Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:22

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible.

Ephesians 5:22 says,

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.


This verse introduces what is often called the “Household Code of Conduct” for Christians. Paul, who is writing to 1st century Christians in Ephesus, spends the first part of chapter 5 describing how a Christian should live a life of love. In verse 18, he begins to define how a person filled with the Spirit behaves. This description segues into commentary on wives and husbands, children and parents, masters and slaves.

Summary of Differing Opinions

Who should submit in a Christian marriage? Complemetarians believe wives should submit. Egalitarians, as well, believe wives should submit, but so should husbands.


Complementarian Interpretation

This verse is the mother of complementarianism. (The father comes a verse later.) It establishes their core belief that God wants marriage to follow a pattern based on gender. The wife’s role is to submit to her husband. The husband’s role is to lead his wife. They believe this verse proves that godly marriages must be based on a structure of authority. Unless the wife is following her husband’s leadership, they have become like the world (following the feminist influence) and are not pleasing God in their marriage.

Mark Driscoll, a vocal complementarian, recently questioned the motivation of some Christians who wanted to understand the original language of the Bible. He said that only “rebellious” Christians do word studies. I’m sure he said this tongue in cheek. The verse he wants Christians to accept the English-translation without question? This one. Wives submit to your husbands.

And this is the complementarian argument on its simplistic level. Many comps don’t need to interpret this verse, or understand its cultural significance. They are willing to take it at face value. Even though verse 21 states that all Christians are in submission to each other, wives have a gendered duty to submit to their own husbands. There is no reason to question the plain, English words of this verse.

God made women to submit to men in each marriage. (This understanding comes from the following verses in this chapter, which I’ll cover in time.)

…biblical submission for the wife is the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. – John Piper

Comps teach that this wifely submission comes with two caveats. “To your own husband” and “As unto the Lord.” Most comps do not believe all women are to submit to all men. They also admit that gender-based authority in marriage can lead to abuse, and so they caution husbands to lead in a servant-like manner. They also caution wives that they do not need to submit to a husband who is disobeying God’s will because of the phrase, “as unto the Lord.” (Well- sort of. Some well known Comp advocates have been known to say some outlandish things regarding women staying in an abusive relationship.) Comps teach that a wife should not follow her husband into sin. What this practically looks like varies by teacher.

Further Reading

50 Crucial Questions Chapter 2 by John Piper and Wayne Grudem

Egalitarian Interpretation

Submission is the state of living by the Spirit. The Egalitarian believes it is how all Christians, regardless of gender, should behave, wives and husbands.

“How desperately we need to see  that mutual submission in marriage and the family is not subtraction of wifely  submission, but the addition of husbandly submission. Only that is the  perfect biblical equation. In decision making within marriage, the ‘one’ who  makes the decisions should be the ‘two become one.’” Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1998), p. 200

A commonly used Egalitarian argument for non-gender based submission is based on the earliest Greek manuscripts of Ephesians. The verb submit (hupotasso) is not found in verse 22. Instead, it is implied from verse 21, like this:

(21)…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ ; (22) wives to your husbands, as to the Lord.

Egalitarians argue that inserting the word submit into verse 22 and separating the two verses (which were written as one sentence) into distinct thoughts, is inadequate and incorrect. Hupatasso, the verb in verse 21-22,  is written in the middle voice which implies passivity, not activity. Submission is a state a Christian is already in because of the Spirit inside (vs 18). Even more so – especially in a Roman patriarchy setting- submission is a state a wife is already in. (On the passive voice of Hupatasso by Charis R. Hart) Many times, a wife naturally looks to please her husband, even in a sinful way, as a result of the fall. (Genesis 3:16)

Culture plays a large part in an Egalitarian’s understanding of Ephesians 5:22. Some argue Paul was enforcing the Roman law of marriage. Others argue for understanding the influence of the Ephesian cult religion of Artemis, which demands the superiority of women over men, into Paul’s instructions for Christian marriages. Regardless of which historical perspective the Egalitarians believes, they agree that historical perspective is key to understanding Paul’s teaching of gender in marriage.

Egalitarians are wary of separating Christians into authoritative categories based on gender, race or social positions.  Egalitarians believe the question of gender-based hierarchy has no place in a marriage whose goal is a unified partnership. “Who has authority?” is never the question a Christian should ask. The disciples asked that question of Jesus, and he told them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” A Christian marriage should be marked by service to each other. In decision making times, gifting and talents are a better factor than gender.

Further Reading:

Submission in Marriage by Marg Mowczko

Authority vs submission – a biblical view of Ephesians 5:22 by Cheryl Schatz

15 thoughts on “Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:22

  1. I’m a 16 year old, and I’ve heard many points of view of this so called problem passage, and iv’e read several of the pervious comments. I feel that women should do as they are called to do, but as i’ve been raised only men have been my pastor, my dad has always been the authoritative figure in our house. But that does’t mean women can’t be pastors, because we are only used to having men in that role. It does’t mean my mom can’t be the one who makes household decisions. But i do not think that i could participate in a church with a female pastor, not because it was wrong, but because thats how i’ve been raised. I feel that many people today see female pastors as wrong because that’s how they were RAISED, not because they’ve seen it in the bible. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. thats my personal opinion.


  2. One additional section of scripture can do much to shed light on the intent of Eph 5:21 and its relationship to verses 22 and following:

    Col 3:18-4:1.

    Notice the parallelism with Ephesians, right down to the order in which each relationship is addressed: wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters, in that order. Same groups, same order of presentation, same instructions. However, no mention of mutual submission, but an implicit understanding that each relationship is to be governed by love and in a manner pleasing to God. If mutual submission was the primary intent, surely Paul would have included. Instead, he focuses again on the basics of who submits to who, and how the head in each of those relationships is to behave with special cautions against becoming embittered against wives, against exasperating children, and against being unfair and unjust to slaves.

    The discussion of whether “head” means “head” versus “foundation” is frankly quite silly, because it singles out the husband/wife relationship while not extending this equally to parents/children and slaves/masters. If it (mutual submission) applies to A, it must apply to B and C as well. I have never seen anyone argue in favor of children and parents being mutually submitted to one another or being co-CEOs. Why is it that the husband/wife relationship gets singled out for this special treatment?

    Regarding Genesis 3:16, I do not think it is necessary to read into that passage that a woman’s “desire” for her husband means “a desire to rule him.” In fact, this interpretation — which I realize the author of this blog also rejects — is rather silly. The curse is “pain in childbearing”, not “desire for her husband” where “for” becomes “to usurp” rather than simply “for”. Further, God would not curse someone with a desire to usurp His ordained order – He is not the author of sin and He does not tempt us. That is foundational, so I reject it outright.

    We are told in Gen 2:18 that God would “make him (Adam) a helper suitable for him.” The Hebrew word ezer appears 21 times in the old testament and in each instance (in the NASB) is translated as “help” or “helper” or “helpers”. It means exactly what it says: the woman was created to be a helper to the man. Not a slave, but neither a master, and not a co-CEO as seems to be so popular.

    All of that said, I do think it is a reach to interpret Gen 3:16 as anything other than a plain, simple reading will yield: “Your pain in childbearing will increase greatly; nevertheless, you will (sexually) desire your husband and he will rule over you.” There is an implied “you will continue to…” in there. Ruling over the woman was not part of the curse. it was part of creation, as implied by the use of the Hebrew word ezer when describing the woman’s relationship to the man, before the serpent ever entered the picture.


    1. I will point out that calling a viewpoint silly is insulting to those who hold that viewpoint. Please try to be kind and respectful even if you don’t agree.

      The Meaning of head: you realize there is a great deal of scholarship that recognizes the many-faceted metaphorical interpretations of head? (NT Wright, Gordon Fee) And where is head used to describe the other relationships Paul details? Isn’t that unique to the marriage relationship? Saying it must apply to the others is reading something into the text that is not written.

      Ezer: God is our ezer. Here is my thoughts on that:

      I’d love to converse with you further, but not I’m not keen on being called silly. So if you think my understanding is silly, just ignore me and find another blog who agrees with your understanding! 🙂


  3. Since there seems to be such a fondness here for linking v21 and v22 as the continuation of a single thought, what are we to make of v23? That Christ should be “mutually submitted” to the church? That the church and Christ are “co-leaders” where each exercises the areas of leadership/headship in which they are most qualified with no clearly designated and sanctioned roles?

    Assuming that v21 is *not* the end of one thought (which is by no means clear), even then doesn’t this entire passage (v21-33 and then into ch 6) make more sense when viewed like this:

    Be subject to one another; now, here is what I (Paul) mean when I say “subject to one another”…
    * Wives be subject to your husbands, as the church is subject to Christ
    * Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and sacrificed Himself for her
    * Wives, respect your husbands
    * Children, obey your parents
    * Fathers, do not provoke your children
    * Slaves, obey your masters
    * Masters, treat your slaves as you would want to be treated, and stop threatening them.

    I am truly at a loss to understand how this passage could be read as anything other than complementarian unless we want to do great violence to the very relationship Paul is using as the model – not of submission to one another, but of submission of the church to Christ and his unquestioned role as head. How can this possibly be any clearer and any less a function of historical cultural setting? Why are husbands specifically commanded to love, and wives specifically commanded to respect? Could not Paul have simply said “love and respect one another” if that was the intended take-away from this passage?

    Finally, let’s not confuse *sacrificing for* the object of one’s affection with *submitting to* the object of one’s affection. Christ sacrificed Himself for us. He did not submit Himself to us. There is no mutual submission between Christ and the church, and that is of far more import to the passage at hand than whether v22 is a continuing thought of v21 or not.


    1. mrteebs
      The purpose of this set of posts on problem passages is to explore both views. I admit to being an egalitarian, but have taught and counseled as complemenatian so I understand your points, and even agree in part. I had hoped these post would be a lesson on the two viewpoints so those reading could see where they fall on the spectrum, and understand another’s viewpoint. I love dialogue. Thank you for your comments.

      The “fondness” for linking 21 and 22 is not emotionally driven, but Greek-grammar based. The verb is inferred from 21.

      I’ve continued my exploration of the two viewpoints into 23 here:

      As far as the church in submission to Christ, my question is… how can the church be the church UNLESS they have submitted to the truth of Christ’s actions on her behalf? (I am not opposed to submission.) Unless the church has agreed to follow, the church is NOT the church, In the same way, the wife agrees to unite with her husband – she is submitted to him. That submission-union is mutual in Christ’s relationship, because Christ had to agree to do whatever was necessary to become unified with his beloved. He agreed to take on her shame and sin because he was the only one to do it. There is a definite inequality in the Christ-church relationship that Jesus negates by washing and sanctifying the church so that she is radiant and worthy to stand as one with Him. (And this is where I have to bring in the ancient Roman culture because I believe it is intrinsic in Paul’s writing to the ancient audience.) The emphasis of this passage in an ancient mind is not on the wife’s submission – it was obvious to them she submitted to him, they were married after all – but on the husband’s role in in lifting his “lesser” status spouse to a place of radiant equality and unity with him…like Jesus did in purifying and qualifying the church to an eternal inheritance equal to his. In the spirit of the whole book of Ephesians, Christ empowers the church to bring glory to God. In the same way, Roman husbands could love and elevate the status of their wives. It was truly a paradigm shift in marriage teaching.

      Your last question as to whether submission is the same as sacrifice reveals the difference in definition between the two camps. Submission leads to sacrifice, for sure. I agree that the portrayal of Christ and the church through marriage is the point of this passage. I touch a bit on it here:


  4. Just read your more recent post, and thought I’d come here to read before tossing in my two cents… I have to admit, this makes me laugh as much as it would make Mike cringe! I have told him before that we have an “egal marraige,” but when he hears “egal” he thinks “woman pastor” so automatically he has to deny it. Yet HE is the one who from studying the greek pointed out to me (and since then to others when submission comes up) that the verb in the Eph context is one and the same for both thoughts – not a separate “wives submit!!” as it is separated and preached today. So much of what you quoted egals as saying, he has said. It made me smile.
    Darn that curse for making marraige roles so complicated. One flesh would have been so much easier, then we would have had more time to argue about modesty or the abstinence of all the unholy world-like things.

    btw- do you have any posts on the pastoral role(in this context) specifically? would love to hear your break down on that issue…


    1. Good for Mike! Are you asking about women as pastors or elders? I hope to complete the problem passages series eventually, and that will touch on of few of the negating passages. I think this issue is wrapped up in a misunderstanding of authority in the church. When you realize that pastors and elders have no special God-given authority over their flock, then much of what is taught about women “in authority” dissolves away.


  5. Question: If the church today believed and practiced what you are teaching (egalitarianism or whatever), what will women (and men, if need be) have achieved or gained that they don’t have today in our practice of Scripture?


    1. There are so many answers to this question.

      Women who feel called to minister to both men and women will be able to do so.
      Women who feel called to lead a church will be able to obey the call and the God Who calls.
      Men who feel inadequate to be the sole leaders of their households will have a co-leader, a true partner in every sense.
      Women who know their expertise is greater than their husbands’ in certain areas will be able to confidently take the lead in those areas without shame or guilt. Men who wisely let them do so will no longer feel they are being unmanly.
      Men who want to help in the nursery will feel no stigma or shame.
      Married couples will work through decisions without the deck being stacked by knowledge that the husband has a “final say” trump card that could ultimately render the wife’s input moot.
      Little boys will grow up understanding that their mother is just as much a leader and just as worthy of respect as their dad. Little girls will stop wondering if maybe God just likes boys better.

      I could probably go on, but that seems like plenty.


    2. Thanks Kristen for answering. Linda, I’ve been suffering from low back pain and I hate to sit down so I’ve procrastinated answering! But I’ve been thinking about my answer and I think I’ll make a post on it. Stay tuned. 🙂


  6. The thing that annoys me the most about the chapter is that when the headers were added to English translations some idiot thought 5:21 should be grouped with the previous section rather than the part about husbands and wives. And those headers have been copied into lots of other modern printings.

    As a result, we get tons of sermons, articles and Bible studies that start with “Wives, submit to your husbands…”, with no mention of the previous verse which says that it goes both ways: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”


    1. Now I feel a little silly. I commented before I noticed you reposted your comments on Ephesians 5:21 and I did the same rant on that post over a year ago…


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