Two words. That’s all, yet they have influenced our laws, shaped our attitudes, excused terrible abuse on countless wives and condemned the apostle Paul as a misogynist, a woman-hater. The two words are “submit” and “head”. They are found together in Ephesians 5:22, 23: “Wives, [submit] to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church.”1
“Submit” is not actually in the Greek text, but it is rightly assumed from v 21, which reads, “submitting yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ”.2 This verse is transitional and affirms that the “submission” in what follows is mutual, even though it is expressed in different forms. Consequently, husbands have no right to focus on Paul’s advice to their wives while ignoring his counsel to themselves.
In the ancient world it was self-evident that the husband ruled the household and the wife obeyed. Aristotle was convinced that the male ruled the female: “the male is ruler and the female the one who is ruled”.3 Hence, “[T]he courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying.”4 Plutarch (46–120 AD) said that “though the husband should dominate over the wife, his domination should not be that of an owner over a chattel”.5
Jews who were contemporaries of Paul such as Philo (BC 20–50 AD) and Josephus (37–100 AD) are thoroughly Greek in their view of women: “wives must be in servitude to their husbands; servitude imposed not by violent ill-treatment but by promoting obedience in all things”;6 “the wife, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the husband. Let her accordingly be obedient, not for humiliation, but that she may be ruled, for the right to rule has been given by God to the husband.”7
So is Paul then simply a product of his time? Has he uncritically inherited the flawed structures of his world? Or has he injected the values of Christ into these structures so as to transform them? [pullquote]
The wife’s devotion to Christ (v 22) sets her marital pattern, but that is for her direction and does not provide the basis for her husband to dominate her. The husband is not here a substitute for Christ; he is not the “Lord” in this verse, though he ought to respond to his wife with some of the gentleness and humility of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:1).
The meaning of vv 21–24 is shaped by the frequent mention of Christ and His relationship with the church, His body, which then directs the wife’s relationship with her husband, and the same is true of vv 25–33 where Christ patterns the husband’s role. In both sections the way Christ ministered to the church is how the husband is to treat his wife and vice versa.8 As Ellen White comments, “If he is a coarse, rough, boisterous, egotistical, harsh and overbearing man, let him never utter the word that the husband is the head of the wife, and that she must submit to him in everything; for he is not the Lord, he is not the husband in the true significance of the term . . .”9
When we turn to Paul’s directive to the husbands, several things stand out. First, is the extent of Paul’s counsel to the traditional head of the household—131 words addressed to the husbands compared with only 48 to the wives. He focuses on those in his society who held the power, which indicates that this was the area he wished to correct. Second, the term he emphasises is “love”, which occurs six times in vv 25–33. Third, the example of Christ defines the nature of this love. Christ’s love for the church is manifest in His self-giving for her so as to render her holy and without blemish (vv 25–27). Christ’s giving of Himself refers especially, but not exclusively, to the cross.
Christ’s example is applied to the husbands by clear links, that is, “just as Christ loved . . . so also ought husbands to love” (vv 25, 28); the husband nourishes and tenderly cares for his own body [wife], “just as Christ does for the church”, that is, His body (vv 29–30). The identity of the wife with the husband’s body stresses the organic unity between husbands and wives; it is not an allusion to self-love. Thus “husbands ought to love their own wives as though loving their own bodies (selves). He who loves his own wife, loves himself for she is his alter ego (v 28).10 That this is not talking about the husband’s love of himself, but refers to his intimate union with his wife, is made clear by Paul’s reference to Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (v 31). The phrase “one flesh” is not simply referring to sexual intimacy; it is affirming the ideal of a sublime organic unity between the wife and her husband. All ideas of ruling, headship and submission seem entirely excluded by Paul’s emphasis on love and the merging of the two into one flesh.11
Let us recall Paul’s praise of “love” in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (vv 4–5). Love excludes any idea of male dominance or control. Paul has tipped all thoughts of male headship on its head. If the husband’s right to rule over his wife was his objective, then Paul chose the wrong text from Genesis in support of it. He could have cited the well-known verse: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16, italics added), but Paul glided right past it and chose Genesis 2:24 with its emphasis on an organic oneness (“and the two will become one flesh”), and not on headship or domination.12
Paul concludes his advice with this thought: “Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” (v 33). Paul has taken a first-century infrastructure and transformed it by imbuing it with the love of Christ. If he can do that for the first century, surely Christians today should be able to infuse Christ into their marriages so that they become havens of love and tender care and not houses of terror.
Dr Norman Young is a former senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education.