There has long been controversy over Ephesians 5:15-33 and the question of the submission of a wife to her husband. With so much media attention (rightly) focused on pay gaps between the sexes and abusive and exploitative behaviour towards women in society, resistance to the idea that women ought to submit to their husbands is only likely to grow.
In this post, I aim simply to emphasise what seem to be clear guiding principles regarding headship and submission from this text—an issue that is not just important for marriage, but also because it influences how we understand the roles of men and women in the church “family” and Christian leadership more generally.
The HEadship of the Husband
Paul spends considerably more time defining the husband’s responsibilities than those of the wife, probably because his role is much more likely to be misunderstood.
Ephesians 5 begins with a general call for all of us to imitate God and to model our behaviour on the self-sacrificial love of Christ (5:1-2). The instructions that follow are all expressions of a relational principle encapsulated in Christ’s example: that of self-giving love for the other, rather than our natural impulse to serve ourselves.
While this is the general principle governing all of the household relationships, it is also one of the two illustrations that Paul applies specifically to the husband’s role in marriage. In particular, the husband should:
- Love his wife with the kind of self-sacrifice with which Christ loved the church (5:25; cf. 5:2b)
- Love his wife with the same measure of self-interest with which he would naturally love his own body (5:28-29)
“I’d die for you”
It is easy to talk about altruism. It is absurdly common to hear a man promise to die for his beloved (there are songs of this title by at least Air Supply, Bon Jovi, and The Weeknd), but it is just as common to hear of relationships dissolving because the man preferring to watch TV than to talk to his wife, or because he would never pick up his underwear off the floor. But we are almost never called upon to show love by dying. Love is tested by self-sacrifice in the decisions and annoyances of daily life. Paul’s second illustration is perhaps more challenging because it is a more common and realistic test: do you care for your wife like you feed your own body?
If these are the standards that Christ gives us for headship, it is obvious that this offers no licence for the husband to operate in a self-serving way. Paul is not arguing that the man is in God’s position in the sense that he is deserving of her unquestioning obedience. No, he says that the man is in Christ’s position in the sense that he is to empty himself for her sake. Those are very different analogies. Headship doesn’t compel obedience; it offers care and service.
“That he might sanctify her”
Between the analogies of Christ’s crucifixion (5:25) and our natural self-care (5:28), Paul discusses Christ’s purpose for sacrificing himself—namely, that his “bride” would be sanctified and purified of her blemishes. This is also instructive.
Note again that this is not to imply that the husband is responsible for his wife’s sanctification. That, I take it, remains Christ’s work. It is not suggesting that the husband should decide what is best for his wife. No, Paul explicitly draws the parallel: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” It is a more general statement of care for the other in place of care for oneself.
I think that what verses 26-27 should do is deepen our perception of what it means to give oneself up for another. These verses remind us that when Christ gave himself up for his bride, she was not a bride who was already pure and beautiful. He gave himself up for a church in rebellion—the same church that crucified him—so that she would learn love.
So, if we would follow Christ’s example in our marriages, the argument from Ephesians seems to me not to support the idea that husbands can compel respect or submission or obedience, nor that the responsibility to love is in any way contingent on her “doing her end” and submitting (see the converse in 1 Peter 3:1-2, in which wives are encouraged to submit to unworthy husbands so that they might be won over). Husbands love their wives as Christ did: unconditionally, sacrificially and labouring to see them flourish.
The submission of the wife
In the same way as a husband loves his wife in imitation of Christ, the submission of the wife is equally an expression of this principle of imitation.
It is possible that Paul commands the submission of wife for husband because it was an expected social convention, and not necessarily because it is eternally the will of God for husbands to be heads and women to be in subjection. Either way the basic principle is the same: Christian submission is something that all of us must practice (Ephesians 5:21), because it acknowledges that order is a gift of God, and that it is an expression of love to behave respectfully within those orders that exist. (This is why we can still approve of Paul’s relational advice to slaves and masters in chapter 6 as wise, even though we would all disavow that social order.)
Paul commands submission because it is a means by which a wife can also give up her own self-serving desires and live out Christ’s love in her marriage. In this way there is a kind of equality, even in the midst of a social hierarchy: both headship and submission are expressions of love and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.
Even if we accept the interpretation that male headship is God’s eternal pattern for human relationships, it seems to me that some Christian applications of this principle go beyond what this text teaches. The idea that a husband should be the family decision-maker does not follow from the fact of his headship. The idea that the husband rules the home and that the wife may offer no dissent is incoherent in the face of the example of Christ’s self-sacrifice that we are given.
This passage also does not dictate the terms of submission in marriage nor the roles that each sex should fulfil. There is no specific content to submission in this text—it does not seem to mean having no opinion, tending the home, having children, or earning less than the husband. Submission is merely made synonymous with respect (v33). A subservient, stay-at-home mum can live without ever respecting her husband, and a woman can be a CEO and respect her stay-at-home husband perfectly well. The point, in this text at least, is not to define social roles, but to encourage Christlike other-person-centredness in whatever roles we occupy.
The great difference between the headship of the husband and that of Christ is that Jesus is in nature God. The husband, on the other hand, is in nature a fool (hopefully undergoing some degree of transition towards wisdom). As wisdom literature keeps reminding us, none of us always knows what the best thing to do is, and we ignore advice and instruction at our peril. The wise man is humble and aware of his short-comings. As 1Corinthians reminds us, this is also why we have all been equipped with various gifts—we are inadequately equipped on our own. Christian headship, whether of the home or the church, ought to be continually aware of its need for instruction, correction, help, guidance etc. from the rest of the body. In marriage, that is primarily the service that wives provide. Similarly, the heads of Christian organisations ought to benefit from gifted individuals in the body—whether they are male or female.
Christian headship should avoid altruistic claims of servant-leadership (such as the promise to die for your loved ones or public foot-washing ceremonies) while at the same time ignoring the annoying day-to-day concerns of those under one’s care. Servant leadership sets aside the needs and wants and egos of the leader and focuses on the needs of the family.
If you are agitated by a picture of a headship in which the husband is so dominated by the concerns of his wife and in which the leader puts his employees and members first, then you’ve probably understood Paul correctly.
By nature we seek power and independence. Submission and headship are both ways in which we lose our claim to either.