Ephesians 5:21-33: How Paul Turns Headship on Its Head

Patrick Franklin


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Ephesians 5


Ephesians 5:21-33 is often cited as a proof text to endorse male leadership in the home. In this text, wives are instructed to submit to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. Pretty clear, right?

Well, perhaps not. As with the other passages, we need to consider the broader context to discern what’s going on.

The most important thing to notice is that the relationship between husbands and wives is not the main theme that Paul is addressing.

His broader theological concern is life in the Spirit, thus the general principle he asserts is “Be filled with the Spirit . . .” (5:18b). He then expounds on a number of applications of this principle, one of which concerns the way Christian husbands and wives are to relate to each other.

Of course, we fail to see that life in the Spirit is Paul’s main focus if we only read verses 21-33 of Ephesians 5 (or worse, if we begin at verse 22). Sometimes preachers are guilty of isolating the text in this fashion. For example, some appeal to this text as a kind of handbook for Christian marriages, perhaps as part of a sermon series on godly relationships in the home. Unfortunately, this misses the point of Paul’s discussion and ends up misapplying the text.

Sometimes bad translations have contributed to the problem.

For example, the original NIV (1984), which is the text that many evangelical pastors grew up reading (myself included), misconstrued the structure and grammar of Ephesians 5:18-21. The original NIV employed five sentences to express six separate commands, as depicted in the following diagram:

original NIV

However, the Greek text on which the NIV was based has only one (long) sentence that expresses just two commands: (1) “Do not get drunk”; and (2) “Be filled with the Spirit”.

The second of these commands is followed by 5 participles (-ing words) that serve as applications of the command. These are (a) speaking to one another, (b) singing, (c) making music, (d) giving thanks, and (e) submitting to one another. The following diagram depicts the grammatical structure of the Greek text (compare it closely with the previous diagram!):

greek text flow

This structure makes it clear that Paul’s words about submission in marriage are given as an application of his primary theme, which is life in the Spirit.  So far so good. But, why does Paul tell wives to submit to their husbands? Why is this an apt expression of their life in the Spirit?

It’s important to notice that Paul does not simply tell wives to submit.

In fact, he begins the subsection 5:21-33 with the participial phrase submitting to one another, which he directs to all . . . wives to husbands (verses 22-24) and then husbands to wives (verses 25-33). The author does not repeat the verb ‘submit’ when applying v. 21 to either wives or husbands. He simply says “wives, to your husbands” and then addresses husbands by telling them to love their wives. So Paul is encouraging mutual submission in the home, wives to husbands and husbands to wives. Why then does he switch from “submit” in verse 21-24 to “love” in verses 25-33? We’ll come back to that shortly.

Paul’s instructions to wives.

Though Paul is talking about mutual submission in Ephesians 5, in verses 22-24 he emphasizes the need for wives to submit to their husbands. We’re not sure why, exactly, because Paul doesn’t tell us. But given the contextual nature of Paul’s letters, it is likely that he was writing to address specific issues the church was facing. We know that the church in Ephesus was having problems with false teachers, and many of these were women who were abusing their newfound freedom in Christ. Paul is concerned that such women were threatening the social order, which would create unnecessary impediments to the hearing of the gospel among the unevangelized.

We see this kind of concern elsewhere, for example in 1 Peter 3 (see this post) and in Titus 2:5 where Paul writes that women are “to be kind and subject to their husbands so that no one will malign the word of God.” Paul is not an egalitarian in the modern sense. He takes for granted the traditional household codes of the ancient Greco-Roman world and does not seek to overturn them, at least not directly. Instead, his approach is to accept the traditional household arrangements of the ancient world on the surface while subverting them from within. He does this with his rather shocking instructions to husbands.

Paul’s instructions to husbands.

Paul tells husbands to love their wives. He moves from submission language in verses 22-24 to the language of love in verses 25-33. In so doing he is not softening his instructions to the men, but intensifying them. According to the broader context of the passage, there was something wrong with the men in Ephesus. They needed to be instructed to love their wives (5:25-33), to discipline their children with gentleness and godly instruction (6:4), and to treat their slaves with dignity (6:9). Paul seeks to break this pattern by appealing to Jesus as the model of selfless love. Just as Christ loved the church and gave up his own life to save her, so husbands are called to love and serve their wives.

These are shocking instructions in the context of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Ancient sources do not speak frequently of husbands loving their wives. Husbands had relatively few obligations in the home beyond providing food and shelter. And women were generally regarded as inferior. They were expected to take the religion of their husbands. They were often viewed as less intelligent and less moral, a source of sin and continual temptation for men. Paul is speaking into this context and seeking to subvert it.

So does Paul teach male headship in this passage? Yes! . . . well, sort of!

He does say that husbands are the ‘head’ of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church. On the other hand, he goes out of his way to subvert common notions of male leadership. Paul is both assuming and subverting male headship at the same time. In essence, he’s saying:  “Yes, husbands, you are the head! . . . Now heres what it looks like to be the head when you acknowledge Christ as Lord and seek to live life in the Spirit.”

The kind of headship that Paul endorses in Ephesians 5 is strange indeed. As ‘head’, husbands are to love, serve, and even submit to their wives. It’s difficult in this passage to distinguish the difference between being a ‘head’ and being a servant!

It’s important to point out what Paul does not say about the husband’s headship.

He does not say that the husband is the sole or even primary decision-maker. He does not say that the husband is in charge of the family finances. He does not say that the wife’s place is to be in the home while the husband’s place is to be the sole breadwinner. He is not using ‘head’ in the sense that we often use it in English – as the head of a corporation, boss, chief officer, etc. He subverts and transforms headship language by redefining it in reference to Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples that the greatest ones in his kingdom are those who live to serve others. He said that he himself did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. As a display of his glory (John 13), Jesus stooped to wash the feet of his own disciples. And in an ultimate act of love and sacrifice, Jesus became a slave for us, dying a criminal’s death on the cross to save us (Philippians 2:5-11).

Mutual submission is one of the practices that ought to define Christians in their common life together in the Spirit.

Husbands and wives are called to live this out in the home, with Jesus himself as their example. Wives are to submit to their husbands as an expression of their submission to Christ. Submission to husbands is neither absolute nor even virtuous in itself: Jesus the Lord is the basis, motivation, and qualification of that submission (as one commentator points out). Husbands are to submit to their wives by loving them sacrificially and serving them, just as Christ loved and served the church, giving up his own life for her sake.

Yes, Paul endorsed headship in Ephesians 5:21-33. But he also turned headship on its head! Egalitarians seek to take his lead and extend his principles within our own contemporary context, one no longer bound by the household codes of the ancient Greco-Roman world.


Read More:

5 Myths of Male Headship

Co-Leadership in Marriage: What about Headship?

Do Men Really Need to “Govern” Women?

This post originally appeared at patrickfranklin.wordpress.com.

Image Credit: iStock

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  • I should have included this in my last comment, but I am also interested if anyone has really examined the concept of “heart” as being the seat of thought (leadership) in the Hebrew/Greek context. It is my understanding that the heart was viewed as the thinking part of a person–that which directed him or her (as a person thinks in his heart, so he is). Aristotle believed the heart was the thinking part of humankind.

    So if Paul was wishing to describe man as the dominant leader as opposed to source wouldn’t he have used the metaphor of heart?

    It wasn’t until Galen in the early second century that people began to think of the head as the area of thought and heart as emotion (and I think even that was slow to catch on–Aristotle’s view remaining quite popular for a long time).

    Am I on to something or am I all wet on this one?

  • I’m curious if the issue in Ephesus (assuming we are dealing specifically with Ephesus in this letter) centers around potential abuses arising out of the cult of Artemis. Much like 1 Timothy 2 which really seems to me to reflect that (see Xenophon–I believe recent studies have placed Xenophon’s Ephesiaica not in the second century but clearly in the mid-50s of the first). Any thoughts?

  • My understanding of the passage is the mutual submission of vs 21 is modeled by the relationship of Christ to the Church in the subsequent vs. We have wives submitting as to the lord like the church submits and husbands submitting as Christ did to the church.

    So I’m not sure the conflict between Egalitarian and Complementarianism here. I’m complementarian and I agree with what you say under ‘It’s important to point out what Paul does not say about the husband’s headship.’

    My perspective is that Paul is neither endorsing rigid traditional gender roles or the erasing of gender distinctions we see in modern feminism. I don’t know many complementarian marriages where the husband acts like the boss, there’s mutual submission, but neither do they erase the distinction of male and female, so there is a spiritual headship of the husband (vs 25-27).

    • Thanks for your comment, Pete. I’m glad that we agree about not reading modern ideas into Paul’s comments about headship. I agree with you that we should resist the erasing of all gender distinctions (evangelical egalitarians do not do this, of course).

      I wonder, though, what you mean by ‘spiritual headship of the husband’? Paul does not use the word ‘spiritual’ and those that speak of ‘spiritual headship’ typically read modern complemenarian notions back into the text.

      In any case, my main argument is that – whatever the meaning of headship – the crucial thing to notice is that Paul is subverting the idea . . . he is turning headship on its head.

  • I recently heard an excellent definition of headship with a contrasting definition for lordship (I can’t remember what preacher I was listening to but it sounded old). Headship is responsibility for someone. Lordship is responsibility to someone. In headship, when we have responsibility for someone, we are take care of them, to nurture them, to look out for the growth, to make sure they are protected and secure. This seems to be exactly what Paul is instructing husbands to do. Husbands are to die for their wives, just like Christ did for the church. Husbands are to serve their wives, just like Jesus did the church. Husbands are to cleanse their wives just like Jesus did the church. I would say that is anything but being the final decision maker in all matters, etc. But, most men want Paul to be talking about lordship, placing the responsibility of the command to men on women to do what their husbands want and making the passage about the woman’s responsibility to the man. In that case, Paul would really be giving two applications/commands to women and none to men in this passage.

  • Thank you for your lovely blog. I have been told head means leader, boss, or on the other hand, source. I recently came upon the word “fountainhead” and wonder if this is perhaps the better sense of the word. On looking for synonyms for fountainhead, I found some interesting, and very Biblical sounding words: “seed” and “origin” “nucleus” and of course, ‘source’…perhaps we still don’t know or have a true understanding of the meaning of head. One thing is certain, we all find our origin in God. I’m not sure that the man who said “there is neither male nor female in Christ” could have meant that either one, then, should take precedence in any way over the other. Wouldn’t this then put a mediator between God and his creatures and fly in the face of the teaching “My Glory I will not give to another”? Any form of hierarchy it seems to me intrudes upon the glory given to God that only belongs to Him. Even the idea that the woman is the glory of the husband may not be a command but an carnal observation, alone…and the idea of male superiority/leadership implies an intermediary that comes between the woman and God. Yet this is never the case when God relates to women in the Bible. He is careful always, it seems, to meet any woman directly, and not through any mediator. Even when God came in the incarnate flesh, Jesus directed his communication with women precisely “as the crow flies” and not through any other route such as husband, brother, son or religious leader…always. Immediately, in the beginning Eve was directly consulted by God, and not bypassed through Adam. . This is a potent point, in my view. What is a fact is that the woman was formed out of the man (as seed or nucleus) in the Garden and from then on the man came out of the “seed” of the woman. Cultural prejudices aside, again God seems to be infinitely equal in His word pictures…as righteousness demands.

    • Thanks Judy. Good point about God relating directly to Eve. Well said! Jesus Christ is, in fact, the only mediator (or High Priest, in Hebrews) between God and human beings. Now, both men and women serve as priests to each other, as they participate in the priesthood of Christ.

      On the meaning of ‘head’, I agree – it is confusing. I’m not convinced that the best meaning is ‘source’, but that debate is secondary in my way of thinking. The key is that Paul seeks to subvert and transform the views of ‘headship’ that were operative in his day.

  • The pericope of Ephesians 5:15-32 is very important to Churches of Christ because it covers three areas of doctrine: headship of men, abstinence from alcohol and singing without instrumental accompaniment (“the verse says sing not sing and play”). The last point is held to be true even though the context is not one of corporate worship, but of everyday life. All three uses of the passage fail to hold up under close scrutiny but they are still taught to be essential parts of doctrine.

  • You say that Paul doesn’t use the word “head” as we know it today to mean “boss.” How was he using it, then? What could be another term instead of head? I’d like to find a source for this.

    • Good question. I think my larger point is that, whatever the meaning of ‘head’ (and we do need to be careful of important modern notions – like ‘head of the household’, etc.), Paul does not adopt it uncritically. Paul is not telling his readers simply to adopt the ancient household codes; he assumes their existence, uses their language, but subverts and redirects their meaning and significance in the process.

  • “… some appeal to this text as a kind of handbook for Christian marriages, perhaps as part of a sermon series on godly relationships in the home.” I saw this recently, Patrick.

    The preacher used the passage to teach an agenda of male leadership that isn’t found in the words of the text itself. He went so far as to say that this Bible passage proves that men need respect more than love and women need love more than respect. He’s wrong about the words of the passage, but that’s because he completely ignored al context for it. (A response to him: Men Need Love And Women Need Respect.

  • I love this whole article – thanks Patrick! It explains so well things that I find hard to articulate when put on the spot in conversation. I particularly love the model of headship you pointed out in Philippians 2 – I think it captures this idea so well.

  • Thank you. Wonderful article. I noticed some time ago in my study that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” was immediately followed by specific instructions on what type of headship is to be practiced — that of Jesus’ service and sacrifice. It teaches the exact opposite of power, authority, and lording it over others.

    These specific instructions on headship were necessary in part because it is obvious to any Christian that male human beings cannot actually be God. Therefore, it was necessary, when telling them how to be godly, to specify the things men *can and *should practice in imitation of God. And those things were love, service, and sacrifice.

    If one looks up all instructions in the Bible that begin “Husbands” and are clearly aimed at husbands, this message is consistent. There are no instructions in the Bible to husbands to take charge of their wives. Biblical instructions to husbands are the opposite of that.

    When I studied it for myself and discovered this truth, the gospel finally made sense and had internal order. It all worked together. Thanks for your exploration of this!

    • Well said! We are all called to be imitators of God, specifically of Christ, wherever God has placed us. Thanks Terri.

  • Thanks for this. So well said — it’s so important to understand the point, and you only get that in the proper context. Without that context you have people making scriptures support their own ideas.

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