The Chiastic Structure of Ephesians 5:22-33
Ephesians 5:21-33 is a passage that is often considered crucial in understanding the obligations of husbands and wives in Christian marriages. When we study and speak about this passage, phrases are usually dissected and closely examined, and certain words and phrases are highlighted, especially those that relate to the wife’s obligation. However, I have rarely heard a minister speak at length about the primary message that Paul presents in this passage. What is Paul’s main point here?
When we step back and read the whole passage in English there seems to be an overall lack of cohesion in Paul’s writing. Paul seems to be alternating between different subjects. Paul mentions wives, then husbands, then Jesus and the Church, then husbands, and then wives again. This chopping and changing makes for confusing reading for most readers who are used to English literary styles. But it would not have been confusing for people in Bible times.
Paul used a common literary device used in the Bible, Old and New Testament. He used a chiasm to draw people’s attention to his main point. A chiasm is a way of arranging thoughts in sentences to form an X-shaped pattern. The thoughts are stated sequentially in one direction until a main point or climax is reached; then the thoughts are repeated in reverse order. In a chiasm, the main point is often at the centre of a passage. Ephesians 5:22-33 is in fact beautifully structured with a vital main point at the centre.
By understanding the chiastic structure of Ephesians 5:22-33 we can see that Paul makes two (or more) corresponding statements about wives, husbands, and Jesus and the church; and he repeats key thoughts such as sanctification, love, and the head-body metaphor, etc. It is important to consider each statement along with its corresponding statement to gain a fuller understanding of Paul’s teaching in this passage.
Here is Ephesians 5:22-33 arranged to show the chiastic structure. I’ve underlined keywords that are repeated in the corresponding statement.
A Wives, [be submissive] to your own husbands as to the Lord
B For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church
C He himself is the Saviour of the body
D But as the church is subject to Christ, also the wives to their husbands in everything
E Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for her
F That He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word
X That he might present to himself the church in all her glory
F1 Having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she would be holy and blameless
E1 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself.
D1 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also the church.
C1 Because we are members of his body.
B1 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
BX This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and with reference to the church.
B2 Nevertheless, let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself
A1 And the wife is to respect her husband.
When we recognise the structure of this passage we can more clearly see Paul’s message. Paul’s main message here is not just about marriage; it is about Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:27, 32). The point he is highlighting is that Jesus wants to sanctify the Church and present to himself the Church in all her glory. This glorious message is lost when we persistently focus on the obligations of wives and husbands and try to interpret this passage only through the lens of pre-supposed gender roles.
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Ephesians 5:25b-27
This is the main point that Paul wanted to communicate. Paul makes this clearer by adding: I am speaking with reference to Christ and with reference to the Church (BX). This is the message we should be highlighting more.
Here is an example of what happens when we miss Paul’s real intent in this passage:
This man has taken Ephesians 5:22-35 to be primarily about marriage and has ignored or misunderstood Paul’s main point. [My brief critique of his message is in endnote 2.] Nevertheless, there is important advice for husbands and wives in this passage; and by reading Ephesians 22-23 as chiasm we gain more understanding about Paul’s instructions and what he meant by the wife being submissive and the husband being the “head”. [More in this here.]
Paul links submission with respect in the ‘A’ sentences (Eph 5:22, 33b). So it seems that submission and respect are somehow related. Note that the word for “submit” does not appear in older manuscripts containing Ephesians 5:22, it is inferred from the preceding verse where Paul’s calls for mutual submission among all believers, that is, among Christian brothers and sisters. The entire passage of Ephesians 5:22-33 is introduced by a call to mutual submission: “Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
In the ‘B’ statements, Paul links “the husband is the head of the wife” with a verse that goes back to Genesis 2: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:23, 31, cf. 33a). Many people read the word “head” and interpret it metaphorically as “leader” or “authority”. Yet “head” rarely had the metaphorical meaning of authority in Ancient Greek. Paul’s real implication of using the head and body metaphor is of unity. Paul writes about the unity between Jesus Christ and the Church, and uses this example to encourage husbands to love their wives as they love themselves.
There is no mention of authority or leadership in this passage, either from Jesus or from husbands. Yes, Jesus is the Lord, leader, and ultimate authority of the church, but this is not mentioned in this passage. Likewise, patriarchy, male leadership, or a gender hierarchy is not being taught or condoned in Ephesians 5:22-33.
I cannot see any implication of a gender hierarchy in the following statements, only unity, equality, affinity and love:
… husbands ought even to love their own wives as their own bodies …
… the two shall become one flesh …
… each individual among you [should] also love his own wife even as himself.
Because many Christians have missed Paul’s main point, they believe that Paul used marriage to illustrate the close relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church. Actually, it is the other way round: The unity between Jesus Christ and his Church is a profound model for marriage. As followers of Jesus, both husbands and wives should be building unity, nurture, love, and respect in their marriages.
However, we must never lose sight of Paul’s main point here: One day Jesus is going to present to himself a sanctified and spotless Church. This is the glorious hope of every Christian man and woman. (See 2 Cor. 4:14; Col. 1:22)
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. Jude 1:24-25
 Chi (from chiasm) is the Greek letter that looks like an X.
 Stephen Um says it is the husband’s role to sanctify his bride and make her presentable before Christ. If this is correct (and it’s not) that means that unmarried women are less sanctified than married women. There is a kind of sanctification that comes from being married to a Christian, but this sanctification has nothing to do with gender (1 Cor. 7:14).
The Bible teaches that Jesus is the Saviour and Sanctifier of men and women, and he presents the Church to himself. This is the main point of Ephesians 5:22-33. Yet Stephen Um has misappropriated the salvation and sanctification that Jesus brings and ascribed it to husbands.
Also, Stephen always links the word “spiritual” with the word “head,” even though the term “spiritual head” is absent in Ephesians 5. “Spiritual head” is an assumption he has read into the text. And to say that “head” has the metaphorical meaning of “leader”, as it does in English but only rarely in Koine Greek, is simplistic and inaccurate.
Furthermore, the idea that the husband is the final arbiter in difficult decisions has no biblical basis whatsoever. The only biblical precedent I can find for decision-making in marriage is in 1 Corinthians 7:5 where it speaks about husbands and wives making a mutual decision. There are some other flaws in Stephen’s message, but what is worrying is that he begins by foolishly saying, “The Bible is very, very clear . . .” implying that what he is about to say is biblical and that his interpretation is the obvious and correct one. I disagree with his interpretation.
 Paul is not speaking about men and women in general but about husbands and wives.
 In older Greek manuscripts the masculine present middle-passive participle hupotassomenoi (of the verb hupotassō) occurs in Ephesians 5:21 (in the context of mutual submission) but no participle or verb of hupotassō occurs in verse 22. The continuing theme of submission is implied but not stated verse 22. Similarly, the Greek verb for “submit” occurs in verse 24a, in reference to the church submitting to Christ, but is implied in 24b, which is about wives and husbands. It is not at all unusual in ancient Greek for a verbal meaning to continue on, from a word in a previous verse or previous passage, without being restated. (See also my article here on a similar idea.)
Here is Ephesians 5:21-22 in the SBL Greek New Testament with my literal translation:
21 ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ.
Submitting to one another in reverence of Christ.
22 Αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ,
The wives to their own husbands as to the Lord,
The SBL Greek edition (based on many ancient Greek manuscripts) can be found here. Note, however, that in this version, the 1550 Stephanus text, which is based on a few much less ancient manuscripts, a participle of hupotassō, hupotassesthe, has been included in the text. Furthermore, hupotassesthōsan is found in verse 22 of some texts such as Codex Sinaiticus. One of the oldest papyri that we have of these verses is Papyri 46 and it does not have a participle (or verb, etc.) for hupotassō in verse 22. (See here for information about textual variants in Eph. 5:22.)
 It is important to note that only Jesus is mentioned in the verses about sanctification in Ephesians 5:22-33. A husband cannot “cleanse” his wife. A husband does not act as saviour or sanctifier. (More on this here.) A good husband acts as cherisher and nurturer.
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Other articles about “Head” and Kephalē here.
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell
The Responsibilities of Husbands in Ephesians 5
Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 5:33)?
A Suitable Helper
Submission in Marriage
Submission and Respect from Wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6
Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8
Articles on Mutual Submission