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The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade

The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade is interim dean of the National Cathedral and former rector of St. Alban's Episcopal Church on the grounds of the National Cathedral, Washington, DC.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Washington, DC


Be Subject to One Another

Ephesians 5:21-33

August 24, 1997

In the marriage service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, there is a list of lessons that is suggested for reading during the wedding. I usually ask couples to read those lessons and select the ones that mean the most to them for including in the service. Couples take the task on with varying degrees of enthusiasm and with different results. One thing that they almost all have in common, however, is that they never select the passage from Ephesians ~ the passage that is the second lesson appointed for this Sunday. It is a fine text that makes some excellent points about relationships with Christ and with one another. The sentence that dooms its chances of being read in a modern wedding is this: "Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord."

That passage manages to push personal, emotional, and historical buttons all at once. It is viewed as terribly sexist on the part of St. Paul, and he is understood by many to be an enemy of women and a male chauvinist pig of the very first order. The reaction is understandable and it needs to be appreciated. It is not very fair to Paul or to the text. Some very important babies are being thrown out with the bath water of the common reaction to those words. I would like to talk with you about this passage and what the business of being subject to one another is all about.

The first principle in understanding a text is to understand the context of it. In this case ~ the historical context ~ we must know what the writer is trying to say. When we do that, we find that this passage had a very different meaning to Paul and to the people in Ephesus than it does to us. What sounds so reactionary to many modern ears was in fact quite a liberal statement in its own time. Women in Paul's day were property ~ they were baby machines and home support for male centered economic enterprises. There are many examples of this attitude, it is easily proven, but to me, one of the most frighteningly clear is a first century letter quoted by William Barclay in his commentary on Ephesians. In it, a man who obviously cares for his pregnant wife, and sounds like a fine fellow, drops a phrase that is chilling and reflects the prevailing attitude toward women. The letter reads as follows: "Polarian to Alice, his wife. Heartiest greetings. Know that we are still even now in Alexandria. Do not worry if when all others return, I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you. If, good luck to you, you have a child and it is to be a boy, let it live. If it is a girl, throw it out. You told Ephadepheus to tell me. Do not forget me. How can I forget you? I beg you, therefore, not to worry."

Did you get the line, ?if it is a girl, throw it out?? That's the attitude toward women in that day. There are certainly rumors of similar attitudes in China and other countries today.

In this context of dealing with women Paul urges husbands and wives to be subject to one another. That is how the passage from Ephesians begins. To be subject to one another. And that's what it is really about. In the first century Roman Empire there is no question of women being subject to men. Paul is saying that men should also be subject to women. To love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her. Wow! In that day ~ what an incredible idea! Very cutting edge. Very creative, avant-garde, very challenging to the system. Paul, like Jesus, had a very revolutionary attitude toward women.

It is a revolution that God has continued through the work of the Spirit. Some would say, with some numbers to back them up, it is a revolution we have been very slow in supporting. This is God's continuing revolution. God continues to call us to new understandings about what it means to be men and women both made in the image of God. That is what God was doing through Paul in his day when he wrote to the Ephesians. And that is what God is still doing today. Paul did not have God's final word on the subject. There is a very good chance that you and I don't either.

The revolution that God is calling us into, the revolution of being subject to one another, is so very hard for us. It's hard for us to figure out. Yet, it is the key to the joys and to the problems of marriages throughout history. How can we be subject to one another? How can we honor our differences? How can we be enriched by one another? How can we live complementary rather than contradictory lives? There is an old saying that in marriage, two become one, and spend the rest of their days trying to decide which one. That's the struggle that we have. Marriage is so often an arena of conflict where the prize is thought to be domination and control ~ where there are thought to be winners and losers. When we live together that way, we fail most of all Paul's call to be subject to one another.

Make no mistake about it, being subject to one another is simply about how we go about disagreeing. When people agree on something there is no question of being subject. It is in our disagreements that we raise the question of how to be subject to one another. It is our good disagreements that make marriage worthwhile. The call to be subject to one another is a call to do a good job of disagreeing. Many marriages struggle and fail because people do not know how to disagree in a good way.

If you are in a marriage, a serious relationship of family, a committed friendship, then you know how important it is to disagree well.

There is a lot to know about good disagreeing. In the first place it is important to know that disagreeing is a good and healthy thing for a relationship. Many of us have grown up with the notion that disagreements are failures. It's not so. If there is no disagreement, then the relationship is not very deep or honest. God went to a lot of trouble to make each of us unique, to make each of us different from others. It includes being different from the people to whom we are married. Those differences are meant to enrich each other and the relationship. There is an old saying that if two agree on everything, one of them is not necessary. We need our differences in order to enrich our life together.

To disagree well, is first of all to know the difference between a disagreement and a misunderstanding. That's very important. Disagreements can be healthy, misunderstandings are almost always destructive. In disagreements people know what they are talking about and they know what the other person is talking about. You know what I am saying and I know what you are saying. In a misunderstanding, I think I know what you are saying, but I really do not. Have you ever had a big fight with someone and then found out that you did not know what they were trying to say or vice versa. Yet there was the damage of the harsh words as you made no headway in communicating across that unbridgeable gap of misunderstanding. Sometimes we have to stop and make sure that we are disagreeing and not misunderstanding. When we do that it's simple enough to state your position to your satisfaction and have you state my position to my satisfaction. When we can do that we can go on and have the disagreement that can be constructive.

The second most important thing is to know how to come to resolution. Resolution is not when someone gives in but when all involved agree on how they will proceed. One way to understand the difference is to know that resolutions are this. Disagreements almost always begin with singular pronouns and past tense verbs. That is they begin with things like you said ~ I said ~ he went ~ she did ~ and so on. That's an important phase of the disagreement, but it is not a stopping place. Resolution always comes in plural pronouns and future tense verbs. We'll say... when this happens again we will ~ or we agree that this time we will ~ and the next time we must ~ and we might try ~ and we can do it this way ~ and so on.

Being subject to one another is about learning how to resolve disagreements in such a way that the relationship is stronger afterwards than it was before.

That revolutionary thing is what the passage in Ephesians is calling us to do.

St. Paul may sound sexist to some and by the standards of this age it is probably so. He was not a sexist in his own day. He was on the cutting edge of the exploration into the meaning of men and women being made in the image of God. It is an exploration that God continues to call each of us to make. In very practical terms it means that those of us who love one another are being challenged to learn how we might be subject to them and they to us. The key to that is simply learning how to disagree well.

Paul's words may sound dated, but their message is as current as the next conversation you have with someone you love.


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