** A dear friend of mine recently wrote asking me to explain how I came to an egalitarian reading of Ephesians 5. This was my (very long) attempt to walk point by point through the passage. I have to give major credit to Dr. Ron Pierce and Margaret Mowczko for their incredible scholarship on hermeneutics, context, and Greek. Their lectures and writings have been profoundly illuminating. **
First off, before I start explaining my understanding of different biblical passages, it is imperative that you understand that when it comes to biblical interpretations, I try to follow a few commonly accepted hermeneutical principles. It’s worth explaining these before getting into Ephesians 5 because they frame where I am coming from and why I draw my conclusions the way that I do.
1) Never “cherry pick.” I think it is helpful to look at a single passage, but it’s important to always go back and look at the rest of the chapter, book, and Bible as a whole. If an interpretation contradicts other parts of Scripture, it is probably wrong. If it is awkward or just stands alone as a solitary idea in Scripture, it is probably unwise to build an entire theology on it. The truth is that we can make the Bible support any position we have by picking isolated passages. The best way to avoid this is to make sure our understanding has support in the whole of Scripture.
2) Context is everything – historical, literary, cultural, placement in the canon etc. Whether a passage in the in the OT or NT matters. Whether a passage is a part of Song of Songs or Galatians or Daniel matters. Understanding the literary goal of a book is very important. (is it poetic, narrative, or instructional). I take literary context seriously, and I do not read Proverbs in the same way that I read Micah or James.
Additionally, the context of the history & culture of the setting and audience is important. The meaning of Scripture is what the author intended it to mean, not necessarily how I understand it in 2015 as a female American. If we don’t understand the world in which a passage was written, we can easily misunderstand what the author was trying to communicate to the specific audience he was writing to. I also think this means that we have to be comfortable with some ambiguity when we cannot figure out what is being referenced to in certain passages. We don’t have all of the information available to us (ie the letters that Paul is replying to that describe a church’s particular problems).
3) Specific language is different than exclusive language. For example, I might intend to speak to a room of boys and girls and say, “Boys, you need to be calm and listen up.” I would be making assumptions that little boys are more rowdy and in need of a reminder to listen, but I am not saying that the little girls in the room are excluded from my instructions. This is the exact same principle that allows us to apply Scripture to our lives when it was written for a certain audience.
4) Explicit language is clearer than perceived inferences or implications. In terms of the gender debate, if the text in Genesis says male and female were made in the image of God, this is explicit. It is clear and precise. But making a case for authority based on who was created first is an inference or implication that isn’t found in the text itself (this particular idea might find support in other passages, but you cannot use Genesis passage itself explicitly to show creation order is significant to authority).
5) Prescriptive language is clearer than descriptive language. Narratives are primarily descriptive: they tell the way things are. However, if God’s voice is heard interrupting the text saying, “This is the way things should be,” that is prescriptive. It’s shaky ground to use descriptive texts to make prescriptive assumptions. (Just because Noah built a boat, doesn’t mean that I should too.) This principle can be applied to non-narratives as well when the author is simply describing reality, but not necessarily prescribing that reality as a good or a God-ordained thing.
6) Using the language of Scripture makes an argument stronger. We are wisest to use the language that Scripture uses. For example, in studying Genesis 1-5, the text says that male and female had dominion over the earth together. That is a pretty solid argument because that specific wording was used in Scripture. When studying Genesis we can confidently say that God intended for men and women to have dominion over the world together because that is exactly what Scripture says. However, the word “head” is not used in the Genesis account a single time in regard to the first man, so the argument that man was to be a head over woman is inherently weaker because that language doesn’t exist in the text.
It’s also worth noting that the original languages are important to understand. We have translations, and sometimes the way that we understand a word – the connotations that have been developed over time in English – do not align as closely with the original language’s word. I don’t speak any biblical languages, so I am reliant on the scholarship of others, but this is something that I always try to understand when I study a passage. Were the words of this passage understood by the author in the same way that I understand them in English?
Okay, sorry about the loooong introduction, but I do think it is really important to be at the same starting point before I try to go further. I want to make sure you know what my assumptions are rather than having to back track later on.
So, I have chosen to address the verses you specified by slowly narrowing the focus. I start with a look at the book, then at the smaller section in which these verses are contained, and then the verses themselves.
Reading the whole book frames the verses in questions. Paul is essentially reminding the Ephesians of who they are because of Jesus. They have been called out, chosen and adopted as Christ’s own. In chapters 1 & 2, he reminds them about where they came from and what they were saved from. At the end of chapter 1, we see the first use of the body/head metaphor which describes Christ as head of all things for the sake of the church. In other words, Christ is the source of provision, life, and growth of the church.
“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Chapter 2:19-22 says, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens… and in him you too are being built together to be a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” And in 3:1, Paul almost gets to his point, “For this reason, I Paul…” but then gets sidetracked explaining his own story and his passion for the Ephesians before resuming his discourse in chapter 4. I believe 4: 4 is the point of the whole book, ” I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” The preceding verses are about why and the following ones are about how.
He continues with an appeal to unity (verses 2-4), explains that each are given unique gifts but those are also meant for unity (verses 11-13). In verse 15, we find the second mention of the body/head metaphor,
“14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Again we are all different pieces of a whole body of which Christ is the head, the source of provision for growth and maturity (building itself up in love toward maturity). It seems to me that the metaphor of Christ the head in this particular book so far is less about authority and more about Christ being the source of provision. Christ is obviously described as the authority of the church is in other passages (not making that statement, so don’t misunderstand me), but for the sake of THIS book, we need to understand how Paul is using the metaphor here.
Next, Paul reminds the Ephesians that they aren’t to be like the Gentile pagans with hardened hearts (17-19), rather they are to be as the new creations that they are (20-24). For the next chapter and half all the way to 6:9, Paul gets into specifics. He talks first about individual character issues (honesty, forgiveness, drunkenness, and greed). These are instructions for believers about how they are to be within themselves. Then Paul moves into relationships or how believers are to be in relation with others. Chapter 5 verse 21 marks the transition to this section.
Finally, Paul concludes the letter by reminding the Ephesians that their war is spiritual and so are their weapons and that they should stand firm.
Drawing things in a little more, we see that the passage in question is Paul’s specific instructions on how believers are to act in relationships, and verse 21 starts us off. It frames the entire section.
“Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ.”
There is a “one another” here, and everything that follows shows how “one another” plays out. If you are a wife, here is how you submit. If you are a husband, here is how you submit, if you are a child or a parent, or a slave or a master, here is how you are to submit.
This idea is further supported when you look at the original language. In verse 22, there is no verb in the Greek, it is actually a clause that connects with verse 21. A more literal reading of the verses would be “Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ, a wife to her own husband as to the Lord.” You cannot disconnect verse 21 from the rest of the verses in this section, and the Greek sentence structure makes that pretty conclusive.
What I see in all of the verses specific to spouses is a lot of love, respect, unity, and submission. What I don’t see is authority in the way that I hear it defined today, as a call to obedience for one and rule for the other. Certainly the idea of authority is not explicit in the way that I see explicit commands to submit to one another. Maybe you can make in inference about it, but you still have to contend with the explicit “submit to one another” that applies to husbands about their wives as much as to wives about their husbands.
It is significant to me this is different from what we see in the child/parent & slaves/masters passages that follow the wife/husband passages. In these verses, slaves and children are called explicitly to obey their masters and parents – something that a wife is never told to do in regards to her husband here or anywhere in Scripture. All 6 of these groups of people are to submit, but only 2 are actually told that obedience is a part of the submission. Parents are in authority over children, so the children are to obey. Masters are in authority over slaves, so slaves are to obey. It is significant that Paul leaves this explicit command out of his instructions to husbands and wives, ESPECIALLY in a patriarchical cultural context in which it would have been expected and appropriate because in a legal sense wives WERE under their husband’s authority. This is actually quite subversive and radical because the expectation would have been a similar treatment, “wives obey your husbands who are in authority over you.” The fact that he didn’t do this is a big red light begging the question “Why?”
Additionally, I think you have to take into account how Paul treats slavery. He never endorsed slavery here or elsewhere… but he also wasn’t trying to change the structure. He was teaching slaves how to function within the structure (this is true for every place in which slavery is discussed in the NT) while urging masters to rethink their positions as authority holders over other human beings. (Philemon is THE apologetic for anti-slavery though even still Paul never explicitly condemns it, rather he appealed to Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal brother.) I think there is some similarity with how Paul dealt with marriage in that culture which was totally male-centered and in which wives had no legal power and no authority in the home or in society. We never see Paul expressly condemn patriarchy (or slavery), but the way in which he writes, the mandates that he gives, and the way he treats slaves (Onesimus) and women (Phoebe, Priscilla, Chloe, Junia, Nympha etc.) as co-leaders suggests a subversive perspective toward those cultural norms. If you want my perspective and wider biblical support of this particular idea, here is a link to the study I did on Galatians.
Ephesians 5:21-33 (NIV)
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.
31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
First I want to look at what this passage is NOT saying explicitly. Then I will approach what it IS saying and take a look at some of the contextual pieces that help us understand the significance of those explicit statements.
What does this passage does NOT say.
These are all assumptions I’ve heard when approaching this text, but they are not explicit in the passage. While any of them may or may not be true, they cannot be taken from this particular text.
-that the husband has a divine mandate to exercise authority over his wife
– that the husband should give “servant leadership” to the wife/family
– that the husband should be the initiator and the wife should be the responder
– that the husband should make final decisions for the family (with or without the input of the wife)
– that the husband alone is responsible before the Lord for the family and for his wife
– that the husband should set the spiritual direction for the family
What the passage DOES say:
Verse 21/22- As mentioned previously, the entire section has to be framed by this introductory verse. There is no thought break between 21 & 22. They are the same sentence and all that comes after verse 21 is about submitting to one another.
Verse 23-24. I believe what Paul is saying is that the husband is the head of the wife because he WAS the source of provision for his wife in every way in that culture in which women could not have a legitimate job, or own property, or provide for themselves. However, as the one who was culturally the source of protection and provision, he should fulfill that responsibility in the manner in which Christ is the head of the church… which Paul then shows as being a source of provision in a submissive manner, further extrapolating his “one another” statement in verse 21. Here is how I came to that conclusion:
The first thing in this thought is a statement of fact, “the husband is the head of the wife.” It does not say that the husband is supposed to be the head of the wife. This is a statement of the reality of the members of the church to whom Paul writes. The husbands WERE the legal and cultural heads of their wives. Women were totally reliant upon their husbands for pretty much everything. But this is a descriptive phrase not prescriptive like the later phrase “wives should submit to their husbands.” We have to be careful here not to make an assumption of prescription based on a descriptive statement. Perhaps the prescription follows, but that would need to be proved by what comes after it. (And I think that a prescription does follow but it modifies and explains Paul’s point of mutual submission.)
So what does it mean that the husband is the head of the wife like Christ is the head of the church? Is that a statement of authority, spiritual or otherwise? Going back to those hermeneutical principles, what matters is not what I think that metaphor means (what I think of when I read “head”), but what Paul intended when he wrote this letter.
Based on how this metaphor is used earlier in the passage, it seems to be about provision and care, about assisting in growth and maturity. The verse itself explains that Christ as the head is about him being the “Savior,” a concept of provision (Christ as Savior provides a way to God) not a concept of authority as it would have been if the verse said “of which he is the Lord.” Again that would have been consistent with the culture to have explained “head” in terms of authority, but he doesn’t. Instead Paul seems to be specifically talking about a different idea which is extrapolated in the following verses.
Adding to this idea is that in the culture of the time, the physical head was understood as the source of life for the body (lots of literary evidence to this), kind of like how we understand the heart in English. It is not an idea of authority, but rather the source from which the body grows.
Additionally, in ancient Greek kephale (head) never had the connotation of leader (that definition came much later in modern Greek), it exclusively meant “source” or “origin.” There were other words/metaphors that Paul could have chosen to describe the husband/wife relationship if he was trying to describe an authority structure, but kephale was not one of them. He could have used exousia (authority) which is the word he used in 1 Corinthians 7:4 passage on marriage (the only time this word is used in passage about marriage), but this also describes mutuality. “The wife does not have authority (exousia) of her own body but her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority (exousia) of his own body but his wife.” Both of these contextual explanations seem to be consistent with how Paul used the head metaphor in chapters 1 & 4. Head is a source or provision for life, not a statement of authority.
It’s as if Paul is saying, “Be submissive to one another… Husbands, you are the sources of provision of your wives in this society, but you are to be that source of provision as Christ is the source of ours, with nurture and care, submitting to her needs with the same care and concern as if they were your needs.”
Verse 25 – 30 – These verses spell out exactly what it means for a husband to be a head as a Christ-like kind of head. Legally and culturally he has rights to authority over his wife, but I think this Paul calling him to lay down his rights, to lay down his very life, to treat her as an equal in Christ through his own submission – “one another.” This flies in the face of everything that was normal for husbands in that society. It is the radical nature of the Gospel both for the Ephesians then and for us now.
The passage describes a submissive attitude which is exactly what we would expect in light of verse 21. It’s a giving up for. It’s giving preference and giving priority for the sake of her growth. Giving yourself up for is the ultimate act of submission just as we saw from Christ when he gave himself up for the church sacrificially in submission to the Father. (What I think the head metaphor is all about in this book.) Again, this was NOT how husbands of this culture treated their legal wives. They did not treat them with the same deference as their own bodies, and they most certainly did not submit their own preferences under those of their wives for her sake.
This is a perfect parallel to Paul’s teaching to the church in Philippi (Phil 2:3-8):
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Verses 31-32 – Again we have a statement of unity and mutuality, “one flesh” which again I think points back to “one another” in verse 21.
Verse 33 – No one has an argument that women should respect their husbands and husbands should love their wives. But I would also add that the hermeneutical principle of specific language means that women are also to love their husbands and men are to respect their wives. Specificity doesn’t mean exclusivity.
In summary, I think this passage leads clearly to the idea that we are called to submit to one another. That is explicit. The bigger question that I think you are asking is “does this passage indicate that there is inherent authority of the husband?” Husbandly authority is not explicit, and one would have to build that entire idea on the word “head.”
As I look at what “head” meant culturally and linguistically (provision and source of life for the body) and how Paul uses the metaphor in the rest of the book (source and provision of growth and life), I cannot see where there is implied authority either. Paul seemed to be recognizing the societal statuses of husbands and wives and explicitly calling men not to a more godly authority over their wives, but to a complete giving up of authority because the Gospel means unity and that no one member has priority over another.