An Exposition of Ephesians 5:22-33 (Part 2)

Commission to Wives (vv.22-24)

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

I. The Command (v.22)

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. This command is referring to the previous verse where Paul commissions all Christians to be subject to one another. “Be subject” is implied but not technically written in verse 22. Paul addresses wives, children and slaves first in these sections (5:22-33; 6:1-4; 6:5-9) to specify the various ways that 5:21 is obeyed in the Christian household. Underneath the general commission of general submission, there are these three specific forms of submission.[1] The verb is hupatasso, meaning “to relinquish one’s rights” – or more simply, “to obey.” The verb is in the middle voice, which highlights the willingness of the one submitting. Thus, in verse 21, “the submission is to be a voluntary response to God’s will in giving up one’s independent rights to other believers in general and to ordained authority in particular.”[2] Paul explains in 5:22-6:9 how mutual subjection plays-out in three separate household relationships: marriage (husband and wife), offspring (children and parents), slavery (master and slave). To wives, Paul is saying, “Obey your husbands.”

First, we must take great care to distinguish between a person and an office. Martin Luther wrote,

I have often said that we must sharply distinguish between these two, the office and the person. The man who is called Hans or Martin is a man quite different from the one who is called elector or doctor or preacher. Here we have two different persons in one man. The one is that in which we are created and born, according to which we are all alike – man or woman or child, young or old. But once we are born, God adorns and dresses you up as another person. He makes you a child and me a father, one a master and another a servant, one a prince and another a citizen.[3]

Within the marriage relationship, we clearly see equal dignity but different roles.[4] A wife who obeys her husband recognizes the divine order of creation. God has chosen to place the husband as a steward over the home. The authority is delegated to the husband to use for God’s purposes – something that will be discussed in greater detail when Paul addresses men. What we understand now, however, is that there is clearly an order to the home, in which the husband leads and the wife follows. “Be subject” does not mean unconditional obedience, so as to follow a husband into blatant sin – nor does it give unlimited authority to husbands.[5] Nevertheless, the meaning is obedience.

The wife’s submission is not her obedience to someone of higher worth, who is better and more valuable than her. Rather, her obedience to her husband is her recognition of and submission to God’s plan for the home. She follows her husband because she loves God, delights in His purposes and trusts the way He has chosen to organize the family. Further, the husbands authority to lead the home cannot mean that he is more valuable, important or glorious than the wife, because his authority is not innate. Christ alone holds all authority in Heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18-20). Any authority that the husband holds, therefore, is a delegated authority. In other words: it says something about the office, but not the individual.

As to the Lord” may refer to “as [your husbands likewise submit] to the Lord.” I understand this not to be the case because of the ensuing language. Verses 23-24 show that it is God’s plan for the wife to submit to the husband, as part of the marital order. Thus, “as to the Lord” would make sense to mean, “in submitting to your husband, you submit to the Lord.” Salmond explains this phrase well: “…the wife is to regard the obedience she has to render to her husband as an obedience rendered to Christ, the Christian husband being head of the wife and representing to her Christ the Head of the whole Christian body.”[6] Submission to the husband is submission to God, for he is God’s steward over the wife, ordained by God to lead her. When she submits, it is not because her husband deserves or demands it, but because Christ commands it. Christ is her motivation to submit. Her primary delight in being subject is not fulfilling her husband’s will, but Christ’s.

Verse 22a (“Wives, be subject to your own husbands”) is the main phrase of the whole three-verse section (vv.22-24). “Your own” clarifies “husbands.” The Greek idiois (translated “Your own”) renders “husbands” as something special – unique to each individual wife.[7] This is a mandate only for subjection to her husband. This passage cannot be used to prove a female’s subjection to any other man. MacArthur writes, “They belong to each other in an absolute equality. The husband no more possesses his wife than she possesses him. He has no superiority and she no inferiority, any more than one who has the gift of teaching is superior to one with the gift of helping.”[8]

II. Reason for the Command (v.23a)

For” means “because.” The following words will inform us of something that made provision or necessity in some way for the wife’s submission. The reason for Paul’s command to “be subject” is this: “the husband is the head of the wife.” The husband’s headship in this phrase is qualified by the next, but we may already concern ourselves with the question of source versus authority. Some commentators see “head of the wife” to mean “source of the wife.” However, I see no implication of this in the text. Why would the wife need to obey the husband (“be subject”) if the husband was simply the source of the woman, in that she came from his rib ? It makes more sense for Paul to be referring to the created order, that man would be the leader for woman. This understanding makes much more sense of the ensuing phrase. In what way is the husband a source for his wife the same as Christ is for the church? I think it makes more sense for Paul to be referring to a headship of authority.

Others suggest that because gender roles were accepted in the ancient world, Paul was giving a mandate contingent upon that specific culture. Since today’s culture differentiates itself from antiquity, these mandates don’t apply. Yet I don’t think this argument makes sense of the reasons Paul shares for his instruction. In Ephesians 5:22-24, Paul’s reasoning for commanding the wife to submit is that the husband is the head of the wife. This is a fact that Paul asserts – something inherent to the marriage relationship. This is a quality of marriage, dating back to when God created the union in Genesis 2. Since Paul’s reasoning is based on created order and not cultural fads, the command is timeless. Marital offices are, at their root, unaffected by culture. “What creation has established, no culture is able to destroy.”[9] How the fundamental commands for husbands and wives are carried out will look different in various cultures, but the fundamental commands will not change. How the specific roles mandated in Scripture are carried out is probably best left to the husband and wife’s individual strengths and weaknesses. The command of God is that each unique household conforms to the general mandate of roles outlined in Scripture. There is a reason for this, even beyond how males and females are biologically different.

Also: if gender roles are innate to marriage, then a husband will only find his true self in manhood when he fully accepts and lives-out his role as a husband. Likewise, a wife only truly steps into womanhood when she fully accepts and lives-out her role as a wife.[10] A wife who submits to her husband is not limited but set free. Some might think that Ephesians 5:22-24 oppresses Christian wives. But if she was created by God to hold a certain office when married, then she will find purest delight, meaning and fulfillment when she fills that office at the proper time. Only in submitting to her husband can a wife truly experience and know womanhood. The plan of God is liberating – may we see it as such!

III. Analogy for the Command (v.23b-24)

As Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” Paul makes Christ’s headship over the church the husband’s model for his own headship. I have already suggested that head means “authority”- but what purpose does “He Himself being the Savior of the body” serve in Paul’s argument? Does it take away the husband’s role of authority, qualifying it as source-ship? First option: consider that the husband’s source-ship is similar to Christ’s, in the sense that Christ is the “Savior of the body.” Later on, Paul may be suggesting that a husband should be concerned for his wife’s sanctification (a facet of salvation; vv.25-27). This is likely not the connection. For one, this is as far as even implicit textual support can be drawn. Secondly, there is no way in which the husband is a savior of the wife as Christ is. Suppose a second option: that the husband is to provide and protect the wife, as Christ did for the church, thereby being her source of sustenance. So, the husband’s savior-ship is not salvific but physical. This still seems to be a bit of a stretch. I don’t believe it makes the best sense of Paul’s choice of words. A third alternative: Paul, before he even addresses husbands, is clarifying the manner of their headship. By referencing Christ’s sacrifice for His church, he foreshadows the love that he will call husbands to in verses 25-29. Especially in Paul’s day, where women were barely more than property, such a comment on Christ’s headship would have seemed radical. This seems compatible with the text, but not the best interpretation, in light of a final alternative.

The fourth option, I believe, is to be preferred: this statement by Paul depicts how Christ’s role differs from that of the husband. Christ is the church’s head and savior, but a husband is only a head to his wife. This is most evident in the Greek alla, translated as “but” or “nevertheless.” Paul’s thoughts flow like this: “He Himself being the Savior of the body – nevertheless, as the church is subject to Christ…” Alla is a Greek word depicting strong contrast, unlike its weaker counterpart de. What is Paul contrasting? There must be something in verse 23 that Paul is putting in opposition to something in verse 24. If we take Paul’s comment on Christ as Savior as clarifying part of the church/Christ relationship that is not synonymous with the marriage relationship, then this allows alla to function properly within the sentence. We can paraphrase verses 22-24 likewise: “Wives, you must obey your husbands. Do this because God has decided for husbands to be leaders for their wives, just like Christ is the leader of the church – though He is also the Savior of the church. Despite this inconsistency in my analogy, you must still obey your husbands as the church obeys Christ.” Undoubtedly, a husband should be concerned with his wife’s sanctification (option 1), should be a physical protector of his wife (option 2), and should model his love toward his wife after Christ’s for his church (option 3). However, the vital issue is not what is true, but rather what did Paul mean. Taking the fourth option, I believe, provides the smoothest and simplest exegesis – taking best consideration for which words Paul chose to use.

If, by referring to Christ as Savior, Paul is implying something positive for husbands, this would still fit well with the text and be perfectly compatible with our exegesis thus far. Running with this option, we must first note that “Savior of the body” does not further clarify the quality of Christ’s headship but rather the manner in which it is expressed by Christ. Paul does not say with this phrase, “Christ is the head of the church – but not in the sense that He has authority. Rather, in the sense that He sustains and benefits her.” He instead says, “Christ is the head of the church – and look how He treated her! He died for her sins, giving up everything so that she could be made whole.” If this is what Paul intended to convey (option 3), then his message for husbands in verse 23 would be something similar to this: “Husbands are the wife’s head as Christ is the church’s – Oh, and by the way, Christ died for His church, so keep that in mind, husbands, as you go about being your wife’s head.” This understanding makes sense of Paul’s later instruction to husbands and his present word on the similarities between these two headship roles. Calvin agrees: “As Christ rules over his church for her salvation, so nothing yields more advantage or comfort to the wife than to be subject to her husband.”[11] I favor the fourth option, but I leave the reader to follow what evidence he sees most convincing.

Though perhaps there is a fifth option. “He Himself being the Savior of the body” could be Paul sharing how Christ has been a faithful head. A paraphrase might be: “Husbands are the wife’s head as Christ is the church’s – and Christ was a faithful head, wasn’t He? He exercised His authority for her greatest good.” The husband’s authority is not due to his worthiness, but his office (as asserted above). An appropriate question would be, “For what purpose is this office given?” The answer I think is clear: “For the wife’s benefit.” The husband’s headship is delegated by Christ in order that the wife and home would be made healthy. So in this fifth option, Paul gives the wife confidence in his theology of headship. “Look how Christ exercised his headship. If your marriage is modeled after what I am now teaching you, then your husband will exercise his headship likewise.”

In verse 24, Paul restates his main assertion and provides wives with their own example: the church. “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” By this time it is obvious, and shall be later expounded upon, that the marriage relationship reflects Christ’s relationship to His church through the fact that and manner in which the relationship is one of submission and headship. “Ought to be” is not in the text, but seems intended. “In everything” clarifies the realm of subjection: there is nothing in which wives are not to submit to their husbands.

These three verses are all Paul says concerning and to wives in Ephesians 5. Perhaps this is because his words were unlikely to be misunderstood. Female submission in antiquity was vastly abused, yet culturally grasped. When Paul told the church that every wife ought to be subject to her husband in everything, the simplicity of such a commission was not confused with ambiguity. Everyone would have known what Paul meant. However, when he further clarified the authority of the husband as having a manner of sacrificial love in the likeness of Christ’s for His church, then there was motivation and cause for misunderstanding. It makes sense, then, that Paul’s longer section be devoted to tearing-down the worldly standard for male headship in marriage. The radical nature of Paul’s command to husbands can hardly be overstated. Although verses 22-24 are considered controversial in the 21st century, verses 25-33 likely were given such treatment in Paul’s day.

By drawing an analogy between the marital relationship and that of Christ/church, Paul calls wives to take their cues from the church. The husband is not to be worshiped or religiously focused upon, as the church does with Christ. The husband is Christ’s steward over the wife, and in this way the wife models the sense in which the church follows Christ. If a woman is confused as to what Paul means by “be subject,” she should study in what way the church submits to Christ, keeping in mind the qualifications mentioned in the text (i.e., the husband is not to be worshiped as God, trusted in as a Savior or unconditionally obeyed). Likewise, if a man is confused, he should study the way in which Christ leads the church, keeping in mind qualifications.

We stated above that the wife’s submission, although in all things, is not unconditional. That is to say that any condition in which the husband leads the wife into sin is a condition in which the wife is no longer obligated to submit to her husband. With this in mind, we also understand (from Paul’s comparison of the church/Christ relationship to the marriage relationship) that a wife is no more a co-leader with her husband than the church is with Christ. Calvin writes, “Not that the authority is equal, but wives cannot obey Christ without yielding obedience to their husbands.”[12] Marriage is a partnership, but the partnership is not of mirror offices. It is a partnership unto the same end: the building and protecting of a home. The household is the glorious purpose of both marital roles. They both can take great joy in their roles, knowing that in doing so they equally contribute to a wholesome, God-glorifying, healthy home.

Perhaps a final word should be said concerning confidence in obeying God. If this is the prescribed office for a wife to hold – one of submission to the husband – then what should the wife’s attitude be in submitting?[13] I think MacArthur gives a good word concerning the confidence that wives can have in obeying God’s ordained roles in marriage.

“God specifically excludes women from dominant leadership over men in the church and in the home, and whatever direct influence they have – which can be highly significant and powerful – should be by way of encouragement and support. Holiness has always been the foremost concern of godly women. “For in this way in former times,” Peter goes on to explain, “the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear” 91 Pet. 3:5-6). Just as Abraham was the symbolic father of the faithful (Rom. 4:11, 16), his wife, Sarah, was the symbolic mother of the submissive. Because Sarah had no fear of obeying God, she had no fear of what her husband, or any other person or circumstance, might do to her. God will take care of the consequences when His children are obedient to Him.”[14]

[1] Boice, Ephesians (Bake Books, 1998), 199. Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, commentary on Ephesians 5:22.
[2] MacArthur, Ephesians, 280.
[3Luther, The Sermon on the Mount, Luther’s Works, Vol. 21 (Concordian, 1956), 23.
[4] Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 218.
[5 Ibid. “We must submit right up to the point where obedience to human authority would involved disobedience to God,” (Stott, 219).
[6Salmond, Expositor’s, 365.
[7] Ibid.
[8] MacArthur, 281.
[9] Stott, 221.
[10] Stott, 222.
[11] Calvin, commentary on Ephesians 5:23.
[12] Calvin, commentary on Ephesians 5:22.
[13 Of course there are many other glorious things a wife does – her existence as a wife is not defined by obeying her husband. I only point this aspect out here because this is all Paul deals with in this text.
[14] MacArthur, 284.

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