Paul's Radical Vision for Marriage: An Alternative Reading of Ephesians 5


Paul’s instruction on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 forms one of the most beautiful and profound portrayals of the gospel in the New Testament, which probably accounts for its status as the most popular source material in Christian marriage vows. I often wonder, though, why traditional vows so often contain a line for both the bride and the groom about loving the other while only the bride’s vows contain a line about submission. Yes, Paul specifically instructs wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5, and he doesn’t say anything about husbands submitting to their wives. But he doesn’t tell wives to love their husbands either, and yet nobody assumes this means wives don’t need to love their husbands. And Paul even introduces this whole paragraph by instructing everyone to submit to one another (v. 21).

So why is it so common to think of submission within marriage as the sole responsibility of the wife? For one significant reason. In both Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul says that the husband is the “head” of the wife. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that the husband is the “leader” or “authority” of his wife, so that Paul’s instruction to wives is based on the exclusive authority of the husband comparable to Christ’s authority over the church. This reading comes naturally in a patriarchal context where masculinity is defined mostly in terms of being tougher and more driven and femininity is defined mostly in terms of being more gentle and submissive.

Needless to say, there are some cultural assumptions that need to be teased out for us to properly understand Paul’s rationale. The traditionalist view of submission has come under intense scrutiny by recent scholarship, and many have pointed out that the dominant modern understanding of “headship” as “authority over” doesn’t accurately reflect Paul’s meaning. In fact, the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English lexicon, one of the most exhaustive lexicons of ancient Greek, does not include any definition of the word that approximates “leader” or “authority”. While it’s important to keep the debate focused on Paul’s own usage, we have to be careful to avoid interpretive colonialism, reading our cultural use of a metaphor onto Paul instead of allowing Paul’s language to carry the natural resonances of his own culture.

Headship: Authority or Source?

Even in our culture, we sometimes use “head” as a metaphor for authority (like the head of a corporation) and we sometimes use it as a metaphor for source or origin (like the head of a river). The question is, in Paul’s metaphorical use of the Greek word kephale, did it carry more the connotation of “authority over” or more the connotation of “source and origin”? Of course Paul calls women to submit to their husbands “for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church”—but is his reasoning that wives should submit to their husbands because man possesses an intrinsic authority over woman just as Christ has authority over the church, or that wives should submit to their husbands because man is the source of woman just as Christ is the source of the church?

I think it’s clearly the latter, and here’s why: Paul explains the headship of husbands here in comparison to the headship of Christ. In Colossians 1:18 Paul writes similarly that Christ “is the head of the church body of which he is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, so that he himself may be first in everything.” Paul’s primary point throughout this passage (Col. 1:15-18) is to show that Jesus is the authority over everything because he is the creator, source, and beginning of everything—and when Paul uses the word kephale (head) in this context, it means “source and origin”.

This point is crucial. In Colossians 1:15 Paul calls Jesus the “firstborn of all creation”, and then he explains what that means in verse 16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” In other words, being the “firstborn of all creation” means that Jesus is the source of all things, including all thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities. Verse 17 elaborates that he is “before all things” and “in him all things hold together”. So verses 15-17 deal with Christ’s authority over all of creation, and Paul’s logic is that Christ holds ultimate authority over everything because he is the ultimate source of everything.

Verse 18 then homes in on the church as God’s new creation in Christ. And the logic is the same: he is the “head”, the “beginning”, the “firstborn from the dead”—and notice the causal relationship here—“so that in everything he might be preeminent”. In other words, Paul’s logic is the same with Jesus’ authority over the church as it is with his authority over all of creation, and in both cases it is a source logic: Jesus is the origin and source of all creation, and he is the origin and source of the church, in order that he might have the first place as Lord. Note also what he says in 2:16, that Christ is “the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (cf., Eph. 4:15-16). When Paul says that Jesus is the head, he clearly means that he is the source.

So when Paul says that husbands are the head of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church, he does not mean that they are the authority of their wives but rather that they are the source of their wives. Besides Ephesians 5:23, Paul uses the metaphor of headship for husbands in one other place, 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” He explains what this means in verses 8 and 9 (after an interesting discussion about head coverings): “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

Again, it’s crucial that we follow Paul’s logic. In both of the passages in which Paul speaks of a husband being the head of his wife he is thinking on the map of the creation account in Genesis 2, where Eve was made after Adam to be his “fit helper” or “strong equal”. Note that he quotes from it directly in Ephesians 5:31, and alludes to it in 1 Corinthians 11:8. So thinking on the map of Genesis 2, a husband is the source of his wife inasmuch as woman was created from man to be his helper, the joint-ruler of creation, and not vice versa. This source logic in the creation account is the foundation for a husband’s authority over his wife, just as being the “head” (the source of everything) is the foundation for Christ’s authority over everything. But in neither case does the metaphor of headship itself speak of authority.

Mutual Headship

Now, at first glance that might seem like a relatively insignificant distinction to make. But for Paul it makes all the difference in the world, because in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, just after explaining that man is the source and origin of woman, he quickly points out that woman is now the source of man.

“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

This is where the analogy between Christ’s headship and a husband’s headship breaks down for Paul. Christ is before everything, the “first cause” so to speak, but man and woman are now mutually interdependent, mutually the source of one another, so that they share mutual authority over one another. So if headship means source and origin, and man is the source of woman but woman is also the source of man, then what Paul gives us here is a theological foundation for mutual headship and mutual submission. Just as man is the source of woman, so woman is now the source of man, and therefore neither sex is independent of or preeminent above the other.

Going back and reading Ephesians 5 in this light, verse 21 appears much more significant: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Just as Paul’s instruction for husbands to love their wives doesn’t mean that wives don’t have to love their husbands, so his instruction for wives to submit to their husbands doesn’t mean that husbands don’t have to submit to their wives. Because just as man is the head of woman, so woman is also the head of man.

If you want to see how Paul fleshes out this ethic of mutual submission between husbands and wives, read 1 Corinthians 7:1-4. “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Some would wish to argue, of course, that because the submission of husbands to wives in this text is focused on their sexuality, that is the only sphere in which wives have authority over their husbands. But why would a wife only have authority over her husband’s body and not over the rest of him as well? In the ancient world sex was just one more way for men to assert their dominance over women. Therefore, in saying that a wife also has authority over her husband’s body, Paul was cutting at the heart of that culture’s patriarchal values and replacing it with an ethic of mutual submission and service between husbands and wives. And thus the principle behind Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7 can and should be applied elsewhere in marriage beyond sexuality.

So yes, I am called to be the primary covering and authority over my wife, to serve her and protect her and empower her, etc. But she is called to be all of that for me as well. When we vowed to love and serve each other as God's image bearers, that vow included a commitment to subvert the dehumanizing caricatures of masculinity and femininity within our fallen world by striving mutually to show initiative, leadership, and strength, as well as patience, gentleness, empathy, and submission.