"Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands."
When Ephesians 5:21-24 is heard in faith communities, it is often met with trepidation. Traditionally, the text has been used to justify male dominance over women. At worst, it has been used to grant Christian endorsement of marital rape and intimate partner violence — ranging from emotional and psychological abuse to physical violence.
Intimate partner violence is a pervasive problem in our society. Moreover, while intimate partner violence affects men in addition to women, it disproportionally victimizes women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 47.1 percent of women experience at least one act of psychological aggression in their lifetime. This aggression can turn physically violent: 31.5 percent of women experience physical violence in their lifetime, while 22.3 percent of women are victimized at least once by a severe act of violence. Intimate partners also perpetrate sexual violence. About 8.8 percent of women are raped and another 15.8 percent are sexually victimized by a partner in their lifetime. Finally, 9.2 percent of women are stalked by a partner to the point of fearing for their physical safety.
Given this reality, it is important to recognize that at any given time members of our congregations are suffering various forms of abuse. Such experiences of violence and abuse, past and present, are part of the background that inform the messages that individuals take away from Christian discussions of relationships and marriage — including reflections and sermons on Ephesians 5.
When Christians talk about the ideals of marriage, particularly when discussing Ephesians 5, we need to be sure that we are able to account for the reality of marriage. For many, far from being the context of mutuality and partnership, intimate relationships can be the most precarious and dangerous context for women. Indeed, perpetrators of violence and abuse are most typically those who are well-known, often romantic partners or spouses, rather than strangers.
Thankfully, increased awareness has led to a shift in the way this text is taught. At best, preachers advocate for mutual submission in marriage with an emphasis on equality and partnership. The text is read and preached, therefore, as compatible with contemporary ideals of companionate marriage.
When preachers emphasize that first line — “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” — they make clear the importance of challenging the gender hierarchy that justifies violence. Yet here, even at its best, preaching on this text may inadvertently communicate a message that is heard to implicitly endorse abusive patterns.
Indeed, it is critical to keep in mind that listeners — and readers — come to Ephesians 5:21-24, and to broader Christian ideals about relationship and marriage, with an entire personal history. This personal history is also informed by our broader cultural context and its ideas about gender and relationships. Specifically, we come to know ourselves, and interpret our experiences, through messages we receive from our culture. This cultural background informs what individuals take away from teachings on Ephesians 5.
Interpretations of and preaching on Ephesians 5 may ultimately reinforce cultural messages that may foster gendered abuse and violence, unintentionally making them difficult to accurately recognize. In her book, Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination, social psychologist Lynn Phillips examines the social messages about gender and relationships present in our culture that shape how women both understand and interpret their interactions with men, particularly as relating to sex and patterns of violence.
Although Phillips’ research is based primarily on interviews with undergraduate women, her interviews led her to name several distinct messages about gender, relationships, and victimization that are also at play for married or partnered women. The first relevant message has to do with understanding social understandings of what makes a “good woman.” It holds that a “pleasing woman” is focused on her modesty and is selfless in relation to others. She is expected to tailor herself to male desires.
The next message holds that “normal” good men are easily distinguishable from deviant men, or those who abuse. This message makes it difficult for women to name abuse that is perpetrated by men with whom they have experiences of goodness.
Another message communicates that real victims are those who could not in any way prevent the physical violence they experienced. Unable to see male partners as deviant or one’s own experiences as true victimization, women may understand the abuse they encounter as part of normal difficulty in a relationship.
The final two cultural messages further complicate the way that the previous messages come together in actual relationships. One maintains that mistreatment and disappointment are typical experiences for women. The other suggests that love is able to overcome whatever difficulties may arise. Both messages combine with those above to suggest that whatever pain occurs in a marriage, even victimization, is normal and can be overcome. Thus, experiences of intimate partner violence are supported by cultural messages that prevent us, and the women who experience them, from being able to recognize and reject the abuse in their own lives.
These messages may be influenced by the way that we hear the text from Ephesians 5. When we emphasize being “subject to one another,” it presupposes equality and mutuality as conditions of a modern companionate marriage. Yet, for women for whom this equality is not taken for granted, at least in practice, being told to be subject to another can have the negative consequence of reinforcing a culturally conditioned inequality. Rather than recognizing an abusive imbalance of power or abusive speech and actions, she may be encouraged to view the denial of her own needs — even to the point of health — and aggression and turmoil as typical parts of a good Christian marriage that can be overcome for the happiness of all, if she further negates her own needs for those of her partner and marriage.
This text can be particularly dangerous because it provides biblical — even divine — backing to cultural messages that foster victimization. For those who wish to wrestle with Ephesians 5:21-24 in our communities, how one emphasizes the first verse is critical. But if we are going to adequately meet the needs of those who suffer in our communities, we must also explicitly call out what a violation of mutual submission looks like.