Well, it’s happened once again. I came across another mention of Ephesians 5:22:33 as a proof-text that men are to lead their wives. In fact, I’m noticing this to be pretty common verbiage regarding the complementarian perspective. Although, as I’ve written about here that I think we should distinguish between patriarchalism and complementarianism.
Nonetheless, I’ll get straight to the point. I think to read men’s leadership of their wives into this text is not only imposing something on it that Paul is not conveying, but also is just a tad bit dishonest and agenda driven. And I write this as one committed to a complementarian perspective and affirms male headship. There is a mutuality that gets missed by insisting this passage is about men leading their wives.
First, the passage really begins in vs 21 – “and submit to one another in the fear of Christ”. Well actually, this is a continuation of thought from the previous verses beginning with vs 15, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise people”. Context and following Paul’s flow of thought is important. From there he’ll talk about how that’s done – making the most of time, being filled with the Holy Spirit and having a right attitude towards one another (vv 16-20).
Then we get to the start of our passage about mutual submission. What gets missed in English translations of the original Greek is that the verb translated “to submit” is actually in vs 21 and not in vs 22. Well, I think that is pretty significant to where Paul is going with this text. Because now he is going to describe what being subject to one another looks like in the context of marriage – wives submit to their husbands (vv 22-24); husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church (vv 25-30). So let’s say we remove the verb from vs 22 that really isn’t there anyway and the translation from the orignal text would go something like this “submitting one to another in the fear of Christ, wives to their own husbands as unto the Lord…husbands love your wives. In other words here is the formula:
mutual submission = wives submitting to husbands + husbands loving their wives.
Well there’s a couple of temptations already with respect to vv 22-24 and the instructions to the wives and how an application from leadership could be derived. First, there’s a temptation to focus on how the wife is to submit, a focus that is commonly inserted into this passage. But the instructions are to wives. It is not instructions to husbands to tell their wives to submit. I could probably write volumes on that but I’ll refrain. Second, there is a temptation to look at the comparison to Christ and the church and the analogous language used of Christ’s headship and the church’s submission. After all, doesn’t Christ lead the church? But to see that as Paul indicating the man leads the wife misses the complete picture which I’ll get to in a minute. Remember, this is the instruction to the wife. It’s not a prescription for how the husband is to lead because that is not the focus but it is on the wife’s submission.
Also, a note about headship: there are a couple of meanings assigned to head (kephale) – 1) source, 2) authority. Source does not make much sense in this context. So I believe it refers to the latter and is compatible with Paul’s use of the same word in 1 Corinthians 11:3. But it is not authority in the sense of dictatorship but of responsibility. The buck stops with the man. Moving on…
Next, the husband. Notice that most of the instruction is directed towards the husband not the wife. And yet there is this tendency towards focus on the wives submission. But I won’t go there. And the instruction is pretty clear. Now based on common interpretations of this passage you would think that it reads “husbands lead your wives as Christ led the church and teaches her in all things”. But that is not what it says “husbands love your wives as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” This is not the language of leadership but of service and sacrifice. In this context, the husband’s concern is not to lead his wife but love her sacrificially.
Putting the thrust of these two components together, I believe it is meant to portray a beautiful mutually submissive relationship. In fact, this leads Paul to wax on about the communion of Christ to his church because of his giving and her submission and then describes it as a mystery. It’s actually kind of hard to see where he stops describing the marriage and starts describing the church, which for me just amplifies the oneness of marriage reflecting this mutual submission (vs 31). Again, the thrust of the passage is not to talk about leadership, men’s roles vs women’s roles but how mutual submission works in marriage.
So I don’t know, I sincerely wish this passage can be taken for what it says not what we want it to say to affirm something it really isn’t saying.