Ephesians 5: 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Passages like this one can illicit a strong reaction from people in current Western culture, which I understand. The idea that wives would be “subject” to their husbands can sound like being lower on the org chart, submissive, a doormat. But on closer inspection this is not what Paul is describing. A few points:
- Paul is not offering this counsel as a direct word from God (V.32 “I am applying it…”), but as loving advice from a spiritual father. Therefore, in my opinion, it does not hold the same authority as some other parts of scripture.
- The culture of Paul’s day held very different possibilities for women than modern Western culture. In Paul’s day women had few ways of supporting themselves and their children and so were economically bound to their husbands in ways far less common today.
- V.21 counsels husbands and wives should “be subject to one another”. This is an image of interdependence and mutual respect, not subservience.
- V.33 says men should “love” their wives. The Greek word here is a “agapao” which is a form of the root “agape” which is love that serves the other. It’s the kind of love Christ showed to us on the cross and is the frame of reference for the kind of love husbands are to have for their wives. Again, this is not an abusive relationship or a man lording over his wife, but reflects a man willing to give his very life for his wife.
- V.33 also says women should “respect” their husbands. The Greek word here is “phobetai” which is a form of the root “phobeo” from which we get the English word “phobia”. However, in the context of the rest of the passage, the meaning is more about reverence/respect than outright fear.
I know passages like this can be hard to receive. However, on closer inspection, there may be more here of value than you might expect. Heavenly Father, teach men and women to live together in mutual respect and love, for this is your desire. We don’t always succeed at this, but with you all things are possible. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.