Session 10 - The Relationship of Husbands and Wives in Christ
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For
the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his
body, of which he is the Savior. Ephesians 5:22, 23
- Ephesians 5:21 33 and the relationship between husbands
- This passage is not primarily about wives and their husbands
but rather about the relationship between Christ and the church. The key
verse is 5:21, submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.
The spirit of mutual submission is key to the entire Christian concept
of social relations.
- Paul clearly has the traditional (patriarchal) family order as a backdrop.
It is not clear. Whether this is a divine order or whether this is an
order derived from the prevailing culture of the time is the source of
debate regarding this passage. It should be noted that the common interpretation
of this passage through the ages is that of a divine order, not a cultural
- This passage appears to describe the relationship of husbands and wives
in the Lord (5:21). Other passages describe the relationship when the
husband is not in the Lord (I Corinthians 7:13, 14; I Peter 3:1, 2).
- The debate derives in part from the interpretation of the Greek words
for submission (hypotasso), for head (kephale) and for love (agape). We
will explore this passage in light of differing interpretation of these
- The verb hypotasso means to subordinate, to subject
or to to place in order.
- Other words could have been used for subjection. One is hypakouo,
the word that a parent might use regarding a child (the word Paul
uses in Ephesians 6:1). Another is peitharcheo (built on the Greek
word for ruler arche), means obedience to one in authority
- Paul, rather, uses the word hypotasso and he uses it in the passive
form. In other words, husbands are not to hypotasso their wives.
- In addition, Paul is instructing wives, not describing them (in
other words, they are not by nature from this passage subjects.
Subjection was voluntary.
- Paul probably means that wives are to voluntarily, willingly and
actively be subject to (give allegiance to or even tend to the needs
of) their husbands.
- Hypotasso is a discipline as well as a duty, a Christian discipline.
Perhaps it is a duty which especially disciplines the Christian wife,
just as Paul instructs the slave to voluntarily accept his position
of subordination. In other words, submission was a discipline to train
the Christian to be submissive to Christ. On this view, culture will
be used in the service of Christian discipline yet culture cannot
totally equate with submission to Christ. ( In Roman 13:1, we are
commanded to submit [same word] to secular authorities which, though
established by God, are not necessarily good authorities and which
eventually may be overthrown. Even as we submit to our present government,
we do not place ourselves in situations which can be obviously harmful
to us if possible. We recognize that governments can be fallible.
At the same time, we dont desire complete control over government.
In contrast, we completely submit ourselves to Christ.)
- On the other hand, of one accepts a created order in which man
(in this case the husband) is the head over the woman (in this case
the wife), then this passage naturally follows as a further elaboration
of the need to maintain the divinely created order: Christ --- man
--- woman. (In Ephesians 1:22, hypotasso is also used to signify an
order divinely instituted. We would not question the relationship
between God and Christ. It was established once and for all.)
- The Greek word kephale means head or that which goes first (like the
prow of a ship or the mouth of a river). It also meant the head of the
body, that is, the part of the body which is foremost
- Other words could be used for head. One is arche (from which we
get our word archetype). It means temporal beginning or
primeval. The word is frequently used in the New Testament
to indicate from the beginning (Hebrews 1:10) or in
the beginning (John 1:1). Frequently the word is used to signify
dominion or power (Luke 12:11).
- Some has therefore suggested that, if Paul had meant for husbands
to command their wives (as did Aristotle), he would have used the
word arche rather than kephale. Rather Paul meant for the husband
to be the one who goes before, such as the soldier who goes first
- For those who support the idea of male spiritual leadership based
upon the created order, however, this distinction of words does not
damage their argument. Man would be first in creation,
first in headship and first in spiritual responsibility.
- Those who support a more equal relationship between sexes would
suggest that kephale does not denote a general in an army
or a boss. Rather kephale suggests the one who went before
(perhaps as a scout goes before the Calvary).
- The Greek word for love is agapao as opposed to erao or eros (sexual
desire) and phileo (feelings of fondness, such as for a friend). Agapao
was an almost uniquely Christian word (I Corinthians 13). This word does
not involve emotion as attitude and action. These distinctions are well
known by Christians.
- The more traditional interpretation is an interpretation which derives
from male spiritual leadership grounded in the created spiritual order.
Christ has made in the marriage relationship the symbol of His relation
to the church.
- Family life is lifted into a divine and spiritual light in Christ.
- Affirmation of the role relationship God established at creation
grounds specific instruction to husbands and wives (the divinely form
instituted [5:22 24] precedes talk about how to live within
it [5:25 31]).
- The wife submits to the spiritual head of the family, that is she
voluntarily yields in love. (The husband is never commanded to subordinate
nor to subject his wife.) The husband, rather, exercises his divine
authority as spiritual leader.
- The husbands love, like the love of Christ,
is to be sacrificial (5:25).
- The husbands love, like the love of Christ, is to be
beneficial (5:26, 27).
- The husbands love is to be according to the golden rule
- The husbands love makes the wife and the husband one
- This interpretation does not suggest that the wife shows no love
to her husband. The focus is upon the husband rather than the wife
because the focus of the passage is upon Christ love and care for
the church, not the churchs love and care for Christ.
- The more recent interpretation is an interpretation which derives from
the perspective that the husband and wife are one and voluntarily enter
the marriage relationship (as Christ and humankind enter their covenant
- Christ is not head of the church in order to rule the church. He
is not arche of the church. (See Mark 10:42 45 where Christ
contrasts arche with servanthood.) Rather, Christ voluntarily submits
Himself to the church in sacrifice.
- Wives voluntarily submit to their husbands, as the church voluntarily
submits to Christ.
- Husbands are to be head of their wives in order to love them. In
other words, headship does not derive from who the husband is but
from what he does (he loves and sacrifices).
- Both interpretations are virtually identical regarding the nature
of the husbands ideal relationship toward his wife, so there
is little debate regarding verses 25 31.
- Paul emphasizes that the two are to become one (not like Aristotle,
who described a husband as the soul and his wife as the body).
- Head (kephale) suggests that the husband is at the point, the spearhead.
Perhaps Paul wishes to emphasize that husbands cannot take their wives
for granted, as they often did in Greco-Roman culture. They cannot
exhibit little regard for their feelings and needs. In this culture,
the image of a military leader who goes before his troops accompanied
by the image of bravery and sacrifice, was needed in order to establish
the responsibility (rather than the role) of the husband in the marriage.
- Paul emphasizes that submissiveness is mutual, patterned after
the example of Christ. Though he specifically instructs the wife to
submit, he instructs the husband to submit through the ultimate example,
- Paul contrasts the cultural norms of usual marriage, in which the
wife was little more than a slave, by turning the idea of headship
inside out (you are head to serve rather than to be served).
- Paul therefore elevates marriage to the highest possible ideal.
- In reality, few take issue with Pauls instruction to husbands
in the marriage relationship. Therefore the debate over this passage derives
from the debate over the meaning of headship and the coupling of this
passage with passages such as I Timothy 2:13 15, a debate which
we address elsewhere during this series of lessons.
- Colossians 3:18, 19
- This passage is set within a series of instructions suggesting
a tension between various segments of the churches in Colossae, a tension
which probably arose due to a heresy that was in part gnostic and combined
with a binding of Jewish laws upon Christians (1:18; 2:8).
- The passage is basically a constriction of Ephesians 5:21 33.
The wording parallels the Ephesian passage.
- The word used by Paul and translated fitting (anekei) implies
what is seemly with a hint of ethical obligation , i.e. what
you ought to do (Philemon 8). Again the emphasis is upon voluntary submission
to a standard and has a Stoic ring. Yet Paul lifts it above the Stoics
when he adds the words in the Lord.
- Paul uses this phrase in the Lord about 40 times (e.g.
Col. 4:7, 17, I Cor. 7:22, 39). He usually applies the phrase to domestic
relationships between fellow members of Christ. Christian relationships
do not replace earthly relationships but lift earthly relationships to
a higher plane. A more egalitarian interpretation would hold that the
operative concept in this passage is that of mutual submission and maintenance
of societal norms so that disorder does not reign in the family of God.
- The traditional interpretation would hold that there is a divinely
instituted hierarchy in the order of creation and in this order the place
of the wife comes next after that of the husband, referring back to Ephesians
5:22, 23 and I Corinthians 11:3, 7 9. The Christians at Colossae
are instructed to remember and abide by that hierarchy (not a hierarchy
of spiritual worth but one of roles).
- As in Ephesians, Paul uses agapao to refer to the husbands obligation
toward the wife. Such love has been described by Paul in detail in I.
- I Peter 3:1 7
- I Peter is probably addressed primarily to Gentile converts
(4:3) who have been removed from their families and traditional communities
(1:18) and who suffer as exiles (1:6, 1:17). The letter is written in
order to assist these alien (and subjected) Christians in their sufferings.
They are new Christians (2:1 3) living in a hostile world.
- The instructions on the relationship of husbands and wives in I Peter
3:1 7 belong to a wider context of specific instructions that involve
Christian conduct in relation to governmental authorities (2:13
17) and the conduct of Christian slaves in relation to their masters (2:8
15). Unlike Ephesians 5, this series of injunctions focuses almost
exclusively upon those who are in submission (e.g. there is no command
for how masters should treat their slaves in 2:18 25 and no command
as to how governments should treat their subjects).
- The command to these Christian wives is to voluntarily subordinate
themselves to their husbands, many if not most of whom are not Christians
(3:1). To put this another way, Peter is asking the wives to adapt to
the expectations of the society in which they lived as long as this does
not interfere with their Christian walk (2:11, 12).
- Of course, this submission had limits, for many of these wives had
undoubtedly gone against the wishes of their non Christian husbands by
following Christ (3:1). These husbands not only disobeyed the word of
God, they probably slandered Christians. So how does a Christian woman
live in such a circumstance?
- She, like Christians under a secular government, is to live free
yet not to abuse that freedom nor forget the call to servanthood.
- She is not to submit to suffering only for the sake of suffering.
Rather she is to submit if the suffering leads to good. (2:20). In
other words, if she is being abused (just as if a slave is being abused)
she is not bound to endure the abuse. Her behavior has an evangelistic
- Outward adornment is to be seen as an unnecessary pride and a challenge
to the authority of the husband in Jewish and Greco-Roman society.
(3:3, 4) See Isaiah 3:16 24. Peter is not condemning appropriate,
even attractive dress. He is condemning ostentatious dress, dress
meant to put others down.
- The gentle (meek) and quite spirit parallels 3:15. Remember, these
women were evangelists, hoping to win over their husbands to Christ.
In addition, a gentle and quiet spirit may have provided a measure
of protection (3:13). Finally, a gentle and quiet spirit is the spirit
of those who are persecuted (3:16, 17).
- They are to emulate Sarah. Sarah may seem a strange example, for
she was not exactly an obedient wife. In addition to her laughter
at the prophesy of God, she insisted that Abraham take Hagar as a
wife and later to send her away. Yet Sarah represented
the ideal Hebrew wife because she is the first wife. The Hebrew race
begins with Abraham and Sarah (it was Abraham called out in Genesis
- This passage does not fit as easily as the Ephesians passage into the
argument of the created order given the context of the passage (e.g. It
would be difficult to argue that the created order supported slavery and
freedom.). Peter does not invoke the argument of the created order to
support his instructions but rather refers to holy women of the past.
- Husbands are consistently (and unequivocally) instructed in
the New Testament to love their wives, to sacrifice for their wives and
to act with all consideration toward their wives. Few debate the characteristics
of Christian behavior by husbands toward their wives.
- The submission of wives to their husbands is a consistent theme in
the New Testament. The meaning of this submission has been debated, yet
some aspects of submission appear unequivocal.
- Submission is central to the Christian walk and therefore instructions
to submit must always begin with our voluntary submission to the will
of God in Christ.
- Submission by wives to their husbands is therefore voluntary, the act
of the wife, not the husband. The husband is never called upon to subject
or submit his wife. The Christian wife is first and foremost free in Christ.
- The custom during New Testament times in marriage was one of submission
and subjection, so the New Testament does not simply follow the prevailing
- Submission by wives to their husbands is viewed by the New Testament
writers as not only bending to the outward form of custom but also to
be of use in spiritual growth.
- Submission is a spiritual discipline which instructs the wife in
the nature of the relationship of Christ and His church. (Of course,
this is true for the husband as well as the wife.)
- Submission can be, at times, a means to win the husband to Christ
(and this could be said to be true of the Christian husband in relation
to the unchristian wife).
- Submission, when voluntary and with a gentle and quite spirit,
is the best means at times to deal with persecution (and this certainly
applies to men as well as to women).
- There is no evidence that wives were to be submissive to their husbands
if the situation was dangerous or abusive. In fact the scriptures teach
just the opposite.
- Thompson, JW: The submission of wives in I Peter, in Osburn CD (ed.): Essays
on Women in Earliest Christianity. Volume I. Joplin , Mo. College Press, 1993
pp. 377 392
- Neller, KV: Submission in Eph. 5:21 33, in Osburn CD
(ed.): Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity. Volume I. Joplin , Mo. College
Press, 1993, pp. 243 260
- Smith, FL: Male Spiritual Leadership. Nashville, 21th Century Christian,