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Ephesians 5:22 -- Wives, Submit?

The difficulty of Ephesians 5:22 is not in understanding the rather straightforward language, but its meaning. Since the patriarchal norms of the Greco-Roman world, built into the rules and regulations for everyday life and relationships, clearly demanded a wife's submission to the authority of the husband, is Paul simply advocating the continuance of conventional norms? If so, why would that be necessary? Does the qualifying phrase "as unto the Lord" introduce a radically new dimension into the nature and form of submission (or subordination)?

Of utmost importance for a proper grasp of Paul's intention are (1) the part this saying plays in the larger argument and (2) the specific meaning of terms and phrases in this saying and the surrounding text.

The larger context of this saying deals with Paul's concern that the believers, as a community and as individuals, would be strengthened by the Spirit of Christ (Eph 3:16-17) so that they would grow toward maturity (Eph 4:11-16). Such maturity comes as they are "kind and compassionate to one another" (Eph 4:32), living a life of love in imitation of God, as modeled in Christ's self-giving, sacrificial servant ministry (Eph 5:1-2).

How does this "imitation of Christ" work itself out concretely in the fellowship and common human relationships? That is the subject matter of Ephesians 5--6, and Ephesians 5:22 is part of that.

A general discussion of Christian behavior under the admonition "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness" (Eph 5:3-16) is followed by more specific instructions regarding relationships in the fellowship and other social contexts, like the family. This section is introduced by the admonition "understand what the will of the Lord is. . . . Be filled with the Spirit" (5:17-18 RSV). Then, by means of four closely related participial phrases (5:19-21), he shows how the Spirit-filled and guided life, in tune with God's will, expresses itself: (1) "speaking to each other," (2) "singing and making music," (3) "giving thanks" and (4) "submitting to one another." It is this last participial phrase which is critical for our understanding of Ephesians 5:22.

Paul has clearly shown throughout the epistle that Christians are a new social order created to express the fullness of Christ in the midst of the old, fallen order. What he is saying in Ephesians 5:21 is that the Spirit empowers Christians to exist in relationship with each other in a radical, culturally transforming way, namely, through mutual self-submission. The ground for this radically new approach to human relationships is "out of reverence for Christ." The reason for that reverence (or, perhaps better, awe) is the radical nature of Christ's earthly life, the total, free submission of himself as God's suffering servant, climaxed in his self-giving on the cross (Eph 5:2, 25). It is reverence and awe toward that self-giving love that is to motivate our mutual self-submission to each other.

This understanding of Ephesians 5:21 ("Submit to one another") sheds critical light on Ephesians 5:22 ("Wives, submit . . ."). Both the English translations and commentators often fail us at this point, printing the participial clause of Ephesians 5:21 as an isolated paragraph, separating it from both the preceding clauses and what follows (for example, NIV, NEB) or assigning it either to the preceding paragraphs (NASB) or to head a new paragraph (RSV, TEV). None of these do justice to the structure of the whole passage and to the grammar.

The participle of Ephesians 5:21 is the last of a series of four, as shown above, and clearly belongs to what precedes it. This verse also supplies the verb "to submit" for this hard saying, without which Ephesians 5:22 would be grammatically incomplete and without meaning. The verse in Greek reads literally: "Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord." The verb "to submit" is absent and can only be read into the sentence because of the intimate connection between the two verses. Ephesians 5:21 is therefore transitional, both belonging to what precedes and setting the agenda for what follows. Thus the kind of radical self-submission to one another which evidences the fullness of the Spirit is now explored in terms of its implications for husbands and wives. That is, what does this self-submission, modeled in Jesus, look like in marriage?

The submission of the wife to the husband is to be "as to the Lord." It is no longer to be the kind expected as a matter of course by cultural norms and forced upon women--who were seen as inferior to males in both Jewish and Gentile cultures. No, her submission is to be freely chosen, being there for her partner "as to the Lord," that is, as a disciple of the Lord, as one who followed in his servant footsteps, motivated by self-giving love. This kind of submission is not a reinforcement of the traditional norms; it is rather a fundamental challenge to them.

From much of Paul's correspondence we can see that the new freedom from restrictive and often enslaving cultural norms brought by the gospel led at times to rejection of the very relationships in which these norms had been operative, such as marriage itself. It is that danger which Paul may be addressing in Ephesians 5:23. Appealing to the creation account in Genesis 2, where the woman is created out of the being of the male (Gen 2:21-23), Paul says, "For the husband [man] is the head of the wife [woman]."

As discussed in the chapter on 1 Corinthians 11:3, in common Greek the idea of "authority over" was not normally conveyed by the word "head" (kephale). Besides its literal, physical meaning ("head of man or beast"), kephale had numerous metaphorical meanings, including that of "source." It is this meaning that seems most suited to the texts (1 Cor 11:3 and Eph 5:23) in which the relationship of husband and wife (or man and woman) is addressed.

In both texts appeal is made to Genesis 2, where the woman is created from the man. Thus Paul, in arguing against those who would reject the marriage relationship because of a new freedom in Christ (see Gal 3:28), reminds them that, according to God's design, the man is the source of the woman's being; they were created for each other and belong together, as Ephesians 5:31, citing Genesis 2:24, underlines. Similarly (and here begins the analogy between husband/wife and Christ/church), Christ is the kephale ("source") of the church's life (Eph 5:23). His relation to the church is not expressed in "authority" language, but in "source" language. Christ is the church's savior because he laid down his life for her.

A final argument for the validity of a radically new self-submission of wife to husband is now given: "As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything" (Eph 5:24). What is the nature of the church's submission to Christ? It is freely assumed in humble response to his self-giving, sacrificial servanthood and his continuing empowering and nurtur- ing presence. The church's submission to Christ has nothing to do with external control or coercion. For the life and ministry of Jesus demonstrates uncompromisingly his rejection of "power over others" as valid in the new creation which he is inaugurating (Lk 22:24-27). Christ stands in relation to the church, his bride, not as one who uses his power to control and demand, but rather to invite and serve.

Having radically challenged the nature of the culturally expected and demanded submission of the wife to the husband, Paul now goes on (Eph 5:25-32) to show what self-submission by the husband to the wife looks like in practice. The husband's self-submission (Eph 5:21) is to express itself in the kind of radical self-giving love that Christ demonstrated when "he gave himself up for" the life of the church (Eph 5:25). Husbands were of course expected to have erotic regard for their wives. But within a culture in which women were often not more than doormats on which male supremacy could wipe its feet, and in a religious setting where Jewish males thanked God daily that he had not made them a Gentile, a slave or a woman--in such a context erotic regard for the wife more often than not became a means of self-gratification and control over the wife. That position of superiority is daringly challenged by Paul's call upon husbands to love (agapao) their wives, that is, to be there for them and with them in self-giving, nurturing, serving love. For that is the way Christ loved the church, and husbands, like their wives, are to be imitators of Christ (Eph 5:2).

Taken from Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, InterVarsity Press. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.