Read Ephesians 5:21-33.
This passage of Scripture, and it IS Scripture, is one of the most controversial in the entire Bible, if not THE most controversial. These words from the heart of God, through the heart and mind of St. Paul, have been used, abused, and misunderstood not for years or even decades, but for centuries. Tragically, they have been used to justify the oppression of women, to try to force women to stay in abusive marriages and to justify the behavior of abusive men. And because of that, the church today has three typical responses. One is to teach from an uninformed position and make Paul say the opposite of what he intended to say here. Another, and this is probably the most common today, is to try to avoid or ignore this text at all costs. Preaching the way I do, next text up, forces us to face this difficult passage, really look at it, and come to terms with what it says. The third way of dealing with this text is to say that it’s one of those “cultural” texts that no longer has authority today, like women wearing head coverings whenever they come to church. So in some way we kind of cut this text out. The problem is that Paul didn’t word this passage like he did the one about head coverings. He couches this one in the creation narrative, as being universal in scope.
All of this happens because of the difficulty of taking concepts that were recorded not just in the ancient Greek dialect known as Koine Greek, but also in a Jewish and Greek mind and from a Jewish and Greek worldview. And when Paul wrote these words, they were radical, they were revolutionary, but probably not in the way you think. One thing you have to realize is that some of these words have deep, deep negative emotion attached to them today, in 21st Century America.
Let’s start by looking at V. 21. This verse serves as a key to understanding this whole passage. “But Pastor, my Bible has this verse as the end of the previous passage. It doesn’t go with this one.” Lot’s of translations have this passage at the end of the previous. That’s because the word “submitting” is a participle that, along with “addressing,” “singing and making melody,” and “giving thanks always” grammatically depends on the verb “be filled with the Spirit.” “Submitting to one another” is one of the results of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives; so yes, this verse is connected to the one before it. “Be filled with the Spirit … addressing, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and submitting. But V. 22, the verse right after it, literally reads “wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” It doesn’t actually have the word submit in it, it has no verb, so it depends on the word “submit” in V. 21. St. Paul made V. 21 a transitional sentence, ending the thought of the previous paragraph and also leading into the thought of the next. “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” is an outgrowth of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and is the foundation for a healthy marriage.
But the instruction to submit to one another seems almost counterintuitive, doesn’t it? An oxymoron. The way we typically understand submission is to view one person cowing before another. If you have more than one dog in your home you know that one is dominant, and the other submissive. That’s how we typically view the world; how we operate. For one to submit, there must be another who is dominant.
So how in the world are we supposed to submit to one another? By recognizing that submission is the hallmark of true humility. You see, submission is nothing more than making a decision about the worth of others relative to yourself. In Philippians 2:3 St. Paul tells us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” He’s saying exactly the same thing. To submit to one another is simply to consider the other as more significant than yourself.
When we submit to one another, we make an effort to truly listen to AND UNDERSTAND each other as much as we can. I take your perspective into consideration and you take mine into consideration. Now, this doesn’t mean that we are doormats for others, or that we can’t seek justice for ourselves when someone does us wrong. But even our seeking of justice is motivated not by selfishness but by love for others. Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is force them to come to terms with the wrong they are doing by seeking justice.
And there are times when we should not to submit to one another. Submitting to one another doesn’t mean that we give in to error. In Galatians 2:4-5, Paul says “Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in – who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery – to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” Paul isn’t talking about slavery as we think about it here. He was talking about slavery to the law and those who were complaining that Titus, one of his coworkers, was not forced to be circumcised when he became a Christian. He was Greek, not Jewish, and Jewish Christians wanted to force non-Jewish converts to be circumcised as they were. Paul refused for the sake of the gospel. Mutual submission also doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree with one another. When Paul and his ministry partner Barnabas were on their first missionary journey, they took with them a young man named John Mark, but after a short while John Mark got homesick and turned back. Later, when they were preparing for their second missionary journey together, Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance, but Paul resisted the idea. How did they handle it? Paul let Barnabas take John Mark with him and go in one direction, while Paul partnered with Silas and went another, and now there were two missionary teams out there, not just one.
The last thing we have to understand about true submission is that it cannot be coerced. It cannot be forced. And that’s where we as fallen, sinful human beings get it wrong. At its core, sin is putting the self at the center of everything. God asks us to consider others as more significant than the self, and thus to submit to one another without sacrificing the self. And so we must be forced to submit, and when we think others aren’t submitting to us, we try to force them. True submission is a gift freely given in trust and in love. And St. Paul is very clear – we must submit to one another. The basis of submission is submitting ourselves to one another, or “giving way” to one another. Submission is giving way to somebody else. Anne Atkins, in her excellent book Split Image, says, “Before we can hope to be good husbands or wives, we must learn to be good Christians. We must all become self-sacrificial and submissive.”[i] Now, Paul brings this mutual submission into the most intimate of human relationships – marriage. Look at. Vv. 23.
After this introduction on mutual submission, why does it seem like Paul is immediately contradicting himself? Is he confused? Did he forget what he just wrote? It looks like he is contradicting himself, doesn’t it? He says “Wives, submit to your husbands” but he doesn’t say “husbands, submit to your wives.” Only, if we understand the words Paul actually uses here, we realize that he ISN’T contradicting himself. At all. There are three words that we absolutely have to understand to really get what Paul is saying here. The first is “head.” Look at V. 23. When we think of someone being the “head,” we think of boss, right? In charge. Giving the orders that others must follow. And there is a Greek equivalent for that concept that is sometimes translated into English as “head.” It’s the Greek word “arche.” It means head as in leadership or point of origin. It was used to denote beginning in the sense of being the first or point of inception. It would be used to describe the headwaters of a river. It would also be used to denote first in terms of importance or power. We use the word as a prefix in words like archangel, or archbishop, or archenemy. It is also used as the prefix for our words archaeology and archives, all of which relate to first things, beginnings. And Paul knew about this word. He used it a lot. He used it in forms that are translated as “magistrate,” “chief,” “prince,” “ruler,” and “head” when he wanted the word “head” to refer to someone who was in charge.
Funny thing though – that isn’t the word he used here. Instead, he used the word “kephale.” It’s the word we get medical terms like “cephalus” from, referring to … the brain. That which is inside the head. Paul continues his biological analogy by saying that Christ is the head of the church and the church is his body. And the relationship between husband and wife is just like that – head and body. When we think of head, we think of boss, of being in charge. But that’s not what Paul means. He’s describing a head and body together, not leader and follower. He completes the analogy in V. 31 by quoting Genesis 2:24. The two become … one flesh. He isn’t describing leader and follower. He’s describing head and body as one flesh. What’s a headless body? A dead body! And what’s a body-less head? A dead head! Paul isn’t saying that husband is leader and wife is follower. In fact, the Bible never, nowhere, not once tells a husband to lead his wife. Not in the Old Testament. Not in the New. He’s saying the two become one. In fact, it is the husband who leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, not the other way around!
“Kephale” can also mean “foremost” in position. In that way it was a military term. It means “one who leads,” but not in the sense of someone who orders the troops from a safe distance, like a general. Arche was the root for that kind of leadership. And Paul consciously chose NOT to use that word here. Instead he chose “kephale” – one who leads in the sense of being the first into the battle, being in the lead, in front, leading the charge, the vanguard. That has a different sense to it, doesn’t it? It has the ring of courage to it. The one at the front of the charge, tends to bear the brunt of the opponent’s assault, don’t they. The first troops to land on Omaha beach on D-Day were slaughtered. There’s a sense of placing the self in harms way to protect the other. When you think about it, courage is actually stupid. It is the opposite of self-protection. It is setting aside the wants and needs of the self for the sake of the other. So when Paul said, “the husband is the head of the wife” but used the word kephale instead of arche, he redefined what it means to be the head. He was saying, “Ok men, you want to be the head? Set aside your own needs, your own wants and desires, and champion her. Raise her up. Support her.” And he wasn’t just talking about physical protection.
The second word we have to understand is “submit.” Now, we’ve already talked about what it means to mutually submit to one another, but I want to look for a minute at the word Paul used here. The Greeks did have a word for “to obey.” In fact, they had two. The first is “peitharcheo” and it plays off the word “arche.” It appears only three times in the New Testament and always has the sense of obeying one who is in authority. Paul knew this word. In fact, he used it in Titus 3:1. Paul didn’t use it here. Instead he used the word “hupotasso.” But Paul used a different, more uncommon form of the word. He is really carefully choosing his words here. In the way in which Paul used the word, “hupotassomai,” it has the sense of doing something voluntarily, rather than being forced by someone else to do something. And it has the sense of give your allegiance to, tend to the needs of, be supportive of, or be responsive to.
Hupotassomai could also be a military term. If a soldier was falling behind, or holding back during an advance, his captain might use the word “hupotassomai” to order him to return to his place in the line, to join his team and be supportive of them, to have their back and they have his, to do his part of the assignment. So if the head, “kephale,” is at on the front line leading the charge, the wife is to “hupotassomai,” to take her place at his side and fight alongside him. To protect his back as he protects hers. In a world where women were treated like property, these words were absolutely revolutionary. It wasn’t unusual at all to tell a wife to submit to her husband. But using the word the way Paul is using it? In placing the wife alongside the husband, Paul is redefining marriage here.
Commentator William Barclay describes the treatment and view of women in the ancient world this way: “The Jews had a low view of women. In the Jewish form of morning prayer there was a sentence in which a Jewish man every morning gave thanks that God had not made him “a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” … In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely in her husband’s possession to do with as he willed. … The position was worse in the Greek world … The whole Greek way of life made companionship between man and wife next to impossible. The Greek expected his wife to run his home, to care for his legitimate children, but he found his pleasure and his companionship elsewhere … in Greece, home and family life were near to being extinct, and fidelity was completely non-existent … in Rome in Paul’s day the matter was still worse … the degeneracy of Rome was tragic … it is not too much to say that the whole atmosphere of the ancient world was adulterous … the marriage bond was on the way to complete breakdown.” One Greek writer said that “women were the worst plague Zeus made.” Another that “the two best days in a woman’s life are when someone marries her and when he carries her dead body to the grave.” Jewish rabbis told men “Do not talk much with a woman … not even with one’s wife.”
Another scholar says this: “In the Roman Empire, a girl was completely under her father’s, a wife completely under her husband’s, power. She was his chattel … her life was one of legal incapacity which amounted to enslavement, while her status was described as ‘imbecilitas,’ whence our word.” There was also a movement at the time to promote equal rights for women and Ephesus was actually a bastion for women’s rights, but even there women enjoyed no where near the freedoms and rights enjoyed by women in America even before the 20th Century. If you were a woman, the world was a typically a dark place indeed. But according to Paul, the husband is now to act as “kephale,” head, setting aside his agenda, his wants and needs to champion his wife. And the wife is now to “hupotassomai” her husband, responding to his needs just as he responds to hers. And they are head and body together – ONE body. Remember those words? “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Maybe Paul isn’t contradicting himself at all. This passage has so often been used to push women down. Truth is, only 47 words here are directed toward wives. 143 are directed toward husbands. And there’s a third word we need to understand, because it’s another word that Paul used to describe the orientation of a husband toward his wife.
The third word we need to understand is “love.” Paul really hammers his point home now. Look at Vv. 25-30. The word Paul used here is “agapao,” the noun form of the verb “agape.” The Greeks had many words for love. They spoke of “erao,” erotic, sexual love. But authentic erotic love, sexual attraction, cannot be commanded. They spoke of “phileo,” a fondness or deep liking common in friendships. But again, that kind of love cannot be commanded. And then there was “agapao” – love not as an emotion but as an attitude and an action, and that CAN be commanded. In fact, it is the only kind of love that can be commanded, because it is the only kind of love that does not require emotion. Jesus defined this love vividly in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when one person helped another who was a stranger, an enemy, and a victim who could not possibly repay him. It is the kind of love that consciously chooses to set aside your own self-interest to serve and care for the needs of another. And that is what Paul draws out here. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
This passage does not teach that women are men’s to control, that the husband automatically gets the deciding vote. It doesn’t mean that wives are to be subservient and that husbands make all of the decisions, even if they hear their wives perspectives first. But sadly, that’s almost always how this passage is understood. And the impact is devastating. According to the book “Battered Into Submission,” one third of all wives are beaten during the course of their marriage. Sadly, the book isn’t about abuse of wives by their husbands. It’s about the abuse of wives by their Christian husbands, and 18% of all Christian wives report some kind of abuse by their husbands.” The husband isn’t lord of the manor. It does not teach that wives are servants who must follow every desire of their husband, or that husbands can force submission. Far from it. Husbands, as “kephale”, holding fast to their wives and as one flesh with their wives, are to “agape” their wives, setting aside their own needs and wants to champion and encourage their wives, seeking what is best for them. And wives are to “hupotassomai” their husbands, setting aside their own wants and needs to respond to his.
But both are to do this because of their relationship with Christ. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.” “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church.” Christ is at the center of the relationship, and that point almost always gets lost. Christ, not self, is the center of the relationship. When a husband and wife lift one another up, rather than one trying to push the other down, the needs of both are satisfied and God is glorified, and THAT is the kind of marriage Paul describes here. The self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God, the love that God in Christ has for his church, is made visible to the world through the self-giving, self-sacrificing, I’ve got your back love of one spouse for another when both follow Christ. That’s why, in the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward, visible, visible sign of an inner, spiritual reality. We as protestants have only two: baptism and communion. The Catholic church has seven. I’m not sure about the seven, but I think they have it right when it comes to marriage, for they take the message that God through St. Paul intended for us to receive in Ephesians 5. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ … let each one of you love his wife, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Let us pray.
[i] Jill Briscoe, “Hilarious Hupotasso,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 117.