Saturday, November 5, 2011

More on Ephesians 5 and Principles of Interpretation and Application of Scripture

It's commonplace for Christians to take the Bible as speaking directly to them - to individualize and personalize whatever is written and read it as addressed particularly to me in my current context (however wide or narrow I may take that). In this, Christians have a lot in common with the early Rabbis (and later ones, I believe) and certainly with certain strands in Paul and the rest of the New Testament. How we read in this way and how we take into account the fact that the human authors of the Bible did not, generally, have me in particular as their direct addressee, will differ, however. In what way we take the Bible to be addressed to me in particular is very important and has ramifications for the theological and ethical interpretation of the Bible. In my opinion, the Bible is addressed to me in particular in that the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to speak to me - words that were not originally addressed to me and perhaps with a different meaning are reused by the divine activity within me to address me in my particular situation. This, I think, retains both the freedom of God to speak to my current situation in Scripture while also retaining the integrity of the Scripture's original meaning. A lot of people, however, do maintain this sort of distinction in practice and treat Scripture as if in its original meaning it was speaking directly to me personally.

Another problem is to confuse description and prescription. Pastors must often appeal to this distinction when our favorite Bible saint obviously acts not-so-saintly, but otherwise the distinction unfortunately tends to get ignored. That the early church is described in Acts as doing things a certain way (or not doing it, as the case may be), for instance, does not tell us necessarily whether that is how we are to do things - i.e., description is not prescription. Telling us that something is happening a certain way (or will happen or did happen) is not the same as telling us that things should be thus and so or that we should do such and such.

The Ephesians 5 passage on wives and husbands, which I discussed in my last post, is a nice case to look at in regards to both the above problems. This passage, as hinted at in the other post, is a flashpoint in the gender wars going on in Evangelicalism today. On one side are the Egalitarians, who uphold things like women's ordination and functional equality in the home (anti-patriarchal, in other words). On the other are the Complementarians, who (at least for some of them) are against women's ordination and uphold things like patriarchal household structure as a Scriptural norm to be followed.

Ephesians 5, I maintain, is actually a difficult passage to use for either side, despite its current wide use. As argued previously, it first of all does not contain a single command for wives to submit - it merely says that they are or will do so (in other words, it describes but does not prescribe submission). But what about the whole "the husband is head of the wife" thing? Well, there's a big debate here over the meaning of "head" in Greek (kephale), which some Egalitarians argue always or almost always lacks any connotation of hierarchy (unlike the word for "head" in Latin, Hebrew, or English, all of which have exactly that connotation). Let's set that debate aside, however, and simply assume for the moment that the Greek word has the same meaning as the English one and here indicates a position of leadership or power over the household. What then?

Well, notice that the language here is actually on its surface at least descriptive, not prescriptive. Paul says, "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ of the church," but does not say "the husband should be the head of the wife as Christ of the church." That does not mean Paul did not think the latter or did not mean for us to believe it, just that he did not go out and write it, which makes it more difficult to argue that this is some kind of norm for the Christian family just from this passage. What Paul says, however, is also consistent with the thinking that, though the husband is head of the wife, that is not how things should be and that such an arrangement should be avoided where possible (ceterus paribus, of course).

Note also that we ought to avoid the problem noted in the first paragraph of this post. Paul uses the present tense to describe male headship. But, of course, Paul wrote in the first century, not the twenty-first! Which means, Paul is not even necessarily describing the current state of things but rather the way things were in the first century (and perhaps in an even smaller context than that even - he probably did not have in mind Native American societies, for instance, in his description - though, on the other hand, he may indeed have intended his description universally - unfortunately the text is not specific enough to tell for sure). In first century Asia Minor, his intended addressee, the male was indeed the head of the household. Both Jewish and Gentile cultures here were thoroughly patriarchal, after all. It is a mistake, then, to see a translation like "The husband is head of the wife" and automatically assume that Paul is saying this about our current time. Maybe he meant it as an eternal truth, but maybe not - the text does not obviously specify the former, in any case. At the very least, Paul is making an observation about the state of affairs in their cultures, but it's not easy to go beyond that. Even if, then, Paul did in fact mean male headship to be prescriptive rather than merely descriptive, that would not tell us directly whether or not it is prescriptive for us today (rather than being so only for those cultures to which Paul was directly speaking).

Take some of the other passages in the same series: Paul commands children to obey parents and slaves their masters. In the first instance, we think this is still a good arrangement and prescriptive generally across the board. In the second, nowadays, we tend to think that it addresses situations where slavery is socially accepted but is compatible with thinking slavery to be wrong. Similarly, the wife passage may be taken either in the same way as the children passage or in the same way as the slave passage - is female submission to male headship an eternal arrangement or just a way to deal with an unjust situation which is systemic in a particular culture (in this case, patriarchal dominance)?