both slaves and free—have gained the right to inherit the kingdom that will sooner or later come. That is basically as far as Galatians 3:28 can be taken. Because of the impending distress, because the days are evil, patriarchy stays in force, but is practised differently in Christ. In the post-eschatological age-to-come, however, there would be no impediment to the full equality of man and woman—other than, of course, the reluctance of male church leaders in the Christendom era to let go of power. Sigh.

Image of Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Apollos (1998), Paperback, 224 pages,


Man, how I wish I could have been present at that discussion…

Thanks, Paul. I responded here.

THANKS Andrew. Sincerely appreciate the thoughts in your response.