A Psychologist Looks at Ephesians 5: Thoughts about Unity, Power, and Love

Stephen P. Stratton

Some years ago, our family began attending a new church. One goal was to find a Sunday school class where my wife and I could study together. We joined a group for married couples in the middle of conversations about a book on learning to love more effectively. Women and men of the class had united to challenge one another to be more intentional and practical lovers, first of spouses and then of others. We joined, ready to treat our marriage as if it really was the most significant of relationships.

It worked! Our relationships improved, and God seemed to be growing our love for our partners and for one another. The look of love varied to some degree from couple to couple. In fact, the look varied from situation to situation within the same couple. Yet one outcome was the same. There was “a bond of peace” (Eph 4:3) between spouses and between members of the class. It felt intimate and safe. It felt right.

Wanting to build on our positive experience together, the class leaders decided to go a different route to “engage head as well as heart”—something more explicitly theological. They settled on a marriage series by a well-known Christian leader who at the time had a best-selling book on another subject. It did not take long before it was obvious that we had a problem on our hands. The content of the series lobbied for a view of marriage about which we could not agree.

In previous weeks, inspired by the theme of the first book, we united to love. In the weeks that followed, we dismantled the oneness to defend passionately our positions. Couples retreated from other couples and formed likeminded cliques where class content and personal positions were rediscussed. Some couples even argued among themselves about what leadership in marriage should look like. What had been so promising, the growth of “a holy temple for the Lord . . . a dwelling where God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:21), came apart. A “household” (Eph 2:19) for unity and peace was abandoned.

What happened? I believe that the class dismantled a process that created the conditions for love and replaced it with a process of being powerful for our own purposes. When it came to defending our positions, love did not seem powerful enough. For reasons based more in fear and self-protection, we wanted others to see it our way.

As I look back with greater objectivity, our self-driven agendas and persuasion tactics became clearer, and painfully so. I now believe that love brings out the best relational conditions because it creates the conditions for God to be present. Self-protective power, even a benevolent variety, is impotent in this regard. Love is our hope for unity; power can only try to mandate it by setting up an ideal and pushing people toward it. Unity comes as we accept an invitation to love one another.

It is regretful how evangelical discussions about marriage often degenerate into polarizing disagreement over rules for structure or process. One perspective lobbies for a hierarchical structure that creates space for God-ordered relational movements. Another perspective advocates an egalitarian process that makes room for God-given human uniqueness. Both are actually talking about managing power dynamics. Both look at Scripture to support their claims.

Both find little truth in the claims of the other. In their efforts to make differences explicit, both may even overstate the adequacy of their evidence in reaction to the other. The practical outcome of this heated debate is often more smoke than light for the body of Christ. For those outside of the body, it is simply confusing and unattractive. Maybe the time has come to develop a conversation on this important issue that does not rely on the language of power. Could love become the language of choice?

When this psychologist looks at Ephesians, which many consult to discuss a scriptural view of marriage, it seems that Paul is intent on framing the discussion from a perspective of love. Sections that refer to power concepts such as submission and headship must be read in the context of the whole letter and indeed in the context of all of Scripture. When Paul’s letter is taken as a whole, he appears to make a case for Christ as the hope for all human relationships. It is primarily about unity through Christ as the answer to the disunity that is often evident when human beings exert personal power. Through him, all men and women can relate together in a manner that is grounded in love and experienced as peace (4:3), a poignant contrast to the fear and self-protection too often characteristic of human relationships.

Paul begins in ch. 1 to build his case for unity on the foundational reality of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit in a loving dance of self-limiting and self-giving action. Each makes room for the others. Each gives completely to the others. They are pure relationality, distinct but inseparable. This divine community rests at the core of all creation and serves as the prototype for all relations that follow. Three are one, and humans are created in this image. On the basis of this reality, Paul affirms that unity is possible through Christ for two human groups who were “once far off” (2:13). Through Christ, polarized Jews and Gentiles can be unified and live in peace (2:14-15), where both have access by one Spirit to the Father (2:18). Two become one, and again something new is born in the union. In this case, the church is conceived.

Reading the rest of the letter, particularly chs. 4-6, Paul teaches how this oneness should look in the church. It looks other-aware, not self-focused. When such conditions are present through Christ, unity is possible and something new occurs. Creation and the church are but the two most dramatic demonstrations of what God produces when unity is present. In unity, God has the freedom to move most artistically.

With this in mind, Paul turns his attention to three particular types of human relationships evident in the early church—wives and husbands, children and parents (specifically to fathers), masters and slaves. These relations were often managed in a dominating manner in Paul’s day, and arguably in ours as well. To these, Paul is laying the foundation for a relational reorientation that effectively makes room for God’s movement. Whether he realized it or not, Paul was actually seeding the demise of a power-demanding system with a love-based one. His purpose had in view the advance of the kingdom.

Who could argue against this new state of affairs? Who wants to resist love? Regretfully, most do. It is not that love is not wanted. Fashioned by our triune Creator, the desire to love and be loved is part of human design. We are hardwired neurologically to connect. Unfortunately, loving connections with others simply get trumped by fear-based ones. Self-protection often feels wiser. I say “feels” because this decision is often more emotional and outside of awareness rather than cognitive and fully conscious. Men and women exhaust themselves building the means to feel safe—prestige, position, privilege, even roles and relationships. Anything can be used for protective purposes. Vulnerability is avoided, and safety is judged by an internal risk management system.

We now know that children develop a rudimentary personal risk management system within the first 18 months of life as part of attachment to early caregivers. It is a neurobiological development as much as a psychological or sociological one. This system develops with particular relational strategies (“attachment styles”) that serve to maintain some sense of security and personal power in the midst of a less than perfect relational world. These strategies do not go away as children grow; they become more sophisticated, even if less observable. Experiences in adolescence and adulthood can result in adaptation of this personal system, either toward a more secure view of self and others or a more insecure view. Personal security nevertheless remains inextricably relational from birth to the grave.

Some of these securing strategies are healthier than others. The less healthy ones develop to manage the personal anxiety that comes from relational hurts or deprivations. The chief characteristics of anxious relational strategies are a preoccupation with self-protection and a decreased awareness of others, except as objects for safety. As relational strategies are healthier or more secure, men and women develop the capacity to see others from a vantage point that is less cluttered by personal needs and demands. Self-biases are fewer, and empathy is possible in an accurate way. Consequently, this view is more realistic. Healthier strategies promote a love-based process based in personal security, while unhealthier strategies cling to more anxiety-based power tactics for safety.

As Paul takes on the discussion of husbands and wives, he is building on the foundational themes of love and unity that he previously promoted in the letter. The problem is that unity among human persons requires a sort of surrender to one another—a “mutual submission” (5:21). From the perspective of anxious power, surrender and security seem antithetical. Paul suggests that from the perspective of love, they cannot be separated. When we surrender to one another, love can be realized, and unity has a chance. It cannot be mandated, as anxious power insists.

In 5:21-33, Paul suggests a reciprocal process between wife and husband in which mutual surrender is the foundation. Interestingly, he turns first to those who are not the most powerful in the culture of the day. To these women, he admonishes submission to a husband who is initiating a loving process through Christ.

Submission in this context becomes cooperation (not compliance!) with her husband in building the conditions for love and unity. Paul is not asking for wives to capitulate to conditions that do not make room for Christ to be present for themselves or their husbands. To stand by while a loved one is doing something unloving has little to do with what Paul is advocating. Speaking the truth in love (4:15) is necessary at these times. Even refusing to participate in unloving conditions may be necessary in some cases for the good of a partner and the conditions that God desires.

Paul then turns to the husbands and spends the remainder of the chapter instructing how to be powerful lovers instead of benevolent power holders. He wants husbands to make the initiation of loving conditions the most important value—as Christ self-sacrificially gave himself for the church (5:25). What modeling is encapsulated in that brief admonition! But Paul then makes it more practical. Husbands are to realize how self-protective they are when it comes to their own “bodily” security (5:28). Self-defense is easily justifiable in a less than perfect world. What feels like survival quickly and powerfully trumps all other relational priorities.

Paul is asking for husbands to put aside these fear-based choices and embrace first another gifted person who has her own self-protective obstacles to overcome. In doing so, husbands prioritize relationship over self-protection, which is counter-cultural for the powerful of the past and the present. No grasping for self-protective power is evidenced, only a secure, unifying love that offers what another most needs.

There is interesting preliminary research in the area of adult attachment that seems to support such an approach of asking the situationally powerful to take the initiative in creating the conditions for the intimate other. Marriage studies (Pietromonaco, et al., in W.S. Rholes and J.A. Simpson’s, eds., Adult Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications [Guilford, 2004]) suggest that it may be the husband’s attachment security that is most telling in marital satisfaction of both partners. If the husband is secure and participating in care-giving and care-receiving within the marriage, the relationship is perceived as more secure for both, and conflict, when it arises, is managed more constructively. The power holder in our culture sets the stage for a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship.

Some may suggest that this research supports a call for strong male leadership as the “secure one” caring for the less secure wife. Let me suggest an alternative that seems more in keeping with Paul’s themes. We often make the assumption that 5:21-33 is universally about male and female roles when Paul may be trying to speak to the power dynamics of all relations. His message is less about marital roles as it is about engaging a world for Christ through the unity of his corporate body. The attachment research does not proscribe specific roles for husbands and wives, nor does it appear to be Paul’s intention. Stereotyped roles do not necessarily promote marital oneness or love. Healthy marriages represent a union of a woman and man offering a secure base and a safe haven to each other in a committed relationship that takes priority over all others. With a union of this type, Christ engages the couple, and they can turn to the world with love.

Would it not have been more helpful if Paul had laid out explicit rules for how husbands and wives should universally relate? To be consistent with the themes of unity and love, he could not. Cultures change. Persons are unique, and circumstances are too dynamic. A rule book is not possible. Much of the heated debate in the discussion of husband and wife relations comes from those who want to create either a role-based or a role-less rule book. Their motives were honorable, but once institutionalized, the system becomes a power structure, authorizing rigid rules and dictating the compatible way for all to live for all time.

Paul wants a different system, a transcendent one based in love. This process involves two persons who cooperate together to make sure that space is created for God to be present for both. It has structure, but it is consistently flexible and responsive to each unique partner and the Spirit. It empowers the gifts of each person because both partners are surrendered to the Giver of gifts and committed to the growth of the other in Christ.

Without yielding to the self-protective temptation to live at the unbalanced extremes of rigid, unchanging structure on one side, or a chaotic, absence of structure on the other, a secure marriage thrives in the balance of responsive love. Depending on individual needs and relational goals, marital dynamics may appear hierarchical at times or more egalitarian in others, but without patriarchy. The balance may change across marital seasons according to demands from inside the marriage as well as outside. The key is always about what creates space for Christ from one situation to the next for each partner. Martial form dynamically follows function.

Paul proposes a loving balance where two persons give themselves to one another in a way that leads to sanctification for both. It is a balance of tensions where tough love is needed as much as tender love, where challenge and disagreement become loving as much as support and agreement. In this kind of balance, both are willing and able to give care and receive care depending on the circumstances. In this different kind of union, God is able to move artistically and bring about something new. We see a “one flesh” mystery (5:31, 32) that is transformative for couples; and ultimately, engages the community in which they live for the kingdom.

Posted Apr 01, 2006