Ephesians 5 for husbands and wives

BibleEphesians 5:21 and following comes at an interesting point in the book of Ephesians. It seems to be part of the fleshing out of verses 16 and 17:

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15–16)

(The NIV Study Bible says that the grammar ties verses 21 and following to the filling of the Spirit in verse 18; I’ll trust them on that one. They indicate that Paul is saying that the Spirit’s power makes the following instructions possible)

Part of that fleshing out was to live lives of submission. Verse 21 states the principle that Christians are to submit to one another. Yet that principle needs some explaining. Wives are to submit to their husbands. Children are to obey their parents. Slaves are to obey their masters. In each of those cases, a limit is put on the other party. In reverse order, masters are to treat their slaves as people made in the image of God, not mere property. Parents are to avoid exasperating their children while training them in God’s way.

And husbands are to love their wives. Paul expounds on what this love looks like. It’s a sacrificial love, with the husband giving of himself in order to help his wife be more spiritual. He is to love his wife as he loves his own body.

Paul’s final word on the subject is: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:33)

The word respect is the same one that Peter uses in 1 Peter 3:2 when discussing wives’ submission to their husbands. It’s also used of the attitude Christians should have toward government officials (Romans 13:7) and toward God himself (Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 7:1). It’s also used of slaves’ attitudes toward their masters (Ephesians 6:5; 1 Peter 2:18).

We can go far beyond this basic analysis, looking at the meaning of “head” and “submission” in this passage. (I will mention that Jay Guin does a good job with that in Buried Treasures, although he puzzlingly applies things to both men and women that are only addressed to one or the other) But I think this is more than enough to begin the discussion.

This passage does not directly address men and women in the church. However, so much of what is said about the genders seems to hinge on the marriage relationship, this seems to be a good place to start.

One of my key points is this: this teaching does not seem to precede Galatians 3:28 historically. The equality of men and women as regards the spiritual inheritance does not eliminate the differences between husband and wife.

7 thoughts on “Ephesians 5 for husbands and wives

  1. Tim Archer Post author

    You’re partially right Vern. To make it solely about human relationships doesn’t capture the full meaning of the passage. However, in the context of the discussion underway on this blog, the teachings about human relationships are significant. Thanks for commenting!

  2. James Tolbert

    Tim, could we explore how the intimate relationship of self to one’s own body is at work in this illustration of Paul’s of the marriage relationship, and further, if the use of that image as illustrative of Christ’s relationship to the church as Christ’s body puts an additional gloss on what Paul may be trying to paint as the ideal? Does this illustration of “men ought to love their wives as their own bodies, for no man ever hated his own flesh but loves and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church” (Eph 5:28-29) point us toward a hierarchical ordering of relationship or an egalitarian one? Is self ordered above body in the same way that you see masters as over slaves, fathers (the text says fathers, not mothers and fathers or parents) over children, husbands over wives, Christ over church?


  3. Tim Archer Post author

    You’re right, James. The text does say “fathers.” I guess I let Spanish bleed over in my mind, where “padres” can mean fathers or parents. Children are to obey parents, but it’s specifically fathers that are given the limitation.

    I’m not sure I understand the question about self and body. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as they love themselves (28, 33), as they love their bodies (28), and as they love their flesh (by implication, in verse 29). Do you see a differentiation there?

    Grace and peace,

  4. James Tolbert

    I’m wondering if you see them differently; if self and body mean the same thing, that changes substantially how we ought to read the text! So I’m trying to work out if there is an equation of self/own body in the text, or a differentiation and hierarchical ordering (self over body, or maybe spirit over body?). Seems to me that if it’s an equation, then that carries over into the relationship Paul is seeking to illustrate (husbands and wives), so that there’s more of an identification than differentiation there. This would make sense then of his move into using this identification and the “one flesh” image as an image of Christ and church, but if this is the right way to read the text it seems to subvert the hierarchical ordering of the relationship pairs (husband/wife, fathers/children, masters/slaves). Is this, then, Paul’s intent? If so, how does this reframe what Paul intends by his instructions to wives to “submit yourselves to your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the church: and he is the savior of the body”?

  5. Tim Archer Post author

    I think Paul is definitely an inversionist, as was Jesus. (yeah, I made that word up) The moment a man tries to make a woman submit to him, he has violated what Paul is saying. Submission can only occur when the man is willing to put the woman’s interests first, when he is willing to sacrifice for her, when he loves her as he loves his own self/flesh/body. If that isn’t present, all we have is the domination that is part of the curse of Genesis 3.

    To me, the idea that man leads by selfless sacrifice fits the idea of the leader being a servant, the first being last, losing your life to keep it, etc.

  6. James Tolbert

    Yes, I do think that consistently reminding ourselves that we must reframe “leadership” and “authority” into servanthood and sacrifice when speaking of Christ’s body the church goes a long way to correcting the erroneous interpretations that look more like “lording it over” others. But–and this is of a piece with the previous questions in a way–is this model of servant-leadership and/or sacrificial love meant only for men? Does it not apply to all disciples of Jesus, as part of what it means to follow him and emulate his life? And if this is more a model for all followers of Christ regardless of gender then what does this mean when we come back to practical discussions of leadership in the church and our practice of male spiritual headship? Are there specific male ways of being servant-leaders?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.