To answer this question, I’d like to share a portion of chapter 5 of my new book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs”:
Reading the Bible through the lenses of Plato’s philosophy, St. Augustine came to believe that his mind (or spirit) must be completely in control of his body (or flesh) and its emotional responses. Understandably, he found this goal difficult to achieve. As we’ve seen (in chapter 4), he was especially troubled when his body would respond to a woman he found sexually attractive. Rather than learning to accept and regulate his emotions, he believed that hierarchical control of his environment was the solution to his problem. He concluded that women should not be allowed to stimulate “sinful concupiscence” in men. To prevent this from occurring, men needed to exercise absolute control over women. Augustine did not find this teaching explicitly stated in the Bible. Rather, he inferred it from passages in the book of Genesis that were cited by the apostle Paul:
The apostle puts flesh for woman; because, when she was made of his rib, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” And the apostle saith, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh.” Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves. (Augustine, On John Tractate 2, § 14)
The passages of the Bible that St. Augustine is referring to are Genesis chapter 2 and Ephesians chapter 5. I believe it is important to note that in neither of these chapters (nor anywhere else in the Bible) is a husband, or a man, compared to “the spirit.” In fact, the biblical authors are not discussing the importance of a mind over body hierarchy at all. Further, they are not projecting this hierarchical paradigm onto the manner in which men and women should relate to one another. The notion that women (representing the lower part of human nature) must be ruled over by men (representing the higher part of human nature) does not have its origin in the Bible. This dualistic, hierarchical and sexist paradigm can, however, be found in Plato’s work of philosophy entitled, “The Republic”:
Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and servants…. Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few [all of them men], and those the best born and best educated…
Very true. These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few…
Seeing then, I said, that there are…distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing? This then is injustice…
You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….”
In Plato’s Republic, a dialogue between two philosophers (above) is used to express the notion that women are governed by emotion, whereas men are governed by reason. In light of this assumption, both conclude that men must rule over women. The so-called “meaner desires” of the many (women, children and slaves), must be “held down” by the “virtuous desires and wisdom of the few” (the allegedly best born and best educated men). I believe it is important to notice how Plato defines the term “injustice” here. In his mind, violating a male-dominated social hierarchy was the definition of “injustice.” It was referred to as “evil-doing,” and was regarded as a great threat to the well-being of the State.
When Augustine teaches the importance of male authority and female submission, he uses concepts and language derived from Plato:
It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power. (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)
In the eyes of Augustine, “justice” consisted of so-called lower classes (women, slaves and children) being subject to the authority of a higher class; specifically, men. He viewed this class-based, hierarchical society as the “natural order” of things.
Intentionally following in the philosophical footsteps of St. Augustine, John Calvin also inferred a doctrine of male authority from language used by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
[Regarding Ephesians 5:22] Wives, submit yourselves. He [the apostle] comes now to the various conditions of life; for, besides the universal bond of subjection, some are more closely bound to each other, according to their respective callings. The community at large is divided, as it were, into so many yokes, out of which arises mutual obligation. There is, first, the yoke of marriage between husband and wife; secondly, the yoke which binds parents and children; and, thirdly, the yoke which connects masters and servants. By this arrangement there are six different classes, for each of whom Paul lays down peculiar duties. He begins with wives, whom he enjoins to be subject to their husbands, in the same manner as to Christ — as to the Lord. Not that the authority is equal, but wives cannot obey Christ without yielding obedience to their husbands.
[Regarding Ephesians 5:23] For the husband is the head of the wife. This is the reason assigned why wives should be obedient. Christ has appointed the same relation to exist between a husband and a wife, as between himself and his church. This comparison ought to produce a stronger impression on their minds, than the mere declaration that such is the appointment of God. Two things are here stated. God has given to the husband authority over the wife; and a resemblance of this authority is found in Christ, who is the head of the church, as the husband is of the wife.
And he is the savior of the body. The pronoun HE (αὐτός) is supposed by some to refer to Christ; and, by others, to the husband. It applies more naturally, in my opinion, to Christ, but still with a view to the present subject. In this point, as well as in others, the resemblance ought to hold. As Christ rules over his church for her salvation, so nothing yields more advantage or comfort to the wife than to be subject to her husband. To refuse that subjection, by means of which they might be saved, is to choose destruction.
When John Calvin read the 5th chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he believed he “saw” a class-based society, with a higher class (men) ruling over a lower class (women). He believed that wives—because they are women—were obligated to “obey” their husbands, just as the church is obligated to “obey” the Lord. Speaking of the importance of obedience, for the church and for wives, Calvin issues the following warning: “To refuse that subjection…is to choose destruction.”
It is not difficult to see the influence of Augustine’s dualistic, hierarchical and sexist philosophy on John Calvin’s commentary. The notion of classes is present, as is the emphasis on the alleged importance of male authority and female obedience. Both Augustine’s and Calvin’s interpretations of the same portion of the New Testament are thoroughly Platonic. What they may not be, however, is an accurate reflection of the Bible’s intended message.
Just as the apostle Paul nowhere refers to husbands in Ephesians chapter 5 as “the spirit” (St. Augustine’s inference), he also nowhere commands that wives must “obey” their husbands. The idea that women must “obey” men in Christian marriage is an inference that is supplied by John Calvin.
The apostle Paul does write about “submission,” but he by no means directs these comments to wives (or to women) alone. He tells all Christians, male and female, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NIV). In John Calvin’s commentary, he cites Ephesians 5:22 as supplying an additional command: “Wives submit yourselves [to your husbands].” In the oldest Greek manuscripts available to us today (P46 and Codex Vaticanus), the additional imperative verb “submit,” directed exclusively to wives, is not present. The only command, “submit to one another,” is directed to all Christians, regardless of their sex.
John Calvin was not, however, reading Greek manuscripts of the New Testament written in the 3rd or 4th centuries A.D.. He was citing the 16th Century Greek/Latin Bible compiled by a scholar named Erasmus. Erasmus’ Bible was compiled using only a few Greek manuscripts written in the 12th century A.D. or later. Erasmus also made use of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, sometimes translating from the Latin back to the Greek. As a result of this unique process, the Greek edition of Erasmus’ Bible has words and sentence structures that cannot be found in any Greek manuscripts of the New Testament whatsoever.
Contrary to the commentary work of John Calvin, the apostle Paul nowhere instructs husbands to rule over their wives, either in his letter to the Ephesians or anywhere else in the New Testament. In fact, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, he emphasizes Christ’s suffering and sacrificial service as an expression of love. He then commands that husbands love their wives in the same manner: “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25, NIV).
Paul provides the same instructions to all Christians, regardless of their sex or marital status, in his letter to the Philippians:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (2:5-8, NIV)
Jesus similarly describes his earthly ministry as one of sacrificial service:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45, NIV)
When the apostle Paul tells husbands to emulate the sacrificial love of Jesus in his letter to the Ephesians, is he truly establishing a mandate for male authority? No, I don’t believe he is.
R.R. Reuther, “Augustine: Sexuality, Gender and Women,” Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, ed. J.C. Stark, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007) 56.
Augustine, On John Tractate 2 § 14, ed. John Wijngaards, http://www.womenpriests.org.
Plato, The Republic, 117.
Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I § 153, ed. John Wijngaards, ww.womenpriests.org.
John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle, 1 June 2005, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 19 August 2014, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iv.vi.v.html>
The Greek New Testament: Third Edition (Corrected), eds. Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger and Allen Wikgren, (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Societies) 676-677.
Harold H. Buls, “Ephesians 5:21-31,” Pericope.org, 19 August 2014, <http://pericope.org/buls-notes/ephesians/ephesians_5_21_31.htm>.
John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians.
Bruce Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (4th Edition), (New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.) 142-145.