I was listening to a fascinating discussion about power and trust on a secular podcast, called Work Life with Adam Grant, between organizational psychologist Adam Grant and clinical psychologist Esther Perel. It made me think a lot about all the discussions around authority and submission and really took me back to Ephesians 5:18-33. Here is an excerpt, with a few edits, of what Esther Perel said about power:
There is no relationship that doesn’t have a power dimension. It’s intrinsic to relationships. It’s not good or bad, just part of fabric of relationships. Because in relationships you have expectations, and with expectations come a degree of dependency/reliance, and that dependency confers to the people to whom you depend…[bestowing] power. And that power gets neutralized by making it become something that is benevolent, which we then call trust. So that it will become power to rather than power over. But everybody understands that power is not just a vertical axis that comes with authority. Anybody who’s had a two year old knows that….You can have power that comes from the bottom up, the power that constantly deflects energy, the power that takes the authority away from the people in authority. Power is multifaceted.
She continues, saying that we need to be asking questions about the dynamic of power in a relationship to see if it is healthy: Is this power helping the system drive—doing what it needs to do in the relationship? Or is this power that becomes oppressive, abused, which means a breach of trust?
It made me think of the context of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He is speaking in a patriarchal society where the Paterfamilias ruled the household—the Paterfamilias had power over. Working from the main imperative, “And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), Paul details what it will look like to be filled by the Spirit in the Christian life and in our relationships. I’m going to skip over the way we speak to one another and get to the specific dynamic he addresses in submitting to one another. I want to start with the one who has power over in the household, whom Paul addresses the most in this text. And I am going to just be addressing the husband/wife relationship in the text. He doesn’t tell the husband to rule his wife, which was the cultural way of life at the time, but says something quite radical instead—love her.
And what he describes in these verses is a love that gives power to. It is a love that sacrifices his own rights, his own prestige, his own body, to elevate and serve his wife. Paul reveals the great mystery that is unlocked in the Song of Songs—marriage is a symbol of Christ’s love for his bride, the church. So as I quoted from Pope John Paul II in my last article, “the symbol of the Bridegroom is masculine.” And yet husbands cannot do all that Christ has done for his bride. Paul even alludes to this in his letter when he says that Christ
loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless.Eph. 5:25-27
If you are a singer of the Song, you will recognize that language. After praising seven parts of the bride’s body in a wasf when she is presented to him, using the very language of sacred space to describe her, we hear the Groom sing,
“You are absolutely beautiful, my darling, there is no imperfection in you.”SoS 4:7
No stain. No spot or wrinkle. Our husbands don’t have to make us holy, because Christ, our Bridegroom, has. But as men, as the bridegroom in the marriage, they are given the power to represent this kind of love. As Pope John II said, the order of love should begin with the man. And when he looks to his wife, he should see the glory of what is to come, the eschatological beauty of the radiance that is our end in perfect communion with Christ and one another. By giving his wife power to—power to freedom in belonging; power to wear, fructify, and return that love; power to be a corresponding strength—he is even loving himself. She represents their eschatological glory that we get a taste of in the Song.
And practically speaking, this is how you build trust. She will know what she is in the relationship—loved and valued. Dignified. True voluntary submission wells out of trust. We defer to one another when we trust. This is what we want. This is true intimacy. Our sexuality is gift.
And yet, wives are spoken to first. After calling Christians to be filled by the Spirit by submitting to one another, he starts with the wife to the husband. It’s radical for Paul to even address the wife in a household code like this. Usually the Paterfamilias was the only one addressed in Greco-Roman fashion. But he begins with the wife. Foremost, she is to submit to the Lord, the true Bridegroom.
And let’s not take this lightly. Because just like Perel noted, you can have power that comes from the bottom up. Power is a complex thing that has an interdependence of parts. It’s not always what we think it is, or how we even think we see it. Perel explains how she learned more about this during a clinical case in a dynamic with a depressed person. The depressed person seemed inept and powerless but the true dynamic was that the depressed person had all the power.
Through their impotence, they were actually activating the competence of everybody else who was trying to lift them, to whom they end up saying no to everything they suggest to them, and in the end the competent people feel as defeated and deflated as the depressed one. That is power.
And so no power games, wives, for power over your husband, who is called to love you in a vulnerable way. Give him the power to do that in your submission to him. Don’t sabotage him. Then he will trust you and treasure you if he is a godly man. (If he is an abusive man this doesn’t apply, and vice versa.)
Instead of simplifying power, hold this complexity. See its beauty. Look to Christ, who, as described in these verses by Paul, gave his bride, the church, power to—to the greatest aim ever—holiness, freedom in belonging, to love and be loved by God.