I’ve often heard it taught, “Do not cause anyone to stumble… (1 Cor. 10:32). In terms of sexuality and gender dynamics, this means that men and women must be conscious about how their actions (whether intentional or not) affect those of the opposite gender.
Sisters, be mindful of what you wear and do not use your sexuality to control men or win their affection. Although it is ultimately the guy’s responsibility to guard his eyes and his thoughts, women should serve their brothers by not flaunting their sexuality. This doesn’t mean dress like a nun. Please continue to celebrate the God given beauty you have, but also be mindful to not be provocative in how you do so.
Brothers, be mindful of your sisters emotions. Be careful to not emotionally manipulate your sisters, making them think they are more special to you than they truly are. Make sure you make your intentions clear with them from the beginning, and don’t lead them on by keeping them in the awkward “friend zone.” Be a good brother and guard their relationships with their future husbands, and don’t take advantage of their generous posture of love and affection toward you.”
If you’ve spent anytime growing up in the church, you’ve probably heard sermons like this when it came to teaching on gender dynamics. Generalizations like these are helpful, because they can help us identify the temptations we are most susceptible to fall into. In this case, it is often tempting for women to misuse their sexuality for attention and control and for men to emotionally manipulate women to fill their need for intimacy without commitment. However, it would be foolish to think that these respective issues are ones that men and women uniquely face. The reality is women are just as susceptible to lusting physically (so men, keep your shirts on…) and men are just as susceptible to being emotionally manipulated. Therefore, the application can be switched around very easily. Brothers, be mindful to not be physically provocative, and sisters, be careful to not emotionally manipulate your brothers.
The overarching teaching is clear- do not cause anyone to stumble by being mindful of one another. The proceeding specific instructions to men and women are then generalized instructions of how to apply this overarching teaching to typically observed gender dynamics. They are meant to be to interpreted in light of the overarching teaching to not cause one another to stumble.
With that said, have you ever noticed that the teaching found in Eph. 5:21-33 has the exact same structure? Why is then that so many Christians read it with a completely different interpretive lens?
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Christians often interpret this passage to mean that men and women have set roles in marriage. Women are meant to submit to their husbands who have been put as leaders over them, and men are suppose to exercise Christ-like love in their leadership of their wives. However, does this mean that women are not suppose to learn to love like Christ? Surely not! Or are men not suppose to learn to submit to their wives as well? If so, what do you with verse 21 that clearly says both husband and wife must learn to submit to one another? Isn’t the analogy of being like Christ and the Church equally applicable to both genders within the interpretive framework of mutual submission?
The overarching teaching in Eph. 5 is clear- submit to one another out of reverence to Christ who is the true head of the relationship (interpretation added). The proceeding metaphor of Christ and the church is therefore used as a generalized application of this overarching teaching speaking into specific gender dynamic issues in the church of Ephesus. In light of its context, this passage doesn’t seem like it was meant to be a teaching on the complementary roles of men and women in marriage, but fundamentally sounds like an exhortation to husbands and wives to practice mutual submission with a practical illustration of how to apply this in the commonly experienced gender dynamics of their day.
What are your thoughts on this text?