A church member wrote me an email: “why don’t you do a devotional on this verse!” He was joking. “No way” I wrote back. Months later: “Oh ok, why not?”
So, here it is! Verses like these embarrass us. We don’t preach them and rarely even read them. Some churches (not ours) still believe that wives are to obey their husbands and that women are somehow “lesser.” Many churches do not allow women to be pastors/priests or ordained leaders. I went to a wedding at a Presbyterian Church of America nearby (a very large church) and the pastor’s wedding sermon emphasized that the wife was to be “submit to her husband’s God-given authority.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing in 2020!!! I wanted to walk out but I couldn’t because Heather was angrily squeezing my arm too hard. The couple has since divorced. Such doctrine is destructive, toxic and wrong!
A far better scripture for gender and race relationships is Galatians 3:28 “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I’ll hang my hat there and not on Ephesians 5:22. Reformer Martin Luther helpfully said, “let scripture interpret scripture.” Careful those who pick and choose verses to control, diminish, or hold others down. After all, the bible teaches that God is the great liberator of captives (see Exodus!)
To those who push outdated passages about male dominance, just have them read on to the part about slaves. That will diminish their energy! 150 years ago in this country folks believed literally in these verses, and tried to use them for selfish gain and profit. It took a war and major civil rights campaigns that changed laws in order for us to see the sin of slavery, racism and injustice. How hard it was for people sold on slavery to believe with Genesis 1 that “in the image of God” all races and people were created, “male and female.”
The bible comes from a culture and thought-world that is now ‘dated’ and not our own. They knew nothing of astrophysics or microbiology, for example. We don’t dismiss the bible because it is old. Rather, we study scripture in its original context. Then together, in light of God’s full revelation in Jesus Christ and with prayer, we interpret scripture for today’s world. Some passages translate from the ancient world to our own rather well. “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven” or “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly” were clear then…and now. But “Slaves obey your masters” or “women must cover their heads and are not permitted to teach in the church” or “stone the sinner to death”…not so much, at least not for folks in our faith tradition.
A great blessing of being a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is that we have a Book of Confessions. Through history, we have a reforming and changing faith. The essentials remain, but not all of the cultural trappings. We are not “stuck in time” Christians, but those who keep reforming as God’s living Spirit leads us. I have respect for the Amish “horse and buggy” neighbors of my childhood, but I am not one of them. With you, I give thanks for the faith we hold dear and sing, “In Christ there is no east or west in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”