What does it mean when Paul says in Ephesians 5:22-23, “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”? For many of us in the church, this passage is one of those parts of Scripture we would prefer to avoid or ignore. Its language is metaphoric and clothed in imagery from a social and political world quite foreign to our own. Instead of abandoning or uncritically applying these confusing commands, however, let’s seek to more fully understand what Paul was saying to his audience in the first century, and explore how his instructions bear upon the Christian church today. Most importantly, let’s read this passage of Ephesians in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to understand how these teachings are shaped by the gospel.
Ephesians 5:22-33 is located within a larger passage that addresses Christian relationships and living. Paul’s concern here is that followers of Christ live lives of holiness—lives that are characterized by righteousness and newness of life through the power of the Holy Spirit. In this section of Ephesians, Paul addresses three different relationships: wives and husbands, slaves and masters, and children and fathers. These three relationships were common to the Greco-Roman household of the first century, and speaking and writing about these relationships would have been common practice.
The key to understanding Paul’s writing on these three relationships in this passage is found in his command in 5:18 “to be filled with the Holy Spirit.” All of Paul’s statements that follow this verse are made with this command in mind. Thus, being filled with the Holy Spirit is the basis on which the commands in the rest of the book of Ephesians are made.
Therefore, notice in 5:21 that Paul states that the Holy Spirit enables Christians to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission is presented here as a characteristic of the new humanity in Christ, not merely a feminine ideal—as common interpretations of this passage assume. All Christians are to submit to one another in love and humility—an idea which, at the time Ephesians was written, would have drastically challenged society’s understanding of human relationships. Rather than advancing the accepted and widespread hierarchy of his day, Paul challenged all people—men, women, slaves, and free—to be filled with the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and so to submit to one another.
Paul’s assertion in this passage that wives submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22) is commonly interpreted by Christians as giving husbands authority over their wives. However, in light of the command to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (5:18), as well as the command to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21), this assertion should not be read as a prescription for male headship within marriage.
Male authority and leadership in the home and church is frequently supported by verse 23 which says, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” The term “head” is often read today to mean “ruler” or “authority.” The original Greek text of Ephesians however, does not allow for such an ordered interpretation of the word “head.” In this passage, the limits of the English language blur an important distinction between several meanings of the term that is translated “head” in English. Rather than indicating hierarchy, and therefore the unilateral submission of wives to their husbands, the Greek word for “head” used here by Paul is properly understood to convey the ideas of dependence and unity.
Kephale, the Greek word which is translated “head” in this passage, means “source,” and conveys the idea of one who willingly sacrifices and lays down their life. Thus, kephale indicated to Paul’s audience chronology rather than leadership or authority. This understanding of “head” is consistent with Paul’s assertion in 5:23 that Christ is the head or kephale of the church. Another Greek word which can be translated “head” in English isarche. Arche was used in Paul’s time to convey the idea of hierarchy, and was also utilized to mean “leadership” or “ruler.” Significantly, Paul did not use this word when speaking of marriage in Ephesians and thus he explicitly avoided conveying the idea of gender hierarchy and therefore male authority.
Additionally, by selecting the Greek word kephale, or “head,” Paul speaks both of marriage and salvation history. Just as Christ’s body was the source of life for the church, so too Adam’s body gave rise to Eve (Gen.2). Thus, Paul was also seeking to highlight the unity and mutuality by which husbands and wives were to live. Christ and the church exist in a reciprocal and unified relationship of dependence. The church is dependent upon Christ for its wellbeing and life, and Christ lived and died for the sake of the church. Likewise, husbands and wives are to be unified and mutually loving toward one another. Therefore, the metaphorical similarity between the relationships of Christ and the church, and husbands and wives, is found in the idea of “source”—social dependence and unity—rather than in the commonly interpreted ideas of hierarchy and authority.