Christians, Feminists and Ephesians 5.
I am a Christian, I am a feminist and I am very tired of those two things being seen as mutually exclusive.
I stumbled across feminism at 18 in a college media class and I went from being totally ignorant to deeply fascinated in the space of one lecture. Not one to do things by halves I dove into works by Simone de Beauvoir and Naomi Wolf, learning about everything from internalised misogyny and patriarchal paradigms to Suffrage movements and witch burnings. Suddenly I questioned everything, the media I consumed, the classrooms I sat in, the assumptions people made and the things I took for ‘the way things are’. Yet, it seemed the space for these questions stopped at Church. An inherent part of my identity, which didn’t seem to welcome feminism and it critiques with quite as much enthusiasm.
Yet after a few years of wrestling these two ideologies, one realises they aren’t just not opposite, but complementary; that is if you understand both correctly. Because, the truth my pastors and youth leaders seemed to omit was that our old mate Jesus was a big, proud feminist.
Now, it’s 2019 and the word feminist has more baggage than the individuals who use it, but to strip away the politics and take Gloria Steinem’s definition, a feminist is “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
In essence? Someone who seeks justice and equal rights for all people. You don’t need to be a theology scholar to know Jesus was a bit of a paragon when it came to justice and equality.
Christianity has a long history and like any group of people through time, their record isn’t spotless. However, the supposed ‘Christianity is anti-feminist’ argument is something of a lazy one, leaning on a few tired scriptures and historical events. One of which we’re going to iron out, right here, right now.
Otherwise known as one of the most quoted and misunderstood pieces of scripture.
Let’s start with something ignored by most who tote this scripture like a hall-pass for sexism; context.
Today, we live in a secular society fuelled by liberal ideologies, a principal one being the importance of individuality or autonomy. In the West, we are obsessed with freedom, but more importantly, a brand new kind of freedom compared to previous centuries.
Historically, freedom has been defined as liberty “from” something, as in freedom from cravings, from slavery, from oppression. Today? Freedom describes freedom “to”; to do what you want, when you want, how you want.
And, while this definition is brand new in the scheme of history, for you and me, it’s all we know. It’s the air we breathe and so it’s ‘normal’. For us, those raised on the idea that nothing is as important as freedom (defined as the uninhibited ability to do whatever we want), to submit is to give up our freedom. However, for the people the author of Ephesians, Paul, was actually addressing, self-determination and individuality wasn’t attached to freedom; ‘submission’ and ‘discipline’ weren’t dirty words like they are now but instead part of an understanding that mutual surrender and support were necessary for love and belonging.
Secondly, let’s understand the cultural context of this scripture, which makes you realise that Paul was actually something of an olden day radical with some pretty progressive ideas.
Much like today, ancient Roman households ran according to unspoken and spoken codes. One of the most fundamental both socially and culturally was the submission of a wife to her husband. Men were urged to rule over their wives and children with indisputable authority; his word was law, his domination was total.
Yet Paul comes onto the scene and puts forth a downright scandalous suggestion; yes, women do need to submit to their husbands, but only if it’s mutual.
This. Is. Massive.
Making this sort of proclamation was social suicide if they weren’t exiled from the city entirely. In those times, submission gendered as feminine. But Paul turns this on its head, roping his fellow bros into the process and demanding all to learn the art of humble submission.
In a culture where absolute dominion by the husband was the norm, suggesting any sense of mutuality or equality was radical. Not ‘surfer hanging 10’ radical, like throwing your body in front of a war tank radical.
Now for the semantics. See, the second part of this scripture doesn’t’ seem to get nearly as much airtime as the controversial beginning. However, Paul was a smart lad and went on to stipulate that this submission wasn’t the begrudging kind. It wasn’t an obligatory “because you did it last time” submission, or a begrudging “happy wife happy life” submission. No, it was a submission modelled after the way they should already do so to God; self-sacrificial and joyful. Submission wasn’t a nice addition to a loving partnership; it was the very crux of love.
And as discussed before, this was in a culture that rightly placed freedom and autonomy below belonging and community, which requires compromise, trust, and yes, mutual submission.
TRANSLATION OF A TRANSLATION
Now, we’ve thrown the word ‘submit’ around a whole lot already, so it’s time to remember how Paul intended that word. As well as the small disclaimer that he didn’t actually use it at all.
Initially, the bible was written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, before being translated into Greek. Meaning, by the time it gets to you, it’s a translation of a translation, which is at best an interpretation and at worst a string of inaccurate synonyms.
The issue being, language is tricky. One word can have multiple meanings or many different substitutes that mean slightly different things. It’s hard enough when it’s in one language, but when you have to convert it into another language that may have words with different sub-meanings or even no equivalent word at all? Let’s just say a lot of grace needs to be involved.
Ephesians 5:23 — “For the husband is the head of the wife”. Oof. It seems cut and dry, right? The man is clearly the brains, the brawn, the dominant voice of authority, commanding the inferior woman.
Well, modern interpreters say it isn’t so clear, with debate culminating around the word ‘head’, and what Paul really meant. So, let’s start with the Hebrew word for the head; Rosh.
Academics found when Rosh was used to literally refer to someone’s physical head, they used kephalē. When it was used metaphorically to refer to the source of something, they also used kephalē. In fact, there is no instance in the New Testament where kephalē is used to describe an authority figure.
When Rosh was used to mean someone of authority, Septuagint translators used ‘archon’ instead, which means ‘ruler’ or ‘authority’ in Greek.
In Ephesians 5:23, if Paul had wanted to call the husband the ruler of the wife, he wasn’t short of words to use. He could have said archon (ruler), or timeÄ (one of rank) or despot (master).
But he didn’t, because he wasn’t talking about authority. He said the husband is the kephalē of the wife because he’s referring back to the way Eve came from Adam, and woman came from man.
To us Westerners this may sound like a dig at woman, meaning she is lesser. But to the crowd he was speaking to, those who had been taught the Pagan ideology that women came from an inferior source, the idea that women were made from the same stuff as men, was a huge proclamation of equality.
Don’t take my word for it either. Dr David Scholer, a Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary (it doesn’t get more legit than that) said that research “does not support the traditionalist or complementarian view of male headship and female submission.” The professor going on to say, if anything, research on scripture continues to support a view of men and woman as a “mutually supportive, submissive relationship.”
I could go on. And on. And on. About the meaning of Ephesians 5:24 and the translation of the word ‘obey’. About the Greek and the Hebrew and the rules and contexts. If you want more arguments about translations and meanings, they’re out there to find.
To never stop questioning is a beautiful thing, to never let our minds close tight-fisted around a certain perspective, a certain reading, whether it’s of a scripture or a person. To always, constantly, persistently come to the day with a willingness to hear other people out.
But beyond the semantics and conversations about context, don’t forget that at the end of it, the point is always love. To work on ourselves first before schooling others on whom they should be submitting to.