Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Ephesians 5 Ephesians 5.22-23 love submission husbands wives headship

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 urges husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He further urges 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 teaching 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 (i.e. deferential, cooperative, and loyal), as well as respectful, to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 33b).

In Ephesians 5:22-33, husbands and wives are singled out and given instructions concerning certain attitudes and behaviours. But this doesn’t mean wives are exempt from being loving and nurturing towards their husbands, or 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),[1] 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 Christ also 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 Christ also 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 readers, 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.

Footnote

[1] 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.

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Related Articles

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
In a Nutshell Series

25 thoughts on “Ephesians 5:22-33 in a Nutshell

  1. The Bible says that a man should leave his mother and father. It says nothing about the woman leaving hers. I often think that God’s ideal was more of a matriarchal society so that women would be better protected. Just a thought that entertains me from time to time!

    Love you much!!

    1. Hi Cassandra

      Wives would be safer if they didn’t have to leave their families and be joined to their husbands’ families, which is the case in many cultures. Young wives in these cultures are often completely powerless and vulnerable to abuse.

      I think the point in Genesis 2:24 is that husbands and wives are to leave their families in order to make each other their top priority and first loyalty, not their parents. The text is andro-centric, focussing on the man, but I think it applies to women too.

  2. I have been thinking that it will help when reading this text to distinguish between attitudes and roles. We tend to think that Paul is writing about roles, but I believe that isn’t the case at all. Instead, the normal roles of members of a household of that time forms the background for what Paul writes, they are not prescribed, but presupposed by Paul. And Paul isn’t even thinking of trying to regulate those outer roles. He is instead much more interested that all the members of the household be filled with the Holy Spirit (v18), resulting in new inner attitudes towards each other, resulting again in a new behaviour towards each other.

    When learning from this today, those roles from the 1st century should be left there. Instead we should learn from the attitudes; only we must do so in such a way that we do not, after all, drag those 1st century roles along with them. We, too, can be filled with the Spirit and have new attitudes and new behaviour towards each other, only we should do so in the roles that we now have.

    A completely different topic: You had a blog-post about Adolph Harnack and his view on the Letter to the Hebrews, but then that disappeared again. I can’t help being curious. What happened?

    1. I completely agree that Paul isn’t speaking about roles (or ranks) but about spirit-filled attitudes and behaviours. I like how you’ve put this.

      As to the post quoting Harnack: Some of my evangelical friends thought that quoting from someone who doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, Jesus’ miracles, or the resurrection, could hurt my cause. I decided to err on the side of caution and removed the post. Harnack’s suggestion that Hebrews may have been written by Priscilla is mentioned in this article: http://www2.cbeinternational.org/new/E-Journal/2006/06winter/06winterhoppin.html

  3. Excellent. That’s the same point I made in my post about the word head in my blog, although it was much longer. But I agree and find it a shame many misinterpet this phrase as establishing male authority over women in the marriage and the church. God Bless.

  4. I discovered your blog just recently and found it so helpful, especially as I was writing a post about the whole “head of the household” conversation this week.
    What astonishes me is how stubbornly some folks cling to the idea of this passage spelling out authority or hierarchy, and roles (as Knut AK pointed out) when the entire chapter is about unity and connection, not authority.
    Thanks for your scholarship, I find it very helpful.

    1. I do understand the resistance to rethinking the meaning of “head.” The faulty patriarchal interpretation (or presumption) is so entrenched in church literature and culture. Hopefully, some of the scholarship will trickle down more freely to church leaders and members. But more than that, I hope the Holy Spirit opens people eyes to the fallacy and harm of male “headship.”

  5. Nevertheless, even if headship in Eph doesn’t imply leadership (and I am willing to grant that), there are numerous other passages that speak about wives being in subjection to (obeying) their own husbands – 1st Peter 3:5-7, for instance.

    The crucial point, however, is that the true Leader of a marriage is to be Jesus – expressing Himself in the husband’s life by sacrificed loving, in the wife’s life by submissive loving.

    So it’s not about who’s holding the shorter stick, but about holding the same stick, i.e. love, which is being expressed in different forms in different roles (by the same token, slaves and masters were to express Christ’s love in different forms too).

    Like Knut AK said, the roles are given and various, but the attitudes in them are to be Spirit-wrought love.

    1. Hi Petr, What is the difference between “sacrificed loving” and “submissive loving”?

      We all are to be loving to one another (Eph. 5:1-2), and we all are to be submissive to one another (Eph. 5:21), so I guess we are in agreement that all we are holding the same stick (although I haven’t heard that idiom before.)

      Also, there are four New Testament passages where wives are told to submit themselves to their own husbands. There are zero such passages in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Four is not usually considered “numerous.”

    2. Respectfully, you need to do your homework. Scriptures that say women are to obey their husbands are mistranslated. Go back to original text. Women are not children, they obey G-d not man–submit to husband only if they are in line with G-d. Abigail is a great example—She went against her husband wishes b/c he was against G-d, and she was rewarded for it. You don’t know how many of my friends are separated b/c their husbands are Lording it over them—much, much abuse, mostly verbal. I know of 3 women that husbands say they can have as many wives as they want! Two are now divorced. I am sick of the incredible abuse of women by men–do not put up with it!

      1. Petr, here are some scriptures to consider. Jer. 8:8 How can you say “we are wise, for we have the LAW of the L-rd when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? Ecc. 8:9 “all this I have seen and applied to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his own hurt.” Gen 5:2 “Male and female created He them;and blessed them and called THEIR name Adam.” The first man was a woman and man combined. My mesaanic ordained husband found the word for chamber in Hebrew in Adam, and he translates it as a woom. We have the same domain as men. We had better not be letting our husband usurp us on our callings on our lives. We will have to give an account, and the excuse my husband wouldn’t let me will not pan out. Don’t let anyone control you!

        1. Hi Christa,

          Most scholars recognise that the Hebrew word adam, which means “human/humanity”, is derived from the Hebrew word adamah which means “ground/land/earth”. According to Genesis 2:7, the first human (ha’adam) was made from the ground or earth (adamah). Perhaps we are meant to envisage God acting as a potter shaping a human from clay.

          The CEB translates Genesis 2:7 like this:
          “The Lord God formed the human (ha’adam) from the topsoil of the fertile land (adamah) and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.”

          The Hebrew word tsela, traditionally translated as “rib” can mean part, side or chamber.

          I have more on this here: https://margmowczko.com/human-man-woman-genesis-2/

  6. Thank you Marg for your service the the body of Christ with your scholarly and biblical articles that help people to understand what it means to ‘build one another up in love’ both in the church and in our marriages. I have recently found your blog and have been reading through many of your articles. I appreciate your concise biblical exegesis of passages that are used sincerely but incorrectly by people to justify an understanding of relationships in marriage and the church that do not reflect the character of Christ and what he intended. Thank you. I hope a lot of men who may hold a heirachial view of relationships will have the humility to read your blog.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Robin.

  7. Finally!!!! having read so many commentaries/ exegesis and articles on Eph 5:22-33, this i must say, is a fresh of breath air.
    The main point of the passage is not on marital roles but on the union of Christ and his body ( the church). Eph 5:32b

    1. Hi Eunice,

      My longer article on Ephesians 5:22-23 highlights this main point. Sadly, many have missed the forest for the trees.
      https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/

  8. Hi Marg
    The study I am leading on Women in Christianity includes an exploration of the conflicting messages 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:18 to 6:9; and 1 Timothy 2:8-15. I have drawn on the work of Ian Paul, you and several others referenced by both you and Ian Paul.
    The Chiastic Analysis was fascinating, enlightening and most helpful. You may recall that I used a simpler version in the class on Noah and the Flood to get the concept over before moving onto your analysis of Ephesians.
    One thought has crossed my mind recently in connection with the church at Ephesus. I believe from what I have read that Priscilla and Aquila were founders of the church at Ephesus after accompanying Paul there around 51CE. What I find strange is that in all of the work that I have studied in connection with the letters to Ephesians and 1 Timothy, none of the scholars refer directly to the work of Priscilla in founding/leading the church at Ephesus. I have some articles which explore the possibility that Paul was concerned that some women were “running ahead” of men in the early church (1 Timothy) as they had no experience of leadership. When I think of all the great named women in leadership in the early church, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche and others there seems to be a great deal of experience in leadership; I am shocked that none of the scholars have mentioned Priscilla in connection with their commentaries on Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 other than in the most generic way and certainly not in connection with church leadership at Ephesus. I note that Timothy was with Paul at Ephesus during the Paul’s second mission to Ephesus (54-57 CE) and was appointed to lead the church around 64CE. If this is the case, then Priscilla in leadership at Ephesus would have been known before Timothy was appointed and hence when 1 Timothy was written. I wonder why this is not mentioned in the commentaries I have read, and would value your thoughts.

    1. Hi David, I responded to this same comment here: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/#comment-31324

      Additionally: Yes, some wealthy women in the Greco-Roman world had leadership experience. Running a largish business, managing an extensive household, hosting festivals, or patronising people, building projects, or events, etc, required leadership and administrative abilities. Lydia, Phoebe, Nympha and Chloe spring to mind as women who had such experience. And possibly Priscilla too.

      In around 64, Timothy was in Ephesus acting as Paul’s envoy. Paul had left him there on a temporary assignment where he acted on Paul’s instructions and advice (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:3). I’m not sure how much clout Timothy would have had on any Ephesian house churches that were not connected with Paul. Because of this, I’m reluctant to say, despite traditional understandings, that Timothy was the leader of the entire church at Ephesus.

      Also, I don’t read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:18 to 6:9, and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as presenting conflicting messages. Rather each of these passages is addressing different issues.

  9. Hi Marg

    Many thanks for your comments, sorry I missed your first response.

    They key point I was trying to make as that I was surprised that many (male) scholars don’t appear to recognize the skills, experience and contribution made by the women who were in leadership in the early church.

    There is also evidence that women were in leadership in the UK at least until the 7th Century with St Hieu, who was succeeded by St Hilda of Whitby.

    Have you researched when women were not permitted to be in leadership?

    1. From the very beginning, different churches had different attitudes and practices about women ministers. For example, the New Testament mentions only male ministers in the churches at Jerusalem and at Syrian Antioch. It’s when you get to Asia Minor, Phrygia, and to Roman cities and colonies (e.g., Corinth, Philippi, Rome) that we see women ministering and leading in significant ways.

      It’s rare to read of a woman ministering in an official capacity in surviving second-century Christian documents. Several of the works in the Apostolic Fathers, including the Didache, make it clear that their authors thought official, leadership ministry, including officiating the Eucharist at the altar, was for men only.

      Women could serve in lower-ranked ordained ministries, however. Many young women chose to remain unmarried in order to serve the church as ordained virgins. Or they refused to marry after the death of their first husband to minister as widows. (Being a virgin or a widow was usually more of an option for wealthy women.) In the Eastern Church, women could be ordained as deaconesses also. And in the Latin church, the orders of virgins and widows developed into nuns. Some wealthy women ministered with no official ordination (e.g., Marcella).

      I could be wrong, but even women like Hilda of Whitby probably never delivered a Sunday sermon or presided over a mass in an “ordinary” church service.

      There have always been women leaders in the church. Sadly, however, they have been excluded from the higher official roles by most churches and denominations and they have led and ministered unofficially. Throughout the centuries, different councils and canons have decreed their exclusion.

      Lots of things have crept into church governance that have no basis in New Testament teaching.

      I have a few more paragraphs about this here:
      https://margmowczko.com/phoebe-a-deacon-of-the-church-in-cenchrea-part-7/

      I mention the Council of Laodicea here:
      https://margmowczko.com/women-elders-new-testament/

      There’s a discussion on the different documents and different councils regarding the ordination of women here:
      https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/ordained-women-patristic-era
      (I have some doubts about the presbytera inscriptions. It wasn’t uncommon for women, Christian or otherwise, to be called, for example, “Agrippina the elder” and “Agrippina the younger.” Presbytera was often a reference to age, not ordination.

      These websites have more historical evidence about ordained women:
      http://www.womenpriests.org/
      http://www.wijngaardsinstitute.com/can-women-be-priests/

      This is an excellent book that goes through all the available ancient evidence, though some new evidence may have come to light since it was published in 2005. I have borrowed it from my library several times:
      Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds. and transl.) (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005). Some of it can be read on Google Books.

  10. I agree that love and submission are important for all believers and not just between spouses. However, I saw something about this recently that I’ve been thinking over. The reasoning seems slightly off, but I can’t quite express why. While the first command of wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22 is grounded in Ephesians 5:21, it also adds that it is “as to the Lord” I’ve heard that this is the only Scripture where the one called to submit is told to submit to someone (and perhaps his authority) as we submit to the Lord, which would seem to rule out a mutual submission with husbands. If we submit as we do to the Lord, and as the Church does to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), how can it be mutual? When we submit to Christ, we do His will, follow His commands, and obey Him in all He says to do. So when we submit to husbands similarly, how do we know its not submitting our will to our husband as the Church does to Christ? I know that husbands cannot give commands on the level of God, but the comparison of the church submitting to Christ seems to be a stringent submission unlike the mutual submission of verse 21, and unique to wives in a unilateral way.

    1. All the verses that mention wifely submission in the NT are framed in Christian terms in one way or the other.

      If we take Ephesians 5:22-24 on its own then it doesn’t sound mutual at all. It’s all about the wife. It’s when we see what Paul says to husbands that we realise Paul is not talking about a one-way expression of deference and service. He was talking about unity. The head-body metaphor also speaks of unity.

      Paul acknowledges the relative positions and levels of power of wives and husbands (and of children and parents, and slaves and masters) in Greco-Roman households. Still, mutuality and intimate unity are the ideals in marriage despite some “frictional losses” in the “real world” of past times as well as the present.

      I don’t think the submission of wives is unique or that different from the submission of husbands, even though Paul doesn’t use the word submission in instruction to husbands. In the same way, I don’t think the love of husbands is unique or different from the love of wives. Rather, we are all to follow Christ’s example of sacrificial, self-giving love. How we demonstrate our submission (humble deference and loyal cooperation) and how we demonstrate our sacrificial love may be different, however, depending on different situations and circumstances.

    2. I was thinking about this a bit more. In 1 Corinthians, Paul begins a couple of discussions by sounding that he approves of a hierarchy of (male) honour, but then further down the argument, he turns this around and points out that all of us, mutually, belong to God, come from God, and should give God first place.

      Perhaps Paul is doing something like this in Ephesians also. People who hear Eph 5:22-24 might think that Paul is upholding a hierarchy of male honour until he begins addressing husbands and gives the example of Jesus who “loved the church and gave himself for her.”

      Furthermore, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies (not as a subordinate.) This is a profound statement of equality.

      Husbands did have a higher status in society, they did have a higher level of responsibility in society, but Paul asks them to love and serve their wives.

      Wives must not submit to husbands to the same extent as we do to the Lord. That would be idolatry. Husbands are not the Lord, they are not God.

      Paul could have used the word “obey” for wives as non-Christian first-century writers did. And he could have used a word that means “lead” or “rule” for husbands as non-Christian first-century writers did. No pagan writer even calls husbands the “heads” of their wives. This is a mild expression compared with “leader,” “ruler,” “authority,” etc. Paul chose his words carefully.

      1. That’s a very interesting thought. I wonder if the commands to slaves would be in a similar vein, considering Paul seems to uphold the master’s authority at first, then tells masters to do the same things for their slaves. I’m always so fascinated to learn what other first century people said about marriage. When we compare Paul to our days, it sounds like a regression. But whenever I hear it compared to Paul’s day, it sounds progressive. I have noticed, though, how hard it is to keep that in mind when simply reading the text. I am curious about one more word choice. I know in Ephesians 5:21, we are told to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. Then in verse 33, wives are told to respect husbands using a similar word. And I know in the analogy, the husband sacrifices like Christ did for the church. I know the word for respect does not include leadership in itself, but I’ve heard the argument that in context this is respect due to leaders. That we respect Christ as a leader, so we submit to others; and then wives submit to husbands because he is a leader worthy of respect and submission. But I’ve been thinking, and I wonder if part of the point may be that we respect Christ, partially because of what He did for us, and then we respect husbands in a similar way, since husbands love their wives like Christ loved the church. I’m not sure if it’s plausible or not, or if it really matters that Paul uses related words. Either way, I do wonder how husbands could love their wives as themselves, and yet be okay “vetoing” their wife’s advice and insight because they are the “head,” as I’ve heard some complementarians I’ve talk to describe.

        1. Yes, Paul’s words to slaves and then masters is similar in that it sounds like he wants to uphold the usual slave-master dynamic until you read the amazing things he says to (male and female) slave masters.

          Also, Paul never says that submission from wives or obedience from slaves is a good or pleasing thing, which is unlike what he says about the obedience of (grown) children to their parents. In Ephesians 6:1, Paul adds an affirming phrase: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right/just (dikaios)” (Eph. 6:1). In Colossians 3:20 he adds, “. . . for this pleases the Lord.” Furthermore, it is only in the case of children obeying their parents that Paul draws on Old Testament scripture for support (Eph. 6:2-3). (From here.)

          I take “respect” and “honour” (which are two different Greek words) as general traits and not necessarily linked to authority, unless the context is clear that it is to a person in authority. 1 Peter 2:17, for example, says to honour everyone.

          And even though the word phobeomai typically refers to actual fear, rather than respect or reverence, people who are in authority like Jesus, sometimes tell people not to be afraid.

          Authority is not at all implicit in phob– words. You can check here.

          1 Peter 3:15 is a verse where “fear” cannot be the meaning and where there is no sense of respecting someone in authority.

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