Based on our conclusion of the Genesis scene before sin entered the world, we found God’s emphasis on the reign of love—a self-giving attitude that seeks the benefit of others, especially so if the others are more vulnerable to need in which we have ability or supply. That truth supplies the foundational basis for James’s claim that pure and undefiled religion begins by looking after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). They are the ones of society who are most vulnerable and who are most in need of care and love—the basis of religion before God.
As the church was just developing through the mid first century A.D., we read of especially Paul’s struggles with a church that had difficulties embracing this concept fully. Factions quickly developed. Social standing created obstacles. And even authority issues emerged in a struggle for control of the bourgeoning Christian religion between the Jews and the Gentiles. The very first letter we have from Paul’s pen was to the Galatians addressing precisely this problem. And in it, Paul attempts to strike a death knell against all these false divisions, summed up in his one statement in Galatians 3:28 “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So that is a predominant thought that we must bear in mind as we move now to study our issue of male and female relationship in the New Testament.
Our question is whether any NT passages suddenly shift from a non-hierarchical relationship between man and woman, which was evident in the Garden, to interject an alternate way of life for New Testament living—a life of authority and subordination in husband-wife relationships and functioning in the church? Some people believe so. One of the handful of passages from which their reasoning derives is Ephesians 5:22–33. Let’s see what God has to say there.
Before we delve into each verse, we should make sure of some broader concepts that will ensure we do not limit our thinking too much before we even start. One such concern regards the use of the word head. What meaning does Paul intend when he uses the word head? There are several possibilities:
The word head could simply mean that body part above the neck.
Example: He is a head taller than the other students. The word here has no figurative imagery. It means simply that a person is taller by the height of his actual head.
The word head could mean the brain or mind location.
Example: She has a good head on her shoulders.
The word head could stand for authority or being in charge.
Example: The teacher is the head of the class.
The word head could mean preeminence (e.g., smartest).
Example: That student is at the head of her class. Notice that while this use implies preeminence, it does not imply authority.
The word head could mean being first of a series.
Example: He is at the head of the line. Again, this time the word does not stand for authority or even preeminence; it merely shows position.
The word head could mean source.
Example: He is the head troublemaker in the class. While the sentence could intend preeminence here—as if to say he is the worst of all troublemakers in the class, it could also mean that this person is the instigator (or source) of troublemaking. It could be this student whose mischievous ideas and encouragement lead others into trouble. I used an example that related to the classroom scene of all the others. However, the use of head as meaning source is probably easiest seen in the example of the head of a river.
The word head could mean attending—taking care of or watching over.
Examples: The teacher gave the students a “heads up” about having a quiz. Or, The teacher thought one student was in over her head. Both these examples do speak of the literal head, but they allude to the idea that the head watches out for the body.
So, here we have come up with seven possible meanings for the word head. Therefore, when we go to a passage that uses the word, we cannot simply assume the word has only one meaning. We need to be sure how it is used in order to interpret the thrust of the teaching.
In all Paul’s New Testament writings, he uses the word 18 times within 13 verses. In our Ephesians 5 passage, he uses it two times. So since we are trying to figure out Ephesians 5, we’ll put those two uses aside for the moment. Paul also uses the word seven times in 1 Corinthians 11, another of the handful of passages to which appeal is made regarding male authority over females. So, we will also put those seven occurrences aside for the moment. That leaves us with the other nine uses by Paul to examine.
Romans 12:20 “. . . heaping fiery coals on his head.”
The expression regarding heaping coals on someone’s head does not show a malicious act. In fact, it is the exact opposite implication. In a time of dependence on the home fire for meals, heat, washing, and other matters, keeping that fire burning was important. If it went out you couldn’t merely strike a match or flick your bic to rekindle. And rubbing two sticks together was difficult. To rekindle your home fire, you took your fire pan to a neighbor and asked for some burning coals. The neighbor would give you burning coals in your firepan, which you would carry home, as most things were carried, on your head. However, if you had a good and kind neighbor, after heaving the firepan to your head in position, the neighbor would add to the pan more coals, heaping them up to ensure your fire would not go out—that you would have sufficient. To be that attentive—even to your enemies—is the point of this verse.
Therefore, we find here that Paul used the Greek kephale (head) simply as the body part.
1 Corinthians 12:21 “The head can’t say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you!’”
Here again Paul uses the word simply as the body part, pointing out a connective necessity that matches to the differing gifts of individuals in the body of Christ.
Ephesians 1:22b–23 “[God] appointed him as head over everything for the church, which is his body.”
Paul calls Jesus the head while the church is called the body. Paul’s point here is one of caregiving. Paul differentiates the church as body from enemies who are placed “under His feet” in a position of subjection to his authority. Therefore, the head-to-body analogy is not authority to subjection, but rather a watchful attending.
Ephesians 4:15 “Let us grow in every way into Him who is the head.”
Again, Paul could not be using head as authority in this passage, unless he were confusingly attempting to say that we should and would all attain to the same authority as Christ. Rather, the passage is speaking of taking care by the true word of Christ not to fall prey to false doctrine. Therefore, it is a reference again to watchful attending.
Colossians 1:18 “He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning so that He might come to have first place in everything.”
It is possible that the second part of this verse is a separate thought, leaving the head-to-body statement without further explanation. If so, his readers would have to rely on other uses by Paul to understand the connection (for example, like those we have just seen in his letter to the Ephesians, to which the church of Colossae would probably have had access). However, if part two of the verse is meant to explain part one, we see uses for head of both preeminence and the first of a series.
Colossians 2:10 “and you have been filled by Him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.”
The reference to being over other rulers and authorities leads to the conclusion that Paul is using head here as a term of authority.
Colossians 2:19 “[The false teacher] doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God.”
Head here is again used in its attending sense, speaking of the care in nourishment for growth in truth.
From our examination of these seven instances of the use of the word head, we found two uses as the actual body part, one use as preeminence and at the same time first of a series, one use as authority, and three uses as that of attending care. So, what does this prove for us? Well, the first thing we can conclude is that since Paul does use multiple meanings at various times, we can’t determine his meaning in Ephesians 5 simply because he always uses the term to mean one thing. And I want to emphasize this point. We cannot begin reading Ephesians 5 and Paul’s use of head with regard to the husband and immediately conclude he is speaking of authority. We have no basis for doing so.
A second conclusion that must also weigh heavily into our consideration is that in all his other uses that we have examined, Paul never uses the word head to indicate authority when speaking of Christ’s relationship to the church. In fact (which is our third conclusion), Paul predominantly in his writings (and exclusively in Ephesians) uses head to signify Christ as attender—caring for or watching over those who are more vulnerable.
Paul had a special relationship with the Ephesians. He spent more time there than anywhere else in his travels—except, of course, at the end when he had to remain in Rome under a sort of house arrest. And we know the Ephesians had a certain problem we talked about, which really was a problem for the whole new Christian church of this first century A.D. Christians didn’t get along well with other Christians. The problem was chiefly one of trying to make the church fit into the world economy rather than understanding that God through Christ was transforming the world. Without that understanding and used to the world’s hierarchy of authority and control, the church tended that way. The Jews had seen it among the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Gentiles had recognized it in the Roman government. Yet with all their clamoring, Jesus’s words should have rung clear: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Precisely, Jesus was saying that the structure by which the world judged control was not the structure by which Jesus (through God’s impression) wanted control to exist.
The church in Ephesus stands out as a church steeped in this first century problem. We understand that struggle by the frequent biblical discussion: Acts 20 recounts Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders about standing against false doctrine. His message is heavily premised on his example of love for them. Christ’s message to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 to commend them for holding to doctrine yet rebuke them for losing their first love—the communion of fellowship in Christ that marked the start of their kingdom living. But of course, the message of Paul’s entire letter to the Ephesians urges them toward overcoming the obstruction of Jew and Gentile differentiation. Paul spends much of chapter 2 explaining how Christ brought them together in one body, and then pounds in the concept beginning in chapter 4, verse 4: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Paul’s message is that we are one! And that one body message fuels Paul’s analogy of Christ as head—caregiving attender—to us the one body together. It is not for the purpose of hierarchy and division. It is for the purpose of love.
In chapter 5, then, Paul begins drawing this thought to his conclusion. How should we all walk based on the position we now enjoy in Christ as one body? We should “walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God” (5:2). Note how Paul links giving of self with love. Giving yourself involves submission. But submission and love are not necessarily synonyms, however. You can give yourself out of duty, which may not involve love. But giving yourself (submitting yourself) for the purpose of benefitting another by your submission—that is love. Love always includes submission of self.
Paul continues bringing his letter to its climactic conclusion in verses 19 through 21, ending by exhorting each of them to submit to each other for the good of the whole—speaking Christ to each other, singing Christ to each other, giving thanks to God for their oneness in Christ, all while they submit to each other. Now at this point, Paul broadens his application to go beyond the Jew and Gentile controversy precisely to show how this attitude, this loving and giving for one another in the body works in other relationships.
Paul addresses wives and husbands just after his conclusion that we should all submit to each other. Wives are to submit. Husbands are to love. The giving of self for the benefit of the other should be held uppermost in mind. Paul’s message to wives is this: “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands in everything.” Notice carefully that Paul links the headship of the husband to the headship of Christ. How is Christ the head? He tells us that Christ is the Savior of the body. Does that mean the husband is responsible for gaining atonement for his wife? Is she supposed to depend on her husband for mediatorial work to bring her to God? How could we even think such a thing! Keep in context. Paul is telling wives to give of themselves for the benefit of their husbands in fulfillment of everything he has just been preaching. The oneness of the body is the basis for submitting. This message is the same throughout Paul’s ministry. In Romans 12:1–3, we read Paul urging the Roman Christians toward this same submission for the benefit of each other. It is a transformation from the world’s system to act for benefit of self. In Romans 12:3, Paul even tells them to engage in self-control to accept the gifts of each other as each submits himself or herself in expressing individual gifts for the benefit of each other. There is no hierarchy involved—no placing of certain ones over certain others. It is about a common attitude that should be expressed by everyone—a submission of self for others benefit.
Look back at our Ephesians 5 passage. Does Paul say wives submit because husbands have authority over them? Of course not. That is not his message. There is no mention of husbands having authority.
Verse 25 tells us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. . . .” Does that remind you of something we just read? It is almost exactly the same wording as in verse 2: “Walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us.” That verse applies to everyone. We are all to love as Christ loved. How did he love? He loved by giving himself—the submissive core of the Christian outlook to give of self for the other’s benefit. Christ didn’t love because he had authority over us. He loved by giving up himself. So husbands are to give up themselves.
Can we be sure that the command for wives to submit is not something different—a submission to the controlling will of the husband? We did not assume the submission of verse 21 to be to the multiple controlling wills of everyone else in the church. It is a submission of what one has for the sake of another. If you have lack, I am here to submit myself so as to make up for your lack. Sealing the deal of this understanding for the wife is the fact that verse 22 has no verb. There is no word “submit” in verse 22. In the Greek, the verse 22 directive carries over in assuming the verb from verse 21. Extracting out just that thought we would read: “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ—wives to your husbands, and husbands love your wives.” Paul’s structure indicates he considers what the wives are to do and what the husbands are to do on an equal plane with the thrust of his message.
Take a look now at how Paul continues his instruction to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word.” Again, Paul is not telling husbands they must make their wives holy or that they must cleanse their wives by washing her with the word. Husbands can’t do that sort of thing. Only Christ can.
Summarizing everything from Ephesians 5, verse 19 through verse 25, we could paraphrase it like this: “So, then, Jews and Gentiles, and actually all of you who belong to Christ, be filled by the Spirit, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to your husbands, just as the church to the Lord, and husbands, love your wives as the Lord loved the church.”