Ephesians 5:18-33

by Allison Young 

Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as 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. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5: 18-33 TNIV)

Some Bibles begin this passage from Paul with verse 22. But, in the original Greek, verses 22-23 are part of one long sentence that begins in verse 18 where Paul calls Christians to “be filled with the Spirit.” In this passage, Paul’s intent is not that women should be submissive in the relationship and that men should be the authority or head of their households, for that was already the reality of the culture. Rather, Paul is advising how to be filled with the Spirit within this existing societal structure. It is important to note that verse 21 writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The verb “submit” is lacking in verse 22 and is pulled from verse 21. Paul writes “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” Wives in that culture were already obedient to their husbands. In a household that is “filled with the Spirit,” Paul is asking them to voluntarily submit “as to the Lord,” in a manner respectable to the Gospel.

What is radical about this passage is that husbands, too, are called to submit to their wives, as verse 21 plainly states. Today, to call for only women to submit, and not men, is not biblical. Here Paul also asks husbands to love their wives in a self-sacrificial way. Just as Christ loved the church by giving up his life for it, so a husband is to love his wife by giving himself up for her (5:26). In the culture in which Paul was writing, the man was the authority over his household, and marriage did not occur because of love as we understand it, but for the purpose of furthering the husband’s lineage through the wife’s bearing of sons [1]. In this context, we see how radical Paul’s words to the husband truly are. Not only does Paul instruct the husband to love his wife, but to do so in a self-sacrificial way—just as Christ sacrificed his life for the church!

Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as their own bodies by referring back to the creation account and the one-flesh relationship of Adam and Eve (Eph. 5:31; Gen. 2:24). This demonstrates the unity and interdependence of a husband and a wife, not hierarchy. It is because of their oneness, unity, and interdependence that they are to submit to one another in a relationship of self-sacrificial love.

The manner in which Christ loved the church was by giving up his concerns for himself and laying down his life. If this is the example of “headship” that Christ gave, why is it that modern understandings of “headship” incorporate authority such as who will have the final say in decision-making or who will be the leader in the relationship? By associating authority with “headship” and reading this into Ephesians, we are placing our current understanding of “headship” upon the text. We must not define the word “head” used here in Ephesians with our current understanding of the word “head” in the English language. Rather, we should observe how Paul uses the word in this context. Here in Ephesians 5, Paul defines headship to be self-sacrificial love (5:25).

Designating one spouse as the “authority” or “decision-maker” can be harmful to a relationship that is intended to be a “one-flesh” partnership. For example, husbands, what if your male best friend told you that, from now on, he would be the primary decision-maker in your relationship? How would that make you feel? Imagine the effects on your wife, who is to be your friend and partner? [2] Designating one spouse as the “authority” in the relationship distorts the one-flesh relationship of unity and mutuality God designed for marriage (see Gen. 2). For this reason, husbands and wives ought to mutually submit to one another in self-sacrificial love.

Notes:

1. Gordon Fee, “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18-6:9,” Priscilla Papers (Winter 2002), 4.

2. This example is credited to Patti Ricotta.


For Further Study:

Beyond Sex Roles, by Gilbert Bilezikian

“The Bible and Gender Equality,” by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

“A Christian Understanding of Submission: A Nonhierarchical- Complementarian Viewpoint,” by Alan Johnson

"The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18-6:9," by Gordon D. Fee

Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, with Gordon Fee

Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together Revealing the Gospel, by Gretchen Gaebelein Hull

Good News for Women: a Biblical Picture of Gender Equality, by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis