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
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
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
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 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.