Liturgical Life, Public Life

Ephesians 5:20-33 as the Epistle Reading for the Rite of Marriage: Appropriate or Problematic?

Published on: September 8, 2017
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In modern times the appropriateness of the established Epistle Lesson (Ephes. 5:20-33) in the rite of marriage has been questioned.  How is it perceived by the contemporary listener and what does it say about spousal relationships?

At a basic level this established passage can be understood within the context of the household code adapted to the Greco-Roman world in which the early Christians enacted their life of faith. This world was essentially patriarchal. Domestic codes were meant to guide household members, husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters in the pursuit of their duties and responsibilities. At the heart of the exhortations are ethical perspectives that flow from the new life in Christ acquired through faith and baptism. Such codes have been incorporated in other New Testament writings (Col. 3:1-4:5; 1 Tim. 2:8-15, 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10; and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7).

The established Epistle lesson therefore defines the manner by which a husband and wife are expected to relate to one another. Husbands are told to love their wives (25), while wives are instructed to be subject to their husbands (22). There is nothing exceptional in the latter admonition. Ancient social morality assumed as a given the submission of wives to their husbands. The Ephesians Letter, however, gives us more. It provides us with an exalted view of marriage by introducing radically new concepts, including the previously unheard admonition, “husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,” which transforms the natural nuptial bond into a sacrament.

Interestingly enough, a grammatical examination of the text indicates that the entire pericope should be understood as an explanation of verse 5:21: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In other words, this verse refers to what follows and not to what precedes it – a fact that is obliterated by the commonly accepted paragraph structure that was subsequently superimposed on the text.  Accordingly, both spouses are called no longer to be autonomous individuals but equal partners who willingly submit their decisions and life to Christ. Having acquired a new identity in their personal relationship of co-inherence, they fulfill and complete each other through mutual humility, respect, love, and forbearance.

As co-essential and co-equal, the spouses share all the attributes and virtues of their common humanity; only the manner by which these are realized is different. Thus, in dealing with the sexual differentiation of the spouses, one cannot speak in terms of the superiority of one and the inferiority of the other. On the contrary, the Scriptures are clear in stating that both men and women have been created according to the image of God. They share one and the same essence—as well as one and the same destiny: to acquire the likeness of God. The singular ἄνθρωπος (human being) contains the plurality of male and female: “So God created man (ἄνθρωπος) in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27; cf. Gen. 5:1).

The text makes it clear that the nuptial bond is to be modeled on the relationship of Christ to his Church (“the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church.”). When wives are asked to respect their husbands and be subject to them “as to the Lord,” it is because they are called to mirror the love the Church has for Christ, who is its head. When husbands are called to “love their wives as their own bodies,” they are called to mirror the sacrificial and boundless love of Christ for the Church, which is his mystical body. In this way husbands and wives fulfill their distinct vocation. They are moved, each in their particular mode of being, to discover and acquire for themselves the wonders of God’s unconditional, self-giving love by being subject to Christ and to one another.

Accordingly, the husband is called to love his wife unselfishly and unconditionally, to stamp her image upon his heart, take joy in her dignity and gifts, comfort her, long for her well-being, to protect, honor, and nourish their bond through his unfailing fidelity. Recognizing that authority is for the sake of loving service, the wife in turn is called to respect the headship of her husband in their mutual submission to Christ. Her vocation is to honor the nuptial relationship with her own unfailing love and faithfulness, as well as her unselfish devotion and wise counsel, modesty and graciousness, courage and strength, and abiding faith and piety. As wife and mother, she mirrors life and fills it with self-giving love through her gift of “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4).

Despite the positive meanings that can be gleaned from this specific pericope, however, the inability of many to comprehend it suggests that consideration be given to its replacement by another. In fact, according to the manuscript tradition, biblical readings for the rite of Matrimony (Ephes. 5:20–33 and John 2:1–11) appear for the first time in the tenth century and were standardized by the fifteenth century, especially with the appearance of the printing press. It appears that the Gospel lesson, recounting the miracle of the Lord at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee, was favored from the start. It was not the same, however, with the Epistle reading. Although Ephes. 5:20-33 appears in most codices, other manuscripts and early printed editions have other readings, including Heb. 12:28 – 13:8 and Phil. 4:4-7.  Some even have Ephes. 5:20-32, leaving out verse 33 (“and let the wife see that she fears her husband”) from the familiar pericope now in use.

Conceivably, for pastoral reasons the Church may choose to allow variant readings for the Sacrament of Marriage as it does for burial rites. Certain other traditional readings could be sanctioned as long as this does not deteriorate into a random exercise of whim.  Perhaps an even better solution for today would be the traditional variant of the standard Ephesians text without verse 33 which today is subject to misinterpretation.  Besides, we must be faithful to incarnational theology and to the nature of the Church as a divine-human institution. This means that the Church in its pilgrimage to the Kingdom exists in history. Therefore, its liturgical expressions are subject to careful change within the context of the consciousness of the entire Church body.


This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Project on Faith in Public Life.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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