One-Flesh Unity in Marriage
In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul makes several statements about the relationship between first-century husbands and wives who typically had a very unequal relationship. Paul presents the relationship between Jesus and the Church as a model or example for marriage. Some think Jesus’s authority is given here as an example for husbands to follow. Rather, unity is the example, and Paul uses a head-body metaphor to illustrate this.
Metaphorically, Jesus is the “head” united to the Church, which is his “body” (Eph. 5:23, 30). Unity was made possible, and is maintained, because Jesus lowered himself and gave himself up for his beloved church (Eph. 5:25), and also because he elevates the church by sanctifying and glorifying her (Eph. 5:26-27). The church sustains this union by being cooperative and faithful, submissive and obedient, to Jesus.
In good marriages, the husband (the metaphorical “head”) and the wife (the metaphorical “body”) are united. To foster this unity, Paul urged husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He further urged husbands to “love their own wives as they love their own bodies,” and adds, “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the Church” (Eph. 5:28-29).
By loving his wife as Christ loved the church, a husband relinquished some of the status and privileges that first-century men had. By loving and caring for wife as his own body, he treated her more as an equal which was not typical in first-century marriages.
Paul continues with the theme of unity by quoting Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). (Note that Paul never uses a word that means “lead” or “have authority” in his words to husbands.)
Paul was not telling husbands to be leaders and wives to be followers. Instead, he urged husbands to love and nurture their wives, and he urged wives to be submissive as well as respectful, to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 33b).
I define submission in Christian relationships as “humble, loyal, and loving deference and cooperation.” I include the word “loving” in my definition because all Christian behaviours should include, and be motivated by, love.
Mutuality in Marriage
In Ephesians 5:22-33, husbands and wives are singled out and given instructions concerning certain attitudes and behaviours. But this doesn’t mean that wives are exempt from being loving and nurturing towards their husbands, or that husbands are exempt from being submissive and respectful towards their wives, especially as Ephesians 5:22-33 is prefaced by a call for all to be mutually submissive (Eph. 5:21), and chapter 5 opens with a call for everyone to love sacrificially as Christ loves (Eph. 5:1-2).
Compare the almost identical language used in Ephesians 5:2 and in Ephesians 5:25:
“. . . walk in love (ἐν ἀγάπῃ),
just as also Christ loved (καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν) us
and gave Himself up for (καὶ παρέδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπέρ) us . . .” (Eph. 5:2).
“Husbands, love (ἀγαπᾶτε) your wives,
just as also Christ loved (καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν) the church
and gave Himself up for (καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπέρ) her . . .” (Eph. 5:25).
The instructions for mutual submission and sacrificial love in Ephesians 5:1-2 and 21 are given to all Paul’s whole audience, to men and to women. Submission isn’t just for wives, sacrificial love isn’t just for husbands.
Genuine and reciprocal love and faithfulness were absent in many marriages in the first-century Greco-Roman world. It is in this context that Paul wrote Ephesians 5:22-33 and pressed for unity in Christian marriage, with the union of Jesus and the Church as the model.
For more on this passage, see the related articles below.
In the Greek, Ephesians 5:22 makes no sense without 5:21 (“submit to one another”). This is because verse 22 borrows the sense of “submit” from verse 21. There is no verb or participle that means “submit” in verse 22 in some of the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts. It was not unusual for Paul to make verbs and verbal ideas do double duty. I have articles that discuss the Greek grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22 here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2015
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Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in a Nutshell
The Status of Christian Women, in a Nutshell