Darwin tagged me yesterday morning, along with several other married women bloggers, in a post asking opinions about Ephesians 5. For context, read his whole post -- but the main question is, what are we to think of "Wives, be submissive to your husbands?"
Here are a few points, in no particular order.
No, I don't think this represents a "high" or symbolic or unearthly ideal. This is a piece of pragmatic advice to husbands and wives living out their relationships in the world. As evidence I point to the context of Ephesians 4-6: "Be humble and gentle and patient," "give up living as pagans do," "if you are angry, do not... let sunset find you nursing your anger," "have done with spite and bad temper, with rage, insults and slander," "no coarse, stupid, or flippant talk," no "fornication and indecency of any kind..."
No, all these injunctions are about Christian conduct in a pagan world, the same in which we largely find ourselves today. So it is with "Wives, be subject to your husbands." He is calling Christians to live differently from the wider culture around them. If it didn't manifest itself in distinctive behavior of some kind, it would not be the uniquely Christian life.
Any relevance to working inside or outside the home, acquiring or eschewing advanced education, or taking responsibility for child care is a red herring. These (yes, even the child care, when we speak of how its duties are to be divided) are economic activities. We live today in a vastly different economic system from the one in first-century Ephesus. The meaning of "men's" versus "women's" work, the boundaries of "the home" with respect to the economy, the nature of education available to people of each gender -- totally foreign system. If
I may go so far as to interpret the text, it is a practical instruction in Christian conduct, but it is not really speaking of economic activity -- it is giving us no instruction in how we ought best to support our families. Again, it's telling us how to distinguish ourselves from the pagans: avoid the sinful excesses that are common among the pagans, and have Christian relationships -- that is, relationships that are marked with the special features unique to Christians. Husband-wife, parent-child, and servant-master relationships are to be palpably different in Christian households than in pagan ones.
I want to stress this because I see a fair amount of confusion between these two concepts. Yes, there's probably a big overlap between "people who take this passage seriously" and "people who believe wives, or at least mothers, should minimize work outside the home." Yes, there's an undeniable tendency to connect the two emotionally, as for many of us the decision to change our lives in response to Ephesians 5 and the decision to abandon a career or an education in the service of our marriage are intertwined in time and in intention. But they aren't the same argument. No, Ephesians 5 has little if anything to say about who should bring economic value into the home from outside and who should generate economic value from within it.
That said, I agree with Darwin that casting the wife in the "primary-provider" role probably creates some tensions because it runs against some of the nature of husband-hood and wife-hood, of fatherhood and motherhood. A stereotypical example of this might be the perennial complaint that working women have to pull a "second shift" of child care when they get home, a workload that seems never to fall on Dad in quite the same way. But if they exist, these tensions arise because the family's choices (however prudent and correct) run up against the natures of fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood, not because they demonstrate lack of submission on the part of the wife.
Besides, casting anybody, husband OR wife, as the primary provider creates tensions when either spouse is still very invested in the equality/sameness model of marriage rather than the reciprocity/complementarity model, or when either spouse is still very invested in a vision of one's economic work or education as being largely about self-fulfillment and not about serving the best interests of the family.
The triple-dipole structure of the chapter is obvious and important. The three paired injunctions must be taken in the context of each other. Wives, be subject to your husbands; husbands, love your wives. Children, obey your parents; fathers, do not goad your children into resentment. Slaves, obey your masters; masters, do not threaten your slaves. Is it irksome to see "wives" set in parallel with "children" and "slaves?" Sure. Doesn't mean we can ignore it. I think the reason these are set parallel to each other is that these are the three hierarchical relationship-pairings within a household. Paul is calling for Christian households to be radically different from their pagan neighbors, transformed from within because of their vision of the purpose of human life -- not least because of an equality they know they possess in the eternal sense.
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The specifics of what "Wives, be subject to your husbands" means is worthy of another post, which I'll get to later. UPDATE. Here is the second post.