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.