No, Ephesians 5 Doesn’t Argue in Favor of Complementarianism

No, Ephesians 5 Doesn’t Argue in Favor of Complementarianism December 18, 2018
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“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” ~ Ephesians 5:22–23

To be crystal clear, the English version of this short passage from Ephesians 5 seems to be an open and shut case that according to Paul (or pseudo-Paul) women ought to be the loyal subjects of men. Sounds good, right gentlemen? Well, don’t be too quick to beat your chest in triumphal victory; there are at least three glaring problems with this conclusion. The first obvious one is that it doesn’t exactly fit with the immediate context of chapter 5.

If we take a look at how Paul begins Ephesians 5, what we need to pay attention to is the specific way in which it is said how Christ loves us, because that will be our lens with which to view the entire chapter. Paul writes: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Did you catch that? According to Paul, to love as Christ loves is to renounce power and authority; it is the giving up of one’s self in love for the other. This is further emphasized in verse 25, where Paul says that husbands are to love their wives and give themselves up for them. So, we ask: How can a husband, on the one hand, give himself—including his supposed authority and power—up for his wife while, on the other, exert hierarchical headship over her? I’ll let you wrestle with that one but it seems like an absurd notion, does it not?

Furthermore—and this is always underemphasized by complementarians—the Apostle Paul, bucking the cultural and religious trend of the day, actually tells both husbands and wives to submit to each other in verse 21. This is huge! You see, back in antiquity, men simply didn’t subject themselves to women. Not. One. Iota. Men ruled; women served—in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and all that bullshit.

With this in mind, then, let us turn to New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener to explain exactly how Paul goes about subverting this standard notion:

The section 5:21—6:9 addresses what we call “household codes.” In Paul’s day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of “religions from the East” (e.g., Isis worship, Judaism and Christianity), which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for those values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on. These exhortations about how the head of a household should deal with members of his family usually break down into discussions of husband-wife, father-child and master-slave relationships. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight from standard Greco-Roman moral writing. But unlike most ancient writers, Paul undermines the basic premise of these codes: the absolute authority of the male head of the house . . . The final expression of being filled with the Spirit is “submitting to one another” because Christ is one’s Lord. All the household codes Paul proposes are based on this idea. But although it was customary to call on wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, to call all members of a group (including the paterfamilias, the male head of the household) to submit to one another was unheard of. (Keener, IVP Bible Background, 551)

And so, here’s the rub: Because women in the Greco-Roman world were basically property—their father’s first, and then, usually after some sort of financial negotiation, the lucky suitor whom the father brokered the deal with—Paul uses the standard Greco-Roman formula, so to speak, only to then subvert what submission and authority for those living in the Spirit of Christ actually means, namely that all submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21, my emphasis).

Which brings me to the second major issue with concluding that men rule and women drool, so to speak, namely that submission to the “headship” Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5:23 may have nothing to do with having “authority over” another, as we so often hear.

You see, the Greek term kephalé is a bit ambiguous. On the one hand, it can certainly mean “head/leader/authority,” but it can also mean something more along the lines of the head or source of a river. As feminist theologian Jory Micah points out on her blog: “The logic is this: The Apostle Paul is suggesting that man (Adam) is the source of woman (Eve) because Eve was taken out of Adam’s side.” Nevertheless, the point in mentioning this is that none of us can be certain what “head” really means for the simple fact that it can mean different things depending on which ancient source you are reading, as well as the specific context in which the term is being used. And the context, as I just pointed out, is subversive to the traditional notion of “headship”; it is a type of headship where both men and women are to mutually submit to one another, just as Christ—the head over all things for the church (Eph. 1:22)—submitted himself to us by giving his body over as an act of self-sacrifice.

Finally, all this leads me to the third problem we face when concluding that Ephesians 5:22–23 proves that a complementarian view of marriage is the most biblical: It runs counter to the broader thrust of Paul’s theology. And that is, to my mind, the crux of the matter.

When reading Paul, we must, at minimum, remember two things: 1) That Paul wrote letters addressing very specific issues within his churches and 2) that Paul’s goals in doing this were two-fold: the full inclusion of Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation and the elimination of any labels that led to exclusory behavior in the church. This is witnessed most clearly in Galatians 3:28, when he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

When Paul penned these words, he was dealing with a number of problems, all of which had to do with one group exerting authority over another. In the Galatian churches, for instance, there were some believers who were arguing that in order to become a Christian, one had to keep certain Jewish rites: a kosher meal, observe the Sabbath, and, if male, become circumcised. To Paul’s mind, this was a false gospel, and as such, naturally led to disunion in the church. To divide between clean and unclean food, or between circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles, was to engage in behavior that was unbefitting of anyone who followed Christ—one could call it “antichrist.” To that end, to use one’s “maleness” as a way to command authority over a female should be considered just as antichrist because it literally is the opposite way in which Christ gave himself up for others, women included.

To that end, if we are going to conclude anything about a husband’s supposed “Ephesians 5 authority,” it is this: husbands are to lead in love by laying down their lives—indeed, even their so-called headship—for the sake of their wives. For without a complete self-sacrifice of one’s authority and power, how can one honestly say that they are loving others as Christ loves them? To my mind, and seemingly Paul’s, love and mutual submission are the only way, which is why he, running counter to the commonly held cultural assumption that men are simply in charge of their wives, tells both husbands and wives to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

*If you like what is being presented here, be on the lookout for a forthcoming book I am co-authoring with Danielle Kingstrom. Also, if you want to support my work, please consider becoming a monthly patron on Patreon. It would help me out bigly.

Matthew J. Distefano is a heretic and deserves to burn in hell forever and ever. He's the author of 4 books -- all burnable -- and co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour podcast, a podcast that will lead others astray and into the pits of hell. You can read more about the author here.
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  • swbarnes2

    “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

    But Paul also said that slaves should be good slaves, and women, but not men, should be silent in church. Equality before God might be a nice ideal, but Paul wasn’t expecting anyone to give up their slaves for it.

    That Paul wrote letters addressing very specific issues within his churches

    Presumably, if God had wanted Paul’s letters to be treated as interesting historical appendices, instead of Holy Scripture for the next 2000 years, you believe he would have told the compilers of the Bible to do so.

  • A D

    Ephesians 5 is not Holy scriptures, it’s the rambling on of a man who spoke things that no one has been able to understand and has left us guessing for the past 2,000 years. The only person who really knows what the metaphor means, is the man who wrote it. It is purely subjective to a man’s interpretation for what it means to love his wife like he loves himself after he thinks he is already superior to his wife in privilege and function. After a man gets all of the honor in the marriage and hoards all of the resources and rights to everything the wife built and worked for, it is useless to speak of love, let alone love of self towards another person. A man’s leadership is nothing but a subversive curse that takes honor and dominion away from the woman. No woman wants to follow a man, you guys have nothing to offer us, we can think for ourselves and lead ourselves. Making decisions for ourselves is what makes us in the image of God and not an animal. To have power and dominion is to have integrity and value. You guys can go ahead an convince weak women that prostrating themselves to a man makes them valuable, but most of us know better, it just makes them fools.

    Further, no one knows how Christ loves the Church, nor how He nourishes and cherishes it, again it is just pure philosophy and nothing practical for real life. This “love”command given to husbands used to be interpreted by christian men to mean beat your wife, beat the shit out of her out of love for her soul, because all women need a man to dominate them and rule over them. The abuse, shame, and control itself is seen as the love. Just ask John Piper, he says husbands love their wives by forcing them to obey the husbands never ending commands disguised as leadership. You have already made a shameful and inferior position for the women, too late for love. For me, Eph 5 is written by a primitive person pretending to be Paul long after Paul was martyred. Of course the Church accepted it as scripture because its forgery was an inside job by the early Church Fathers. Perhaps the wheat of the Lord, aka Ignitus and his ilk forged it. Ignitus was found of telling the clergy that the Bishop and God were one and the same in power and honor. Then before he was martyred, he called himself the wheat of the Lord, such a humble man. I’m not surprised they compared husbands to Christ, men were starving for power over women and Paul did not give them any in his original letters so they made a few of them up.

    God spoke once concerning marriage in Genesis 1 and 2. No fake “Paul” is going to reconstruct and rewrite Genesis for me.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    It is not at all clear Paul told women generally to be silent in meetings. “Woman” and “wife” are the same word in Greek; the passage concerned comes immediately after Paul insists on order in meetings witha rule that no more than one or two people should be talking at once, Paul refers to some otherwise unidentified rule or law when saying “your” women / wives should not talk (not “speak” in the sense of “public speaking”) and refers to them instead asking questions of their husbands at home. The passage may equally read as an injunction against non- or only nominally believing wives of believers dragged along by their husbands not chatting amongst themselves while a meeting is going on.
    Matthews point about the subversive requirement for mutual submission applies equally to the master / slave relationship. Although Paul says in Ephesians 9:7 that slaves should “serve [their masters] with good will as if for the Lord, and not for men”, in verse 9 Paul says that masters should do the same for their slaves in exactly the same way! Paul it is true doesn’t urge masters to free their slaves. I do know from a little on line research that it is not clear whether there was a straightforward mechanism for simply freeing one’s slaves en masse, other than in one’s will, and around Paul’s time or shortly thereafter legislation was introduced heavily restricting this, so it does seem that calling for slaves to be freed (even voluntarily) might have been regarded as subversive by the authorities, and rightly or wrongly, with the church precariously legal and subject to persecution, it may be Paul was trying to avoid getting the nascent church into trouble with a (very oppressive and violent) Roman regime.

  • Max

    What Paul meant matters not one iota. What matters is the precedent his writings established and how that precedent has until recently been used to keep women out of the ministry and the priesthood. Those words are never going to change. Arguing for historical context only serves to further women’s oppression by keeping them on the margins of mainline Christianity. Why argue for or against Paul’s teaching at all? It seems to me that the very notion of “the Church” needs to be put to rest and out of whatever chaos ensues (probably a lot less than most people fear) must come the New Jerusalem. What that looks like remains to be seen, because even to use the language of Scripture to describe the future becomes ultimately hopeless. Oppressed and marginalized people need to be walking out of the Church and not trying–however honorably–to fix it.

  • soter phile

    For all the dancing around kephale as head in v.23, do you deny that Paul is making an analogy between husband/wife and Christ/Church? and directly after v.21 supposedly says the opposite?
    That’s a significant problem for your read here.

    Shall we say the Church is equal with Christ in authority? If not, how does the analogy work?
    Your interpretation here requires assuming v.21 is at odds with v.23, or that somehow v.23 is not comparing headships. That’s some serious exegetical gymnastics to avoid the overt teaching of the text.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I agree on the analogy, but not the consequences.
    Firstly, the “submission” is the same “submission” as Christians are to display mutually to each other, so it can’t rationally be taken as being synonymous with “obey”. The word is “hupotasso” which, in non military use, was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.
    The “as” (Greek “hos”), at least according to Strongs, is not principally used for analogies but comparisons. The wife is then being exhorted to cooperate with and exercise her responsibilities towards her husband equally as she does to Christ, not to treat her husband as if he were God.
    The next bit about headship starts with “for / because” and is an explanation of why the wife ought to continue to exercise her social responsibilities to her husband. In Roman society the husband was the legal head of the household and responsible for it, and for looking after the wife. The wife who becomes
    a Christian ought therefore to continue to exercise her existing responsibilities to her husband as “head” in this sense, in the same way as she (and the church) exercise her responsibilities to Christ as spiritual head. That is the point of the analogy.
    (Note – the phrase rendered “the body of which he is the Saviour” in the above apparenykyt actually says literally “he is saviour / preserver if the body”. What exactly it means is uncertain and translated all sorts of different ways. I personally suspect the literal rendition is actually right, and the subject if the verb is the husband, not Christ, and what Paul is saying is that the husband is head of the wife because the husband is responsible for looking after her bodily needs as Christ is spiritual head because he looks after the Church’s spiritual ones. This would match my above understanding of the text.)