I’ve spent most of my adult life in a church environment that takes a strong “complementarian” view on gender roles. In other words, I’ve been taught that scripture says men are to be the leaders in the church and in the home, and that women are to submit to their authority. And I’ve heard many biblical defenses of that position.
But I recently realized that I had never given any serious thought to understanding or evaluating any of the opposing arguments. So, in the last several months, I’ve picked up Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood and Philip B. Payne’s Man and Woman, One in Christ. I’ve listened to podcast episodes. I’ve read articles. I’ve tried, as honestly as I can, to listen with an open mind to the arguments of those who affirm the authority of scripture and yet believe it teaches the equal authority of men and women at church and at home.
Now, having listened to some of those arguments, I’m starting to process them. And I’d like to use today’s article as a chance to do a bit of that processing in writing. I want to summarize four arguments for an egalitarian interpretation of Ephesians 5 which I found persuasive. (I’ll tackle aspects of the perspective I found unpersuasive in a future post, and I may eventually address other passages.)
In all of this, I’m more than happy to admit that I haven’t reached any firm conclusions, and I don’t know where I’ll land! But I hope my processing of the arguments can be helpful to others, and I’d love to dialogue with anyone who wants to engage my thinking where it’s at!
So let’s get started! Here’s four egalitarian arguments that this complementarian found persuasive.
Argument 1: Paul Affirms Mutual Submission
The first egalitarian argument about Ephesians 5 that I found persuasive is that the chapter contains a call for all Christians to submit to one another. In fact, reading from verse 21 straight into verse 22, this is what Paul says.
“…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
Paul instructs all Christians (presumably including husbands) to submit to one another (presumably including wives). If that’s the case, the argument goes, Paul’s call for wives to submit to their husbands is just one subset of this broader call to mutual Christian submission. It may not, therefore, be a unique role that’s applicable only to women.
In this case, the argument about mutual submission was one I had heard before. But, in my reading, I encountered one observation about the Greek grammar that was new to me. When Paul says “wives submit to your husbands,” he doesn’t actually write the verb “submit.” He literally just says “wives, to your husbands.” His grammar implies that you need to go reference the nearest verb and insert it into the sentence—which happens to be “submit” in verse 21.
This suggests that there’s a very close connection between the mutual submission envisioned in verse 21 and the submission of wives to husbands in verse 22. These aren’t two unrelated instructions that happened to use the same verb in close proximity. The two sentences are grammatically dependent on each other, and we should therefore see their instructions as strongly related.
In my view, this strengthens the argument that the submission of wives to husbands is simply one facet of mutual Christian submission (rather than a unique assignment of a female role) substantially.
Argument 2: Submission is Likely Voluntary
A second argument that I found persuasive was related to the first. If Paul uses the same verb (i.e., submit) in back to back verses, the verb must mean the same thing in both cases. That’s especially true if, as we just discussed, he doesn’t even write the verb twice, but instead writes it once and references it a second time through his sentence structure. A word written once shouldn’t have two meanings.
In the case of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” most readers tend to interpret that as a call to voluntary submission to any and all other believers. It’s a lifestyle of putting others before yourself, considering their needs before your own (see, for example, Philippians 2:3).
Similarly, most Christians do not read “submitting to one another” as an instruction to submit only to people in the church who hold an authoritative office. It doesn’t seem to be a command to submit only to pastors, elders, ministry leaders, and the like. Rather, it’s a command to submit voluntarily to everyone.
Therefore, when Paul uses the same verb to instruct wives to “submit” to husbands, it must mean the same thing. In other words, it’s not necessarily an instruction to submit to someone (i.e., a husband) in a role of God-given authority. Rather, it can once again be a simple call to voluntary submission to another believer, regardless of that person’s role or status.
Thus, if this argument is correct, there’s no reason to believe Paul necessarily implies that the husband holds an authoritative role in the home. Rather, he simply calls the wife to submit voluntarily, just as he calls all believers to submit voluntarily to one another.
Argument 3: “Head” Doesn’t Mean Leader in Greek
The third egalitarian argument I found persuasive was one that I encountered solely in the writing of Philip B. Payne. And it concerns the meaning of “head” in Paul’s instructions to wives in Ephesians 5:23. Here’s what Paul says.
“For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.”
Payne points out that “head” in both English and Hebrew can take on the metaphorical meaning of “leader.” We speak of the “headmaster” of a school, or the “head” of a company, and we all know we’re talking about the person in charge. Thus, it’s easy to think that, when Paul says the husband is the “head” of the wife, it means he’s the leader.
However, Payne made a strong case that the word “head” did not carry a metaphorical meaning of leadership in Greek culture. For example, he pointed out that when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Greek word for “head” was not used in verses where “head” in Hebrew was used as a metaphorical reference to leadership. Another word was substituted.
We don’t have the space to cover the rest of Payne’s evidence here. However, if he’s correct and his evidence is good, the lack of an association between “head” and “leader” in Greek would mean that “the husband is the head of the wife” is not a reference to male leadership in the home.
Rather, Payne says, “head” in Greek metaphorically references something’s source—think of “headwaters” in English, for example. Payne therefore connects “headship” in Ephesians 5:23 to 1 Corinthians 11:11, where Paul encourages mutual respect between the sexes because men were the source of women in creation, but women are the source of men through childbirth.
We could, of course, supply other theories for what “head” means in Ephesians 5:23. But I nevertheless found Payne’s evidence that “head” does not mean “leader” compelling.
Argument 4: We Must be Consistent About Wives and Slaves
The final egalitarian argument about Ephesians 5 which I found persuasive concerned the parallels between Paul’s instructions to wives in Ephesians 5 and his instructions to slaves (or servants) in Ephesians 6.
Here’s what Paul says to wives in Ephesians 5:22 (NRSV).
“Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.”
And here’s what he says to slaves/servants in Ephesians 6:5 (NRSV).
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”
Paul argues in Ephesians 6 that slaves are to obey their masters as they would Christ. One could easily imagine someone using this text to justify slavery, even going so far as to say that the submissive relationship between slave and master is a beautiful picture of the relationship between Christ and the church. And, frankly, we don’t need to imagine. We don’t have to go very far back in the historical record to find this text being used for exactly that purpose.
But, despite the fact that Paul encourages slaves to obey their masters as they would Christ, the vast majority of modern Christians have absolutely no problem with the abolition of slavery. They interpret Paul’s instructions to slaves as practical instructions to those living under a particular social institution, not as an endorsement of the institution itself.
Thus, the argument goes, we should feel equally free to believe that Paul’s instructions to wives in Ephesians 5 are not an endorsement of patriarchy. In fact, arguing that slavery can and should be abolished despite Paul’s instructions, while holding that patriarchy must be preserved because of Paul’s instructions, is inconsistent.
In my view, this argument becomes even stronger when the parallel passage in 1 Peter 2-3 is considered. But the conclusion is still the same: if we’re willing to do away with slavery, we should be willing to do away with patriarchy in marriage.
So, am I Convinced?
Today, I’ve described four arguments for a more egalitarian interpretation of Ephesians 5. I find all of these arguments persuasive. In other words, I believe they are good arguments. But am I persuaded that the egalitarian interpretation is therefore correct?
Well, I’m not sure just yet. Next week, I want to describe elements of the egalitarian position on Ephesians 5 that I found less convincing. And that doesn’t mean I’ve rejected the position either, it just means there’s a lot to weigh on both sides. This is likely to be an ongoing process, and I’m honestly not sure where I’ll land.
But, regardless of where I land, I want to do my best to follow the teaching of God’s word as best as I can understand it. And, I want to listen to what my brothers and sisters in Christ have to say, in case I’ve gotten some things wrong along the way! At the very least, I’ll be better able to understand and respect where they’re coming from.
So, come back next week if you’d like to read more of my processing. And stick around—maybe I’ll reach a firm conclusion eventually!
Got any questions or comments about today’s post? If you’re a complementarian, what do you think of these arguments? If you’re an egalitarian, are there any arguments that are specific to Ephesians 5 that I’ve overlooked? Scroll down and leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you. You can also find me on Twitter.