Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism


Yesterday someone asked on Facebook whether husbands have a particular responsibility for the spiritual growth of their wives, and whether husbands will present their wives to Jesus in much the same way as Jesus presents the church to himself (cf. Eph. 5:25–27). It’s been a while since I last heard someone mention these ideas. So it was disturbing to find out that the person asking these questions had just sat through a sermon on this.

These ideas about “male-only” responsibilities are based on a faulty understanding of Paul’s teaching Ephesians 5:21–33. So what does Ephesians 5 tell us about a husband’s responsibility? And which parts in this chapter are referring only to Jesus?

Spiritual Growth, Sanctification, and Salvation
What Husbands Can’t Do

The moment we make the decision to trust and follow Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, we are sanctified; we are set apart as a child of God. But a process of sanctification and spiritual growth continues, aided by the Holy Spirit. The goal of this process is that we become mature in our faith, and the pinnacle and ultimate role model of that maturity is Jesus. It is not our spouse.

As well as being the primary example in our journey towards spiritual maturity, the Bible is clear that Jesus is the only Saviour who can rescue us from sin and death, and give us eternal life.

Husbands are not the saviours of their wives (cf. Eph. 5:23), and they are simply incapable of sanctifying or cleansing their Christian wives. Moreover, there is no hint anywhere in the Bible that husbands will present their wives—like a debutante or like a showpiece of their workmanship—to Jesus. If a wife is a Christian, she is already sanctified and has already been introduced to Jesus and is known by him. She does not need a husband, or any other human mediator, to sanctify her or present her to her Lord.

What Husbands and Wives Can Do

The phrases in Ephesians 5 that mention “saviour”, “sanctify”, “cleansed”, and “present” refer to Jesus and not to husbands (e.g., Eph. 5:26–27 cf. Col. 1:21–22). These phrases show the extent and commitment of Jesus’ love. His love is an active love that does not suppress but serves. Jesus also elevates and glorifies his beloved (Eph. 5:27. Since husbands cannot save or cleanse or glorify, they need to find other ways of expressing the extent and commitment of their love; they need to serve, encourage and edify their wives in meaningful and appropriate ways.

Paul writes that all of us who follow Jesus are to love one another sacrificially (Eph. 5:1–2), and that all of us who are led by the Spirit will be submissive towards one another (Eph. 5:21 cf. 5:18b). Nevertheless, Paul singles out husbands in his instructions for them to love and cherish their wives, and to be united with them. And he singles out wives in his instructions for them to be submissive and respectful. But husbands are not exempt from being submissive and respectful to their wives, and wives are not exempt from loving and cherishing their husbands, as these are normal attitudes and behaviours for Christians.

Marriage was a hierarchical relationship in the first-century Greco-Roman world. Paul, however, hoped to soften the impact of this hierarchical imbalance of power by emphasising love, unity, and mutuality (Eph. 5:28–29, 31). Husbands could even out this imbalance by giving themselves for their wives, effectively lowering themselves, and by treating wives as their own male bodies, effectively elevating their wives who in the first century typically had a lower status than their husbands (Eph. 5:25 & 28).

Paul wanted to bring the marriage relationship more in line with his own more mutualistic ethos (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11–12; Gal. 3:28), and more in line with Jesus’ teachings on relationships in his kingdom community. In many cultures today, it is easier than ever for married couples to have a relationship of mutuality that honours Jesus and his kingdom principles.

Sanctification, Holiness, and 1 Corinthians 7:14

According to Paul, an unbelieving husband is sanctified in, or by, a Christian wife, and an unbelieving wife is sanctified in, or by,  a Christian husband (1 Cor. 7:14). An unbelieving spouse is sanctified, made holy, simply by virtue of their association with their Christian spouse who is a holy child of God.

1 Corinthians chapter 7 is full of statements that show that men and women, husbands and wives, have equal rights and responsibilities. They have the same status, and 1 Corinthians 7:14 applies equally to Christian husbands and to Christian wives. (Elsewhere in the New Testament, we also read that Christian men and women have the same status.)

The issue behind 1 Corinthians 7, including 7:14, is sexual renunciation as an expression of holiness.  Even though Paul thought being single and celibate was ideal, he knew it wasn’t for everyone (1 Cor. 7:7). So he makes concessions such as allowing sexual abstinence for only short periods of time (1 Cor. 7:5–6). In 1 Corinthians 7:12–14, he encouraged Christians married to non-Christian spouses not to separate by saying that their spouses and children are holy. He wanted the Corinthians to know that sex and procreation with a non-Christian spouse was not a threat to Christian piety. (I have more on the context of  1 Corinthians 7 here.)

Whose Responsibility?

There is nothing we can physically or humanly do to sanctify our spouse. Sanctifying others is not our job. It is Jesus who saves, sanctifies, cleanses, and will one day present the church to himself (Eph. 5:27; Col. 1:22). We must not confuse Jesus, and the expressions and actions of his love, with husbands.

Nevertheless, we each have a duty or responsibility concerning our attitudes and actions, which should be motivated by a self-giving love like that of Jesus. We each have a responsibility to look after and encourage those in our family and in our community (Heb. 10:24). And we each will be held accountable for the way we have treated others. In Jesus’s kingdom, the responsibility to love and care for others is not tied to one gender.

© Margaret Mowczko 2016
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Explore more

Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22–33
Ephesians 5:22–33, in a Nutshell
Mutuality in Marriage: 1 Corinthians 7
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
The Household Codes are Primarily about Power, not Gender
Are men accountable for their wives’ actions? (The accountability of Eve and Sapphira)
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Protecting the Weaker Sex
The Status of Christian Women

Further Reading

David Croteau, “‘To Make Her Holy’ (Ephesians 5:26): Are Husbands Responsible for the Spiritual Maturation of Their Wives?” JBMW 21.1 (Spring 2016), free online here.

Ephesians 5:22-33 Christian marriage submission

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

24 thoughts on “The Responsibilities of Husbands in Ephesians 5

  1. This brought back some very bad memories…thank you…and thanks to all egalitarians who helped me come to terms with this subject and free me from this twisted view…

    1. I’m genuinely astonished that anyone could have ever thought that husbands could actually save, sanctify and cleanse their wives and present them to Jesus. These people either have a ridiculously overblown view of what men are capable of, or they have vastly underrated what Jesus has done, and will do, for us. Husbands are not Jesus, nor are they a substitute for Jesus. It’s that simple.

      1. ” a ridiculously overblown view “? Yup!

      2. Husbands are not Jesus, nor are they a substitute for Jesus. It’s that simple.

        There will be men that will be like the Lord but will never be above the Lord.

        These men know the authority of the Lord and would never even try to attempt exalt oneself. The shame would be so unbearable to the extent that one would gladly hang oneself like Judas!

  2. “The phrases in Ephesians 5 that mentions “saviour”, “sanctify”, “cleansed”, and “present”, refer to Jesus and no one else.”

    Yes I agree.

    I was of the thinking that Paul’s comment in verse 32 “This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” refers to more than the preceding verse (the quote from Genesis) but relates to all the verses from 22 onwards.

    1. It is tricky to follow Paul’s train of thought in Ephesians 5, especially for us not used to reading chiasms. But, from what we know from the repeated teachng of salvation throughout the New testament, we can safely rule out that husbands save, sanctify or cleanse their Christian wives.

      It is disturbing when people overlook the repeated teachings of salvation in the New Testament and put in extra clauses and caveats when it comes to the salvation of women. And all because they have misunderstood Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2:15.

  3. I am so with you in what you are saying here Marg. Indeed, if the husband had any such role, it would make him a kind of mediator between God and his wife, a role that is strictly reserved to Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). The words about sanctifying and cleansing seem to me to actually refer to baptism, and certainly a wife shouldn’t be baptised to her husbands name. We all have the same access to God through Jesus only (Eph 2:18). Anyone trying to take any kind of middle role towards another, be it a spouse or anyone else, is trespassing on what is the private grounds of Jesus only. This is forbidden ground to any of us.

    You are of course right that we have a responsibility as christians both to encourage and to warn each other (Heb 3:12-13). But this is a «sideways» role – if I can call it that – as one sister or brother to another. We cannot in any way sit above other believers (Rom 4:14).

    When Paul says primarily to husbands that they should love their wives, I think this is because the love he is thinking of is a sacrificial love, and to love sacricially one must have something to sacrifice. And the wife in a first century large household – which I think is what Paul has in mind here – didn’t have anything to sacrifice relative to her husband. But the husband had something to sacrifice: his privileges. I think this is what Paul calls him to do: to sacrifice his privileged life (rather than his literal life).

    The wife, on the other hand, could easily come to hold her husband in contempt. Often she wouldn’t be much more to him than an incubator for his children. Seeing this, she could very easily come to think that «if that is all I am to him, then I can find more meaningful relationships elsewhere». So I think Paul is telling this wife in the large household to put away her contempt and hold her husband in regard.

    The sanctification talked about in 1 Cor 7 cannot, I think, be the same kind of sanctification talked about in Eph 5. I don’t understand what exactly he means by «sanctification» in 1 Cor 7. But the point of it seems to be that it is OK to stay married to a non-believing spouse.

    Then I wish that you would find another word or expression for «submit». To submit is to subject or subordinate oneself, and this is something that cannot be mutual. One person A cannot be subordinate to person B at the same time as B is subordinate to A. I do not doubt that the «submission» should be mutual here. But using the word «submission» for something mutual results in this word coming to mean something else than it ordinarily does. I see egalitarians talking about «mutual submission» a lot, and by doing so they develop a kind of special language where words no longer mean the same as otherwise in daily talk. This again means that words no longer communicate properly, which is very unfortunate. There is too much of such special christian insiders’ language that cannot be properly understood by others.

    Couldn’t you who is learned in biblical greek do a thorough study of the greek word used here? This is a challenge that I wish someone would take up, but noone seems to be doing so. I would suggest that in Eph 5 the word should rather be translated as something like «stand by» or «align oneself with». Or, thinking of roman soldiers who walked in formations with their shields tightly together, a more exotic translation could be «link shields with». Something like: «Link shields with each other in regard for Christ, the wives with their own husbands as eagerly as if with the Lord.»

    1. ~ “Sideways” absolutely. I think in Thessalonians Paul says he worked alongside rather than “over” his fellow Christians. (I’ll find the text later.)

      ~ “The husband had something to sacrifice: his privileges.” Yes, free men had a lot of power in the Greco-Roman world. I do believe Paul wanted men to surrender that power, and not use or exploit it at the expense of their wives. He wanted husbands to “give themselves up” for their wives. I can’t imagine what the first Christians, living in their highly stratified society, would have thought about that instruction!

      ~ I don’t fully get what 1 Cor 7:14 means.

      ~ I have studied hypotassō long and hard. It has a broad range of meanings in Greek literature, even within the New Testament. Wayne Grudem acknowledges that there will be different ways of submitting depending on the relationship and/or the situation. Grudem uses the synonym “deference” for submission in somce instances which I think is adequate. “Cooperation” and “loyalty” are also adequate synonyms depending on the context. I discuss “submit” and “submission” elsewhere on this site. I didn’t want to tease out the meanings here.

      Anyway, great comments. I think we are on the same page with this.

      1. Disgusting and heretical. You can’t just wish away true definitions of words because you find it annoying.
        Submit actually means, submit. It is to place oneself under, you can’t explain it away. It’s irrelevant that you don’t like it, it is what it is.

        1. Jennifer, Nowhere in this article do I explain away submission. And nowhere on this website do I say that I don’t like submission. Instead, I say that submission is a necessary attitude and behaviour in Christian communities, including the union of a Christian marriage. Nevertheless, “submission” is used in a broad variety of contexts in the New Testament, with different degrees of force.

          Submission isn’t always about placing yourself under another person (cf. Eph. 5:21). As Christians we really need to stop using words like “over” and “under” to describe relationships in the New Covenant community of Jesus’ followers.

          In Jesus’ kingdom the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, the first are last, and vice versa. In other words, we are equal. We are brothers and sisters. There are no hierarchies, castes, or cliques in Jesus’ kingdom, or at least there shouldn’t be. Rather, we submit to one another.

          So which bits in this article do you think are heretical?

          1. “Disgusting and heretical.” Always fond of this attitude…I used to be good at it too: but you missed the point. We all believe in submission as taught by Paul: “Submit yourselves ONE TO ANOTHER in the fear of God”…”in honour preferring ONE ANOTHER”.
            What part of these do you find disgusting and heretical? Also I think we share the conviction that Paul taught the husband to “paradidomi” himself to his wife…or to “put himself into the hands of his wife” as Jesus did when He put himself into the hands of the Pharisees and was led away to the cross for the sins of others. This is the mutual submission Paul taught…the HEADING of the passage is in Ephesians 5:21…and therefore the OVERVIEW of the idea of marital submission is in submitting ourselves one to another in the fear of God.

            What part of this do you find heretical? That the husband is required to submit to the wife as well as the other way around? Would you prefer that a husband disobey these Biblical instructions that are a fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching “it shall not be so among you” when he said we have ONE Master, even Jesus Christ, and ALL we are brethren, and “the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister (servant)…as the Son of man came to serve.

            Mutual submission is also found in the Trinity…the Godhead. “one anothering” is found throughout the Bible. Unless you would prefer that the Bible taught the husbands to be like those who “love the uppermost seats in the synagogue” as Jesus said of some in whom dwelt a critical spirit and a spirit of superiority like that one who ‘thanked God that he was not like other men’.

            Peter said “Humble yourselves therefore UNDER the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time”. So much better to be walking alongside one another, not “dressing down” one another but showing respect as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    2. Hi Knut AK.

      You made a few interesting points in your comment. I thought I’d just add something on mutual submission.

      I agree that we should always consider the words we use so that we can be understood by those who are listening. An “insiders'” jargon isn’t helpful, but we also need to be careful to not water down our language to the point where the words eventually carry or a meaning other than we intended, or worse, no meaning at all. Better then to use the “correct” words, but always be prepared to explain what we really mean.

      “Mutual submission” does seem contradictory and counter-intuitive at first. I think this may have to do with our tendency to look at dominance as an active behaviour and submission as a passive one. I studied ethology (animal behaviour) some years back, and among social animals, submission is often a very active behaviour, as it avoids conflict and profits the group. Groups or pairs of submissive animals (e.g. horses) tend to get on fabulously.

      I find this idea of mutual submission as an Active behaviour echoed again and again in Paul’s teachings, and referring to all believers and not just married Couples (but why should they be exempt?).

      For example (NIV):
      Rom 10:12 – Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourself.

      Fil 2:3-4 – Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value other above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

      Grace and peace

  4. Brilliant post, Marg. Thanks so much for this. When you really start looking closely at the ‘men are leaders’ theology, it falls apart so quickly. But you have to be prepared to look at it! And that’s where we so often fall down and resort to old habits and theology for the sake of convenience and fear.

    I particularly appreciate your final sentence — love is not tied to gender, but to Christ.

  5. In ef 5:25-27 The Husband is asked to give himself up for his wife.
    As Jesus gave himself up for the church.
    To present her (the church) to himself (Jesus), Holy and blameless, I thought this meant he died for the church so we are bought free from our sin.
    In Hosea there is the type for Christ where he buys back his wife from prostitution.

    When the Husband takes upon himself anything a wife does and forgives her not holding anything against her not clinging to past offense he in a sence emulates Christ. And presents his wife blameless to himself.

    The wife is asked to respect her husband, in esteeming his opinion not brushing him off not belitteling him.
    I watched my mum disrespecting my dad, treating him as a boy needing a scolding, it was not a good exempel.
    My dad never blamed her or talked down on her.
    To me he showed me he lived this word. Holding her to no offence and loving her deeply. I never understood how he could but the text does humble me understanding the depth of my dads love and showing thus the depth of Jesus love.
    In such a way I understood marriage to mirorr Christs love for the church

    1. Hi Tabitha,

      Husbands are asked to love their wives and give themselves up for their wives, and follow Jesus’ example of this. But husbands are not Jesus, so their sacrificial love will take different forms, just as you dad’s love did. Nevertheless we are all called (wives included) to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial love.

      We are to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). And we are to “mutually submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21).

      I do understand what you mean about a husband forgiving his wife and so presenting her as blameless to himself. But surely we are all are meant to forgive one another as the Lord forgives us (Col. 3:13). And surely we are all meant to keep no scores, or hold any offense, of another’s wrongdoings (1 Cor. 13:5). But I don’t know about the “presenting” bit. This sounds a little strange.

      Neither husbands nor wives should belittle their spouse, brush off their spouse, talk down to their spouse, or treat them as a child, as none of these things are examples of acting in love.

      It’s simple really. All of us, but especially husband and wife because of their uniquely close bond, should follow Paul’s words here: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). And here: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10). If both husband and wife faithfully live out the attitudes and behaviours in these verses, and others, they will have a loving, harmonious, and supportive marriage that reflects the love and unity of Jesus and his church.

  6. Hey me again,
    Ok so it’s talking about how the husband is to be like Christ.
    How does one know for sure the same isn’t happening with those cleansing and washing verses?

    When does the divide between husband be like Christ in this way
    And Christ can only do this happens?

    1. Here’s something I almost never do: link to an article published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

      The article is written by David Croteau, “To Make Her Holy” (Ephesians 5:26): Are Husbands Responsible for the Spiritual Maturation of Their Wives? JBMW 21.1 (Spring 2016), and can be read online here.

      Here’s an excerpt:
      “Analysis of the structure and context of Eph 5:25–27 demonstrated that a husband is given only one command in the passage: love his wife. The rest of the passage used Christ’s love for the church as a comparison for the sake of explaining the depths of the sacrifice of this love. . . . Attempts to apply the specifics in verses 26 and 27 are misguided as it is specifically talking about the way Christ loved the church.”

      1. We display unconditional love towards one another. We are one flesh and our responsibility is to grow in Christ. You are a daughter of God and I a Son. The lord is my mediator and yours. I grow intimately with him as you grow intimately with him. We are on this journey together! lets keep growing towards our Father through the Son.

      2. Marg, thank you for linking that CBMW article which I will share with someone who told me today that the husband is the spiritual leader on the basis of Ephesians 5:26.

        1. You’re welcome, Melissa.

  7. 1 Cor 7:14

    The wife in being the best woman she can be in christ growing daily in spirit, out of love in christ she displays a selfless ministering act of loving her children and loving her husband, she only wants the best for everyone. She supports her family, her faith is in christ. she is like a lioness that attends to the cubs and hunts with the pack, taking down buffalo. She is a strong woman in christ all she wants is to grow and to create a harmonious enviroment.

    The husband being the best man he can be in christ growing daily in spirit. He loves his wife and children making sure that his love in christ is manifesting outwards towards his wife and children he wants the best for everyone. He is selfless and would laydown his life for his family.


  8. Wisdom my beloved! You are beautiful, your company is fulfilling and i enjoy our conversations. I feel completely at peace when your around me.If you were a woman i would be happy to just hold your hands and walk the earth with you and just listen to what you have to say. You have a answer for everything and your Love is as hot as the sun. You choose to be with me out of free will, and that’s what i love about you and the Creator that made you.

  9. Just before leaving my long time church, I was told by a pastor that my husband, church and pastor, etc. are all mediators between me and God…that is just one reason I left…

    Either there is One MEDIATOR or there is not…

    1. Exactly! We do not need another mediator other than Jesus.

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