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8. Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21 and Colossians 3:18-19)

The longest statement in the New Testament on the relationship of husbands and wives is Ephesians 5:21-33. The parallel account, Colossians 3:18-19, succinctly states the main points of Paul’s teaching. We shall use the Ephesians account as the basis for this chapter and relate the Colossians material to it.

Before we inquire into the particular truths the apostle articulates in Ephesians 5:22-33, we should determine the flow of his presentation. Paul ties his previous discussion to his treatment of husbands and wives with a summary preview: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21).1 Then he addresses the respective parties: wives (verses 22-24) and husbands (verses 25-31). He asks wives to submit to their husbands as their heads as the church submits to Christ as her head. He asks husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Paul compares the relationship of husband and wife to that between Christ and the church (notice the comparatives “as” and “just as” in verses 22, 23, 24, 25).

Paul not only compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and His church but also expands on the latter. Thus, some verses focus almost exclusively on Christ and the church (e.g., verses 26, 27). After these instructions and comparisons, Paul cites Genesis 2:24 in verse 31 and makes a final reference to the relationship of Christ and His church in verse 32. He concludes by summarizing his instructions in verse 33 with two key concepts: a husband is to love his wife and a wife is to respect her husband.

This passage abounds with instructions for marriage. The key ideas appear in the flow of the argument: submission to one another in the fear of the Lord (verse 21); submission by the wife to her husband as her head, as the church submits to Christ its head (verses 22-24); love by the husband for his wife, as Christ loves the church (verses 25-30); the appeal to Genesis 2:24 (verse 31); and the concluding summary (verse 33) with its emphasis on the husband’s love and the wife’s respect.

We will examine each of these in turn to ascertain its particular importance both in isolation and in its contribution to the whole passage. Limitations of space and the focus of our study demand that details about Christ and the church outside the comparison with marriage be omitted from consideration here.

Submit to One Another in the Fear of Christ

Verse 21 provides a transition from the verses that precede to those that follow. Even though the verb “submit to” is appropriately rendered as an imperative, as are others that precede it (“speak,” verse 19; “sing and make music,” verse 19), it (like them) is a participle that concludes the string of exhortations begun by Paul in verse 18 with the true imperative “be filled with the Spirit.” “Submit to one another” thus concludes the list of things that should characterize Spirit-filled living by the redeemed. Furthermore, in a couple of important manuscripts, no verb appears in verse 22, so that “submit to” from verse 21 has to be understood as functioning in verse 22 as well. In other important manuscripts, the verb appears in verse 22 as well.2 Both readings tie the two verses together, since the same verb is either understood or repeated. Hence verse 21 needs to be considered in its transitional role.

Three ideas are so inherent to the thought of this verse that we must consider them in order to properly understand this verse and its relevance for the passage as a whole. They are (1) the meaning of “submit to one another,” (2) the significance of the qualifier “out of reverence for Christ,” and (3) how this call for submission to one another relates to the specific instructions to wives and husbands.

What is Meant by “Submit to One Another”?

In the admonition “submit to one another,”3 the verb (hupotasso) has as its basic meaning “to subject or subordinate.” Here Paul’s use of the middle voice focuses on what one does to oneself: one submits oneself to others. The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker Greek-English Lexicon rightly describes this as “submission in the sense of voluntary yielding in love” (p. 848, section 1bb). This voluntary yielding to others is a characteristic of the Christian community and is urged elsewhere in the New Testament. Compare, e.g., “In humility consider others [allelous, the same word as in Ephesians] better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).4 This admonition is based on the example of Jesus (Philippians 2:5), who insisted on a servant mentality in imitation of Him: “… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:26-28; cf. Mark 10:43-45; cf. also Luke 22:26, 27).

Furthermore, the Apostle Peter, like the Apostle Paul, both urges particular people (younger men) to submit to particular people (elders) and all to submit to one another: “Young men … be submissive to (hupotagete) those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another (allelon again) …” (1 Peter 5:4-5). Similarly, Paul urges masters to “Treat your slaves in the same way” (ta auta, Ephesians 6:9) as their slaves were to treat them, i.e., “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart” (verse 5). This implies reciprocity between masters and slaves. The exhortation to Christians in Ephesians 5:21 is thus, like these other passages, a general exhortation to mutual submission to “one another.”

Submission in Reverence for Christ

The motivation for submission to one another is to be “reverence (phobo) for Christ” (5:21). Reverence, or fear (phobos), here is not dread, because Scripture elsewhere teaches that God’s love in us casts out such fear (1 John 4:18; cf. also Romans 8:15). Rather, it is respectful reverence for Christ that recognizes who has asked this of us and that He will hold us accountable for our actions (cf., for this sense in Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1). This statement reminds us that—because in our sinful rebellion we would not obey our Lord—we will only submit to others when Christ has made us subject to Himself, and then we will submit to one another because He insists that we do so. Paul makes this point elsewhere when, in writing about interpersonal relationships—including those of men and women—he says forcefully, “What I am writing to you is the Lord’s command” (1 Corinthians 14:37). Thus verse 21, explicitly insisting that believers submit to one another, sets the tone for the entire section.

How Verse 21 Is a Transition

But then the question naturally arises, how is the content of verse 21 related to verses 22-33? At least two answers have been given. First, one might answer that this verse is a general statement of the specifics spelled out for wives, children, and servants. That is, certain ways in which Christians are to submit to others are then specified.5 It is argued that the key word submit is picked up with reference to wives in verses 22 and 24 and for children and servants by the concept of obedience (6:1, 5). Furthermore, this would seem to parallel Peter’s approach when he urges Christians, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men …” (1 Peter 2:13) and spells this out in terms of the submission servants (2:18ff.) and wives are to give (3:1ff.). Even if the following answer is more adequate, this suggestion need not be rejected so long as it does not exclude the more comprehensive understanding.

Second, one might answer that the relationship of verse 21 to verses 22-23 is that verse 21 states a general and comprehensive principle before Paul moves to the specific roles of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves, so that the specific is considered in the light of the general. On this view, Paul reminds all in the congregation of their need for mutual submission in the Body of Christ before writing of the specific duties each has in his particular situation. This seems to do more justice to the explicit reciprocal pronoun used, “one another” (allelon). Furthermore, it is in line with the contextual understanding found elsewhere in Paul and Peter where a similar exhortation is given (Philippians 2:3, “let each of you regard one another …” [NASB]; 1 Peter 5:5, “all of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” [NASB).6

First Peter 5:5 is particularly instructive, because there Peter urges all of you to be humble toward one another immediately after urging the younger ones to be subject to their elders. Thus Peter calls on the elders among all of you to be humble toward younger men at the same time as he calls on younger men to submit to those same elders. Just as Peter expresses both ideas in one verse (1 Peter 5:5), so also Paul expresses the general note of mutual submission in verse 21, followed by the specific submission of wives to husbands, for example, in verses 22ff. So Paul wants to remind all Christians, men and women, of their duty to be submissive to one another before reminding wives of their particular responsibility to their husbands in marriage. This puts particular, unidirectional submission in the context of general, mutual submission and relates specific duties, roles, and responsibilities to the general Christian concept of mutual submission.

It is sometimes urged that mutual submission alone is in view in the section on wives and husbands, and that therefore wives are not being called to a unique or distinct submission to their husbands.7 Since, however, verse 21 is a transition verse to the entirety of the section on household responsibilities, consistency would demand that the sections on children and parents and on servants and masters also speak only of mutual submissiveness and not of different roles. Since this is self-evidently not so for the section on children and parents, on the one hand, and masters and servants, on the other, the implication is that distinguishable roles and specific submission are also taught in the section on husbands and wives. Of course, it could be argued that the command given husbands to love their wives is but another way of calling them to mutual submission. But even if that were so, Paul still calls the husband “the head” of the wife and therefore the one to whom she should submit in everything (verses 22-24). Thus this section cannot be teaching only mutual submission rather than the specific submission of wives to husbands in the overall context of mutual submission. The mutual submission to which all are called and that defines the larger context and sets the tone does not, therefore, rule out the specific and different roles and relationships to which husbands and wives are called in the verses addressed to them.

Submission and Headship

In the main portion of the section addressed to wives and husbands (verses 22-30) and the concluding summary (verse 33), Paul delineates his teaching along three lines: (1) the role each has (submission, headship), (2) the attitude with which each fulfills his or her role (love, respect), and (3) the analogy of marriage to the relationship of Christ and His church.

  • The Roles of Wives and Husbands

Paul commands wives to “be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (verse 22, NASB). The operative verb “be subject to” or “submit to” (hupotasso) reappears in verse 24, where Paul writes that wives should submit “to their husbands in everything” “as the church submits to Christ.” This is the essence of the apostle’s teaching to wives, since in Colossians 3:18 it is the entirety of his charge: “Wives, submit (hupotasso) to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”8 Furthermore, this particular exhortation to the wife to submit to her husband is the universal teaching of the New Testament. Every passage that deals with the relationship of the wife to her husband tells her “to submit” to him, using this same verb (hupotasso): Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1; Titus 2:4f.9 Sampley summarizes the matter when he says concerning the household instructions for wives that the form reduced to its barest details would include: Wives, be submissive to (possibly ‘your own’) husbands.10

The meaning of hupotasso, used consistently in the charge to wives, is the same as its meaning in verse 21, that is, “submission in the sense of voluntary yielding in love.”11 This is no abandonment of the great New Testament truth also taught by the Apostle Paul that “there is neither … male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Rather, it is an appeal to one who is equal by creation and redemption to submit to the authority God has ordained. Her equality is evident in the verb form always used in this admonition and in the fact that it is wives who are addressed, not husbands. (The New Testament never commands husbands to subordinate their wives, i.e., to force them to submit.) The voice of the verb is not active but middle/passive, with the meaning either of subjecting oneself (middle) or of allowing oneself to be in subjection (passive), with the middle voice most likely here. Thus the admonition is similar to the request in Hebrews that Christians (who are equal in creation and redemption to one another and therefore also equal to elders) are to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17) and Peter’s instruction that young men be submissive (hupotagete) to those who are older” (1 Peter 5:5). Just as certain men can be given authority in the church, implying no superiority for them or inferiority for those subject to them, so also wives may be asked to subject themselves to their husbands without any suggestion of inferiority/superiority. The Apostle Peter makes this clear when he insists that husbands, to whom he has asked wives to submit (1 Peter 3:1ff.), “treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

  • The Nature of Wives’ Submission

The submission wives are to render is delineated by four key concepts: (1) “to your own husbands” (in the Greek text, left out of the NIV; see NASB), (2) “as to the Lord” (both of these first two concepts appear in verse 22; for the second cf. also Colossians 3:18, “as is fitting in the Lord”), (3) “for the husband is the head of the wife” (verse 23), and (4) “as the church submits to Christ” (verse 24).12 Paul does not ask every woman to submit to every man, but rather asks wives to submit to their own (idiois) husbands. Paul is not insisting that every relationship between a woman and a man is one of submission and headship, but that where leadership is an ingredient of the situation, as in marriage, the woman should submit to that leadership (headship) of the man. Similarly, for example, in the family of God, the church, where leadership is involved, Paul insists that women not take on that role but submit to the leadership of men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:11, 12; 1 Corinthians 14:34ff. and the chapters in this volume dealing with these passages). Here specifically he commands each wife to submit to the headship of her own husband.

  • The Nature of Husbands’ Headship

Paul gives the basis for his charge to wives in verse 23: “For (“because,” hoti) the husband is the head ) of the wife.” It has been assumed already that this word head ) implies authority. Not all agree. Some say that it means “source.” I refer the reader to the chapter by Wayne Grudem on this subject as well as the standard Greek lexicons for the data. Suffice it to say here that Paul indicates the significance of “head” ) by saying that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church (verse 23). It is evident that Christ is the head of the church as the authority over it because the following verse speaks of the church as submitting to Christ. The two concepts mutually explain one another: the church submits to Christ’s authority because He is the head or authority over it.

This reference to Christ as head follows two previous references to Him as head where the note of authority is equally present. In the first, Ephesians 1:22, Paul writes that Christ is head over “everything” and that God has “placed all things under (hupotasso) his feet.” In the second, Ephesians 4:15, Christ is designated the head of the church, His body, and it is His authority and power that cause the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. It is virtually certain that in comparing the headship of the husband over the wife to the headship of Christ over the church, the apostle is using the term kephale for the husband as he does for Christ, namely, as one who has authority and is the leader.

When we ask how that headship was established, we are aided by Paul’s treatment of this question in 1 Corinthians 11:1ff., where he explicitly relates the headship of a man over a woman to that of Christ over every man and of God over Christ. In this context, Paul refers to Genesis 2:21-24 and states that the order of creation of man and woman and the fact that woman was created to help the man (and not vice versa) demonstrate that God had established man as the head over the woman by this divine action and its inherent intent (1 Corinthians 11:8-9). Paul thus affirms that male headship is a divine appointment. This understanding certainly informs his use of the same term kephale in Ephesians and is therefore the basis on which he commands the wife to submit to the husband as her head. It is evident in Ephesians 5 itself that Paul has Genesis 2 and its principles in mind, because he quotes Genesis 2:24 at Ephesians 5:31. What he has explicitly said in 1 Corinthians 11:8, 9 informs his statement in Ephesians 5:23, and his quotation of Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5:31 demonstrates that the principles of Genesis 2 inform his statements in Ephesians.

  • The Extent of Wives’ Submission

Paul concludes this section to wives, verses 22-24, by indicating that wives should submit to their husbands “in everything” (en panti). The phrase is all-encompassing: submission must encompass all aspects of life. This removes the misunderstanding that some may have had, or others may still have, that Paul is speaking simply about submission in sex or some other narrow realm. Since by God’s decree marriage partners are “one flesh,” God wants them to function together under one head, not as two autonomous individuals living together. Since Paul is concerned about that unity, we should be concerned about it too.

Paul does not feel it necessary to add to the phrase in everything that all disobedience to God is excepted (cf. Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men!”; cf. also Acts 4:19, 20).13 This goes without saying. Nor does he mean by this to stifle the wife’s thinking and acting. Rather, he wants that thinking and acting to be shared with her husband (as his is to be shared with her) and for her to be willing to submit to his leadership “in everything.” The wife should not act unilaterally. Just as the church should willingly submit to Christ in all things and, if it does so, will not find that stifling, demeaning, or stultifying of growth and freedom, so also wives should willingly submit to their husbands in all things and, if they do so, will not find that stifling, demeaning, or stultifying.

But does this mean husbands can rule their wives insensitively? Of course not! Paul rules out elsewhere the idea that anyone in authority should “lord it over” those he leads (2 Corinthians 1:24), just as Peter insists that the elders to whom young men submit must not lord it over those under them (1 Peter 5:3). Paul takes this for granted here. He handles the question of the use (or misuse) of the husband’s authority shortly in his words to the husband. To that we will turn momentarily. The important thing for the wife to know is that she should submit to her husband “in everything,” that is, that her submission is coextensive with all aspects of their relationship.

With the words submit to and head, the apostle states the basic roles of wives and husbands, respectively. God established those roles at creation, and they have as their analogue the roles of Christ and His church. Thus Paul can urge this special relationship of wife and husband because God in creation established it and Christ in His redeeming love to the church models and substantiates it for the redeemed community. W. J. Larkin puts this consideration adeptly when he says that “the instruction for conduct in marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 becomes unquestionably binding when seen as a reflection of Christ’s relation to the church.”14

Instructions to husbands and wives in the New Testament always focus first on wives and their responsibility to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1ff.). Both Peter and Paul reaffirm the role relationship God established by creation before they deal with how men and women should conduct themselves in that relationship. The divinely instituted form must come first, before one talks about how to live within it. This is a permanently significant lesson.

Furthermore, Paul always addresses those under authority before those in authority: wives before husbands, children before parents, servants before masters (Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1). The rationale for the first two of these relationships15 would seem to be that the divinely instituted relationship is best preserved when the divine order inherent in it is made plain by urging compliance on those under authority first, before addressing those in authority. The apostle may then command those in authority to exercise their authority with loving concern that does not run roughshod over those under authority, tempting them to challenge the divinely established relationship. Having established the divinely given character of the institution and the divinely given roles, the apostle now spells out the attitudes with which those in that institution should fulfill their respective roles.

The Attitudes of Love and Respect

On this backdrop Paul addresses husbands: “Husbands, love your wives …” (Ephesians 5:25; Colossians 3:19). The key word, love, appears six times in Ephesians 5:25-33. It denotes the husband’s duty to his wife. Interestingly enough his role, headship, was stated in the section addressed to his wife (verse 23), not in the section addressed to him. Paul does not say to husbands, “Be head over your wife!” Instead he commands them, twice, to love their wives (verses 25 and 28): “Husbands, love your wives,” and, “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.” The command is explicated by reference to the analogy of Christ’s love for the church (verses 25ff.) and by the way one loves one’s own body (verse 28): by nourishing and cherishing it (verse 29). In the comparison made with Christ’s love for the church, Paul emphasizes the self-giving character of that love (verse 25) and its concern to benefit the other so that life together will be wonderful (verses 26, 27).

  • Loving as Christ Loved

Paul’s direct command to husbands is to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” (verse 25). This is clearly how the apostle demands that the husband exercise his leadership in everything as the head over his wife. He is to love her “just as” (kathos) Christ loved the church. Just as the church, in submitting to Christ, was the model for the wife in submitting to her husband as her head (verses 23, 24), so now Christ, in His love for the Church, is the model for the husband in loving his wife. The character and description of that love are stated in the words “and gave himself up for her” (verse 25). In these few key words are contained the description of what the love of a husband for his wife should be.

First, the loving husband gives of himself. In his leadership role as head, he seeks to lead by giving of himself to his wife in ways analogous to how Christ gave Himself to His bride. Christ’s giving of Himself was personal and sacrificial. This great principle of self-giving sets the tone and points toward the many ways in which this love can be manifested and realized.

Second, Christ’s giving of Himself was for the benefit of His bride—He gave Himself up “for her.” Just so, the husband’s self-giving should be for his wife’s benefit. In short, we may speak of this love as a giving of oneself for the benefit of the other.

Paul specifies the intended result of Christ’s giving up of Himself for the church in verses 26 and 27: “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Here we see two forces at work. First, Paul writes of Christ’s redeeming work for us. Paul always delights in explicating this, and so he seizes on this opportunity to develop these ideas. Yet the uniqueness of the redemptive work of Christ means that these aspects cannot be imitated precisely by the husband. Nonetheless, second, Paul uses the imagery of marriage to tell of Christ and the church: Christ serves her “to present her to himself as a radiant church” (verse 27). Is it not likely, therefore, that he intended to teach that the husband’s love, like Christ’s, was to be beneficial to the wife, just as Christ’s love was to the church?16 Just as Christ works to present His church to Himself as a glorious bride in a glorious marriage, should not the husband work to make his wife glorious and their marriage glorious?

  • The Implications of Being One Flesh

The apostle continues with his insistence on the husband’s loving his wife by restating the charge in verse 28. This time he states it in terms of a husband’s loving his wife as he loves his own body and thus as he loves himself. Thus he not only introduces a new dimension to that love but also intertwines it again with the imagery of Christ’s love for the church, His beloved, His body.

The new element is that the husband “who loves his wife loves himself” (verse 28b). Many commentators have suggested that this reflects the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18; compare the reflexive “himself” in Ephesians 5:33).17 More importantly, Paul first states the command by speaking of husbands’ loving “their own bodies” (verse 28a). This use of “bodies” instead of “themselves” may have come about by the influence of Genesis 2:24, quoted in verse 31, which speaks of the couple as “one flesh.” The analogy of Christ and the church may also have influenced the choice of words, since it is body (soma) rather than flesh that Paul has already used in Ephesians to denote the church (1:23; 2:16; 4:4, 12, 16, and, most importantly, in the beginning of this account in 5:23) and that he reiterates shortly (5:30). Thus the command to “love their wives as their own bodies” reflects the love of Christ for the church, His body (verse 30). At the same time, the word body provides a link to the one-flesh concept of Genesis 2:24, a verse Paul quotes in verse 31.

Paul does all this while applying the general commandment of Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself,” in a very direct way to the love the husband should have for his nearest and dearest neighbor, his wife. In so doing, Paul ties together the creation ordinance about marriage (Genesis 2:24), the great commandment about loving one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), and the sublime pattern of Christ’s love for His bride, the church. No greater combination could be conceived of than the combination of God’s sanctions in creation, commandment, and redemption.

Having joined these concepts together, the apostle shows how this love is to be expressed by reminding the husband that he “feeds and cares” for his own flesh (verse 29). With these two verbs, ektrephei and thalpei, Paul uses the emotionally evocative language of nurturing care to communicate what it means to love one’s wife. The word thalpo literally means to keep warm and, figuratively, to cherish and to comfort. Paul’s only other use of this verb is in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where, in powerful imagery, he speaks of his love for the Thessalonians: “we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares (thalpo) for her own children” (NASB). He develops his thought in the next verse by saying: “Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart18 to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear [beloved]19 to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NASB). In Thessalonians we see again the same elements we find in Ephesians, although in a different but similar setting. The one “cherished” is the one to whom one gives not only the highest good, the gospel, but also one’s very own life because that one is “beloved.” Ephesians says that because a husband loves his wife, he will give his life for her good and will express his love by nourishing and cherishing her, the beloved. The terms feed and care communicate these truths with a delightful fragrance that must be worked out and applied in the numerous, variegated, nitty-gritty situations of life.

  • The Tenderness of Godly Headship

Paul also addresses the danger of husbands’ being overbearing toward their wives, or “harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19). Paul alludes to that attitude in Ephesians in his remark that “no one ever hated his own body” (Ephesians 5:29), and in the Colossians account (where he does not develop the concept of love as he does in Ephesians) he explicitly demands as a corollary to the command, “Husbands, love your wives,” the parallel command, “do not be harsh with them.”

In so doing Paul emphasizes that the headship of the husband over his wife must not be negative, oppressive, or reactionary. Instead, it must be a headship of love in which the husband gives of himself for his wife’s good, nourishing and cherishing the beloved one who, as his equal, voluntarily submits to his headship. Paul has thus given two great truths with respect to the husband: first, that he is the head of his wife, and second, that he must exercise his headship in love.

  • Submitting as the Church Submits

Similarly, Paul has given two great truths with respect to the wife’s role and how she should carry it out. The introductory verses of this section, with which we have already dealt in part, insisted that her role is to submit (as an equal) to her husband as her head (verses 22-24). We have left aside for the time being Paul’s instructions about how this should be done, except to note the helpful analogy of the church’s submission to Christ. Now we need to return to this matter.

The key phrases in this portion of Paul’s instructions to wives are “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), “as is fitting in the Lord” (Colossians 3:18), “in everything” (Ephesians 5:24, which we considered above under the role itself), and “the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:33).

Because the headship of the husband is established by God, the husband who fulfills that role does so as a servant of God, and the leadership given to him in this role expresses God’s authority in the marriage. Hence Paul finds it appropriate to appeal to the wife to submit to her husband “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). “As” (hos) indicates the manner of her submission. She should submit to her husband as she submits to the Lord. The comparative “as to the Lord” conjures up what should and does characterize the godly submission a Christian renders to the Lord Jesus. This one qualification says it all, even though Paul goes on to explicate it in the verses that follow. (In view of Paul’s calling for submission “as to the Lord,” we gain a better appreciation of Peter’s commendation of Sarah’s calling Abraham “lord” and, particularly, of the fact that, as evidence of her submission to her husband, Sarah “obeyed Abraham” [1 Peter 3:6.])

The phrase “in everything” (Ephesians 5:24)20 denotes the comprehensiveness of her submission. In view of the previous use of the word Lord with specific reference to Christ (verse 20), “the Lord” in view in Ephesians 5:22 is undoubtedly Jesus Christ, a fact reinforced by Paul’s writing next of Christ’s Lordship over the church and the church’s submission to His headship as the model for how the woman is to submit to her husband.

The words in Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” are qualified by the words “as is fitting in the Lord” (the Greek for “in the Lord” is en kurio21 ). Here again as (hos) is used. Therefore to say that such submission “is fitting”22 “as … in the Lord” means that it is appropriate to being under the Lordship of Christ23 or, to paraphrase, of being a Christian.24 The apostle thus asserts that such submission is proper for Christian wives because it is what our Lord expects. The best illustration of this is another passage commanding this submission, Titus 2:4, 5. There also wives are urged to “be subject to their husbands”25 (verse 5). Paul insists that this exhortation is “in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Thus the submission of wives to their husbands is not some concession to contemporary mores but is that which abides by scriptural teachings of Christianity (including the doctrine that in Christ there is neither male nor female, which Paul taught in Galatians 3:28).

To return to Colossians 3:18, to “submit to your husbands” is “fitting” or appropriate to the standing wives have “in the Lord.” To put it theologically, redemption in Christ undergirds and commends the wife’s submission to her husband according to God’s design at creation rather than, as some feminists claim, overturning a submission rooted only in the fall. Since Paul warns husbands against sinful abuse of their headship through harshness (Colossians 3:10), perhaps this admonition to wives to submit “as is fitting in the Lord” is not only an encouragement to them to render voluntary submission but also a warning lest they presume that their standing in the Lord justifies their acting as if there were no distinguishable roles for wives and husbands “in the Lord.”26

  • Showing Respect for the Husband’s Headship

The last exhortation to wives about how they should submit to their husbands is found in Ephesians 5:33: “. . . the wife must respect her husband.” The key word here is the verb respect (so rendered by a number of modern English translations, e.g., RSV, NASB, NIV, NEB).27 This rendering of the Greek phobeo is proper. Paul uses respect here in the sense of treating the husband’s leadership with dutiful regard and deference. The Greek verb is used similarly in an analogous situation where one human is urged to render respect (or reverence) to another (Leviticus 19:3, LXX: “Let every one of you reverence his father and his mother”). There, as here in Ephesians, the respect called for is primarily to the role the person occupies and not to the particular merits of the person.

Probably Paul chose phobeo in his final charge to wives to correlate his exhortation to them with his exhortation to all Christians, “Submit to one another out of reverence (phobo) for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). By using a concept he had previously used of the Lord Jesus Christ, he also correlates this concluding exhortation to wives with his initial one (verse 22), which said that they should be subject to their own husbands “as to the Lord.”

The respect asked of a wife recognizes the God-given character of the headship of her husband and thus treats him with dutiful regard and deference. Just as husbands have been asked to display their headship through likeness to Christ’s headship over His church, that is, through a love that cherishes and nourishes (verse 25, 28, 29), so now wives are asked to render their submission in a way that is most like that of the submission of the church to Christ, that is, a truly respectful submission because it is rendered voluntarily from the heart. A wife’s respecting her husband and his headship therefore implies that her submission involves not only what she does but also her attitude in doing it. As with the husband, so with the wife, it is the heart’s attitude of grateful acceptance of the role God assigns to each and the determination to fulfill the particular role with all the graciousness God gives that Paul is urging on both wives and husbands in this last verse of his instruction.

The Analogy of Christ and the Church

Before concluding this discussion, we need to call attention to one more remarkable aspect of this passage. After quoting Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31), Paul gives an interpretation that shows God’s purpose in marriage: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (verse 32).

Unbeknownst to the people of Moses’ day (it was a “mystery”), marriage was designed by God from the beginning to be a picture or parable of the relationship between Christ and the church. Back when God was planning what marriage would be like, He planned it for this great purpose: it would give a beautiful earthly picture of the relationship that would someday come about between Christ and His church. This was not known to people for many generations, and that is why Paul can call it a “mystery.” But now in the New Testament age Paul reveals this mystery, and it is amazing.

This means that when Paul wanted to tell the Ephesians about marriage, he did not just hunt around for a helpful analogy and suddenly think that “Christ and the church” might be a good teaching illustration. No, it was much more fundamental than that: Paul saw that when God designed the original marriage He already had Christ and the church in mind. This is one of God’s great purposes in marriage: to picture the relationship between Christ and His redeemed people forever!

But if this is so, then the order Paul is speaking of here (submission and love) is not accidental or temporary or culturally determined: it is part of the essence of marriage, part of God’s original plan for a perfect, sinless, harmonious marriage. This is a powerful argument for the fact that Christlike, loving headship and church-like, willing submission are rooted in creation and in God’s eternal purposes, not just in the passing trends of culture.

Wives, Children, and Slaves?

It is argued sometimes that this list of duties and responsibilities simply reflects the cultural approach to these matters found in the New Testament period and that the apostle is simply asking for conformity to the practices of the day so that the gospel itself will not be hurt by Christians’ violating contemporary mores. The argument is then pressed by saying that if we today do not maintain slavery on the basis of Ephesians 6:5-9, we should also not argue from this passage about the differentiating roles of wives and husbands, because we now know (better than the first-century Christians, and Paul) that they are on a par. That is, the existence of slavery and slaves’ submission to their masters and the submission of wives to their husbands stand or fall together.28

Space does not permit a full response to this argument here,29 but certain remarks are necessary. It is true that these three relationships (husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves) are dealt with here as a kind of unit. They are treated one after another as different relationships within the larger household moving from the most central (husbands and wives) to the next most crucial (parents and children) to the extended relationship that might exist in some households (masters and slaves). But if the argument advanced above is true, then it cuts all the way across the board. Not only would the teaching about husbands and wives cease to be normative and fall away with slavery, but so would the teaching about parents and children, which is positioned between the other two relationships! The argument would have this effect by insisting that these three are on a complete par. But that aspect of the argument is flawed. It assumes that these relationships treated one after another in this section are thereby placed on the same level and are presumably handled by Paul with the same kind of considerations. Further reflection on these different relationships shows that this is not so.

Take, for example, parents and children. Paul appeals to the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12, cited in Ephesians 6:2) to substantiate his command, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). Thus Paul reaches back to a permanent moral command from God (given in a time and place much earlier than and quite different from that of Ephesians) as the linchpin for his instruction to children. Thus the demise of slavery does not sweep this permanent moral command for children away, for the two relationships are not inseparably connected as to their essence, but only exist side-by-side because slavery fit into the larger household setting of that day.

The inherent differences are seen also by noticing that no permanent moral command or any other moral absolute with reference to slavery is used in Paul’s instructions to slaves. He simply gives them instructions on how to carry out appropriate work duties and relationships with appropriate Christian attitudes as they find themselves in the then existing institution of slavery. This is analogous to the way Moses is represented by Jesus as having given instruction about what a man must do when he divorces his wife (“because of your hardness of heart”) without thereby indicating (as some then and there implied to Jesus) that Moses approved of or encouraged divorce (see Matthew 19:7—8). Furthermore, Paul elsewhere indicates that a slave could properly become free (1 Corinthians 7:21) and therefore he does not treat slavery as a divinely ordained institution as he does that of parents and children—and as he does that of husbands and wives. For both the existence of the marriage relationship and the roles required of each one in it are in the Ephesians passage (and elsewhere) related by Paul to the creation account and God’s decisive actions and instructions in that most basic and foundational event. Thus there is a great divide between husband and wives, and parents and children on one side of this list of household relationships, and masters and slaves on the other side.

So we see that the appeal to the fact that slavery is handled alongside the relationships of husbands and wives and parents and children and that therefore they must be regarded in the same way is an error which is popularly referred to “as comparing apples with oranges” and also as the error of “guilt by association.” Each relationship must be evaluated in terms of the degree of absoluteness and permanence the apostle intended for it. It certainly is evident that he was both treating marriage as a permanent and absolute institution ordained by God and teaching respectively a specific role for the wife and a specific role for the husband as a divinely prescribed duty for each.


The instruction about wives and husbands found in Ephesians and Colossians, expressed in the key terms “be subject” for wives and “head” for husbands, teaches distinctive roles for wives and husbands. That instruction may be summarized both as a divinely mandated leadership role for husbands in the marriage relationship and a divinely mandated submission to that leadership for wives. The fact that Paul appeals to the creation activity of God with reference to husbands and wives in Ephesians and that in 1 Corinthians 11 he grounds the headship of men in that creation activity of God shows that the apostle regards these roles and the pattern of the role relationship itself as divinely given. His instruction also demands that the respective roles be expressed and fulfilled according to the analogue of the relationship between Christ the head and the church his body. Thus the roles should reflect the actions and attitudes appropriate to that wonderful relationship between Christ and His church. Husbands must therefore exercise their headship with a “love” that “nourishes and cherishes” and that puts aside all “bitterness.” Wives must voluntarily submit themselves to their husbands “as to the Lord” with “all respect” because this is in accord with their standing “in the Lord.”

The apostle has expressed in Ephesians (5:21-33) and Colossians (3:18-19) the same pattern as that which is found elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:1-3, 8-9; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Timothy 2:11-14; 1 Peter 3:1-7). And he has also demanded, as was done similarly by the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:1-7), that the respective roles be carried out with all the graciousness that the redeeming grace of Christ has brought to each and continues to accomplish in each in their respective roles as a wife and as a husband. In short, as analogues of Christ and His church, the husband is asked to exercise, with love, a headship over his wife and the wife is asked to submit, with respect, to her husband.

Copyright 1997 Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. All rights reserved.

1 The summary statement of verse 21 is of course also a transition to his treatment of other groups found in the enlarged household, children and parents, 6:1-4, and slaves and masters, 6:5-9.

2 For the manuscript evidence, see the textual apparatus of The Greek New Testament of the United Bible Societies.

3 The other occurrences of allelon in Ephesians are 4:2, 25, 35.

4 Noted by F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 382.

5 For example, James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1981), pp. 140ff., with the qualification that it is “appropriate if it is addressed to the congregation at large and exemplified in these three relations in which one member must yield to another” (p. 141). The first part of this qualification (“addressed to the congregation at large”) seems almost the same as the mutual submission position that is suggested above. The second part of this qualification, however, moves away from the idea of mutual submission by indicating that the submission called for is in specific relationships, i.e., “exemplified in these three relations in which one member must yield to another.”

6 Editor’s note: Dr. Knight presents a clear argument for the view that verse 21 teaches mutual submission of all Christians to one another and that verses 22ff. teach specific kinds of submission. This interpretation is widely held and its implications are consistent with the overall argument of Dr. Knight’s chapter and of this book. It is also consistent with the overall ethical teaching of Scripture that we should submit to one another in the way Dr. Knight defines submission, that is, to act in a loving, considerate, self-giving way toward one another. However, within the broad range of agreement in this book, there is room for another interpretation of Ephesians 5:21: that it does not teach mutual submission at all, but rather teaches that we should all be subject to those whom God has put in authority over us—such as husbands, parents, or employers. In this way, Ephesians 5:21 would be paraphrased, being “subject to one another (that is, to some others), in the fear of Christ.”

The primary argument for this alternative view is the word hupotasso itself. Although many people have claimed that the word can mean “be thoughtful and considerate; act in love” (toward another), it is doubtful if a first-century Greek speaker would have understood it that way, for the term always implies a relationship of submission to an authority. It is used elsewhere in the New Testament of the submission of Jesus to the authority of His parents (Luke 2:51); of demons being subject to the disciples (Luke 10-17—(clearly the meaning “act in love, be considerate” cannot fit here); of citizens being subject to government authorities (Romans 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13); of the universe being subject to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22); of unseen spiritual powers being subject to Christ (1 Peter 3:22); of Christ being subject to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:28); of church members being subject to church leaders (1 Corinthians 16:15-16 [with 1 Clement 42:4]; 1 Peter 5:5); of wives being subject to their husbands (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:5; cf. Ephesians 5:22, 24); of the church being subject to Christ (Ephesians 5:24); of servants being subject to their masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18); and of Christians being subject to God (Hebrews 12:9; James 4:7). None of these relationships is ever reversed; that is, husbands are never told to be subject (hupotasso) to wives, the government to citizens, masters to servants, or the disciples to demons, etc. (In fact, the term is used outside the New Testament to describe the submission and obedience of soldiers in an army to those of superior rank; see Josephus, War 2,566, 578; 5.309; cf. the adverb in 1 Clement 37:2. Cf. also Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek- English Lexicon, rev. Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, suppl. E. A. Barber, et al. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968], p. 1897, which defined hupotasso [passive] to mean “be obedient.”) The word is never “mutual” in its force; it is always one-directional in its reference to submission to an authority. This does not seem to be contradicted by the passages cited by Dr. Knight, because in none of those passages is the person in authority told to “submit” (hupotasso) to the person under that authority—rather, other words are used to encourage love, thoughtfulness, etc. So we may ask, why should we assign hupotasso a meaning in Ephesians 5:21 that it is nowhere else shown to have?

Therefore it seems to be a misunderstanding of Ephesians 5:21 to say that it implies mutual submission. Even in Ephesians 5:22-24, wives are not to be subject to everyone or to all husbands, but to “their own husbands”—the “submission” Paul has in mind is not a general kind of thoughtfulness toward others, but a specific submission to a higher authority. But should not the verb hupotasso in verse 22 (whether implicit or explicit) take the same sense it does in verse 21?

The reason the mutual submission interpretation is so common is that interpreters assume that the Greek pronoun allelous (“one another”) must be completely reciprocal (that it must mean “everyone to everyone”). Dr. Knight has cited some texts where allelous does mean “everyone to everyone,” but that is not the case in all of its uses, and it certainly does not have to take that meaning. There are many cases where it rather means “some to others;” for example, in Revelation 6:4, “so that men should slay one another” means “so that some would kill others” (not “so that every person would kill every other person,” or “so that those people being killed would mutually kill those who were killing them,” which would make no sense); in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens” means not “everyone should exchange burdens with everyone else,” but “some who are more able should help bear the burdens of others who are less able”; 1 Corinthians 11:33, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” means “some who are ready early should wait for others who are late”; etc. (cf. Luke 2:15; 21:1; 24:32—there are many examples where the word is not exhaustively reciprocal). Similarly, in Ephesians 5:21, both the following context and the meaning of hupotasso require allelous here to mean “some to others,” so that the verse could be paraphrased, “those who are under authority should be subject to others among you who have authority over them.” Therefore, according to this (alternative) interpretation, it would seem best to say that it is not mutual submission but submission to appropriate authorities that Paul is commanding in Ephesians 5:21. (This view of Ephesians 5:21 would be consistent with how James Hurley views the structure of the passage, as noted in footnote 5 above.)

7 Cf., e.g., Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), pages 153ff. There is much to commend and agree with in Bilezikian’s expression of his understanding of the New Testament teaching about mutual submission. What is terribly erroneous is that he plays this off against distinguishable roles so that, in effect, it serves for him to negate the distinguishable and different roles that Paul sets forth for the husband and the wife. Although one might not choose to use the word hierarchical, it seems evident that Bilezikian is attempting to use mutual submission to rule out role differences in the following quotes: “By definition, mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences” (p. 154), and, “We conclude that mutual subjection … renders hierarchical distinctions irrelevant within the Christian communities of church and family” (p. 156; cf. also his title Beyond Sex Roles).

8 Cf. J. E. Crough, The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel (FRLANT 109, Gottingen: Vanderhoeck und Ruprecht, 1972), p. 110, who indicates that this is a voluntary submission based on one’s own recognition of God’s order.

9 The respective passages in abbreviated form read as follows: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands”; “Wives, be subject (hupotassesthe) to your husbands”; “wives be submissive (hupotassamena) to your own husbands”; “the young women … subject (hupotassamenas) to their own husbands.” When Paul deals with role relationships and leadership in the family of God, the church, he uses the related noun and expresses the same principle: “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness (hupotage). But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

10 J. P. Sampley, “And the Two Shall Become One Flesh”: A Study of Traditions in Ephesians 5:21-23 (NTSM 16, Cambridge: University Press, 1971), p. 29.

11 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 848, section 1bb.

12 Verse 24 begins with the word but (alla), which has caused some difficulty to commentators and has been omitted by various translations. F. F. Bruce’s handling of the significance of this is so helpful that it merits quoting at length. His treatment incorporates statements of J. A. Robinson in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (London: James Clarke Co., n.d.), pp. 124, 205, and they are indicated by quotation marks within the block quote that follows:

J. A. Robinson points out that the conjunction need not have adversative force. It is used here rather “to fix the attention on the special point of immediate interest.” The apostle, having made the general point that “it is the function of the head to plan for the safety of the body, to secure it from danger and to provide for its welfare,” checks himself from a fuller exposition of this and resumes his main line of thought: “but—for this is the matter in hand—as the church is subject to Christ, so let wives be to their husbands in everything.” This is the most satisfactory account of the connection between vv. 23 and 24, since v. 24 is largely resumptive of v. 22, adding a reference to the church’s submission to Christ as the pattern for the wife’s submission to her husband.

13 The principle that God expects His people to disobey when a human authority commands them to sin is affirmed in several passages of Scripture: see Exodus 1:17-21; Daniel 3:12-18; 6:10; Hebrews 11:23.

14 W. J. Larkin, Jr., Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 109.

15 Some people argue that because the submission involved in slavery has been done away with slavery itself, so also the submission of wives to husbands should be done away, since the two relationships are both treated in the same extended passage (Ephesians 5:21-6:9). Later in this chapter we will discuss the nature of the institution of slavery and how our understanding of it relates to and may or may not impinge on our understanding of the relationship of wives and husbands.

16 Cf. P. T. O’Brien’s comment on what is entailed in the command to husbands to love their wives in Colossians 3:18. He says that the husband’s love “involves his unceasing care and loving service for her entire well-being.” (Colossians, Philemon [Word Bible Commentary, Waco, TX: Word, 1982], p. 223). His whole treatment of Colossians 3:18-19 (pp. 214-224) merits reading.

17 Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, p. 391.

18 The Greek word is metadounai (from metadidomi), which is akin to the Greek paredoken (from paradidomi), used as the key word in Ephesians 5:25.

19 The Greek word agapetoi, “beloved,” is a cognate noun to the Greek verb agapao used throughout the Ephesians 5 passage in verses 25 (twice), 28 (three times), and verse 33.

20 For the phrase “in everything” see the discussion above.

21 The phrase is used forty-seven times by Paul. The occurrences in Colossians are 3:18, 20; 4:7, 17, with the closest use being the next occurrence, Colossians 3:20.

22 The Greek word is aneken, from aneko. For the question whether this “fittingness” refers rather to cultural non-offense, see the following section “Wives, Children, and Slaves?”

23 Cf., e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:12, in which Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that their spiritual leaders “are over you in the Lord.”

24 Cf., e.g., the expression of Romans 16:11, “Greet those … who are in the Lord.”

25 This statement is almost identical to that in Colossians 3:18 using the same Greek verb, hupotasso, in the sense of “submit to.”

26 Notice how Paul must resist that very misunderstanding in the early church (which is virtually identical to the argument among the feminists within the Christian church today) with his teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, which reminded them that the headship of the man (1 Corinthians 11:3) goes back to God’s determinative action at creation (1 Corinthians 11:8-9).

27 Compare the word to wives in 1 Peter 3:2: “as they observe her chaste and respectful (Greek, en phobo) behavior.”

28 Cf., e.g., Virginia R. Mollenkott, Women, Men and the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), pp. 92ff., joining to slavery the government by kings. Cf. also Paul King Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 137ff.; Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We’re Meant To Be (Waco, TX: Word, 1974), pp. 91, 107, 202-205.

29 See the author’s Role Relationship of Men and Women (1985; reprinted Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian Reformed, 1989), pp. 9-15, for a fuller treatment of this question, including the matter of kings and civil government.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Christology, Ecclesiology (The Church), Men's Articles, Women

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