Lead Us Not Into Misreading: Seeing the Mutuality in Ephesians 5:22-33

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.

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About Lisa Robinson

Servant of Christ, DTS Grad, member of Town North Presbyterian Church (PCA), non-profit professional, anti-poverty advocate, writer, thinker, explorer of ethnic food, lover of good coffee and a good laugh.
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8 Responses to Lead Us Not Into Misreading: Seeing the Mutuality in Ephesians 5:22-33

  1. John Randall says:

    I feel Paul was referring to mutual submission, as that is the best for both, and is in reference to the love that God was / is wanting all of us to acknowledge. My Pentecostal sister and brother-in-law interpret this as the husband insisting the wife submit to him and she must acknowledge that submission as God’s wish. After reflection of my failed, 21 year marriage, I would not go into a marriage now, that WAS NOT MUTUALLY SUBMISSIVE TO EACH OTHER! We share in all the glory of God and the toil of life; in which we definitely need each others support. The husband should love his wife sacrificially. And the wife – the husband. My prayer is that God will just put that person in my life, and give me the wisdom to gather the resources to bind us together in Him.

  2. Michael Robinson says:

    Thanks Lisa. Couldn’t agree more. The man is not commanded to lead but to love. That he is the leader is mentioned only as the reason for the wife’s submission – it’s for her ears and in a sense is none of his business. As a pastor I plead with grooms/husbands to love and with brides/wives to let him! (I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a command – or even a scripture-endorsed example of a husband dictating to his wife – anywhere in the Bible. Can you?)

  3. hd says:

    Michael, I’ve often stated that “it’s for her ears and in a sense is none of his business”. Her submission does not instruct him to do anything. God is clearly talking to her. The same with a man loving his wife. Women shouldn’t keep “love meters” to gauge his accurate fulfillment of that requirement. Loving her is his business not hers. It certainly doesn’t absolve her from loving him. The justification for the misinterpretation of the notion of women submitted is often that if the man loves his wife then she can easily submit. I’m not sure if there is ever a place where God asks us to do something but kinda gives the onus to someone else to make it doable FOR us.

    My none seminary shaped conclusion is that God simply speaks to us, where we are. He says don’t steal, cause we do. He says don’t be envious, cause we are…. Now clearly men and women are different. Biology makes us that way and that biology serves a purpose. That biology also results in us behaving differently. God says its still good. How are we different? Women are chatty (in most cases) and are multitaskers (there is a purpose for that, which I wont go into). We often find our spouses slow to respond and slow to anticipate the needs in the home. This often leads to what what men call nagging. The bible says “take it down a notch ladies”. That is my interpretation of submission. Even if you have told him that these 50 things need to be done and where to find his socks a trillion times, and he seems to still be in clueless drool mode, be kind, don’t loose it or cry out of frustration, love on him and let him get there (EVEN IF ITS 10 YRS LATER). This is a real solution to a real problem. Husbands, even if she is crying for what seems like no appearant reason and is talking your ears off and got fat on you when she said she wouldn’t and asks questions that she doesn’t want an answer for, even if our admin is super attractive and your friend’s wife looks like she takes care of herself, even if you have all that testosterone that makes you want to out do him and get a “better wife”, love her. – this seems to me to be how scripture works. Its not mystical and its not oppressive. It doesn’t play head games – “I love you but you rank lower”. “Your body is not eternal but I engage with you based on your body parts”. Huh?????

    Side Note: There is now a trend where men are being taught that they are to be their wife’s priest. What a terrible distraction from what the word of God teaches. No different than the bizarreness during the inquisition and all of the other flesh lead teachings of the church, over the ages.

  4. Lora says:

    Paul used the Greek word kephale, translated as head. The Greek word kephale is closer in meaning the word source.
    We need to look at historical and cultural context…..
    Paul was confronting false teaching from pagan women (worshipping Diana in Ephesus as their headquarters). These wwpagan women were teaching that God created Eve first, then God brought Adam from Eve. Thus, Adam obtained all of his knowledge from Eve. Women were bringing this false teaching into the Christian church at Ephesus.
    So Paul was saying NO— Paul clarified that God created Adam first (as source) then brought Eve from Adam. Eve did not convey knowledge to Adam because Eve was first person to be deceived.

    What does this mean for the teaching of male headship?

  5. ljrobinson says:

    Lora, I know that much ink has been spilled over the interpretation of kephale in this passage and 1 Cor 11. While I don’t agree that ‘source’ makes sense in this Eph 5 passage, I have heard good arguments. But I have long ceased debating about it. In terms of how we define male headship, I am convicted that we have to align with a local assembly that is compatible with our convictions.

  6. Lora says:

    Thank you for posting the article Lisa.
    Truth is usually somewhere in the middle between several extremes.
    It’s taken a long time for me to learn more and to grow….I’m learning more about biblical equality and finally healing from the twisted interpretations of Scripture from my fundamentalist childhood.
    Thankful for how the Lord led me every step of the way- thru a bad marriage, then a complex divorce. He continually blesses me thru people at church and even thru the men I work with each day. Morning by morning new mercies I see….

  7. Pingback: Re-evaluating Spiritual Leadership | Lisa Robinson

  8. Pingback: This is a man’s world: why don’t women just get it together? | Lisa Robinson

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