Genesis (Study 13)—New Testament Submission (Gen 2:18–25 / Eph 5:21–33)
We need to follow the subject of men and women (especially husband and wife) relationship begun in Genesis 2 to its logical outworking through Scripture. That requires leaving the Genesis 2 text (while hanging on to its basis) as we cover especially New Testament passages related to relationships. Based on our conclusion of the Genesis scene before sin entered the world, we found God’s emphasis on the reign of love—a self-giving attitude that seeks the benefit of others, especially so if the others are more vulnerable in some need which we have ability or supply. That truth supplies the foundational basis for James’s claim that pure and undefiled religion begins by looking after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). They are the ones of society who are most vulnerable and who are most in need of care and love—the basis of religion before God.
As the church was just developing through the mid first century A.D., we read especially of Paul’s struggles with a church that had difficulties embracing this concept fully. Factions quickly developed. Social standing created obstacles. And even authority issues emerged in a struggle for control of the bourgeoning Christian religion between the Jews and the Gentiles. The very first letter we have from Paul’s pen was to the Galatians, and he addressed precisely this problem. In it, Paul attempts to strike a death knell against all these false divisions, summed up in his one statement in Galatians 3:28 “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So that is a predominant thought that we must bear in mind as we move now to study our issue of male and female relationship in the New Testament.
Our question is whether any NT passages suddenly shift from a non-hierarchical relationship between man and woman, which was evident in the Garden, to interject an alternate way of life for New Testament living—a life of authority and subordination in husband-wife relationships and functioning in the church. Some people believe so. One of the handful of passages from which their reasoning derives (and we will discuss the entire handful) is Ephesians 5:22–33. Let’s see what God has to say there.
Before we delve into each verse, we should make sure of some broader concepts that will ensure we do not limit our thinking too much before we even start. One such concern regards the use of the word head. What meaning does Paul intend when he uses the word head? There are several possibilities:
The word head could simply mean that body part above the neck.
Example: He is a head taller than the other students. The word here has no figurative imagery. It means simply that a person is taller by the height of his actual head.
The word head could mean the brain or mind location.
Example: She has a good head on her shoulders.
The word head could stand for authority or being in charge.
Example: The teacher is the head of the class.
The word head could mean preeminence (e.g., smartest).
Example: That student is at the head of her class. Notice that while this use implies preeminence, it does not imply authority.
The word head could mean being first of a series.
Example: He is at the head of the line. Again, this time the word does not stand for authority or even preeminence; it merely shows position.
The word head could mean source.
Example: He is the head troublemaker in the class. While the sentence could intend preeminence here—as if to say he is the worst of all troublemakers in the class, it could also mean that this person is the instigator (or source) of troublemaking. It could be this student whose mischievous ideas and encouragement lead others into trouble. I used an example related to a classroom scene just to be consistent with all the other examples. However, the use of head to mean source is probably easiest seen in the example of the head of a river.
The word head could mean attending—taking care of or watching over.
Examples: The teacher gave the students a “heads up” about having a quiz. Or, The teacher thought one student was in over her head. Both these examples do speak of the literal head, but they allude to the idea that the head watches out for the body.
So, here we have come up with seven possible meanings for the word head. Therefore, when we go to a passage that uses the word, we cannot simply assume the word has only one meaning. We need to be sure how it is used in order to interpret the thrust of the teaching.
In all Paul’s New Testament writings, he uses the word 18 times within 13 verses. In our Ephesians 5 passage, he uses it two times. So since we are trying to figure out Ephesians 5, we’ll put those two uses aside for the moment. Paul also uses the word seven times in 1 Corinthians 11, another of the handful of passages to which appeal is made regarding male authority over females. So, we will also put those seven occurrences aside for the moment. That leaves us with the other nine uses by Paul to examine.
Romans 12:20 “. . . heaping fiery coals on his head.”
Well, we’re starting with a passage that is difficult enough to figure out on its own. The heaping coals imagery is not a vicious act. While some explanations relate the act to a situation in which a neighbor’s home fire has gone out. The neighbor comes to you with firepan in hand. You supply fiery coals that your neighbor takes home to rekindle the fire. Normally things were carried on the head. If you were a good neighbor, once the person got the firepan situated on his or her head, you would “heap” more coals in it to be sure they stayed hot enough to get home and do the rekindling job they needed to do. So that’s one explanation. Probably however, as Paul quoted that passage from Proverbs 25:22, he meant as the surrounding proverbs meant—offering a kind or loving response made the sufferer feel worse. And that worse feeling ended up making the sufferer reevaluate. So offering the food or drink made the enemy miserable in heart for his own bitter attitude and resulted in a refining—the purging of the malevolent attitude to one of relationship.
Therefore, we find here that Paul used the Greek kephale (head) simply as the literal body part to maybe image the attending attitude that head would have in watching over the attitude.
1 Corinthians 12:21 “The head can’t say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you!’”
Here again Paul uses the word simply as the body part, pointing out a connective necessity that matches to the differing gifts of individuals in the body of Christ.
Ephesians 1:22b–23 “[God] appointed him as head over everything for the church, which is his body.”
Paul calls Jesus the head while the church is called the body. Paul’s point here is one of caregiving. Paul differentiates the church as body from enemies who are placed “under His feet” in a position of subjection to his authority. So while the head-to-under feet analogy does show authority, the head-to-body analogy shows watchful attending.
Ephesians 4:15 “Let us grow in every way into Him who is the head.”
Again, Paul could not be using head as authority in this passage, unless he were confusingly attempting to say that we should and would all attain to the same authority as Christ. Rather, the passage is speaking of taking care by the true word of Christ not to fall prey to false doctrine. Therefore, it is a reference again to watchful attending.
Colossians 1:18 “He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning so that He might come to have first place in everything.”
It is possible that the second part of this verse is a separate thought, leaving the head-to-body statement without further explanation. If so, his readers would have to rely on other uses by Paul to understand the connection (for example, like those we have just seen in his letter to the Ephesians, to which the church of Colossae would probably have had access). However, if part two of the verse is meant to explain part one, we see uses for head of both preeminence and the first of a series.
Colossians 2:10 “and you have been filled by Him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.”
The reference to being over other rulers and authorities leads to the conclusion that Paul is using head here as a term of authority.
Colossians 2:19 “[The false teacher] doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God.”
Head here is again used in its attending sense, speaking of the care in nourishment for growth in truth.
From our examination of these seven instances of the use of the word head, we found two uses as the actual body part, one use as preeminence and at the same time first of a series, a couple uses as authority, and three or four uses as that of attending care. So, what does this prove for us? Well, the first thing we can conclude is that since Paul does use multiple meanings at various times, we can’t determine his meaning in Ephesians 5 simply because he always uses the term to mean one thing. And I want to emphasize this point. We cannot begin reading Ephesians 5 and Paul’s use of head with regard to the husband and immediately conclude he is speaking of authority. We have no basis for doing so.
A second conclusion that must also weigh heavily into our consideration is that in all his other uses that we have examined, Paul never uses the word head to indicate authority when speaking of Christ’s relationship to the church. In all uses of head as authority it is in reference to Christ over enemies or worldly rulers.
Finally, if we do want to lay emphasis on the number of times used, Paul by far intends the meaning of attender—caring for or watching over those who are more vulnerable—when referring to the church.
Paul had a special relationship with the Ephesians. He spent more time there than anywhere else in his travels—except, of course, at the end when he had to remain in Rome under a sort of house arrest. And we know the Ephesians had a certain relational problem we already mentioned, which really was a problem for the whole new Christian church of this first century A.D. Christians didn’t get along well with other Christians. The problem was chiefly one of trying to make the church fit into the world economy rather than understanding that God through Christ was transforming the world. Without that understanding and used to the world’s hierarchy of authority and control, the church leaned that way. The Jews had seen it among the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Gentiles had recognized it in the Roman government. Yet with all their clamoring, Jesus’s words should have rung clear: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Precisely, Jesus was saying that the structure by which the world judged control was not the structure by which Jesus (through God’s direction) wanted control to exist.
The church in Ephesus stands out as a church steeped in this first century problem. We understand that struggle by the frequent biblical discussion: Acts 20 recounts Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders had a dual purpose—to stand against false doctrine and to love each other as Paul had given them example in loving them. Christ’s message to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 commended them for holding to doctrine yet rebuked them for losing their first love—the communion of fellowship in Christ that marked kingdom living. And of course, the message of Paul’s entire letter to the Ephesians urges them toward overcoming the obstruction of Jew and Gentile differentiation. Paul spends much of chapter 2 explaining how Christ brought them together in one body, and then pounds in the concept beginning in chapter 4, verse 4: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord onefaith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Paul’s message is that we are one! And that one body message fuels Paul’s opening analogy of Christ as head—caregiving attender—to us the one body together. It is not for the purpose of hierarchy and division. It is for the purpose of love.
In chapter 5, then, Paul begins drawing this thought to his conclusion. How should we all walk together based on the position we now enjoy in Christ as one body? We should “walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God” (5:2). Note how Paul links giving of self with love. Giving yourself involves submission. But submission and love are not necessarily synonyms, however. You can give yourself out of duty, which may not involve love. But giving yourself (submitting yourself) for the purpose of benefitting another by your submission—that is love. Love always includes submission of self.
Paul continues bringing his letter to its climactic conclusion in verses 19 through 21, ending by exhorting each of them to submit to each other for the good of the whole—speaking Christ to each other, singing Christ to each other, giving thanks to God for their oneness in Christ, all while they submit to each other. Now at this point, Paul broadens his application to go beyond the Jew and Gentile controversy precisely to show how this attitude, this loving and giving for one another in the body, works in other relationships.
Paul addresses wives and husbands just after his conclusion that we should all submit to each other. Wives are to submit. Husbands are to love. The giving of self for the benefit of the other should be held uppermost in mind. Paul’s message to wives is this: “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands in everything.” Notice carefully that Paul links the headship of the husband to the headship of Christ. How is Christ the head? He tells us that Christ is the Savior of the body. Does that mean the husband is responsible for gaining atonement for his wife? Is she supposed to depend on her husband for mediatorial work to bring her to God? How could we even think such a thing! Keep in context. Paul is telling wives to give of themselves for the benefit of their husbands in fulfillment of everything he has just been preaching. The oneness of the body is the basis for submitting. This message is the same throughout Paul’s ministry. In Romans 12:1–3, we read Paul urging the Roman Christians toward this same submission for the benefit of each other. It is a transformation from the world’s system which acts for benefit of self. In Romans 12:3, Paul even tells them to engage in self-control to accept the gifts of each other as each submits himself or herself in expressing individual gifts for the benefit of each other. There is no hierarchy involved—no placing of certain ones over certain others. It is about a common attitude that should be expressed by everyone—a submission of self for others benefit.
Look back at our Ephesians 5 passage. Does Paul say wives submit because husbands have authority over them? Of course not. That is not his message. There is no mention of husbands having authority.
Verse 25 tells us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. . . .” Does that remind you of something we just read? It is almost exactly the same wording as in verse 2: “Walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us.” That verse applies to everyone. We are all to love as Christ loved. How did he love? He loved by giving himself—the submissive core of the Christian outlook to give of self for the other’s benefit. Christ didn’t love because he had authority over us. He loved by giving up himself. So husbands are to give up themselves.
Can we be sure that the command for wives to submit is not something different—a submission to the controlling will of the husband? We did not assume the submission of verse 21 to be to the multiple controlling wills of everyone else in the church. It is a submission of what one has for the sake of another. If you have lack, I am here to submit myself so as to make up for your lack. Sealing the deal of this understanding for the wife is the fact that in the Greek, verse 22 has no verb. There is no word “submit” in verse 22 of the Greek NT. In the Greek, the verse 22 directive carries over in assuming the verb from verse 21. Extracting out just that thought, we would read: “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ—wives to your husbands, and husbands love your wives.” Paul’s structure indicates he considers what the wives are to do and what the husbands are to do on an equal plane with the thrust of his message.
Take a look now at how Paul continues his instruction to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word.” Again, Paul is not telling husbands they must make their wives holy or that they must cleanse their wives by washing her with the word. Husbands can’t do that sort of thing. Only Christ can. Rather, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Jesus did, by giving up of self for their benefit.
Summarizing everything from Ephesians 5, verse 19 through verse 25, we could paraphrase it like this: “So, then, Jews and Gentiles, and actually all of you who belong to Christ, be filled by the Spirit, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to your husbands, just as the church to the Lord, and husbands, love your wives as the Lord loved the church.”