Ephesians 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.