4 The Family  ▷  Key Texts

For the Christian, the scripture is a source of life. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The scripture is more than an interesting source book for theological discussions. The scripture teaches one how to live; it contains the way of life. When approached rightly, the scripture imparts spiritual life, in good part by teaching a spiritual way of life, that is, how to live in the Holy Spirit.

This chapter discusses the key texts on the roles of men and women in the family. This book as a whole is an investigation of the Christian teach­ing on the roles of men and women. The primary concern of the book is not exegesis, although exegesis is an important element in the book. Nor is the primary concern biblical theology, although the book contains material that could be described as biblical theology. If this book were a book of exegesis or biblical theology on the subject of men and women, it would contain a great deal more material on such topics as the approaches of the different biblical authors and the evolution of the subject in scripture.1 The focus of this book, however, is not scripture itself, but what scripture teaches and how we should apply that teaching. Exegetical and biblical theological material enter in only insofar as they contribute to an understanding of what the scripture is teaching about the roles of men and women.

A “key text” on the roles of men and women, then, is a text which contains explicit teaching on the roles of men and women. A “key” text is one which directly addresses the subject of this book and offers authoritative teaching. Key texts are not the only texts in scripture relevant to understanding the roles of men and women. Texts which show us how Jesus, the apostles, and the early church approached men and women provide important background which helps one to understand and evaluate the key texts more concretely. Background texts are also important in themselves, because the pattern of early church life has some authority for Christians in later centuries, as will be discussed in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen. However, the key texts are the major focus of concern because they contain explicit and directive teaching on the subject of men’s and women’s roles.

This chapter will examine three passages in the New Testament which are the primary key texts for teaching about the roles of men and women in family life: Ephesians 5:22–33, Colossians 3:18–19, and Peter 3:1–7. These focus on the role of the husband and wife in family life. Other New Testament texts, which will be discussed later, treat men’s and women’s roles in the wider Christian community. Still other passages discuss divorce and entering into marriage. All three passages to be examined here appear in sections of epistles which tell the Christian how to approach certain important relationships. These passages all attempt to instruct husbands and wives in how to relate to one another. Two of these passages—Ephesians 5:22–33 and Colossians 3:18–19—are very similar to one another and can be treated together. This chapter will therefore discuss at some length the teaching from Ephesians 5:22–33 (Col 3:18–19) and Peter 3:1–7 on how husbands and wives should relate to one another. The discussion will primarily aim at putting one in a position to state more clearly the New Testament teaching on the roles of men and women in family life. It will also note places where these passages reinforce or develop the picture of the husband-wife roles sketched in by the previous chapter. This chapter will conclude by summarizing the New Testament approach to the roles of men and women in the Christian family, drawing together material from both chapters on the family.

Ephesians 5:22–332  ▷  As Christ

Some Christians have spoken of Ephesians 5:22–33 as the great New Testament passage on marriage, containing everything a husband and wife need to know to have a successful marriage. However, it is difficult to sustain this point of view on several grounds. For example, Paul* tells husbands to love their wives, but does not direct wives to love their husbands. Does this mean that love is only for the men in marriage? Some say that Paul presumed that the wives would love their husbands, that husbands especially needed instruction on love. While this particular opinion about husbands and wives may have some merit, the whole line of reasoning misses the point, because Ephesians 5:22–33 is not a short treatise on marriage. Rather, Ephesians 5:22–33, and Colossians 3:18–19 as well, concern the order between husband and wife in marriage, and view marriage only from that aspect. However, to establish the right understanding of husband-wife order in marriage, Paul in this passage also considers the purpose of marriage and compares Christian marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church. Thus only Matthew 19:3–9 (and parallel passages) rival Ephesians 5:22–33 as a significant New Testament statement of the place of marriage in God’s plan.

The Context

Ephesians 5:22–33, like its parallel passage in Colossians 3:18–19, forms part of a section of the epistle commonly described as a “household code” (Haustafel).3 Both Ephesians and Colossians contain a series of exhortations to wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. These exhortations are paralleled by similar exhortations in Peter which show something of the same structure. The household codes in Ephesians and Colossians—along with their close parallel in Peter—are part of a wider category of teachings, including sections of the pastoral epistles and material in the apostolic Fathers, which instruct Christians on how to approach important relationships according to God’s design. Teachers in the early church probably taught about relationships in this way as they instructed new Christians. The household codes in Ephesians and Colossians are examples of how this teaching was done.

The teaching on how to conduct particular relationships, such as the husband-wife relationship, was part of an even larger body of Christian teaching on personal relationships found in many places in the New Testament. The household codes in Ephesians and Colossians are embedded in larger sections (beginning with Eph 4:1 and with Col 3:1 or 2:8) that could be entitled “how to live in the body of Christ.” In Ephesians, this larger section begins with an exhortation to live in a united way as members of the body. It then proceeds through discussions of the old life and the new life, loving one another in Christ, and living in holiness, and then to “the household code.” Just before the passage on order in marriage, Paul gives exhortations like, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” and “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” These exhortations occur as part of a long instruction on how members of the body of Christ should love one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord, as those who have put on the new person (“man”) in Christ. It is this part of the epistle that contains the bulk of Paul’s instruction to married couples and everyone else. This portion of Ephesians contains as much about how husbands and wives should live in marriage as the passage which actually addresses the husband and wife (5:22–33). In other words, the context for the teaching on order in the husband-wife relationship is the teaching on basic Christian love. To successfully live in God’s order for marriage, husbands and wives must put away bitterness, wrath, anger, and other sinful activities and be kind and tenderhearted to one another.

The “household code” in Ephesians (and Colossians) then, does not teach on everything which goes into the relationships it considers. Rather, this part contains a very specific kind of exhortation, an exhortation on order in those relationships. The household code follows a statement (Eph 5:21) that says, “Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another.” Paul then develops this statement by exhorting wives to be subordinate to their husbands, children to obey their parents, and slaves to obey their masters. Each of these exhortations has a complementary exhortation to husbands to love their wives, to fathers to avoid provoking their children, and to masters to treat their slaves well. In other words, the whole passage from Ephesians 5:21 to 6:9 (likewise Col 3:18–4:1) treats subordination in several relationships among people who make up the same household. Paul directs his primary attention to the subordinates in the relationships, urging them to subordinate themselves to those who are over them. He then urges the “heads” to behave in such a way toward the subordinates that they can be peacefully and gladly subordinate. Thus the passages on husbands and wives in the household codes concern one aspect of relationships in the household—the aspect of order (subordination). This perspective gives us a key to reading Ephesians 5:22–33.*

The Structure of the Passages

Ephesians 5:21–33 reads as follows in Markus Barth’s translation:

Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another—wives to their husbands, as to the Lord. For in the same way that the Messiah is the head of the church

—he, the savior of his body—

is the husband the head of the wife. The difference notwithstanding, just as the church subordinates herself to the Messiah, so wives to your husbands—in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as

the Messiah has loved the church

and has given himself for her

to make her holy by his word

and clean by the bath in water,

to present to himself the church resplendent

free from spot or wrinkle or any such thing

so that she be holy and blameless.

In the same manner also husbands owe it to love their wives for they are their bodies. In loving his wife a man loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh, but he provides and cares for it—just as the Messiah for the church because we are members of his body. “For this reason

A man will leave his father and mother

And be joined to his wife

And the two will become one flesh.”

This (passage) has an eminent secret meaning: I, for one, interpret it (as relating) to Christ and the church. In any case, one by one, each of you must love his wife as himself, and the wife . . . may she fear her husband. (Eph 5:21–33)4

The parallel passage in Colossians reads as follows:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Col 3:18–19)

The Ephesians passage is obviously the more complicated one. Its structure as situated in the household code in Ephesians can be outlined as follows:

Subordinate yourselves to one another:

  1. Wives to husbands
    1. Wives, subordinate yourselves to your husbands in everything—just as the church subordinates herself to her head, Christ
    2. Husbands, love your wives—just as Christ loved the church, his body
    3. Summary: husbands love your wives and wives fear your husbands
  2. Children to parents
  3. Slaves to masters

The Ephesians passage becomes complicated because of the insertion of the comparison to Christ and the church. The comparison, in fact, takes up more space than the basic exhortation. Nonetheless, the passage contains a basic exhortation (as is clear from the comparison with the Colossians version as well as from the considerations made above about the household codes), and in that exhortation wives are exhorted to do only one thing—to subordinate themselves to their husbands. Then husbands are exhorted to do only one thing—to love their wives. If we remove the comparison, the passage reads as follows:

Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another—wives to their husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife. So wives subordinate yourselves to your husbands—in everything.

Husbands, love your wives. Husbands owe it to love their wives, for they are their bodies. In loving his wife a man loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh, but he provides and cares for it.

One by one, each of you must love his wife as himself, and the wife . . . may she fear her husband.

The comparison of marriage to Christ and the church receives a great deal of development for reasons that will appear later, but it should not overshadow the basic fact about the passage: It speaks primarily about wives subordinating themselves to their husbands and about the corresponding care husbands should give their wives. This explains why wives are not urged to love their husbands. Indeed, it explains why much more material is not included. Additional material is unnecessary because the passage is not a general teaching on marriage, but is a specific exhortation to subordination in the husband-wife relationship. If one understands the structure and purpose of the passage, one will be better able to understand the meaning of the various ideas contained in the passage, as well as its general significance for men’s and women’s roles.

The Basic Exhortation

The core content of the exhortation in Ephesians 5:22–33 is the wife’s subordination to the husband and the husband’s love of his wife. However, before discussing the content of these exhortations, two phrases that appear early in Ephesians 5:21–33, “Because you fear Christ” and “as to the Lord” need to be considered. These two phrases invoke the authority of the Lord with regard to these directions. The order prescribed in the household code is not just a pragmatic human approach. Paul presents it as Christian teaching calling for obedience as a response to the Lord.

The first phrase occurs in Ephesians 5:21: “Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another.” The fear of Christ is a reason or motivation for subordination. The phrase “fear of Christ” is analogous to “fear of the Lord/Yahweh” in the Old Testament. Some English versions translate the word “fear” as “reverence” or “respect” (5:21, 31, RSV). Such translations remove some measure of strength from the term. “Reverence” and “respect” often connote attitudes or actions which simply show consideration for someone else. “Fear” contains a greater note of seriousness and obligation, as well as the implication that bad consequences might follow from not fearing.5 The wisdom literature presents “fear of the Lord” as the response which produces obedience to the commands of the Lord. Those who fear God are those who obey him. “Fear” in this case does not primarily mean a servile terror, or a fear simply of punishment or harm, although “fear” properly reminds us that we cannot disregard God’s will with impunity. The “fear” in the wisdom literature is the first step in wisdom. It recognizes God’s power and position and our position as his dependent creatures. “Fear” is an inner attitude of submission. In scriptural teaching, this type of fear is an appropriate response to the objective truth of our position before God. We should fear Christ because of who he is. If we lose our fear of the Lord, we have lost our ability to respond properly to spiritual realities. Fear in this sense cannot be replaced by love.6

The close connection of fear to submission and obedience clarifies the significance of the phrase “because you fear Christ.” To subordinate oneself out of fear of Christ means that one is subordinate out of reverence and obedience. Christ stands behind the order of subordination in the Christian community. One motive for accepting the authority of another (in this case, the husband) is acceptance of the authority of Christ who has delegated that authority.7

The phrase “as to the Lord” in Ephesians 5:22 has a meaning related to the meaning of “because you fear Christ.” Both state that the wife’s relationship with Christ should have something to do with her subordination to her husband. There are two main ways of understanding the meaning “as to the Lord.” Some hold that it means “because the Lord wants it.” The wife should be subordinate to the husband as she would be to the Lord who stands behind the authority of her husband. “As to the Lord” in this sense would simply be a repeat of “because you fear Christ.” Some hold that “as to the Lord” refers to the manner of the wife’s subordination. She should subordinate herself to her husband the way she would if he were Christ. She should learn how to act toward her husband by considering how she would act toward Christ. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and both interpretations could be correct.8 The main conclusion relevant here is that both interpretations point to Christ’s role in the Christian community’s order of subordination.

Subordination in the Christian community is not simply a human affair, a matter of convenience or wisdom. Christ stands behind it, because he is concerned for the good order which makes his body functional (Col 2:5). The husband has authority over his wife not simply because of nature and not simply because of some social custom, but because Christ has delegated that authority to him, so that when the wife subordinates herself to him, she is obeying Christ. The husband is the representative of Christ.* This does not mean that the wife should relate only to Christ and regard her husband as the medium or occasion for her obeying Christ. Paul is trying to create a relationship of subordination between people, and he is encouraging her to subordinate herself to her husband. His instruction is not “subordinate yourself to the Lord and pretend that your husband is the Lord.” His exhortation is rather “subordinate yourself to your husband, because of the Lord.” The husband is a human being, but he bears the Lord’s authority in this relationship. Thus, Paul takes what could be a natural subordination and situates it within the order of the Christian community, an order that Christ stands behind.

To understand this passage and its teaching about order in the husband-wife relationship in the Christian community, first the exhortation to the husband, and then the exhortation to the wife will be considered. The husband is exhorted to love his wife. Paul is not here talking about erotic love, sexual desire—the love of contemporary popular songs. The exhortation does not mean “husbands, desire your wives.” The love that Paul speaks of here is service-love, the love Christ has as he cares for the church, the love he had when he laid down his life on the cross. That Paul means service-love and not erotic love can be presumed from the general New Testament use of the word “love” (agapē, agapaō) and also from both the context and content of the passage.

The context of the passage is a discussion of subordination in human relationships. The kind of love Paul is referring to is one which corresponds to the wife’s subordination to her husband.9 It is the kind of love which makes it easier for her to be a subordinate (cf. the parallel passage in Colossians where the husband is urged to avoid harshness to his wife). It is the kind of love which the person who governs in a Christian relationship should have for a subordinate. Like Timothy 3:4–5, Ephesians 5:22–33 is concerned with the head’s care for a subordinate.

The same point can be seen in the content of the teaching in the passage. Paul says that the kind of love which the husband should have for his wife is the same kind of love he has for his own body. This is neither an erotic love a man has for his own body, nor even the kind of self-acceptance that much contemporary popular psychological literature considers so desirable. Rather, Paul is referring to the man’s desire to provide well for himself. The words which Paul uses to describe the way the man takes care of his flesh refer to activities like feeding and sheltering. Paul is saying that the husband should care for his wife the same way. The husband, then, is being exhorted to take care of his wife, to be dedicated to her welfare, to provide for her needs. When Christ entrusts the women who are part of his body to husbands, he commands the men to care for them.10

The wife, correspondingly, is exhorted to subordinate herself to her husband (5:21–22). The subordination that Paul urges here stems from the unity of the husband and wife in the family, a point which the comparison with Christ and the church makes particularly clear. The purpose of the subordination is to provide a deeper and more solid oneness between husband and wife as they function together in the household. The Greek term translated “subordination” (hypostassō) has a military use that makes a helpful comparison. It was used to describe an ordered army or a fleet drawn up in battle array, ready to function together as a unit. According to the New Testament, something similar should be true of husbands and wives. Their subordination has a practical aspect in that it creates a greater effectiveness in their working together as one.11

The subordination that Paul encourages is something that the wife must choose to do.12 This feature of the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians and the related passage in Peter is without parallel in similar materials in the ancient world. Paul speaks directly to the wife, the subordinate member, and urges her to subordinate herself willingly, out of a dedication to the Lord and a concern for good order in the body of the Lord. The apostle does not want an imposed subordination, but a consciously chosen subordination. The fact that Paul addresses the wife equally with the husband (in fact, prior to the husband) indicates that Christian teachers held men and women alike responsible for the welfare of the community. They were concerned for the woman’s role as well as the man’s.

The wife’s subordination involves obedience to her husband. This point could be taken for granted if it had not been called into question by some recent feminist literature.13 To be sure, as was seen in Chapter Two, subordination involves more than just obeying commands. However, obeying commands is part of subordination. A subordinate is expected to obey. This can be seen from the common application of the term in secular Greek to military situations. It can also be seen from the way forms of the word “subordination” are used in the New Testament to describe the relationships between fathers and children (Tm 3:4; Ti 1:6) and between masters and slaves (Pt 2:18). Even more evidence that subordination involves obedience comes from examining the parallel passage in Peter 3. Here wives are exhorted to be submissive to their husbands, and obedience is given as a development of the notion of subordination. Finally, Ephesians 5:22–33 itself connects subordination and obedience. The comparison between Christ and the church certainly suggests obedience. The church obeys Christ. It should respond to Christ’s decisions and desires with the same immediacy that a body responds to its head. Moreover, the phrase “may the wife fear her husband” parallels the exhortation to the wife to subordinate herself to her husband, and the term “fear” involves obedience, as was discussed above. Paul certainly envisioned obedience to commands as included in his exhortation to “subordinate yourself.”

Paul exhorts the wife to subordinate herself to her husband “in every­thing.” This phrase has evoked comments dealing with the question of limitations to the wife’s obedience to the husband. Such a question arises out of the modern desire to define authority relationships. People in modern society limit authority by controlling the scope of someone’s authority, specifying what decisions a person in authority can make. The scripture writers rarely define or limit authority in such a way. For them, it is righteousness—obedience to the teaching and commands of the Lord who stands behind the head’s commands—which limits authority and protects the subordinate. The phrase “in everything” probably does not even raise the question of limitation of authority. It does not address the issue of whether the wife has to obey the husband regardless of what he commands. Rather, the phrase “in everything” means that the wife is to be subordinate to her husband in every area of her life. No part of her life should be outside of her relationship to her husband and outside of subordination to him. We should see the exhortation to be subordinate “in everything” in its immediate context in the passage. The husband and wife are to be “one flesh” or “one person” with the husband as head. As was seen in the discussion of Genesis, the purpose of the woman’s subordination is to create a oneness between the man and the woman, the kind of oneness that lets them be one person in society. This oneness means that the whole of the woman’s life (everything she does) has to be subordinate to her husband so that together they can have one life.14

The Grounding of the Exhortation

Throughout Ephesians 5:22–31 (though not at all in Col 3:18–19), Paul grounds his exhortation in a view of the husband-wife relationship as a head-body relationship. He compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church, which he also sees as a head-body relationship. Behind the teaching in this passage, then, lies a larger view of the Christian community and an understanding of the way that community is structured as the body of Christ. What Paul says in developing this larger view reinforces many of the points already made in discussing the passage, but it also provides a helpful perspective for understanding further passages on men’s and women’s roles.

Ephesians 5:22–31 asserts both that the husband is the head of the wife and that Christ is the head of the church. To be a “head” means to have a governing and representative function. The term “head” is first of all an anatomical term, but in many languages it is readily applied to human beings who hold governing positions. The term “head” was used in Hebrew to designate leaders of groupings in Israelite society, that is, rulers or people with governmental positions. When the Hebrew word ros was used in such contexts, the Septuagint regularly translated it by the word kephalē, the common Greek word for “head” and the word that is used in Ephesians 5:22–31. For the Hebrews (and New Testament writers generally), the head of the human body was not the seat of the thought processes. Thinking took place in the heart. But they saw the head as having a governing function, possibly because it was on top of the body, possibly because it spoke for the body and hence represented it, or acted on its behalf. Some early Christian writers thought that the head performed a governing function because it contained the eye, and the eye oversaw or supervised. The Greek word for bishop (episkopos) means the one who looks over things, who “keeps an eye on” things.*15

Paul’s use of the word “head” is founded on the Old Testament use of the word, but Paul uses the term with more of a clear reference to the head-body image. Probably the earliest place in his letters where the term is used is Corinthians 11, a passage which will be discussed at length in Chapter Seven. In Corinthians 11, Paul does not make explicit reference to the wife being the husband’s body, but there is reason to believe the idea was present in his mind. In Corinthians 12, the following chapter, Paul first describes the church as the body of Christ, but without referring to Christ as the head. Here his primary purpose is to illustrate how many gifts can operate within one human grouping in a way which maintains a perfect unity. In the passage under consideration, Paul first explicitly develops the idea of the husband being the head of the wife by adding that the wife is his body. Ephesians is also the letter in which the phrase “body of Christ” enters into a new use. Here he applies it to the whole body of Christians throughout the world; the term “body of Christ” is an image of Christians’ relationship to Christ and, by extension, their relationship with one another. The primary focus is no longer the more practical question of the functioning of spiritual gifts in harmony, although this is not totally absent, as can be seen in Ephesians 4:7–16. Rather, the primary purpose is to describe the unity of the body with and in Christ as the fulfillment of God’s purposes for history. The image of one human body provides an explication of the meaning of Paul’s phrase “in Christ.”

Several sources could be behind Paul’s usage of the head-body image, including some suggestions from Hellenistic medicine and possibly ideas from proto-Gnostic currents. But the more important source for the image is its origin in the kind of Hebrew thought that we saw in Genesis 1–3. Adam, the first man, summed up in his person and represented the whole human race. Likewise, the new human race is “in Christ”—the new Adam. Moreover, Adam, the first husband, governed and represented the family. He embodied the family as a unit, including the wife, and he could act on its behalf. Paul uses the head-body image to express this very same relationship. Ephesians 5:31, in fact, suggests strongly that Paul might have understood this image as simply a restatement of Genesis 2:24’s view that husband and wife are “one flesh” or “one person.”16

An inner connection thus exists between being the head or progenitor of a people and being the head of a family or a wife. This inner connection allows the relationship between Christ and the church to serve as a comparison for the husband-wife relationship. As Christ and the church are one body with Christ as the head, so the husband and wife are one body with the husband as the head. Christ and the church therefore can be the model for how the husband and wife should relate. Moreover, the head-body image, especially as derived from Genesis 2:24, provides a grounding for the teaching on subordination in marriage that the parallel passage in Colossians lacks. The husband and wife are supposed to be one person; within that oneness the husband stands to the wife as the head to the body (and as Christ does to the church). Both the idea of the husband as head of the wife, his body, and the idea of the wife’s subordination in everything point to the same reality: The two are supposed to function as one, and consequently the wife’s life must be completely under the authority of the husband as head. The comparison with Christ and the church reinforces this point. Just as the church is called to be part of Christ, and therefore has to be subordinate to him as head in everything and responsive to all of his directions, so the wife has to be one with her husband.

The image of Christ and his church has a significance for Paul beyond a reinforcement for his teaching on the husband-wife relationship. To be sure the passage is structured in such a way that the discussion of Christ and the church primarily provides a comparison for the husband-wife relationship. Paul uses the comparison to strengthen the exhortations to the wife and to the husband. Yet he develops this discussion of Christ and the church with a fullness and enthusiasm that suggests that this theme has a further interest for Paul. Indeed a central concern of Ephesians is to show that the Christians are “in Christ,” as part of his body and sharing in his history. This theme comes to life again as Paul presents the husband-wife relationship and considers how this teaching is grounded in Genesis. Paul sees the one flesh passage—Genesis 2:24 which he quotes in Ephesians—as not only a teaching on marriage, but also as a revelation of the nature of Christ and the church. Just as the old Adam took a wife for himself and joined himself so completely to her that they became one person, so the new Adam takes the church, making this new people his body, his own flesh. He did not consider his relationship with the Father as something to be held onto (Phil 2:6), but “left his Father” and descended to become one with human beings.17 As his people become one with him, perfectly subordinate to him, he will be able to unite them with the Father, perfectly subordinate to the Father through his own subordination. Through their obedience he will triumph over all enemies, thereby overcoming the consequences of the original rebellion (Cor 15:20–28) and fulfilling the call of the original Man.

Ephesians 5:22–33, then, contains the same parallel between human marriage and the unity of a human social grouping as does Genesis 1–3.* The husband and wife are supposed to become one person (one human being, one man) in the same way as the Christian community with Christ is supposed to become one new person (a new humanity). The husband is united to his wife as head to body and sums up in his person their life together in such a way that he can represent and govern their life. In the same way, Christ is the husband of the church and its head. There is a close link between unity and subordination in the Christian community and in the family. In both, the unity and the subordination (with the head’s care) work together to create the new being and to fulfill God’s purposes in love. The parallel between human marriage and the unity of Christ and the church illustrates how similar the Christian community and the Christian family are for Paul and how much they operate according to the same principles. At the same time, to understand the text adequately we must remember that Paul introduces the comparison with Christ and the church primarily to reinforce the basic exhortation on subordination and care in marriage. Christ and the church reveal something essential about the nature of the husband and wife relationship, but Paul does not make the comparison with the terms reversed. Although this idea frequently appears in wedding sermons on this text, Paul does not say that a Christian marriage reveals or teaches us about Christ and the church. He only says that the marriage of Adam and Eve reveals or is a type of Christ and the church. The marriage of Christians should imitate Christ and the church; the “marriage” of Adam and Eve prefigures Christ and the church.18

The word “mystery” in Ephesians 5:32 can be accurately understood only from the same perspective. It is not uncommon for marriage to be referred to as a great mystery on the basis of this passage. Yet, the term “mystery” here does not refer to marriage, but to the relationship between Christ and the church as revealed in a prefigurative or prophetic way by Genesis 2:24. Markus Barth’s translation as given above proves helpful. In Greek, a mystērion is something hidden. The phrase translated by the RSV as “This is a great mystery” is translated by Barth, “This has an eminent secret meaning.” The mystery or secret is the mystery of Christ. (Eph 3:3–4 has a comparable usage.) It is the hidden truth about Christ and the church always intended by God in Genesis 2:24 and in the whole story of Adam and Eve, but that we can only see now because of God’s work of revelation to the human race. Now that God has sent Christ and revealed the full extent of his plan for the salvation of the human race by showing how the Gentiles can become part of the body of Christ though remaining Gentiles, we are able to see more clearly how Genesis 2:24 has its fulfillment in Christ and the church.19

Ephesians 5:22–33 has been romanticized a great deal. The passage is often used to discourse about the mystery of marriage and about how the love of husband and wife reveals Christ and the church. While the content of such discourses may not be erroneous, to base them on Ephesians 5:22–33 distorts the main thrust of the text. The text has a practical function in regard to marriage. It does not exalt the married couple, but rather instructs them in their marriage. The passage teaches the husband and wife about the importance of the wife’s subordination and the husband’s care. Their love for one another is not primarily a matter of deep feelings (although these will be present to a great extent if Paul’s teaching is followed). Instead, it is a matter of their living together daily with the husband responsible to care for his wife and the wife responsible to respect and obey him. Moreover, the goal of this family order is unity, an internal oneness that allows the family to be an effective cell in the Christian community.

Peter 3:1–7  ▷  Joint Heirs

The second main passage in the New Testament about the relationship between husbands and wives occurs in Peter 3:1–7. This passage resembles the Ephesians passage both in its focus and its context.20 It occurs in a section of Peter that teaches about relationships in a way similar to the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians. However, the passage also shows significant differences from the household codes, differences which contribute to a deeper understanding of the New Testament teaching on husbands and wives.

Peter approaches relationship teaching in a broader context than the household codes. The household codes focus primarily on the kind of relationships that exist within a living unit. Peter treats the relationships of subjects and governors, slaves and masters, husbands and wives, and elders and community members. It omits consideration of children and parents. The teaching in Peter also is formed by a concern for the relationship of Christians to non-Christian authority, while the household codes seem to revolve about relationships among Christians.*

At the same time, the section on husbands and wives in Peter 3 resembles teaching in the household codes in two ways. Like the household codes, Peter 3:1–7 is the only part of the relationship teaching in Peter in which exhortation is directed to both members of the relationship. Also, along with the section directed to elders and community members, it is the only one which seems to explicitly consider the relationship as occurring among Christians. The discussion of Peter 3:1–7 which follows will presuppose much of what was said about Ephesians 5:22–33 and Colossians 3:18–19 and concentrate on those aspects of the passage which fill out the picture we have already gained. The passage is as follows:

Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you.

Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered. (Pt 3:1–7)

Like the passage in Ephesians, Peter 3:1–7 focuses on the subordination of the wife and begins with an exhortation directed to her.21 However, it develops this exhortation at significantly greater length, adding a number of considerations not found in Ephesians 5:22–33. First, submission is related more explicitly to “obedience” than in the Ephesians passage, mainly through the example of Abraham and Sarah. Peter 3:5–6 presents Sarah’s relationship with Abraham as a model for the obedience of wives to their husbands. Genesis 13:12 (LXX) seems to lie behind the reference to Sarah calling Abraham “lord” which the passage in Peter sees as an expression of submission. Here, it is enough to note that Peter 3:6 sees subordination and obedience in Sarah’s relationship to Abraham and especially in her calling Abraham her lord, and that such obedience is being commended.* Peter 3:6 indicates that obedience cannot be separated from subordination; and in fact the passage uses the two terms in some equivalence to one another.

Peter 3:1–7 also raises a new question in regard to a wife’s subordination. Does she have to be subordinate regardless of her husband’s nature or is she required to be subordinate only to a husband who actually cares and provides for her? Unlike the teaching in Ephesians and Colossians, the teaching in Peter specifically deals with a situation in which the husband is not a Christian. Since persecution of Christians is a major concern in all of Peter, perhaps in the background of the third chapter is concern for the treatment Christian wives might receive from their pagan husbands. The teaching on this question is stated plainly: The wife should subordinate herself regardless of her husband’s lack of Christianity. In fact, she may be able to win her husband to the Christian faith by her conduct. Although the Christian teaching on order in marriage will reach its full realization only in the body of Christ, this teaching applies also to marriages that are not fully in the body of Christ, because it states the order of the husband-wife relationship as God intended in his original creation. Some have concluded that Peter tells the wife to do whatever her husband tells her even if it is wrong. However, this conclusion is unwarranted, because the passage deals with normal situations, not with situations of special difficulty. The early Christians could modify their general approach under special circumstances (see Cor 7:12–16). Peter 3:1–6 simply states that the wife should be subordinate to an unbelieving husband, just as the preceding passage states that slaves should be subordinate even to masters who are harsh.

The New Testament teaching on family order is never phrased in a conditional way, even though it may not be applicable in special cases. It does not tell the wife to be subordinate to her husband if he cares for her, nor does it tell the husband to care for his wife if she is subordinate. Each partner should do what the Lord directs; the Lord will see about the other. In fact, Peter 3:1–2 says that following the Lord’s directions obediently may produce a change in the other partner. Chrysostom, addressing the Christian husband who is dealing with an unsubmissive wife, develops this point in his commentary on Ephesians:

“But what,” one may say, “if a wife fear me not?” Never mind, you are to love, fulfill your own duty. For though that which is due from others may not follow, we ought of course to do our duty. This is an example of what I mean. He says “submitting yourselves one to another in fear of Christ.” And what then if another submit not himself? Still you should obey the law of God. Just so, I say, is it also here. Let the wife at least, though she be not loved, still fear notwithstanding, that nothing may lie at her door; and let the husband, though his wife fear him not, still show her love notwithstanding, that he himself be not wanting in any point. For each has received his own.22

The remarks in Peter 3 on “fear” can best be understood in this context. Peter 3:2, translated literally, says that some unbelieving husbands might be won to the Christian faith “when they see your chaste behavior in fear.” The verse possibly refers to the fear of the husband, possibly to the fear of the Lord, or perhaps to both. Peter 3:6 says, “you are now [Sarah’s] children if you do right and let nothing make you fear.”23 Righteous subordination to the husband is given as an alternative to behavior based on being afraid of him. One could even interpret Peter here as saying that the antidote to the fear of human beings which might make a wife behave unrighteously is the fear of the Lord, as taught later in Peter 3:14–16.* The passage in Peter 3:14–16 is based upon Isaiah 8:12–13 which reads:

Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear and let him be your dread.

With the perspective provided by fear of the Lord, a Christian can look at difficulties and even suffering with a new peace and confidence. Sirach has a helpful expression of this teaching in 34:14–16:

He who fears the Lord will not be timid,

nor play the coward, for he is his hope.

Blessed is the soul of the man who fears the Lord!

To whom does he look? And who is his support?

The eyes of the Lord are upon those who love him,

a mighty protection and strong support,

a shelter from the hot wind and a shade from noonday sun,

a guard against stumbling and a defense against falling.

The cure for the fear of harm or danger is fear of the Lord—that fear which consists of respect and awe before his greatness and a zealous concern to obey him. Such holy fear wins God’s protection and favor.24

Peter 3:1–7 also discusses how the woman reflects subordination in her behavior, another topic not raised in the household codes. The woman is exhorted to avoid expensive or luxurious modes of adornment and instead to be clothed in a meek and quiet spirit, that is, a submissive spirit (cf. Tm 2:11). This exhortation may have been common in the early church.25 (See the commentary in Chapter Eight on Tm 2:9–10, a parallel passage.) This exhortation seems to have been included not because of a great concern with woman’s dress, but because of a concern for her subordination.26 “Meekness” and “quietness” are character traits possessed by those who have a submissive spirit. “Meekness” (translated “gentleness” in the version above) could also be translated “respectfulness” or “courtesy” or even “submissiveness.” Like “humility,” this quality is the trait of a servant and is closely related to being in a subordinate or lower position. Scripture speaks of Jesus as meek, and the New Testament lists of Christian character traits commonly include meekness. It is, for example, one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. “Quietness” could also be translated “calmness” or even “peacefulness.” Forms of the word are used to describe situations when someone ceases to object or argue, as well as situations when someone ceases to interfere in something that is not his or her concern.27 Likewise, “quietness” is advocated for all Christians (Th 4:11).

Although “subordination” primarily describes a way of relating to another person, it also involves a character trait, a disposition to respond in a certain way. Subordination extends beyond obedience to commands to also include respectfulness and receptiveness to direction. “Submissiveness” is probably the best English term in such contexts. “Submissiveness,” in this sense, is an overall character trait related to humility which all Christians should possess. The Christian character is portrayed in scripture as respectful of authority, not rebellious.28 Men as well as women should be submissive in their subordinate relationships. However, Peter 3 especially urges wives to be submissive in their relationship with their husbands. They are to have a respectful and quiet spirit, qualities which derive from their fear of and trust in the Lord. The passage says that a wife’s quietness and peacefulness are rooted in her acceptance of God’s order for her life and a trust in him. The wife can be submissive because she knows that God stands behind Christian order, and he cares for her, either through her husband or sometimes in spite of her husband.

The final verse of the passage, the exhortation to the husbands, contains a great deal of important material. A more literal translation would read as follows: “Likewise you husbands, live with your wives according to knowledge, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker vessel, since you are joint-heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered.” The “knowledge” referred to here is undoubtedly the knowledge of God.29 Husbands should live with their wives according to God’s revelation.

Then the passage exhorts the husbands to take concern for their wives. As in Ephesians 5, the wives are first urged to subordinate themselves to their husbands, then the husbands are urged to behave toward their wives in a corresponding way, a way which expresses the proper functioning of their role. In Ephesians, husbands are urged to care for their wives. In Peter they are urged to honor them. Scripture sees both care and honor as appropriate for the relationship and as qualities which make subordination easier for the subordinate, allowing the head to rule more effectively. The husband is urged to explicitly express his wife’s value and importance. Since some may construe subordination to mean being of less value, the husband should take care to express his esteem for his wife. Moreover as he, the head of the house, expresses his esteem for her and as he takes care to establish her in her position as the second authority in the house, the others in the household will be drawn to a greater respect for her. If her husband treats her with honor, she will gain respect through her subordination rather than lose it. One of the more important tasks of the father in a family is to treat all the household members in such a way that they gain respect. He is, in fact, the one in the best position to create respect for his wife and children. (See Jn 5:19–23 for an application of this teaching to the father-son relationship.)

Peter gives three reasons why the husband should bestow honor on his wife: her “weakness,” her status as “joint-heir,” and “in order that your prayers may not be hindered.” There are two common interpretations given the wife’s “weakness.” One view would understand weakness in reference to the fact that Eve was deceived. “Weakness” would then mean the woman’s susceptibility to deception, perhaps especially spiritual deception. The second interpretation understands weakness as simply a reference to woman’s physical weakness in comparison to men. Whichever interpretation is correct,30 the passage refers to a tendency for men not to respect women, and therefore urges the husband to take care to show that he respects and values his wife. The teaching here is similar to Paul’s teaching in Corinthians 12:22–25 that the “weaker” members of the Christian community—those who in natural or worldly terms would get less respect have to be honored so that they and others can experience that they are valuable and indispensable.

The other reasons why the husband should honor the wife—because they are joint-heirs of the grace of life and so that their prayers might not be hindered—are related to one another. Both point to the spiritual equality of the man and the woman in the family. This point will be discussed in detail later in the discussion of Galatians 3:28 in Chapter Six. Here it should be pointed out that the statement that husband and wife are joint-heirs of the grace of life is one of the key statements about the importance of the woman in the family and the Christian community. In Jewish inheritance law, as in most ancient inheritance law, the woman was not normally an heir. The inheritance went through the male line. Similarly, the Jewish woman was not, to use a Christian phrase, a full spiritual heir. Yet the Christian woman is an heir of Christ equally with the Christian man. She had the same relationship with God and lived the same life of Christ as the man. She was as important as her husband while being subordinate to him in the marriage relationship.

The phrase “in order that your prayers may not be hindered” is also important because it points to a life of worship in the Christian family that one would not expect from the Jewish family, at least according to rabbinic teaching. The Christian husband and wife were expected to pray together. They would come before the Lord together as one person in their home and worship their father and creator. Thus, according to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:23, disunity in marriage would obstruct the worship of God and hinder family worship.31

In summary, Peter 3:7 urges the husband to honor his wife, even though he may be tempted to disrespect her because of her “weakness.” He should honor her because she is equal to him in what is most important to both of them, their life in the Lord. Thus there should be harmony and unity between them in such a way that they can come before the Lord and pray as one.

The Roles of Husbands and Wives

A summary of the roles of husband and wife in the family as taught by the New Testament should distinguish between principles which are clearly enjoined and the presupposed pattern of roles that makes sense of what is clearly enjoined. The New Testament presents only two explicit commands for husbands and wives. It says that the wife should subordinate herself to her husband, and that the husband should care for his wife. It is helpful to realize how sketchy is the explicit New Testament teaching for what husbands and wives must do. It is also, however, enlightening to see that subordination (with its correlate—care) is the key element that the New Testament stresses. Any presentation of the New Testament teaching on husbands and wives which leaves out subordination has neglected one principle that the New Testament has explicitly enjoined. However, the New Testament includes a great deal more material than what is presented as an explicit injunction. This larger context of the teaching on husband-wife subordination can be summarized in these two additional points:

  1. Social roles differ from person to person according to age and sex.
  2. Role differences based on sex are most importantly expressed in the relationship between husband and wife in the household, the basic Christian social unit.

There is, in short, an overall view of men’s and women’s roles in the community and an overall view of family-community structure within which husband-wife subordination finds its place. This broader view of both men’s and women’s roles and family-community structure is taught as God’s plan and is most commonly based on the teachings about Adam and Eve and about Christ and his body.

The pattern of daily life in the family household further clarifies the meaning and importance of husband-wife subordination. For the husband in the family, four main elements combine to form the predominant pattern:

  1. The husband is the head and governor of the family, the one who is primarily responsible for the good order and discipline of the family. He is either the head of the whole household, or the head of a sub-unit if he is living as son or servant in the household.
  2. The husband takes the primary concern for relations outside the family. He represents the family in community affairs, and governs the relationship between the family and other families and between the family and the society in which it finds itself.
  3. The husband raises and forms his sons and sometimes other young males in the household.
  4. The husband is the protector and provider. He bears primary responsibility for seeing that danger is averted and that the members of the family are cared for. In this regard, he has the main responsibility for what we would call the economic work—the work that procures food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities.

For the wife in the family, four corresponding elements form her role:

  1. The wife is subordinate to her husband, in the sense of subordinating her life and not just in the sense of taking directions.
  2. The wife is the ruler of the family household under her husband and is primarily concerned with the internal order and organization of the family household.
  3. The wife raises and forms the small children and raises and forms the daughters and sometimes other younger girls in the household.
  4. The wife serves the needs of the members of the household. She bears the primary responsibility for seeing that the immediate needs of the people in the household are met in a way that strengthens them to live and work. In this regard, she bears the main responsibility for what we would call housework, work such as preparing the food, clothing the household members, and cleaning and adorning the home.

The above description has been stated primarily in terms of household or family members, but applies as well to people who do not belong to the household but are cared for by the household: guests and the afflicted or needy. The husband governs the external service of the household and functions there also as provider and protector. The wife either serves needs directly, or organizes the work of other members of the household which ultimately serves the needs.

In the above description, the fourth element of the husband’s role is summarized by saying that he is the provider and protector and the fourth element of the wife’s role is summarized by saying that she bears the primary responsibility for seeing that the immediate needs of the people in the household are met in a way that strengthens them to live and work. The terms “provider” and “seeing that the immediate needs are met” were chosen to describe an aspect of two similar but nonetheless different roles.* Both husband and wife concern themselves with the welfare of the members of the household. The man takes a concern as provider. He makes certain that sufficient resources are present to meet the family’s needs and that these needs are being met. He is more occupied with the work and the order of the household than with the person who has the need. The woman is more directly involved with the person experiencing the need and serves that person directly. The man provides the food; the woman prepares and serves it. The man sees that the family members go to the doctor and he pays for the medicine; the woman nurses the sick. The man receives the guest and sees that he is cared for. The woman gets the guest something to eat, prepares his room, washes his clothing. The men and women take concern for the same people and the same activities, but in different ways.*

In dealing with the roles of men and women in the family, we are dealing with two social roles. The historical importance of social roles in structuring effective human societies will be discussed in Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen, and the value of social roles in general will be considered in Chapter Twenty-One. However, a failure to properly understand the social roles of men and women and the way they have functioned historically has led to many contemporary interpretations of the New Testament teaching on family life that amount to being serious misconceptions. Some observations on the New Testament teaching that draw upon the perspective provided by social history will therefore help to avoid some common mistakes made by people in a contemporary technological society in their attempts to use the New Testament passages.

First, the New Testament pattern of men’s and women’s roles is not primarily a matter of activities but of relationships. Women in the early Christian family would be more likely to cook the food while the men would be more likely to grow it, but their roles in this and other matters are not defined as much by the activities which end up being the province of one or the other as by the way they relate to one another. The husband does the farm work because he is the provider for his wife and children. The wife does the cooking because she serves the immediate needs of the family. For the most part, men and women perform certain activities because these activities express a fundamentally different social role, not because certain activities are intrinsically the man’s or the woman’s. For example, the wife in a hunting society might do the farming as a household task, and yet she and her husband might still fulfill the same fundamental roles in the family as would their counterparts in an agricultural society.

Second, the roles of man and woman are interdependent. The man’s role depends on the woman’s role being performed and vice versa. For instance, the husband’s role is not designed so that he can live with no help from a woman. If his wife dies or is absent and there is no daughter or sister to take her place, he must perform many of his wife’s functions. The same applies to the woman if her husband is absent or dies.* An analogy between head and heart can be helpful here. The head (or brain) is the center or director of the nervous system. The heart is the center or director of the circulatory system. Both systems are essential to each other’s proper functioning; indeed, both are essential to the health of the body as a whole. They perform corresponding or complementary functions. The heart is subordinate to the head in its functioning, but it is not therefore less essential to the body (the head included). Likewise, the wife in the household is the “heart,” the “inside center” of the family. She directs a set of family activities essential to the functioning of the family. The husband is the “head.” He both directs a set of family functions and is over the wife’s activities, but he cannot “keep the body alive” without her.

Third, the roles of husband and wife comprise a partnership, but a partnership of a particular kind. They are complementary partners, not comrades who work together on identical tasks. Each has a separate sphere of responsibility that complements the other’s. This point is especially relevant for contemporary Christian efforts to strengthen the family by strengthening the partnership of the husband and wife, but in a way that obliterates the complementarity of husband and wife. These attempts often focus on “companionship.” They aim to get the husband and wife to do as much as possible together. Their goal is not to strengthen each partner in his own role and to strengthen the union of the two. To be sure, modern husbands and wives often fail to spend the time together that they should in order to have a real union. Some of these contemporary Christian attempts are designed to correct this situation so that they can actually be in unity. However, many of these efforts to strengthen family life destroy the strength of family roles, and thus advocate an approach to family life that differs greatly from New Testament teaching. The New Testament approach attempts to create “one person,” a husband and wife united, but with a division of labor that allows each to extend the ability of the other to function. The husband and wife become engaged in a relationship of reciprocal service and interdependence without competition. They are, in short, complementary in role.

Fourth, the above understanding of the husband’s and wife’s roles indicates that spending a great deal of time at home is not intrinsic to the New Testament view of the role of the husband. Today there is often an emphasis on the husband spending time at home. To be sure, as the functions of the family have diminished in scope, a husband may not naturally spend enough time at home to fulfill his role as father and husband. Contemporary conditions may make it necessary for husbands to be more conscious of spending time at home, but the ideal of being home is not taught in the New Testament. Among the Israelites and early Christians, a man invested significant time at home because of the definite functions that were fulfilled at the household, not because of an ideal of spending time with his family. When he was not obliged to be with the family, he would often be out in the village or neighborhood, or he would invite male friends into his home. In other words, his orientation would be more toward the external community. He would bring his sons with him and hence fulfill much of his function as father while he was out in the community; he would not be oriented to staying at home. It would be different for the woman, because her responsibility for the household life would orient her more toward being present in the home. In short, the emphasis on the presence of the man in the family may make good sociological sense under contemporary conditions, but it is not a New Testament emphasis. Moreover, the New Testament emphasis for creating unity and strength of family life is on mutual commitment and subordination rather than time spent by husband and wife together.

Fifth, this understanding of the husband’s and wife’s roles raises the question of how the old statement “a woman’s place is in the home” relates to New Testament teaching. The New Testament does indicate that the woman’s role in the family is primarily within the household. She is expected to rule the household. The picture of the wider pattern of social relations in the early church also indicates that the woman’s responsibility in the home entails her being in the home more than the husband. But the New Testament does not teach in any explicit way that the home is the only place the woman can be or serve. Moreover, the indications that the woman’s role is primarily in the household occur alongside indications that the household is a place of major service in the Christian community. If many of the educational, social service, and economic functions of the household have been removed, it does not automatically make sense to leave the woman behind so that she cannot take an active responsibility for these services. In order for her place in the home to have the significance it had in New Testament times, the home would have to be restored to its importance as a place of service.

Chapters Three and Four have tried to make clear that there are significant differences between family life in the times of the New Testament and family life today. Those differences raise a number of questions about how to apply New Testament passages on family life in the modern world. Those questions will be dealt with in the last two parts of the book. Here the concern is simply with understanding the New Testament teaching without some of the misconceptions caused by contemporary Western perspectives. The New Testament approach to the roles of men and women in the family cannot be grasped properly without seeing that we are dealing with social roles, with a whole approach to structuring human life.

73*There has been much discussion over the question of authorship of Ephesians and various other New Testament letters. The issue will not be addressed here, and the author of the letter to the Ephesians will simply be referred to as “Paul.” The reasons why the authorship question is not central to the argument of the book will be considered in Chapter Five.

75*It may surprise some that I do not discuss mutual subordination. Many modern commentators (e.g., Sampley, 116–117; Barth, 609–610; F. W. Beare, Interpreter’s Bible, 1:717–719) would understand Ephesians 5:21 as urging mutual subordination, wife to husband and husband to wife. They explain the idea of mutual subordination by saying that the wife is exhorted to be subordinate by subordinating herself to her husband and the husband by serving his wife, the children by obeying the parents, the parents by caring for the children, etc. The content of such an understanding of mutual subordination is in basic harmony with the main point of the text, and hence does not provide a serious difficulty that needs to be addressed in the text. I do not, however, think that Ephesians 5:21 is urging mutual subordination for the following reasons:

  1. The main objection to the idea of mutual subordination is structural or contextual. Following on Ephesians 5:21 is a series of exhortations in which one partner to a relationship is urged to be subordinate (or obey) and the other is urged to relate to that subordinate person in a way that makes the subordination work well. The three following exhortations are most easily understood as explanations of what is meant by subordinating yourself to one another. This is confirmed by the use of the word “subordinate” in the exhortation to the wife. As a repeat of the idea of subordination in Eph 5:21, it is a good choice of a word. As an explanation of the wife’s part of mutual subordination in distinction from the husband’s, it lacks new content and hence makes the passage seriously deficient as an explanation of mutual subordination. This view is also strengthened by observations made in the text about the specific form of relationship teaching we find in Ephesians, Colossians, and Peter. In this form, the exhortation is made to the subordinate. The corresponding exhortations to the husband-parent-master are secondary and supportive of the main exhortation and even missing in Peter 2:18–25 (cf. Crouch, 121–122). This is, in fact, a uniquely Christian form for such exhortations.
  2. The second objection to the idea of mutual subordination comes from the meaning of the word itself. To subordinate oneself means to order oneself under. The image behind it is a spatial image with someone over and someone else under. The parallel uses of the term in the New Testament (in noun, verb, and adjectival forms) all have someone under someone else. The parallel uses of the term in secular Greek frequently refer to battle formations in which there is some kind of chain of command and order of operation in the army or fleet. These uses also reappear in Christian understandings of the term (see Clement 37–38, quoted on pp. 128128). They are reinforced by places in the New Testament where subordination is involuntary but results from the victory of one person over another (e.g., Lk 10:17; Rom 8:26; Cor 15:28; Heb 2:8). The meaning of the word “subordination” then, contains the idea of an order to the relationship where one person subordinates him or herself to another who provides direction.
  3. The interpretation of the husband’s service to the wife as being his subordination to her is based upon the connection of service and subordination. It fails, however, to make a necessary distinction. A servant is subordinate, but not to everyone he serves. When a servant waits on table, he serves the guests and he serves the master. But he serves the guests in a different way than the way he serves the master as master. The guests do not give him direction. They only make requests. It is the master that he is subordinate to. The husband’s care for the wife is analogous to service of the guests, and hence involves no subordination. The master in the husband’s service of the wife is the husband’s own head, Christ.
  4. The main reason for the idea of mutual subordination is the phrase in the New Testament text “to one another.” However, there is another passage in the New Testament where the phrase “to one another” (allēlois) could also be understood with an order to it and not mutually, and such an understanding would make better contextual sense. James 5:16 contains the phrase “confess your sins to one another,” and the context would suggest that it is the sick person who is confessing his or her sins as part of the process of healing (cf. Ps 32) and hence the elder, presumably well, is not called upon to confess his sins in turn. In other words, the main word used to establish the idea of mutual subordination does not have to contain the idea of reciprocity. The phrase then could simply mean “let there be subordination among you” (i.e., “let each of you subordinate himself or herself to the one he or she should be subordinate to”).

80*Some have suggested that because of the husband’s position as a representative of Christ, a woman’s only access to Christ would be through her husband. This is not, however, a necessary implication of the husband’s position.

80†A good basic discussion of agapē/agapaō can be found in Stauffer, TDNT, 1:21–55. Some further observations of the meaning of “love” in this exhortation could be helpful:

  1. The kind of strong distinction between eros and agapē that is associated with the name of Nygren is not tenable, especially in view of the use of agapē in Hellenistic Jewish sources, particularly the Septuagint. It is not necessary to make a strong distinction between eros and agapē, however, to justify the view that in this passage agapē refers to service-love or care rather than erotic desire. The general New Testament use of the term agapē is a consistent teaching on making another’s welfare one’s own concern, and there is no instance where the word is clearly used with erotic love as its meaning. Moreover, hesed is in some ways as important a background to agapē in the New Testament as ahab (which is at the root of LXX translations which seem to point to a more erotic love), for instance, in the Good Samaritan parable. The husband’s hesed for his wife, that is, his faithful commitment to care for her, would seem to be an important antecedent to the use of agapē in Eph 5:22–31. Finally, asserting that the controlling meaning is care rather than erotic desire does not completely rule out erotic desire as being present in the meaning. For recent discussions of this issue, see Barth, 621, 715–20, and Crouch, 111ff.
  2. Ephesians 5:22–33 contains a contrast between love and hate: loving his flesh and hating it. “Hate” here does not mean emotional dislike for it. The usage is a parallel to the passages in the gospel which speak of hating parents (Lk 14:26) or masters (Lk 16:13) and where the meaning concerns choice of loyalty and service rather than emotional feeling. Love and hate refer to “care for” or “serve” and “neglect” or even “reject as an object of care.”
  3. The husband’s love for the wife is summed up at the end (5:33) with an exhortation to the husband to “love his wife as himself.” This phrase is undoubtedly a parallel to Leviticus 19:18, 34, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” See Sampley’s discussion (30–34) of the relationship of Leviticus 19:18 to Eph 5:33. The exegesis the rabbis often gave of Leviticus 19:18 confirms this parallel because they applied it primarily to the husband-wife relationship (Strack/​Billerbeck, 3:600). Some contemporary homilists use Leviticus 19:18 as an occasion to encourage self-acceptance, explaining that the scripture enjoins self-love here. While their point may have some validity, their exegesis is distorting. The scripture does not enjoin self-love, as Barth (631–633) establishes. Rather, it presumes that human beings take care of themselves quite well, and instructs them to care for their neighbor in addition. They should make their neighbor’s welfare their concern just as they make their own. Likewise, a husband should care for his wife as he does himself, and here Paul points out that she really is part of him (he could, of course, make a similar point about other Christians). The link between the husband’s love for the wife and Leviticus 19:18 strengthens the interpretation of “love” that is given in this chapter. The link is especially graphic in the Good Samaritan story which is a teaching on love of neighbor (as the Martha and Mary story is a teaching on love of God in Lk 10), and which portrays love of neighbor as care for the needs of the neighbor.

84*There seems to be a tendency, especially in recent popular feminist writings, to attempt to obscure the “governing” connotations of kephalē by stressing that kephalē can mean “source” and should be interpreted that way in Eph 5 and other similar passages. To be sure, kephalē can have the idea of “source” (see Eph 4:16 as a likely example of this). But it is difficult to see how such a possible interpretation can cancel the idea of governance in “head.” First, these writings do not attempt to state what the sense is of the husband being the source of the wife (Adam was the source of Eve, clearly, but husbands in New Testament times do not seem to have performed that same function for their wives). Second, if the husband is actually the source of his wife, that would seem to make his authority and governance over her more complete (rather than less complete or absent as some of these lines of exposition would hope to imply). S. Bedale, in fact, who seems to have been the first to propound this view of kephalē as meaning “source” in his article, “The Meaning of kephalē in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies 5, no. 2 (October 1954): 211–215, observed that the view of husband as head-source was another way of understanding the authority of the husband over the wife. Thirdly, interpreting head as “source” rather than “governor” creates an unnecessary opposition between the two meanings. Finally, it ignores the associations kephalē would likely have had because of its use as a translation for ros, and ignores the context of Eph 5:21–6:9 itself which is speaking of relationships of authority and submission in the Christian community. For good discussions of the husband as head of the wife, see Barth, 618, who holds that the meaning of the husband’s headship is determined by the double meaning of the Hebrew word ros (that is, “head” and “chief”), and even more importantly by the example of Christ’s headship; and Sampley, 123, who comments on the use of the term “head,” saying that to speak of Christ as the “head” of the church is to speak of him “as the one who exercises authority and power.” He states (124) that the husband’s headship over his wife is analogous to this headship of Christ over the church.

87*There is another important background to the teaching on Christ and the church as husband and wife, namely, the theme of God as the husband of Israel, found most notably in Hosea. Adam and Eve are much more central to Eph 5:22–33, but a more complete discussion would have to refer to Hosea and the marriage imagery in it as well as the Song of Songs and its interpretations in Jewish tradition and early Christian tradition. Feuillet, 178–187, discusses both Hosea and the Song of Songs in relation to Eph 5. Sampley, 45–49, also discusses the Song of Songs as well as Ezekiel 16 at some length.

89*Two further major characteristics of the material in Peter are worthy of note. This material, like the rest of the letter, teaches a great deal about how to handle persecution, both as it occurs within the relationships taught about and also as it occurs in general. The Peter passage also shows many parallels to Romans 12 in addition to the parallels to Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Worth noting is also the fact that many of the points at which Peter differs from the household codes are points of similarity with relationship exhortations in Clement and Ignatius of Antioch.

90*Genesis 12:10–20 seems to be behind the reference to Sarah’s obedience. Feminist exegesis of Peter 3:5–6 often discusses at length Sarah’s obedience as portrayed by Genesis. Two observations are important for avoiding some of the confusions introduced by such exegesis. First, if Genesis 12:10–20 is the reference behind Peter 3:5–6, Sarah is being praised for being obedient, not for the specific approach Abraham (and Sarah) took to the situation. The principles of Old Testament interpretation that underlie New Testament arguments do not involve endorsing the sexual and marital customs of the patriarchal world which antedated both the law given on Sinai and New Testament teaching. In interpreting Peter 3:5–6, it is crucial to pick out what aspects of Abraham and Sarah’s relationship are being pointed to as a model or authority. Second, when Sarah directed Abraham to take her servant Hagar for the purpose of producing an heir, she was not taking a position of independence or equality of direction-setting in the relationship. In Mesopotamian law of the patriarchal era, the barren wife had a right to substitute her servant for herself, so that the servant might produce a child which would be considered her mistress’s child. Sarah was simply exercising her right, not directing Abraham or “taking a role of equality.” On Mesopotamian law and its relation to this episode in Genesis, see von Rad, 184; E. Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 117; and John Otwell, And Sarah Laughed (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 102–103.

90†Some feminist writers (e.g., Scanzoni and Hardesty, 83–94) obscure the import of this passage by placing it in a category of a special instruction—that of an evangelistic strategy for wives with non-Christian husbands—and therefore with little relevance to Christian marriage. Verse 7, clearly addressed to Christian husbands, is then labeled a counterbalancing instruction for Christians. Such an interpretation cannot be warranted either by the content of the passage (e.g., the Abraham-Sarah example in vv. 5–7 should apply to believers), nor by the context (that of Christian personal relationship teaching, broadened to include relating to certain non-Christians). See further, Selwyn, 183, 435.

92*Peter 3:6, taken by itself, simply encourages wives not to be afraid but to do what is right. The fact that a different use of the word “fear” occurs in 3:2, and that there is a scriptural teaching on the two types of fear in which one type, the fear of the Lord, works as an antidote to the other kind of fear, fear of harm, a teaching which is particularly applied in Christian teaching to situations of persecution (Mt 10:26–31) and which comes to expression in 3:14–16, all are indications that the broader teaching is being applied in 3:6.

97*These two phrases are chosen to be a summary of the roles of men and women in the family as sketched in this chapter. They are intended primarily as a shorthand description of roles that have been more fully described earlier. For a discussion of this distinction from the psychological perspective, see Chapter Sixteen, pp. 398402, especially the footnote on pp. 398398.

98*The distinction is not primarily one of task but of responsibility. The woman, for instance, could care for all her responsibilities by directing servants, rather than by doing it herself.

99*One could reasonably surmise that Lydia (the cloth merchant in Acts 16:14–15) was in a situation of this sort.