There are many who have read Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22–33 as an accommodation, or even an appropriation, to the Greco-Roman culture. However, Clinton Arnold in his outstanding commentary on this section, shows why that cannot be true. Taking an extended look at “The Roles of Wives in Roman-Era Ephesus and Western Asia Minor” (pp. 372–79), Arnold shows why Paul’s words are radically counter-cultural—both in his day and in ours.
Writing to a church combatting spiritual powers, Paul is not adopting the idea of patriarchy and headship from the Roman culture. If anything, he is opposing an ancient form of feminism that saw women asserting greater independence. In particular, citing many primary sources, Arnold shows how growing wealth among women, coupled with positions of leadership and the rise of goddess cults all worked to create “freedom and opportunity for women,” which had the effect of creating competition between married men and women (376).
This “new Roman woman,” as Arnold calls it, shows why Paul’s words about marriage and the family in Ephesians are not simply a cultural accommodation. Rather, as he puts it,
Ephesians was thus written to a place and at a time where traditional Greek and Roman roles for women and wives were in a dynamic flux. It is no longer accurate to portray the social-cultural environment as oppressive for women, denying them opportunities for leadership in religious and civic institutions, and extending to them no places of involvement outside of the domestic sphere. Of course, these opportunities would not have been available to most of the peasant and populations. But the same opportunities would have been closed to peasant and slave men as well since their primary focus was on survival. (378)
This is a vast change from the way many have read Ephesians. But we can ask, what significance does this have for our reading of Ephesians? To this question Arnold answers with five observations we should consider when reading Paul’s words about marriage.
(1) There was a variety of ungodly cultural pressures that husbands and wives would have felt in the environment of western Asia Minor. These would have ranged from the traditional roles of the heavy-handed dominance asserted by the paterfamilias and the unquestioning obedience of the wife to the societal trends seen in the new Roman women, who exhibited a defiance of their husbands and the traditional roles.
(2) There is no doubt that women in western Asia Minor were finding more opportunities in the civic and religious life of the communities. Some were finding a new degree of freedom from the restraint, control, and dominance of men in society, politics, religion, and the household.
(3) There were also some fairly radical trends in gender identity, where some men were repudiating their masculinity, appropriating a feminine identity, serving a female goddess, and engaging in sexual relations with both men and women.
(4) In light of this diversity of trends in society, Paul writes to many Christians in Ephesus and western Asia Minor to give biblical and christological perspective on what it means to live as husband and wife. His readers come from all segments of society—they are slaves, peasants, and probably many from the urban elite. Some will have held to the traditional Greek and Roman understanding of roles, but others would probably be living the lifestyle of the new Roman women. It would not at all be surprising to find that there were some women who became Christians who once served as priestesses in the local goddess cults.
(5) Paul’s remarks to husbands and wives are counter to every cultural pattern represented in that society. His vision for marriage is not a concession to any cultural pattern, but substantially challenges them all. His plan is rooted in the Creation design and profoundly informed by the relationship that Christ has with his church. (Clinton Arnold, Ephesians, ZECNT, 379)
It is important to recognize these cultural changes, because they remove the chance that Paul is simply taking up ancient household codes and baptizing in Christ. Rather, his words intended to be counter-cultural. They press against the patterns and practices of Ephesus, and call newborn believes to arrange their marriages according to the gospel, not the norms of society.
This radical approach to marriage is equally important for contemporary application. While in some instances, Christianity has shaped cultural expectations about marriage, in the first century, as in the twenty-first century, biblical marriage is not something that easily comports with secular culture. Rather, marriage as God intended it requires the power of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), the clarity of the gospel (5:25–27), and the knowledge of God’s original and eschatological design (5:31–32). To say it differently, because of the fallen nature of humanity as it relates to sexual coupling, Christians should expect that biblical marriage will always stand against culture.
This counter-cultural stand was true in our country when “traditional marriage” was in vogue, but how much more now as marriage has become a customizable institution for every whim and fancy. In such a world, it is needful to see that Paul’s teaching on marriage is in no way a cultural argument. He grounds his view of marriage in creation, in Christ and the church, and against the shifting mores of the ancient world. In this way, we should have greater confidence in Ephesians 5 and its application to our world today.
Indeed, as assaults on marriage continue and the culture loses what it means to be married, we can and should press into God’s word so that our marriages look like Christ and the church, such that the world sees clearly what marriage is meant to be. And in seeing marriage as God designed it, they might see the Lord and his bride, such that they might know Christ and long to receive his sacrificial love and life.
To that end, let us read Ephesians and seek to abide in God’s good plans for marriage.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds