Ephesian Marriage

Terraced Houses frescoes, Ephesus, Turkey, Photo by Djenan Kozic (http://www.djenankozic.com) Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ephesians was Paul’s letter to those living in Ephesus who believed that Jesus was the son of God. Roman law ruled this region of Asia Minor. Roman religion infiltrated every aspect of life.  So, to understand the background of Paul’s passage in Ephesians 5, lets look at the cultural influence of Rome on Ephesian men and women.

Pater Familias : Man’s Authority

Marriage in ancient times was different than marriage in modern times.  Rome governed the rights of pater familias, or authority of the father which followed the bride into her marriage.  If you are not familiar with the state of Roman marriages, here is a great article detailing ancient treatment of women and how Christianity reformed marriage and liberated women and children from the abuses of ancient pagan debauchery:  Christian Liberation of Women.

What I want to highlight is the Roman law concerning which man was in authority over a woman. It could be either her father or her husband depending on the type of contract agreed to. Read more here. It wasn’t until the death of her father or husband that a woman had the legal ability to manage her own property and self, and only then depending on current laws. It was the cultural assumption that women were under men;  no one thought about equality or the absurdity of human property. A famous line of Cicero describes the status of Roman women.

Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians.‘ ~Cicero

It wasn’t just culture that influenced Paul to pen his note to wives, it was a question of Roman law.  Imagine an Ephesian father asking, “Should a Christian wife submit to her father or husband? Who is her authority?”

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. ~Paul

Love in Marriage

We can get a glimpse of Roman attitudes toward romantic love in ancient Roman writing.  Since all the authors were men, we don’t know what women thought of the subject. Love was considered either irrelevant or ridiculous. Marriage was to produce children, not friendship. Fidelity was rare. Wives were practical, not precious.

There are examples of Roman attitudes for love. Pompey’s devotion to his young wife Julia (Caesar’s daughter) was only seen as effeminate weakness. Old Cato’s affection for the slave girl he eventually married was seen as the pathetic lusting of a lecherous old dodderer…The reputation of those famous men who did truly show their love, men such as Pompey or Mark Antony, shows just how frowned upon their behavior was. For to fall in love, to be spell bound by a woman, was to be in her power. And the image of the henpecked husband was a thing any Roman would seek to avoid at any cost. (http://www.roman-empire.net/society/soc-conjugal.html)

So, it is in this culture of Roman manliness, Paul writes the shocking instruction to husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church… “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” ~ Paul in Ephesians 5

The shocker for the Ephesian husbands was not that they were the “heads,”  but that they were to love…even yield to their wives because of their deep respect for Jesus. (Ephesians 5:21)

What an improvement!

It is because of the influence of Christian husbands obeying God’s Word to the Ephesians that we no longer marry as the Romans did. Wives are no longer under strict law, but loved. These verses have elevated the role of wife from property to precious.

19 thoughts on “Ephesian Marriage

  1. Jesus is the leader, not the husband. In Genesis it says under the curse the woman will look to a man rather than to God. Many women are reflecting that here instead of being responsible for their own lives. Jesus is the head, and the two support each other in love, and follow Jesus.


  2. Today, however, in my opinion, many men need to hear, “Men, lead your wives”

    It is interesting that you say this, because it is not something the Bible ever says. The Bible tells men to “love their wives” in the same way Christ loved the church when He did what? When He led her? No, when He gave Himself for her. That means when He laid down His power and was crucified.

    In fact, if you examine the way the head-body metaphor is used throughout Ephesians, Christ as “Head” of the church as His “body” is spoken of in many ways, but never in terms of Christ “leading” her.

    In Eph 1 the Body is shown as being raised up and seated with Christ the Head, above all other powers (the Body is not one of the “powers” that is pictured as under His feet, but is seated with Him). In Eph 4 the Body is shown as united to the Head and receiving sustenance from the Head that gives her growth and strength. In Eph 5 Christ as Head is shown as nurturing and caring for her (as in Chapt. 4) and as “giving Himself” to raise her up to be “glorious” as in Chapt. 1).

    Nowhere does it say, “Husbands, lead your wives as Christ leads the church. For Christ is the head of the church as the leader of the church, so husbands should lead their wives in the same way.” It’s just not there.

    The real issue is not what “head” means now in English, or what “head” may have meant in other uses of the word in ancient Greek. The issue is how Paul used it in Ephesians in conjunction with “body,” which is how Paul is using it in Eph. 5. The “head” is to the “body” as the nourisher and sustainer of the body– and the body is raised up to be with the head in glory.


  3. Christy says of 1 Cor 11:3 “This is hierarchal language”

    “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”. I Cor. 11:3

    I disagree. Paul continues explaining and clarifying his earlier point:

    8For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. 9Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
    10For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
    11Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
    12For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.1 Cor 11:8-12

    The man was the SOURCE of the woman (in Genesis 2) but for every other man since has come BY a woman (his mother). Therefore, neither man nor woman is independent of the other, nor superior to the other.

    Reading 1 Cor 11:3 using the SOURCE meaning of “head”.

    “But I want you to know that the head (source) of every man is Christ, the head (source) of woman [is] man, and the head (source) of Christ [is] God.”

    Also, notice in the latter that Paul’s wording is not ordered in a “chain of command” sequence (as one often hears people assume). Its not a totem pole arrangement with “God in charge of Christ, Christ in charge of man, man in charge of woman” . Instead, its a sandwich, with man and woman in the middle of Christ/God. I consider this another significant clue that this passage is not teaching about “authority and subordination”.


  4. Kay, why would Paul find it necessary to explain which came first, the chicken or the egg, unless there were practical implications? If Paul meant “source” in the verse I quoted above, then he would have gone on to explain how the church should act in light of that. But, the very next verses about head coverings makes it very clear that this was the “leader” form of the word kephale, since head covering was the cultural cue to indicate a woman was married, and the way a woman honored her husband. It just seems to me like there is a lot of “trying too hard” to make head not mean what is clear.


    1. That is a good point…I have a post on 1 Cor 11 waiting in the wings for next week. I’ll think about how to answer that. I wish the practical implications were “clear.” I’m afraid we’ve read too much into them and are holding a gender standard that isn’t stated in Scripture.

      How do you determine what is a cultural command and what is not? I’ve always struggled with that…obviously. heh


  5. Ok, I disagree again. I think teaching on headship IS necessary for this day and age, precisely for the reason that love was necessary to the Roman audience. Our culture’s problem is not that men don’t love their wives, it’s that they abrogate the responsibility of leadership to their wives. Men need to learn how to lovingly lead their wives, and that starts with the teaching that God has made them the HEAD (I don’t think there’s any getting around that definition, no matter how you try!) of their homes.


    1. “Men need to learn how to lovingly lead their wives, and that starts with the teaching that God has made them the HEAD of their homes.”

      First of all, it just says the husband is the head, period, not the “head of the home.” So when you say, “Men need to learn how to lovingly lead their wives,” you’re making a huge assumption about what “head” means, “head” equaling “leader,” I believe you imply, which I just don’t see considering two sentences before it Paul says that both should submit to each other.


      1. “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”. I Cor. 11:3 From this statement, Paul goes on to the application (head coverings), which is where we can reasonably diverge from cultural practices. But, the principle cannot be ignored. This is hierarchical language. I looked up the word “head”, and here is a verse where it is used again, clearly in terms of authority – Col. 2:10 “and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority”.


      2. Head (kephalē) means chief or pre-eminent/first. It can refer to the body (literally, your head) , to people (how we get leader) or things/ideas (headstone/capstone/angle of the corner). It is used in all 3 contexts in the New Testament in 76 places, 12 of them DON”T mean your literal head, but is used as a metaphor for SOMETHING. What that something signifies is what the arguments are about. Colossians 1-2 in full is about Christ as the “firstborn” or beginning, or the “source” of the body. Without Christ, there is no church. So, I can understand the argument that without Adam, there is no Eve. Because she was created from him, just as the church was created from Christ.

        So, my point at the conclusion of the post, is that it is not clear which head it means to be dogmatic.


      3. You know, it occurred to me that this “head = authority” business can distort our view of the relationship between God and Jesus. Do we understand that relationship? No way. They’re the same person, yet Jesus is submissive, yet etc. etc. etc. It varies. We can’t understand it. It’s a mystery.

        1. God is the head of Jesus
        2. Jesus is the head of the church
        2. Man is the head of woman.

        The first one, we cannot understand. The second one is nuanced. So why are we saying the 3rd one is cut and dry?


    2. Christy, I’m curious why you say that our culture’s problem is a failure of leadership rather than love. Not that I necessarily disagree, I’m just wondering what specifically you mean since the two are often interconnected (for example, sometimes the proper expression of love entails leadership, and vice versa).

      What I DO did disagree with is that you can’t interpret headship differently 🙂 From what I can remember right now all Biblical commands to headship are either within the OT Jewish nation or from epistles to specific churches. That’s not to say we can simply dismiss any of that material, but we do need to read it in light of the context to apply it properly. Otherwise I’m going to have start condemning pork consumption and women wearing red clothes.


      1. John, I guess you could say that ultimately the problem with every culture has been lack of love. However, based on Kay’s post, which is very informative as to the sin of the Roman culture (men treating wives as property), Paul’s instruction to the church in Ephesus was apropos. “Men, love your wives,” was a counter-cultural and necessary teaching. Today, however, in my opinion, many men need to hear, “Men, lead your wives”, because many men have abrogated their responsibility of leadership.

        See my reply to Jamie above as to the “you’re picking and choosing which instructions to heed in the Epistles” argument. It’s a matter of principles versus application.


    3. Christy,

      God nowhere says the husband is the head of the home/household. “The husband is the head of the wife” (his identity, not something he is supposed to “do”). And the wife is the body of the husband. This is an intimacy metaphor about their organic unity not the establishment of a hierarchy.

      In Genesis 1:26-28, God gives the male and female CO-dominion and I see nowhere in Scripture that God retracted that. Humans do have a rather universal propensity to live under the Gen 3:16 consequences instead of appropriating their inheritance in Christ.


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