Men and women in Ephesians 5

I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! Due out later this month. I am aiming to cover Gen 1, Gen 2 and 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 111 Cor  14, Eph 5 and 1 Tim 2.

Here is the (short) section on Ephesians 5.18–6.9.

Ephesians 5–6.9 sets out the contrast that arises from our being ‘imitators of God’ (5.1), with the characteristics of the ‘works of darkness’ (5.11) listed in the first half, and the contrasting characteristics of the people of God in the second.[1]

Most English translations suggest in their layout that 5.22 marks a new section, sometimes even having a paragraph break and a new heading. But in fact vv 18 to 24 form a single sentence, starting with the command (an imperative) to ‘be filled with the Spirit’. All the other aspects of these verses flow from this; ‘speaking…singing and making melody [19]…giving thanks [20]…being subject to one another…[21].’ The most reliable manuscripts have no verb in v 22, so that idea of ‘wives [submitting] to their own husbands’ must be inferred from the general command for all to be in submission to one another. The word for ‘their own’ (idioi) is emphatic; this is not a general command for all women in relation to all men, but appears to emphasise that the mutual submission of all to one another does not obliterate structures of relations with marriage and the family.

This section continues in what is often called a ‘household code’, instructions for the ordering of relations within the (extended) household. But it contrasts markedly with similar codes that come before and after. Paul consistently uses a distinct word (hypotasso) for the relations of women to men, the same word he uses for all Christians in their humble submission to one another. This word had a military origin, and has the sense of putting things in place in the right order. He reserves the word for ‘obey’ (hypakouo) for the relations of children to parents and slaves to their masters (6.1, 5). This contrasts both with Graeco-Roman discussion, where the head of the household is to command obedience from the others, and second-century Christian writing, which also expects the head to ‘order’ his household.[2] Instead, Paul appeals to all members of the household as moral agents, working out their mutual submission one to another.

Why does Paul appeal to the example of Christ in thinking about household relations, when he does not in the parallel passage Colossians 3.18 (and neither does Peter in 1 Peter 3)? He seems to make use of it as a contrast to surrounding expectations; whilst he writes only 41 words to the wife, he uses 116 words to encourage the husband, and all in the direction of living out the self-giving love of Christ. This emphasis ‘has the rhetorical effect of setting up a trajectory or momentum in the direction of a more egalitarian approach to the marital situation.’[3]

The submission of wives in v 21 is closely linked to the idea of the husband as ‘head’ in v 23, and there is no discussion of ‘origins’ here. However, it has been suggested that this is a a midrash (Jewish-style commentary) on Gen 2, and from v 25 the focus is on the husband ‘going ahead’ and taking the initiative. ‘”Head” then means head servant, and refers to a sort of servant leadership (cf Luke 22.25ff)’.[4]

If the code is set in the context of mutual submission, and if Christ is given as the example of loving self-sacrifice…then it cannot be said that this code simply repristinizes the existing patriarchal order of things with gender-specific subordination of the female…Clearly, the loving self-sacrifice of the husband is depicted as the same sort of subordination.[5]

[1] There has been wide scholarly questioning of whether Paul wrote Ephesians, though in recent years more commentators have argued that this is written by Paul. I will assume this for the sake of simplicity, though it does not affect the argument about men’s and women’s roles in relation to one another.

[2] See 1 Clement  1.3 and 26.9, Polycarp to the Philippians 4.2

[3] Witherington The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians p 314

[4] Witherington p 328, following Caird and M Barth.

[5] Witherington p 323.


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6 thoughts on “Men and women in Ephesians 5”

  1. What does repristinizes mean – put it into Google and your blog came second and third and put it into and nothing came up!
    Is this the passage where there is the discussion around head as source – think you have written about that somewhere…

  2. I would recommend doing a bit more with the meaning and origin of hupotasso, plus note that the form is hupotassomenoi, which is passive.

  3. You see, this is why the Bible confuses me… we are taught to follow the word of God, but what is says does not seem fair. Why should wives submit to their husbands? This just pushes the whole ‘sexism’ thing and honestly makes me kind of hurt. And then there are whole other issues such as homophobia, etc. that people constantly use the Bible to justify! Jesus said love everybody, yet the Bible lists out people who are “doing wrong”. I mean, sure, some sins are by choice, but other feeling can literally not be controlled! I honestly don’t understand…


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