Studies in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians

15. Ephesians 5:21-33 - Submission in Marriage

Grammatically, verses 18-23 form a very long sentence: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another…submitting to one another, wives to their own husbands.” These participle clauses tell us how we are to act when filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another, singing, and submitting to one another. The grammar indicates that Paul is continuing the same subject rather than switching to something new (even though many translations start a new sentence and new paragraph at verse 21 or 22).

One of the results of the Spirit in our lives is that we “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). We look to the needs of others (Philippians 2:4). When we respect Christ, we respect those who are in Christ.

The first example Paul gives is submission in marriage: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). Many Greco-Roman writers told wives to submit to their husbands, but Paul puts that advice into a new context: our relationship with Christ. Just as we should all submit to Christ, wives are to submit to their husbands. Paul will soon balance this with some surprising advice for husbands.

“For the husband is the head of the wife…” (v. 23). Commentators argue vigorously about whether “head” implies authority or source (the latter meaning can be found in the phrase “headwaters of the river”). Apparently the Greek word could have either meaning, but here the context (especially the word “submit”) suggests that authority is in view. We “submit” to a source if it has authority over us. Nevertheless, Paul does not focus on authority, but on responsibilities.

The husband is head of the family in the same way “as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (vv. 23-24). How well does the church submit to Christ? Imperfectly, but Christ does not beat the church into submission. That kind of behavior is inappropriate in marriage — and it is hypocritical for a husband to badger his wife about submission when he has problems with submitting himself to Christ.

Unfortunately, Paul’s words have often been used by men to demand that wives obey: “The Bible says that you are supposed to submit to me.” However, the wife could say, “Yes, but the Bible also says that you are to give yourself up for me — so stop making demands.” This sort of exchange is fruitless, because it tries to use the Bible for selfish purposes. The better way is to let the Bible speak to each person, without any self-serving “assistance” from us.

Obviously, a wife should not submit “in everything” — not to commands that are contrary to Christ. In the same way, she does not have to submit to abuse, for abuse is also contrary to Christ.

Responsibility of husbands

After Paul gives the culturally common advice to women, he gives a surprising command to the men: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). The love that Paul calls for was a radical idea in Jewish and Greek society — that husbands had obligations to make sacrifices for their wives. In using the word love, he is essentially telling husbands to submit to the needs of their wives. “In the final analysis, submission and  agape love are synonymous” (Snodgrass, 296).

What are the results of Christ’s love for the church? “…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” (vv. 26-27). Husbands cannot do this for their wives, of course, but they should have the same attitude: They need to view their wives as spotless, holy and pure, because Christ has made them so.

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28). Just as Christ sacrificed himself to serve the church, men should make sacrifices to serve their wives. They should do nothing from selfishness, but in humility regard their wives as better than themselves — and the women should do the same (Phil. 2:3). Paul is calling for mutual respect and submission.

“He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:28-30). Unfortunately, some people do hate their bodies, but Paul’s point is clear: Husbands should treat their wives as the husbands want to be treated by others (Matt. 7:12).

To show that husbands and wives are united as one body, Paul quotes Gen. 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” (Eph. 5:31).

How can two people be one? Paul says it “is a profound mystery — but then he says, I am talking about Christ and the church” (v. 32). Since we are all united with Christ, we are one in him. Not just in marriage but also in Christ, our spouses are part of our body, and we need to treat them as well as we do ourselves.

Paul summarizes the discussion in v. 33: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Whether we are male or female, when we are filled with the Spirit, we should love, respect, and submit to one another.

Things to think about

  • Is it fair for us to remind other people about what God commands them?
  • Should wives really submit “in everything”? (v. 24)
  • In what way can husbands give themselves up for their wives? (v. 25)
  • Does the Bible command anyone to exercise “leadership”?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2005, 2011