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Published Date: July 30, 1990

Published Date: July 30, 1990

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Featured Articles

From Poet to Judge: What Does Ephesians 5 Teach about Male-Female Roles?

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood created quite a sensation by paying for a two page advertisement in the January 13, 1989 issue of Christianity Today. The group was begun in response to groups such as Christian for Biblical Equality because, Wayne House explains, “There is a tendency to think biblical feminism is the only biblical view.”1 What a great affirmation to biblical feminists who hold the Bible as authoritative and reliable that some should now see our position as “the only biblical view”!1

However, this Council believes (among other things) that “Scripture affirms male leadership in the home” between “the loving, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the intelligent, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives.” In contrast, many fine studies have been done to disprove the notion that Ephesians 5:22-23 affirms male leadership in the home.2 I would like to reinforce those studies by an in depth look at the literary context of the passage, and also by highlighting the figurative language Paul uses. 

We evangelicals must begin to differentiate between figurative language and literal concept. Many things are claimed for Paul. But what does he really teach?

The Larger Context

Ephesians 5:22-33 is Paul’s longest description of marriage. Many translations differ over whether 5:21 should be part of the context. In reality, the immediate context for Paul’s direction to women and men goes back to 5:15.

Therefore look carefully how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, buying up the time, since the days are evil. On account of this do not become fools, but understand what is the will of the Lord. And do not get drunk with wine, in which is debauchery, but be filled in [the] Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your (pl.) heart to [the] Lord, thanking always in behalf of all in [the] name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God and Father, being subject to one another in fear of Christ… (Eph. 5:15-21).

Because Christ will make everything manifest (Eph. 5:12-14), therefore, Paul commands the Ephesians “look how you may walk.” That is Paul’s main thought in this entire passage. How do the wise walk? They “buy up the time.” Having a Latin American heritage, I like to point out that being a good steward of time is not necessarily, as some North American might posit, being on time or overworking. Paul uses a picturesque word ekagorazo. Composed of ek (“from”, “up”, “off”) as in “exit” and the verb form of agora, “marketplace,” ekagorazo means “to buy up in the marketplace.” At the Temple in Jerusalem worshippers would “buy” doves, for example (Matt 21:12). In the same way, as we can go to Stop and Shop and “buy” matzo for Passover, Paul explains that wise people go to special “Time” Store and buy “time”. Moreover, even as we might go to Stop and Shop and “buy up” all the Matzoth packages for a special church Passover celebration, wise people need to “buy up” all the Time packages at the Special Time Broker Store. In other words, we need to steward our time wisely.

How do we steward our time wisely? First, we do not become fools, but we understand what is the will of God (v. 17). Second, we do not get filled with the “spirits” but with the Spirit (vv. 18-21). Paul uses five participles to explain how all his readers can be filled with the Spirit: “speaking,” “singing,” “making melody,” “thinking,” and “being subject.” In the midst of this lengthy list Paul uses the metaphor of “making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19). The heart is one heart, but it has more than one musician (“your” is plural). The church then has, as it were, one harp upon which we all must play heavenly music together. Paul wants the church to be unified, to be genuine (a heart is a symbol of one’s inward being and to celebrate God (“psalms” were played, “hymns” were sung, “singing” was vocal, all was “to the Lord”).

Paul in this context is contrasting “speaking,” “singing,” “making melody,” “thinking,” “being subject” to gossiping, which he calls “deceptive empty words” (Eph. 5:6) and “foolish and vulgar talk” (Eph. 5:4). To be a good steward of the time certainly means much more than “being on time.”

People who invest in time strive to obey God in their everyday activities. They strive for unity. They strive to be genuine. They strive to celebrate God. One may be on time in order to show one’s love for a person or group. Or, one might be late for an event because one had to spend time with someone else. In effect, spending one’s timespeaking deceitfully about another person is divisive and poor stewardship of time. Becoming drunk also squanders time, leaving one unable to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Instead, we are to understand what is the Lord’s will and do it everyday. “Being subject to one another (v. 21) is yet another way to encourage unity.

Is verse 22 part of the earlier church setting or part of the later marriage setting? The NRSV, NT in Modem English, J.B., and Living Bible have a space between verses 20 and 21. The KJ.V., N.A.S., and Weymouth’s N.T. in Modem Speech have a space between verses 21 and 22. The 1977 printing of the NIV Bible also has a space between verses 20 and 21 but by the 1985 printing the space was placed between verses 21 and 22. T.E.V. and N.E.B. have spaces at both places. In other words, the different translation committees are not in accord on where the new paragraph begins.

Grammatically, there should be a space neither between verses 20 and 21 nor between verses 21 and 22. Verse 21 must connect with verse 20, because otherwise we have pulled off from its sentence a meaningless phrase: “being subject to one another in fear of Christ.” That phrase cannot stand by itself. But neither can verse 22 make any sense when connected only with verse 23: “the women to their own men as to the Lord, since a man is head of the woman as also the Christ [is] head of the church, Savior himself of the body.” The Greek of verse 22 has no verb “be subject.”3 Paul has used the common Greek (and English) technique of ellipsis to force the reader to pause and examine the sentence in order to supply the missing word and thus dwell on the significance. “Ellipsis” is the deliberate omission of a word(s) necessary to complete or clarify a construction but which is implied by the context.

For example, at a local supermarket a new grocery bagger asked me if I preferred paper or plastic bags. I answered, “Paper, please.” When I returned to shop one week later, he again turned to me, and before he could say anything I said, “Paper, please.” We all laughed because his question was in ellipsis.

Paul went out of his way in his letter to the Ephesians to force his readers to see mutual submission as an overarching principle which affected everyone in the church. To interpret submission as applicable only to women and not to men is contradictory to Paul’s very  grammatical structure. The context demands that every Christian should be subject to one another and that mutual subjection should certainly be part of marriage. Everyone should be “filled with the Spirit”l7by “being subject to one another” (one example of which is “wives being subject to their own husbands”).

Directions to Wives

In verse 21 Paul uses the passive or middle voice, ”being subject” or “subjecting for oneself,” which describes something done to oneself or by oneself. Hupotasso literally is “to place or arrange under” and in the New Testament it is used of both equals and of hierarchical positions: prophets to other prophets (I Cor. 14:32), the Son to God (I Cor. 15:28), Jesus to parents (Luke 2:51), citizens to rulers (Titus 3:1), the church to Christ (Eph. 5:24), and slaves to master (Titus 2:9). The Greek army had an interesting usage of the comparable noun hupotaxis. The hupotaxis would be the lightly armed soldiers who “drew up behind” the soldiers in the phalanx, a v-shaped configuration. The forces behind the phalanx would strike while the phalanx held off the enemy.4  The great mobility of these soldiers is what enabled the Macedonians Alexander and Philip to conquer the ancient Orient.

Paul uses a different verb, “subject,” for wives than he uses for children and slaves, the latter being “obedient,” (hupakouo Eph. 6:1,5). Hupakouo literally means “to harken, give ear, answer.”5 Paul thereby has set aside the wife-husband relationship from that of child-parent and slave-master. The child-parent and slave-master also practice mutual submission. But the child and slave must more “listen to” what others say. Subjection seems to be more of a demanding action since it requires affirmation of the other person.

Several points are clear. First, the husband is not commanded to put the wife in subjection. Such a misunderstanding can result in the extreme of some men beating their wives and their wives allowing such a practice, which clearly contradicts Paul’s clear command for husbands to love their wives (v. 25).6 In the same way as members of the Christian body are in a daily process of voluntarily choosing to back up or affirm others for a greater goal of unity, so too wives voluntarily should choose to back up or affirm their husbands. Second, Paul certainly does not command all women to be subordinate to all men. He specifies to “your” man. The Greek has only one word for man or husband, another word for woman or wife. The only way to differentiate man or woman from spouse is by the use of a possessive pronoun (e.g. “your”) or an article (“the”).7 Third, Paul addresses verses 22-24 to “the women”. Therefore, women only should pay heed to applying those verses, even as men only should pay heed to applying verses 25-32. If we paid this attention, a major portion of marital discord could be avoided.

Since subjection can take many forms, what kind of subjection does Paul have in mind for wives? And, if verse 21 is indeed the foundation from which verses 22-33 are built, what kind of subjection does Paul have in mind for husbands?

Paul explains the type of subjection he has in mind for wives by two similes: “as to [the] Lord” and “as also the Christ is head of the church, Savior himself of the body.” A “simile” is an explicit comparison using a word such as “like” or “as” between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common so that one or more properties of the first are attributed to the second. It is an analogy by image.8 In English, metaphors (figurative comparisons without a word such as “like” or “as”) are more common in poetry, similes are more common in prose.9 In contrast, ancient Greeks thought that similes were more appropriate for poetry than for prose. Paul, in line with common Greek fashion, rarely uses similes. For example, in my book on 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:13, Romans 8:9-39, and Philippians 3:2-4:13, I noticed Paul uses 102 metaphors but not one simile.lO To put it bluntly, Paul in Ephesians 5:22-23 is waxing poetical.

The husband is not the Lord. The husband is like the Lord. This comparison is not new. Paul has just written that all believers should treat one another “in fear of Christ” (v. 21). Paul also teaches this idea in Galatians. Whenever people are baptized in Christ, they now “wear Christ” (3:27). Different words but the same concept are used in Philippians 2. We are to treat other believers in humility, looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4). Paul is repeating Jesus’ teachings and example. When we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, visit the prisoner, we do so, in other words, “as to the Lord”  (Matt. 25:34-40).

Why must wives treat their husbands “as to the Lord”, looking out for their husband’s best interests, taking care of them? “Since a man is head of the woman and as also Christ is the head of the church, Savior himself of the body” is the reason. But because “head” for us has become a dead metaphor, we do not even realize it is a metaphor. For us “Who is head here?” means “Who is the boss”? Yet many excellent studies have been done in recent years to prove that “head” (kephale) when used in Greek never stood for the decision-maker.ll Such studies are reinforced by looking at the Bible. “Head” or kephale can refer to a literal head (Matt. 8:20), to hair only (Acts 18:18), to the whole person (a synecdoche, a part representing the whole, as in Ex. 16:16), the top or foundation (Gen. 8:5; Matt 21:42), the source (Col. 2:19), life (Isa. 43:4; Acts 18:6), the first-born (Col. 1:18), and a blessing (Deut. 28:13,44). What meaning does Paul have in mind in Ephesians 5:23? Whatever meaning Paul has in mind would in some way be analogous to Christ’s relationship to the church. “A man is head of the woman” has one or more properties which are similar to “Christ is head of the church” but yet men and Christ are definitely of “unlike nature.”

Paul uses “head” throughout the Letter to the Ephesians, the closest literary context to the passage, we are studying. In Chapter I, Paul writes that God “gave” Christ “a head over (or above or excelling) all the church, which is his body, the fullness filling the all in all” (1:22-23). How is the body “the fullness” of the ”head”? The head nourishes and knits together and causes growth. In other words, the head “fills” the body by being a source of life to it. For instance, the head directs the heart to pump blood through the body. Paul has used ”head” in the same way in Colossians 2:19: “the Head, from whom the whole body, through the ligaments and sinews supplying and uniting, makes grow the growth from God.”

“Head” like ”heart” (Eph. 5:19) is an image of unity. Paul uses other images to emphasize unity between chapters 1and 4: one building, without a wall, one foundation, and one body (Eph. 2:14-22; 3:6; 4:4). Ephesians 4 continues the imagery of one body. Christ gave people as gifts so that the body of Christ may be built up “until all of us attain into the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son (or Heir) of God, into mature manhood, into a measure of stature of the fullness of Christ, in order that we may be no longer infants, being tossed by waves here and there and carried about by every wind of teaching in the dice-playing of people in trickery to the craftiness of deception, but telling [the] truth in love we will grow into him the all, who is the head, Christ, out of whom all the body being joined together and being united through every ligament with which it is supplied according to [the] proportionate working of each part brings about the growth of the body for the upbuilding of each other in love” (Eph. 4: 13-16). The Greek text punctuates 4:11-16 as one long sentence. Paul uses here masculine imagery for the church probably because he hearkens back to Jesus’ own life: “And the child grew and became strong; filled with wisdom” or “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:40,52). In the same way as the child Jesus increased in wisdom and strength, the church needs to mature as well, being based not on “slippery” heretical teachings but on the “healthy growing” orthodox teaching of “truth in love”. “Head” is clearly an image of source of life. Christ enables the ligaments to join together and to grow. The “head” causes infants to grow into adults. Even today a baby without a brain can never continue to stay alive. The head brings life and unity to the body. The ultimate goal is for the church to be wise and well taught so it can transcend trickery by love.

Thus in the larger context of Ephesians, Paul clearly uses “head” as a metaphor for source of life. But, as well, he defines “head” precisely in 5:23. For years I missed it because I, like others, stopped the simile too early: “as the Christ [is] head of the church, Savior himself of the body.” The comparative clause or simile ends with “body”, not “church.” Christ may be “head” in several ways but here Paul defines exactly what he means. “Head” is the personal Savior of the body. The phrase “Savior himself of the body” is in apposition to the first clause, “the Christ [is] head of the church.” The second phrase explains the first clause. A savior is a deliverer, a deliverer of slaves (as in Luke 2:11; 1:47-48) or a deliverer of people who keeps them alive and safe or “a preserver from disease.”12 A “head” is a source. A “Savior” gives life. For example, if someone were drowning in an ocean, a person on land would cast out a line to draw that person back to the land or source (“head”) and “save” them. The wife is to treat the husband’s interests as important because he like a savior. He has provided her with life. Further proof that Paul is emphasizing the analogy between head and savior is in verses 25-28. Ephesians 5:25-28 develops in detail what is meant for a husband to be “savior of the body.”

Paul goes on to add a third simile to his list: “as the church is subject to the Christ.” “In the same way also the wives to their husbands in all.” Again, Paul defines elsewhere in Ephesians what it means for the church to be subject to Christ. First, the church should “learn what is  pleasing to the Lord” (5:10) and, second, being grounded in love, the church may have the power to comprehend the love of Christ (3:17-19). In 5:33 Paul summarizes the wives’ subjection by the same word he uses in 5:21: fear, respect, appreciation. The “fear” of church members is the same as the “fear” of the crowd for Jesus in Luke 7:16. The “appreciation” (or “fear”) results in praise. In summary, women are to respect their husbands, try to please them and appreciate their love.

Paul does not use kephale or “head” in Ephesians 5:23 as an image for the decision-maker of the family. If Paul had wanted to specify that the husband is ruler of the family, he would have used arche or “ruler” (as in Luke 12:11), or “judge” or “mind” (used in Philo as the dominant aspect of humans, e.g. Allegory II.5-8). Rather, Paul defines a word used by Greeks for “source” by another image “Savior.” In addition he grammatically ties women’s submission to everyone’s submission to one another (5:21-22,24). He also uses kephale elsewhere in the same letter to communicate “life-giving source.” Paul alludes to Adam as the source of life for Eve. Paul implies that Christ having given life to the body is analogous to Adam having given life to Eve. It is an analogy, not a complete comparison. God who creates life was the direct agent. Adam was the intermediary agent, the matter from which the life of another is formed. [In the same way, God gives life to women spiritually. Husbands can only be intermediary agents.]

Women, in summary should remember the general subjection of the church (“to one another”) in their relationships with their husbands.

Directions to Husbands

What kind of subjection does Paul have in mind for husbands? Paul develops these directions more thoroughly than his directions to wives (@ 143 vs. 47 Greek words). Men are to be subjected to their wives by loving them: Paul commands they love them. Again, he develops how they are to love by several extended similes.

How might we summarize the first simile? Husbands are to love their wives “as also the Christ loved the church and delivered himself up for her.” Why did Christ do that? (a) “So that he might sanctify her having cleansed her by the washing of water in word” and (b) “so that he himself might present the church to himself glorious, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but so that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:25-27). In other words, even as Paul had  specified that Christ is head in so far as he is Savior (5:23), here too Christ serves as an example to husbands of a Savior, someone who saves a person’s life by making them the very best person they could be. Paul has stated in a different context the same goal he has for ministers of the word: maturity is the goal (4:13).

What is the imagery behind the imagery? What kind of “cleansing” did Christ do? To what does Paul allude when he writes that the church should be “without blemish” (amomos), “spotless, glorious” (endoxos), “without stain or blemish” (spilos), “without wrinkle, not shriveled up” (hrutis), “holy” (hagios), and “washed in water” (loutron tou hudatos).13 I think three backgrounds are possible, but the first fits the data the best.

Paul is writing, in effect, treat your wife as a priest who serves God, even as he had earlier written that the church is to make known God’s wisdom (Eph. 3:10). In Exodus 29:1-37 Moses wrote down God’s directions for consecrating or “making holy” (hagiazo) priests. Hagiazo is the verb counterpart to hagia. The priests were to have no blemish (Lev. 21:17-18), they were to have no leprosy (Lev. 13:2), even as in Ephesians 5:27 the wife is to be “without blemish” (amomos) and “without blemish or stain” (spilos) nor “shriveled up” (hrutis). The priests also offered two unblemished (amomos) rams (Ex. 29:1), as well as a calf and unleavened loaves. The priests were then brought to the doors of the tabernacle and “washed with water” (louo hudatos Ex. 29:4). Even as the priests put their hand on the head of the calf before slaying it (Ex. 29:10), the husband as “head”gives his life for the redemption of another, in other words, the husband becomes the sin offering. The priests would also wear a “holy” (hagia) apparel (Ex. 29:6,21). Even as Christ gave himself so that all people might become priests (l Peter 2:9), in the same way husbands are to give themselves to their wives so that the wives might become priests. Consequently, in these verses, Paul would not be limiting women’s ministries but rather extending them. Paul wants women, as well as men, to function as priests of the most high God and he wants men to help empower them!

The second possible background for the imagery in 5:25-27 is that Paul wants husbands to treat their wives as a “holy offering” to God. He could be referring to a burnt offering or a peace offering. A burnt offering, “a sweet smelling savor” (Ex. 29:18; Lev. 1) was burnt whole on the altar. It was a gift to the Lord of “unblemished (amomos) sheep, cattle or doves. The worshippers would lay their hands on the “head” to make atonement. The entrails and feet “washed in water.” In a peace offering the parts were burned on the altar and the rest consumed by the worshipper or the priest (Lev. 3:1). “Unblemished” (amomos) male or female cattle were offered. Again, hands were laid on the “head.” A person who sinned unwillingly would bring a female lamb “without blemish” (Lev. 4:28). In the same way Jesus was “without blemish” (Heb.9:14: 1 Peter 1:19). Paul mentions Jesus as a sweet smelling savor in Ephesians 5:2. Even as Christ gave himself as an offering, so too husbands are to help their wives become a perfect offering to God. (See also Rom. 12:1.)

The third possible background for the imagery in 5:25-27 is that Paul wants husbands to be the agent for their wives, who are potential brides for the marriage supper of the lamb. This imagery might hearken back to Ephesians 5:16. We are to “buy up” time. A bridegroom would pay a purchase price for the bride (e.g. Laban sold Rachel and Leah, Gen. 29:15-28). In The Mishnah, a collection of oral teachings up to A.D. 200, a woman was betrothed by money, document, or intercourse (Kid. 1:1; 2:1). “Holiness” would be a synonym for virginity. Paul uses this imagery in 2 Corinthians 1l:2. He betrothed (as the agent) the Corinthians to Christ as a “pure” (hagnos) virgin to her one husband. However, Paul used a different Greek word hadnos, not hagios. A woman who was not a virgin could be divorced according to The Mishnah (Ket. 1:6; 3:5 cf.: Matt. 1:18-19). Instead of “spotless,” endoxos could be translated “glorious” referring to the process of beautification a fianceé might pursue. Esther, for example, went through twelve months of beautifying, six months using oil of myrrh, six months of spices and ointments (Esther 2:12). According to T.K. Abbott, a bride would have a special bath before the marriage.14 Even the Song of Solomon speaks of a bride without spot (4:7 momos). The rabbis even went so far as to allow men to divorce women if they had blemishes (Ket. 7:7).

Thus, even as Christ offered himself as an agent, so too husbands are to become agents to help their wives become perfect brides. Priests, offerings, and brides are all persons or things which are to be holy, without blemish, spotless or glorious, without stain, without wrinkle or not shriveled up, and washed with water. Like the church, priests proclaim God’s wisdom, offerings are sacrifices to God, and brides are redeemed. I prefer the imagery of priest because it develops the idea of maturity (Eph. 4:13) and walking in wisdom and proclaiming God’s wisdom (Eph. 3:10; 5:8). A wife’s sanctification becomes then not so much an end in itself (as an offering or a bride) but a means to an end (to proclaim God’s wisdom).

Two extended similes follow the first one. “Likewise the husbands also ought to love their own wives,” Paul explains, “as their own bodies. The one loving his own wife loves himself, for no one ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and warms it, as also the Christ the church, since we are members of his body” (5:28-30). Again, these two similes continue the imagery of a Savior who preserves life and cares for it. Yet I have heard it said that Paul here advocates that the husband be breadwinner (“nourish” ektrepho). However, if the husband is to be the “breadwinner” or wage earner, he also then is to be the farmer and cook as well, for a “nourisher” must grow, reap and cook the food. If taken literally then, husbands in “keeping warm” (thalpo) are also to spin wool, sew, and gather wood. Paul wants men as well to be the “nurturers,” not the women. Both ektrepho and thalpo are verbs more commonly used of women or parents rearing children (l Thess. 2:7; Eph. 6:4). Rather than dividing husbands – wives along the line of breadwinner – homemaker, Paul would then be calling men to be breadwinner and homemaker! In reality, love for husbands (and wives) must include all these roles.

The second simile then continues: “For this reason a person leaves father and mother and adheres to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great, and I myself say [this mystery is about] Christ and the church. However, let each individual one of you also love your own wife as you love yourself” (5:31-33). Paul is emphasizing the unity of the marriage relationship. The wife becomes the husband’s flesh. Of course then. The husband will nourish and keep her warm because he is, in effect, nourishing and keeping himself warm. What is this great mystery? That marriage is comparable with God’s relation to believers or that two could become united into one flesh. Paul repeats the second simile “as you love yourself.” In other words, husbands, treat your own wife with the opulence you treat your own body. Include your wife in your definition of who you are. The goal is unity and growth. What a tragedy that Paul’s descriptions should result sometimes in the very opposite of Paul’s intentions: keeping wives child-like, dependent, and immature (Eph. 4:14). A husband who loves his wife as much as he loves himself and gives himself for her sake is in effect becoming subject or servant to his wife.

Should women also love their husbands or should they only fear them? If husbands should not be subject to wives, then wives should not be loving to husbands. In practice the question is ludicrous. Nevertheless, biblically as well, the question has no basis. Paul tells wives to be “lovers of husbands” in Titus 2:4. Moreover, all Christians are to love one another as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:21; Col. 3:14; Matt. 22:39). In addition. even the church “loves” Christ (Eph. 3:17-19).

Should women treat husbands as their own bodies (5:28)? Paul explains this point in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband [does]; likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife [does].” On the other side, should husbands “respect” their wives? According to 1 Peter 3:7, they are to ”bestow honor” (RSV) on them. Consequently, the commands to wife and husband are not restricted or unilateral.


Why then does Paul highlight in Ephesians 5 that husbands should love their wives and wives should respect their husbands? Here are three possible reasons. Paul begins with the contemporary situation (a) working toward true equality, (b) to further the gospel, and (c) to remove marital deficiencies.

Reason 1.

Paul begins to re-do marriage by taking it in its contemporary state, even as he tells new believers to begin their walk with Christ in whatever state they are (l Cor. 7:17-24). If a wife begins a marriage by being respectful and pleasing to her husband in the same way as she respects and pleases the Lord and if a husband begins a marriage by loving his wife in a completely sacrificial way, loving her as much as he loves himself, then they will become equal in marriage. This is exactly what happens time and time again in many marriages. For example, David and Lori Boyce said “we tried to fill the traditional roles” but David explained that since “the husband was supposed to put his wife’s concerns first in the decisions made,” then Lori’s education “was at least equally as important as mine.” So David decided to share the housework and to take a year off school to help put Lori through school. Lori added that “mutuality is much more than an equalization or reversal of roles…. From the beginning we each had a deep respect for each other. As we lived out that respect in our marriage, it inevitably led to an equalization of roles.” 15

Paul employed the same technique with Jew – Gentile and slave – master relationships. The slave and master were to treat each other as in the Lord. Slaves were to be obedient to their masters “as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5) and to obey their masters “fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). The masters were told to do “the same” (Eph. 6:9). However, slaves did not always have to remain slaves (l Cor. 7:21-23; Philemon 15-16).16

Paul’s directions move a marriage to one of genuine equal partnership.

Reason 2.

Paul also works within the marriage customs of the time in order to further the gospel. When Paul writes Titus, he explains that wives should be submissive to their husbands so that the word of God may not be discredited (Titus 2:5). Peter too commands Christians, slaves, wives, and husbands to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (l Peter 2:13:13-37). Citizens might silence slander. Marriage is not a human institution, but customs in marriage are. They vary in every society. Peter explains a wife’s submission to her husband (who is not a believer) may win him to the Lord. The general ancient society esteemed wives “loving their husbands.”17 Paul wants women to be submissive so that “all may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33; 1 Tim. 2:4).

Reason 3.

Paul also assumes the current situation and from that basis he intends to remove marital deficiencies. What is the marriage situation then?  Paul writes the Ephesians when he is in Rome during his first two year house arrest. In the century before and after Christ’s birth the Greek and Roman family relationships had greatly degenerated.

When Carvilius Ruga divorced his wife for barrenness in 234 B.C., the Romans dated the decline of the family to his case. Pompey married five times, Caesar and Anthony four times, Pliny the Younger three times. Even Cicero who praises the bonds of wife and children (De Officiis 1.IV) abruptly divorces his wife Terentia after 30 years of marriage to marry a young rich woman. Seneca. during the middle of the first century A.D., remarks, “Is there any woman that blushes at divorce now that certain illustrious and noble ladies reckon their years, not by the number of consuls, but by the number of their husbands, and leave home in order to marry, and marry in order to be divorced?” (On Benefits III. 16.2). Augustus tried to remedy the marital situation by restricting divorce and prescribing severer penalties for adultery in Lex Julia et Papia Poppea, but he did not succeed.18 Divorce and adultery were not stigmas. Roman slaves legally never married. They “cohabitated” (contubernium). Intercourse of a master and a female slave was not “adultery.”19

In addition, homosexuality was respectable.20 Greek and Roman husbands would often have a mistress (and not only a mistress, but a young boy!) For example, Demosthenes explains: “One maintains hetaera not only for pleasure, as a mistress, but also for the daily care and service of one’s person. One marries a respectable woman, on the other hand, to beget legitimate children of equal birth and to have a faithful watchdog in the house” (Speech against Neaira).21 If you have a situation where men are encouraged to have homosexual relations and not to treat their wives as companions, how poignant would be Paul’s command “love your wife in everything.” Focus on her complete maturity. Love her as you love yourself. These commands leave no room for external sexual relationships.

The first way a woman might respond when a husband engenders other relations is to drop her respect for him. She becomes ruler over her home, in which she keeps out her husband. But by treating her husband (“One of the least of these my brethren”) as she would treat the Lord, the wife is helping her husband become a person worthy of respect. Ruth Barnhouse proposes that psychologically homosexuality is immaturity, stopping one’s psychological growth at a state of adolescence.22 To respect a person is to treat them as mature. Therefore, they become mature. Similarly, to follow Paul’s principles, in a marriage situation where the husband lacks esteem, the best action a wife can do is to think of reasons why he is to be respected. In addition, the husband is then to focus all his attention on his wife. He will not have time for other wrong concerns. Ephesians 5 is a funnel. Couples begin by living out Paul’s separate principles for the wife and husband and thereby will be moved into mutual submission. More than in equality, each spouse will place him/herself under the authority of the other in the fear of Christ. Christ will be over both.


To go back to that newly created Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, yes, Ephesians 5 does teach a glad harmony between husband and wife. Yes, it teaches the humble love of redeemed wives. But what is added by this Council? “Male leadership in the home.” However, Paul does not use the language or imagery for decision-maker (“mind,” “ruler,” “obedience”). He instead calls husbands to nurture, nourish, and cherish (breadwinner, cook, and tailor!) If wives should love husbands, so should husbands be subject to wives. All of this fearful talk about “who is the leader” is a subversive tool to keep people from acting on Paul’s poetical extended similes. We are not to live as the Gentiles (Eph. 4:17). Christ is the leader! Paul writes in Ephesians as a poet who desires to bring out the best in people. Instead, some have sought to make him into a judge applying laws and convicting sinners.

Paul wants his readers then and now to watch how they walk, investing their time well, to understand God’s will, and to be filled with the Spirit. One way to be filled with the Spirit is to be subject to one another. If the wife is to respect, please, and appreciate the love of a husband, the husband is to be someone who brings life and saves a person’s life by making the wife the very best person she could be. Paul uses the startling images that the wife is a priest who serves God (or a holy offering or a bride) and the wife is one body with the husband. This passage fits in with Paul’s overall goal in Ephesians for the growth and unity of the church. The mystery of God’s will is to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). Christ is our peace who has made Gentile and Jew one (Eph. 2:14), and male and female one as well!


  1. “Sex Roles and the Bible,” Christianity Today, (Jan. 13, 1989),58,40-41.
  2. For example, see James R. Beck, “Is there a Head of the House in the Home? Reflections on Ephesians 5,” Priscilla Papers, 2 (Fall, 1988),1-4; Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985); Patricia Gundry, Heirs Together: Mutual Submission in Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980); Linda Raney Wright, A Cord of Three Strands (Old Tappan: Revell, 1987).
  3. The earliest Greek manuscripts of the careful Alexandrian school have ellipsis of the verb in verse 22: papyrus46 (A.D. 200), codex Vaticanus (340), and early church fathers Clement (215), Origen (254), Jerome (420), and Theodore (428). Apparently though, Christians were early on filling in the missing verb (“let them be subject”) because Clement, Origen, and Jerome also included the verb in some of their writings. When the fourth century codex Sinaiticus included the verb, its example was followed by many later manuscripts.
  4. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek English Lexicon, ed. Henry Stuart Jones (9 ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1940), p.1897; F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (Berkeley: University of California, 1957), pp. 26-28.
  5. Liddell and Scott, p. 1851.
  6. E.g. Mimi Scarf, Jewish Battered Wives: Case Studies in the Response to Rage (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1988) pp. 42-45.
  7. See also I Cor. 7:2 “your own” man.
  8. See Appendix 2 in Aida Besancon Spencer, Paul’s Literary Style (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1984) for definitions examples, and some effects of the more common figurative New Testament terms.
  9. E.g. Aristotle Rhetoric III. IV.2: Demetrius On Style II.89.
  10. Paul’s Literary Style, pp. 251-252.
  11. See Catherine Clark Kroeger “Appendix III. The Classical Concept of Head as “Source” in Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve: Women and Men in the Church and Home, A Critical Questions Book (Old Tappan: Revell,1987), pp. 267-283; C. C. Kroeger, “An lllustration of the Greek Notion of “Head” as “Source,'” Priscilla Papers, 1:3 (August, 1987), 4-6; “What Does Kephale Mean in the New Testament?” Women, Authority, and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 97-132.
  12. Liddell and Scott, p. 1751.
  13. Incidentally, amomos and hagios are also used of the whole church in Ephesians 1:4.
  14. T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), p. 168.
  15. David and Lori Boyce, “Mutuality: Marriage on the Growing Edge,” Daughters of Sarah (Nov./Dec. 1982), 8.
  16. One of the worst sinners Paul cites is “slave trader” (l Tim. 1:10).
  17. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, trans. L. Strachan (4th ed.; New York: George H. Doran,  1927), p. 315.
  18. Carle C. Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, pp. 391-395.
  19. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken, 1975), pp. 192-193.
  20. Max Cary and J. J. Haarhoff, Life and Thought in the Greek and Roman World (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 147.21.
  21. See also Xenophon, Oeconomics: A Discussion on Estate Management X, a slave’s “services are compulsory,” and O. Larry Yarbrough, Not Like the Gentiles: Marriage Rules in the Letters of Paul (Atlanta: Scholars, 1985), p. 63. Yarbrough also adds that aside from some Stoic teachers, Paul was very unusual in his “careful balancing of advice to men and women,” pp. 116-117.
  22.  Ruth Barnhouse, Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion (New York: Seabury,1977).
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