This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
The Greek word μυστήριον, which is consistently translated as “mystery,” appears more in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians than it does anywhere else in the New Testament. The way that Paul uses μυστήριον is markedly different from the way that John The Revelator uses it– in the Book of Revelation, μυστήριον is used for its primary meaning: something hidden, something secret, something not understood or seen.
That is not the way Paul uses it in Ephesians, and his use of μυστήριον was startling to me. I’m used to thinking of mystery as being some sort of puzzle, or something to be figured out. Today, when we call something a mystery, it has the connotation of being unknowable. It’s something we don’t have answers for, and probably never will.
That’s not what it means in Ephesians. In fact, it means the exact opposite. He actually defines μυστήριον in two previous passages:
In love he predestined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.
This is how he consistently presents what the μυστήριον is: something that was not previously understood but has now been revealed; in the context of Ephesians, this mystery is intimately connected with a completely revolutionary concept of what it means to be children of God. Paul is revealing something incredibly, almost unbelievably subversive to the church in Ephesus. He’s telling these Gentile Christians that they are part of the Beloved, united in him, and are now fellow heirs to the promise.
He’s telling them what it means to be a part of the universal, catholic Church. They’re a part of a family now– daughters and sons of God, fellow heirs. He spends the first three chapters speaking to them of a sweeping tapestry– a pattern that their Father-Mother had in place from the very beginning, but was only now forming a picture they could see and understand. The last three chapters he devotes to explaining what this means for them in concrete, every day terms; Paul was nothing if not practical.
You’re a part of the family of God, he’s saying. Now, what does that actually look like?
The family is a metaphor, and he uses the pater familia, the sacred institute of Rome as the “family” that everyone in Ephesus is familiar with. And he continually subverts it. You are all aware of what Plato said about the pater familia, but you are not just Roman anymore– you are children of God as well as children of Caesar.
There are many excellent analyses of the Greco-Roman household codes, but that’s not really the purpose of my post today. I’m talking about the metaphor he’s using– which is one metaphor among dozens. In Ephesians, the metaphor for the church is the family– the pater familia. Today, many would argue that Ephesians 5:22-33 is an instruction to the church regarding marriage that must be acted out literally. The part of this passage that receives an undo amount of attention is the description as Christ and the husband as the “head.” This has resulted in the complementarian term headship, which has come to mean something entirely different than how the people of Ephesus would have received it.
The argument centers on what κεφαλή (a feminine noun, just thought I’d mention that) means– does it really mean authority?
Reading hierarchy, authority, and power struggles into Ephesians 5:22-32, from a literary criticism and theory standpoint, is actually a Marxist reading. I imagine complementarians don’t realize that, but identifying passages like this one primarily as conflicts between weak and strong is, from a literary standpoint, not sound exegesis. It’s eisegeses, or reading your presuppositions into the text. It can only be sound hermeneutics if the power struggle is actually there– some say it is, but the first three chapters of this book belie that. This letter is all about unity– in this passage, it’s about becoming one flesh, the same term God used to describe the union between Adam and Eve before the Fall.
By using this terminology, Paul is evoking the imagery of Genesis and paradise– this is what the Church is supposed to be. This is what it’s supposed to look like. This is what it means to be man and wife– so united that you become one flesh as God originally intended.
And, if there is really supposed to be hierarchy in the Church, if the modern concept of headship-leader-authority is really a part of how Christians are supposed to relate to each other; how we, as the universal catholic Church is supposed to relate to Christ– as a top-down hierarchy, then it should show up in the other metaphors for the Church.
But it doesn’t.
Oh, sometimes it does. The Church is described as soldiers, as subjects in a kingdom, as part of a priesthood with Christ as the chief priest. It wouldn’t be fair or honest to remove any semblance of hierarchy from those descriptions.
But, there are many metaphors where this hierarchy is non-existent. Most of these have to do with specifically giving us an image of inter-dependence and unity. We are the body– joined and held together, building each other in love. We are the temple, a building– with Christ as the lynch pin, as the cornerstone, as the beginning.
We are the Vine and the Branches. The vine cannot survive without the branches, and the branches cannot survive without the vine. We need each other in order to live, thrive, and function. We can’t be separated, and we are one.
That is the over-riding image of the Church and Christ: as one flesh— as something so deeply connected, interwoven, that it would be impossible to think of them as separate. To do so would be borderline ridiculous. These metaphors aren’t about building an idea of the Church where there must be determined authorities that enforce their will onto everyone else: that is is the antithesis of what it means to be the Church. Hierarchy isn’t what this metaphor in Ephesians is about. Interpreting head here, as “divinely authorized power” isn’t a fair reading of Ephesians, and it doesn’t accurately represent how head is presented in every other place it appears.
The only way Ephesians 5:22-33 works as an instruction for wives to submit to the power and control of their husbands is if you rip it out of context and isolate it– you have to insulate the meanings of these words even from the letter it’s a part of, much less the Pauline Corpus or the New Testament. You have to remove the beauty of the mystery that Paul is speaking of in such glowing terms. We could no longer be Beloved, the fellow heirs, the daughters and sons. If hierarchy is the principle in Ephesians 5, than it obliterates Paradise. Forcing hierarchy into this passage leads to seeing hierarchy and power struggles everywhere else– in all those passages where we are called to love like no one else, to esteem everyone as equals.
If there’s hierarchy, than there is no bond nor free cannot be true.
If there’s hierarchy, then all those verses that ask us to be one, to be in unity, to ignore all of the boundaries and rules and cultural constructs about who is allowed to socialize with who, who is allowed to speak to who– all those times that Jesus stepped outside those limitations . . . it all evaporates.
What Jesus did was radical, and what the early church did was just as radical– they threw away hierarchy.
Bringing it back, claiming that all of our human relationships are determined by our obedience to husbands, to pastors, to parents . . . it mars the beauty of the Church, the love of the saints. It damages the message and purpose of the Gospel and the act of the Cross.