Paul's instruction to wives here is not unusual at all in that women of that era would have been expected to be in a submissive position to their husbands as the patriarch and provider of the family. It would have been very rare indeed that a woman would have been in a professional position where she could contribute to the family income. There is a sense though in which liberated Christian women may have been tempted to overturn this established family structure to their detriment in that culture. Paul therefore encourages them to honor the culture and honor their husband's privileged role within that culture. The real rub comes in Paul's instruction to the men. They are to 'love' their wives, to the point of personal sacrifice. This was an unheard-of demand within that cultural setting. This is nothing short of radical, even revolutionary, in the thinking of the time.
Such nurturing, sacrificial love, as demanded of husbands here, would have been unheard of in that cultural setting where women were often treated as a mere possession and the bearer of heirs. Paul's instruction to the Christian husbands of Ephesus is above and beyond anything they will have encountered prior to their being followers of Jesus. The sense of 'oneness' encouraged in verse 31 is equally profound given the expectations within the host culture. These requirements speak to me of a love expressed in terms of such gentleness and softness that would have been entirely foreign to the men to whom it is being addressed. It may have even aroused within these husbands the thought that they were being emasculated by such demands. It may even have shocked the Christian wives that such a radical approach to affirmations of her worth were demanded of her husband.
For me, such an insight into the radical nature of this Christian expectation of the husband/wife relationship as portrayed in this passage gives new meaning to Paul's closing statement in verse 33. "However, each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." The last part of that verse, the part directed to the wives, is what captures my complete attention, "... and the wife must respect her husband." In that culture this command to wives seems like a given in that wives will have been expected to respect their husband's unassailable position, authority and privilege within Ephesian society. But what if these men do as Paul suggests and love their wives in the radical way that Paul has proposed? Will it not be noticed and will not the other men of those times ridicule the softness and consideration that Christian men are showing toward their wives? Will other men accuse these Christian husbands of abandoning their masculinity? Further, is there a hint here that some of the Christian women may feel that their husbands have become less than real, testosterone filled, stereotypical men? Perhaps, just perhaps Paul's encouragement to the wives here is to 'respect' their husbands who are transitioning into the kind of men that are true followers of Jesus and who display the fruit of the Spirit.
Is there a possibility that this could also speak to us in our own cultural setting where there is an expectation of men to fulfill a prescribed masculine role rather than pursue a godly character as defined in Scripture? Is there a possibility that within our own cultural setting some Christian women may feel that sensitive, emotional, communicative men are not real men and therefore do not deserve to be respected?
For me these are the real issues behind this passage of Scripture and not the trite, 'women want love and men need respect' versions that I alluded to at the beginning of this post. What do you think?