In my latest Selected Sunday Scriptures post, commenter A Vistor said this:
If I ever get married, the wife and I are going to have our Gospel reading starting at Ephesians 5:21.
I asked him if he meant Ephesians 5:22 instead, which prompted Mrs. C to ask:
Why would Eph 5:21 not be included in the Gospel reading of husband and wife?
She then linked to this article, containing material written by Pope John Paul II.
Mrs. C’s question is a good one, and covers a subject I’ve been meaning to address for a while. Time limitations will necessarily keep this post shorter than I should look, but I will try and answer her first question, as well as a second about what “mutual subjection” looks like for the Church as a whole.
The short answer to Mrs. C’s question is this: Ephesians 5:21 doesn’t belong with the epistle reading of husband and wife because for most of the Church’s history they were considered two separate subjects (pun intended). By that I mean they were not considered to fit together as part of the same message by St. Paul. [Update: I wasn’t clear here. Sorry about that. I was trying to say that while both are related, they are not tied together as, say, verses 25 and 26. 5:21 is distinct from 5:22 in terms of what St. Paul was teaching overall. They relate, yes, but 5:22-33 encapsulates a specific point that St. Paul was trying to teach. Further edits will be in brackets but without the bold update notice.]
Now, most modern translations will include Eph 5:21 along with 5:22 and the rest of Chapter 5 of Ephesians. However, this is a recent phenomenon. As far as my research has yielded, including 5:21 and 5:22 together is less than a century old. Older translations did not do so. [Update: I was wrong about this. KMan in the comments below indicates that translations linking them go back at least 150 years.] For example, the Douay-Rheims edition of the New Testament (1899) included 5:21 in this section:
15 See therefore, brethren, how you walk circumspectly: not as unwise,
16 But as wise: redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
17 Wherefore become not unwise, but understanding what is the will of God.
18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury; but be ye filled with the holy Spirit,
19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord;
20 Giving thanks always for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God and the Father:
21 Being subject one to another, in the fear of Christ.
(Eph 5:18-21, DR 1899)
Verse 21 is included as part of the previous passage, concerning the church as a whole. It is the closing admonition of St. Paul’s “children of light” message, a reminder to always serve one another.
Looking further back, the Daily Missal of the Catholic Church pre-1962 had proscribed passages for different events, including matrimonial ceremonies. Guess what the epistle passage was? That’s right, Ephesians 5:22-33. Ephesians 5:21 was not included with the verses following it. That was the Missal in use for centuries, perhaps all the way back to the Council of Trent (if someone knows otherwise please clarify that for me).
The recognition that Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22 were separate thoughts goes even further back, however. In fact, it not only predates the split between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but extends all the way to the early Fathers of the Church. Saint John Chrysostom, who became Archbishop of Constantinople in 397 AD and is recognized as a Doctor of the Church, wrote extensive homilies on various books from the Bible. Many of them were preserved and are accessible today. His homilies on the Letter to the Ephesians are among those preserved. These homilies are sequential and touch upon different passages within Ephesians, including Chapter 5.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that St. John Chrysostom addressed 5:21 in a separate homily, which covered Ephesians 5:15-21. Reading through his homily, it seems fairly clear that the Saint regarded Ephesians 5:21 as connected to the verses above it, not to the verses which came after. This is also apparent in the next homily, which covers Ephesians 5:22-33, which he saw as a single message. The saint likes to reference previous applicable passages, but he doesn’t in that homily; Ephesians 5:21 never shows up at all. To St. John Chrysostom, Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22 did not belong together; otherwise said, Ephesians 5:21, while an important teaching, was not one that should be included in St. Paul’s teaching on matrimony.
For those interested, you can find those two homilies here:
Homily 19 on Ephesians (5;21)
Homily 20 on Ephesians (5:22)
They are not easy homilies to read, but well worth it in my opinion. I might showcase some of Homily 20 in future posts, it is that good.
So, taken together, the evidence is clear that Ephesians 5:21 was, for the longest time, recognized as being in a separate passage in Chapter 5 of Ephesians from verse 22. It is only recently that verse 21 has been stuck with verse 22. Now, I don’t know for sure why this was done. But my suspicion is that it wasn’t accidental. If anything, I suspect that the purpose was to weaken 5:22. Maybe not explicitly, but the modern translations which render 5:21 as a separate sentence can only serve to confuse the lay reader about the rest of that chapter.
This brings me to the second question asked by Mrs. C:
I would like to ask you to define what it means in a practical way for the church body as a whole to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
I promised to answer that, and will in this section. Although the truth is that I won’t be the one with the answer. Rather, it will be the aforementioned Doctor of the Church who I will draw from. He addresses 5;21 at the end of his 19th Homily on Ephesians, which I will quote below. Be warned: it is a long, dense paragraph. But if you can get through it you will see how he understood Eph 5:21. Here it is:
Subjecting yourselves one to another, he says,
in the fear of Christ. For if you submit yourself for a ruler’s sake, or for money’s sake, or from respectfulness, much more from the fear of Christ. Let there be an interchange of service and submission. For then will there be no such thing as slavish service. Let not one sit down in the rank of a freeman, and the other in the rank of a slave; rather it were better that both masters and slaves be servants to one another—far better to be a slave in this way than free in any other; as will be evident from hence. Suppose the case of a man who should have an hundred slaves, and he should in no way serve them; and suppose again a different case, of an hundred friends, all waiting upon one another. Which will lead the happier life? Which with the greater pleasure, with the more enjoyment? In the one case there is no anger, no provocation, no wrath, nor anything else of the kind whatever; in the other all is fear and apprehension. In the one case too the whole is forced, in the other is of free choice. In the one case they serve one another because they are forced to do so, in the other with mutual gratification. Thus does God will it to be; for this He washed His disciples’ feet. Nay more, if you have a mind to examine the matter nicely, there is indeed on the part of masters a return of service. For what if pride suffer not that return of service to appear? Yet if the slave on the one hand render his bodily service, and thou maintain that body, and supply it with food and clothing and shoes, this is an exchange of service: because unless thou render your service as well, neither will he render his, but will be free, and no law will compel him to do it if he is not supported. If this then is the case with servants, where is the absurdity, if it should also become the case with free men.
Subjecting yourselves in the fear, says he,
of Christ. How great then the obligation, when we shall also have a reward. But he does not choose to submit himself to you? However do thou submit yourself; not simply yield, but submit yourself. Entertain this feeling towards all, as if all were your masters. For thus shall you soon have all as your slaves, enslaved to you with the most abject slavery. For you will then more surely make them yours, when without receiving anything of theirs, thou of yourself renderest them of your own. This is
subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ, in order that we may subdue all the passions, be servants of God, and preserve the love we owe to one another. And then shall we be able also to be counted worthy of the lovingkindness which comes of God, through the grace and mercies of His only-begotten Son, with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, might, honor, now and forever and ever. Amen.
As I said, lengthy. The Saint’s interpretation of St. Paul is that we are charged to the service, given freely, of fellow believers whenever and however possible. It is a reminder that we are all co-heirs of eternal life with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So, in summary, [in an epistle reading] Ephesians 5:21 belongs with the verses above it, as they address how the members of the church are to relate to one another in general. It does not fit deal specifically with marriage, which is the case for Ephesians 5:22-33. In addition, the context for understanding 5:21 is not [fully] present later in the chapter, but rather earlier. Ephesians 5:21 advises us to live out lives of continuous service to one another, always subjecting/subordinating our needs and desires to those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is universally applicable to all Christians, man and woman alike, married and unmarried. What Ephesians 5:22-33 articulates is how marriage is a step beyond this requirement, with special obligations and duties of both spouses that go beyond the “mere” subjection/subordination of our interests to our fellow Christians.[Hence, a marriage epistle reading should begin with 5:22, not 5:21. If you want to include 5:21 in the reading you should begin with 5:15 or even earlier.]
At best inclusion of Ephesians 5:21 in the epistle on marriage will only serve to distract or confuse the Scriptural message about marriage. At worst it will serve to undermine the message.
Update: Mrs. C has created her own post in response to this one, which you can find here. Be sure and give it a read.