Thursday, December 06, 2007

Biblical Equality and Ephesians 5:21-33

Does the Bible teach husbands to submit to their wives?

In an an article at the CBE website, Gilbert Bilezikian says that whenever the word head is used in the New Testament to refer to Christ, it means "provider of life" or "source" (in the way that the head of a river is its source, its place of origin) and does not mean "authority, boss or leader." Using this definition he makes the following comment on Eph 5:23:
As head of the church, Christ is its Savior. If head had meant authority, the appropriate designation for Christ would have been "Lord" instead of "Savior" which is consistently a self-sacrificing, life-giving servant role in the New Testament.
His point is that, given his definition of head, Eph 5:23 has nothing to do with authority and everything to do with mutual submission (mentioned two verses earlier, in 5:21). Therefore, according to Dr. Bilezikian, Eph 5:23 does not teach male leadership and female submission.

A bit earlier in the article he mentions that, "A basic rule of sound hermeneutics requires that no biblical term or concept be infused with meanings foreign to it." Of course. And another rule is that every verse should be read in its context. I would suggest that Dr. Bilezikian's interpretation of the present verse does not fit the context in which the verse is situated:
15Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
From the verses above it seems clear, even if we grant Dr. Bilezikian's definition of head (which I am not sure I do), that authority is indeed in view in this passage. Whatever Paul means by head he means it as the ground or reason for the command in verse 22 that wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord. He repeats this command in verse 24, adding that a wife's submission to her husband is to be like the church's submission to Christ. Therefore, we must reject Dr. Bilezikian's interpretation that Christ is portrayed in this passage merely as a "servant provider." Whatever head means here, the thrust of the passage is that the church owes obedience to Christ and wives owe the same kind of obedience to their husbands.

I would also suggest that verse 24 might explain what Paul means by head in verse 23.

But what should we do with verse 21 ("submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ")? This much is clear. Paul can't mean "all submit to all," for immediately after saying "submit to one another" he goes on to explain at length precisely what he means: Wives are to submit to husbands (verses 22-33), children to parents (6:1-4) and servants to masters (6:5-9). Rather than "all submit to all," Paul seems to mean something like, "Submit to one another in the following relationships."

When Dr. Bilezikian concludes from Eph 5:21 that "Christ makes of husbands servants to their wives in their relationship of mutual submission," he comes close to making a great blunder. It is this. If Eph 5:21ff teaches that husbands and wives should submit to one another, it must also teach that Christ and the church should submit to one another, since that is what the husband-wife relationship is compared to. But this is unthinkable (and perhaps blasphemous). Christ, as Lord of the church, deserves her obedience and owes her none. The book of Ephesians itself teaches us this in numerous places (see for example 1:2, 3, 15, 17; 2:21, 3:11, 4:1, 5; 6:23, 24). Has any of us, in time of prayer, ever commanded Christ to submit to us? I think not.

In conclusion, it seems clear that Eph 5:21-33 teaches us that husbands are to exercise loving and humble leadership over their wives, and that wives are to graciously and gladly submit to their husbands' leadership, even as the church gladly submits to Christ. Every believer knows that personal obedience to Christ is part of the Christian life. We don't think it demeaning to submit to our Lord. Quite the opposite in fact. Don't we all admire those Christians whose lives are marked by humble and unswerving obedience? We see Christ in them - Christ who himself submits to the Father (see John 5:30ff, 8:28). In this connection Dr. Bruce Ware has noted that, "if Christ, who is equal with the Father in essence and glory, submits to the Father, then it is as God-like to submit as to lead." Eph 5:21-33 would have us believe that the wife's submission to her husband is appropriate and beautiful and praiseworthy.


Anonymous said...


I did not read the whole post, but the good Dr. that you mention in your post has not reckoned with Wayne Grudem's work on kephale, where he shows almost beyond doubt that "head" means authority and not source in the NT and outside of it.

Furthermore, the syntax of the original reveals an interesting point (some of this is from memory so check me out!). If I remember right, the main verb "be filled with the Spirit" is followed by several participles. A common interpretation of these is to take them as participles of instrument or means "by." So Paul gives a command and then instructs the Ephesian CHURCH how to be filled with the Spirit. The last participle "submit," then, would refer to the broader community, the church, and not the household, and is a means to be filled with the Spirit.

Paul does seem to make a distinction between church and home. In the home, the wife humbly submits, while the husband lovingly leads. In the church, the body of Christ should be characterized by a mutual submission, a behavior where we are deferring to one another, rather than trying to push our own agendas, and thus be filled with everything but the Spirit.

What do you think?


Josh said...

Are you suggesting that in 5:22-6:9 Paul is explaining what he does not mean by 5:21--that he's trying to prevent Ephesian wives, children, and servants from supposing that they don't have to submit to their respective God-given authorities?

I have to go translate some of Hebrews now. :)

Anonymous said...


Nope. Simply, I want to say that there is mutual submission in this text, but it takes place in the church context. When we come to 5:22 and following, submission is no longer mutual, but specific and "one way." I think this makes sense of the "submit to one another" in the 5:21, and the "wives submit to your husbands" in 5:22. 5:21 has participles that only apply to the church seeking to "Be filled." Does this help?


Josh said...

My impression is that the participles in verses 19-21 show how a Spirit-filled person behaves in contrast with how a drunk person behaves, not the means to being Spirit-filled. So they would be participles of result or maybe purpose. Calvin's got my back on this one, calling the behaviors of 19-20 the "fruits" of being Spirit-filled. Still, I don't doubt that doing such things will lead to continued and greater filling.

In the UBS verses 18-20 are one sentence and verse 21 begins a new sentence and paragraph. "Submitting to one another" is in the same sentence as "wives" and in fact the verb hupotasso is only implied in verse 22. I think the editors are right - 21 starts the section on submission that stretches all the way to 6:9, in which he enumerates who he means when he says "one another": wives, children, servants. It doesn't seem like verse 21 refers only to the church. It seems to me like a segue from one topic to the next. One flows naturally into the other.

I am aware of Grudem's study of kephale. I just wanted to show that the interpretation of the passage doesn't rise or fall on how we take kephale.

James and Christen said...


I thought that was a great explanation of that passage in its context. In the past I believe I have used Eph. 5:21 out of context by teaching that we should all submit to all. It makes perfect sense that it is an introduction to the following verses. I also loved how you explained that this would mean that Christ then should have to submit to us, if we took that interpretation. I'm loving your blogs, especially the ones where you give an exegesis of a particular passage. It kind of gives me an idea of what you are learning there. It almost makes me jealous. Take care!


Sue said...

The difficulty here is that Grudem explicitly says,

The first reason I think "some to others" is a better understanding of Ephesians 5:21 is the meaning of the Greek word hypotassō ("be subject to, submit to"). Although some have claimed that the word can mean "be thoughtful and considerate; act in love" (toward another), there is no hard evidence to show that any first-century Greek speaker would have understood it that way, for the term always implies a relationship of submission to an authority.

However, we do find these examples,

1 Clement 38.1:

“So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each man be subject (ὑποτασσέσθω) to his neighbor, to the degree determined by his spiritual gift,”

and 2 Macc 13.23,

“[King Antiochus Eupator] got word that Philip, who had been left in charge of the government, had revolted in Antioch; he was dismayed, called in the Jews, yielded (ὑπετάγη) and swore to observe all their rights, settled with them and offered sacrifice, honored the sanctuary and showed generosity to the holy place.”

So it is clear that verse 21 could very easily mean for Christians to submit to one another.

I note that someone here seems to think that Christians should submit to one another but as soon as two get married that stops altogether and unilateral submission of the wife begins. So marriage and the church model two opposing ways of interacting. Which one is Christlike?

Regarding kephale, we do know for sure that in lexicons of classical Greek in English and French, head is listed as meaning "source" and it is not listed as meaning "authority over."

I am highly skeptical of how seldom the facts are allowed to interact with the notions of the male authority people.

Grudem's famous study produces a handful of contradictory evidence from translation literature among other things. It is not conclusive but establishes that there is at least one author contemporary with the NT outside of the Bible who used "head" to mean authority. That is about it. Not an overwhelming proof of anything.

Josh said...

Three points in response to what you've said:

1. EDT, TDNT, and BDAG all agree that kephale connotes some idea of authority, superior rank, prominence, primacy, leadership, etc. It seems like this is related to and derivative of the idea of "source, place of origin." So maybe it's not a matter of choosing between the two but recognizing that we have here two related ideas--that "authority over" is derivative of "source, place of origin."

2. I agree that Eph 5:21 shouldn't be separated from 5:22ff, as if Paul begins a totally unrelated discussion at 5:22. It seems to me that allelois in 5:21 must mean "one another" in a generic sense and not a proper, strict sense. It seems akin to lining your children up from oldest to youngest before you go out for the evening and saying to them, "I want you to submit to one another: Joey (the youngest), you submit to Betsy (the middle child), and both of you submit to Bobby (the oldest)." They would understand perfectly well what you meant. It appears that we have a similar situation in Eph 5:21-6:9, only there we have wives, children, and servants, respectively. But even if allelois in 5:21 does connote mutual submmission, it stands as a fact that nowhere in the passage are husbands commanded to submit to their wives.

3. Would you agree that if Eph 5:21ff teaches that husbands should submit to their wives, it must also teach that Christ should submit to the church?

Sue said...


I has always wanted to ask this of a man, so here goes,

as the church to Christ

as Christ to God

Christ became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Is this the model for the wife's behaviour or the husbands? Which one follows Christs model of submisson.

Because Eph. 5 definitely says to me that it is the man's role. The man sacrifices. But all we ever hear about is the submission of women and it feels like the weaker one is being nailed on the cross by the stronger one in the partnership.

My impression is that if there were two people left on earth there would be no church. One would have to be in charge of the other and to heck with the church. The primary relationship is the authority submission relationship. Then why on earth is the Bible strewn with orders to submit, defer, love and respect each other. Obviously complementarians don't believe all that jazz. They care about one thing, the submission of women. I can sure see non-Christians being impressed by this.