Chapter 5 of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is always enlightening to read. People tend to cherry-pick verse 22: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” or 23: “the husband is the head of the wife” as if those two lines were out in a desert by themselves. In reality, they are in the midst of a beautiful section on relationships among the church, husbands and wives, and Christ. I’ll do an overview of the chapter, then drill down into specifics for both husband and wife.
The chapter starts with telling all Christians to follow Christ’s example:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us…Verse 1
It goes on to describe a happy united fellowship with everyone deferring to everyone else:
…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.Verses 18-21
Then it tells wives to defer to their husbands as the leader responsible for the family:
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.Verses 22-24
And it tells husbands to take that responsibility very seriously:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…Verse 25 Verses 28-29
So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church.
This would make the kind of marriage where neither would hurt or disrespect the other:
FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.Verse 31, quoting Genesis 2:24; Verse 33
…each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.
Tell me, does that sound like the husband is the king of the castle, the boss of the home, free to be a tyrant and dictate to his wife, controlling her like a possession? Not to me, it doesn’t.
Instead, that sounds to me as if the husband is responsible for the well-being of his wife and his household, with authority delegated from God that enables him to fulfill that responsibility. When acting as the “head”, the husband is the representative and is the one held accountable for the family unit. Yes, that does give him the right to make decisions. But if those decisions are not in the best interest of his wife and family, then he has failed in his duty to them … and to God 1.
To help him carry that heavy responsibility, the husband has his wife as a full partner.
Does this passage, or the rest of the Bible, present the wife as subservient? No, she is presented as an overwhelmingly valuable member of the unit without which the entire structure would be weakened. She is to be the beneficiary of her husband’s headship, and the supporter that makes it possible.
Genesis 2:18-24 describes God’s creation of woman to be a “helper” to the man, because “it is not good for man to be alone“. This tells us that a husband needs his wife, that he won’t rise to his fullest potential without her help. It also tells us that a wife’s fullest potential, in turn, includes being a partner to her husband. 2
That word “helper” is instructive, and is often misunderstood. A good friend brought this point to my attention in the Bible study that she led: The Hebrew for “helper” (ezer) is never used of anything resembling a servant. It always means either 1) an alliance between equals, as in kings or warriors joining together in battle, or even more often 2) God helping His people or coming to their rescue. That’s what woman was created to be, never a “fetch my beer” kind of a slave.
The marriage relationship is used here in Ephesians and elsewhere in the Bible as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship with His church (Luke 5:33-35, John 14:1-3, Revelations 19:7). The church, the entire body of all believers throughout history, is the radiant bride eager to see her bridegroom, Christ. And He is equally eager to have her join Him in life, for eternity. That gives great value to both men and women. It also gives a transcendent goal for all of us to work together toward that kind of harmony.
Sadly, in our society we have not yet arrived at that goal. So, let’s get to work! 3
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Of course, being imperfect human beings, all husbands will make incorrect choices at times. The goal is to follow God’s leading, and to ask forgiveness and restoration after each failure.
- This does not in any way diminish the value of those who are not married! There are many reasons for singleness, and none that separate a person from God’s love and valuable purpose.
- Note: This entire conversation refers to the husband/wife marriage relationship, not to any other relationships between men and women. I know of nothing in the Bible that gives specific instructions for women to be subject to men other than their husbands, or for men to be responsible in this way for women other than their wives. The universal “be subject to one another” would be the guidance in effect outside of marriage and immediate family.