This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible. Read more about the series here.
Ephesians 5:23 says,
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.
This verse is the beginning of a descriptive metaphor Paul employs to describe Jesus Christ’s relationship with his body, the church. It is foundational to understanding the relationship a husband and wife are to enjoy.
Summary of Differing Opinions
Much of the controversy in this verse spills into the following verses, so I will condense a few of those into three main points for this post.
- What does head (kephale) mean? The word head can be literal, as in that thing on top of your neck, or it can be a metaphor for something. Paul is using head metaphorically in this verse. Complementarians believe it means leader or authority, as in head of state. Egalitarians believe it means either source, as in the head of a river; or a symbol of the whole body, as in “counting the heads of cattle.”
- Is the husband the head of the marriage in today’s culture? Or was Paul using a Roman-Ephesian phenomenon to illustrate an eternal truth about Christ and the church? Complementarians believe Paul’s teaching on marriage is God’s eternal truth, and culture should not play a part in the interpretation of this verse. Egals believe understanding ancient Roman marriage unlocks the truth of what Paul is teaching about the relationship between Jesus and His body.
- How should we interpret the analogy of Jesus and the church to husbands and their wives? Complementarians believe Jesus leads his church and as Savior, he displays loving authority over all aspects of the church. Hence, husbands should exhibit loving leadership of their wives. Egalitarians believe Jesus originated His church by his redeeming death and resurrection. Through this work, he gave life to his body. Likewise, Roman husbands were the source of life for their wives. Comparatively, they should then treat their wives as Jesus treats his body.
All complementarians agree that head metaphorically means leader. Their main argument for this is found in verse 22: wives [submit] to your own husbands. (See my explanation of that verse, here.) Because comps define submission as requiring some authority to submit to, they find that authority in the word head in verse 23. Ephesians 1:22 also uses the word head in conjunction with submission.
“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.”
Using these two verses together, comps maintain that submission, or being under, requires a leader to be over. A major goal for complementarian marriages is for the husbands to behave as a leader. As a member of the church, men are asked to submit to each other, but since the husband’s role is to “play” Christ in the marriage, men – as husbands- have a different script to follow. Their job isn’t submission, but leadership. Husbands are to lead their wives like Jesus leads the church.
Leadership encompasses a right of privilege, authority to rule, and responsibility for outcome. Comps believe that the husband is not only responsible for his wife, but a good husband must keep his whole house in subjection (1 Tim 2:11-13). It is the husband’s responsibility to ensure his family honors the Lord and is properly cared for. Comps impress the importance of the husband’s stepping up into their role of being their family’s spiritual leader. The husband, not the wife, should instigate church attendance, prayer and devotions. The husband will be held accountable for how he leads his house.
Since comps believe Christ’s authority in the home is centered on the husband, a husband should lead like Christ. As Jesus leads the church for the body’s good, honor and glory; a husband’s headship is exercised for the wife’s good, her honor, and her glory. His leadership is one of love. Comps often refer to this as “servant leadership” or “loving leadership.”
“Paul tells us how to control our wives when he says to ‘love them.’ Love them. That is how you control a woman. You must love her. She is built that way. When she is fully loved, she is fully under control. Love her.” Jay Adams, Christian Living in the Home. Page 101.
Complementarians believe the husband’s role is harder than the wife’s role, because husbands are called to reflect Christ’s role as Savior. Their role-model was perfect! Even though it is an impossible job, the husband must actively lead because he represents Jesus’ relationship to the church. When he fails to lead his wife and family, he damages the name of Jesus.
All complementarians agree that God gave husbands (men) and wives (women) distinct roles. Comps believe these roles are rooted in God’s creation of gender, and are an eternal “script” that men and women are called to play. Because Paul’s writing was inspired by God, it vitally important we hold to its teachings. Many complementarians will point to the history of male authority throughout the Old Testament and church history as evidence of God’s plan for men to lead. Complementarians, though they admit that studying culture enhances our understanding of this text, do not believe it should influence our interpretation of gender roles.
50 Crucial Questions Chapter 2 by John Piper and Wayne Grudem
Egalitarians all agree that the metaphorical meaning of head is not always leader. In this context, its meaning is either source (head of a river) or a singular symbol for the whole body (heads of cattle). Egalitarians take the cue from they way Paul uses head in the previous chapter.
…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Eph 4:15-16.
Egalitarians understand Eph 5:23 in a similar fashion. The significance of the husband being the head of his wife is that they are joined together. It would be absurd to have a head that holds itself separate from the body. They are one. The husband and wife are both made from the same stuff. There is no fundamental difference between the two genders both made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ (Gen 1:26, Gal 3:3). Just as Christ, as the source of salvation and the First of many, gives the church fully of his inheritance and righteousness; so a Roman husband, as the source of income, property, sustenance and legitimacy in Roman culture, is to join 100% of those goods with his wife. Love is the connecting agent.
Egals believe a proper understanding of this passage cannot be divorced from the original culture. That the husband is the head of the wife was a fact in Roman society. Whichever meaning is chosen for head – leader, source or singular symbol – a case could be made that meaning existed in Roman law. Women were the property of men. No one thought about equality or the absurdity of human property. The shocker for the Ephesian husbands was not that they were the “heads,” but that they were to love. Christians husbands are a head AS Christ is a head. The following verses describe how Christ heads the church (love). Egalitarians find no hint of authority or leadership in this context.
Egalitarians believe Jesus, as Savior, originated His church by his redeeming death and resurrection. Through this work as head, he gave life to his body. Christ saves the church to share the privilege of heaven with those he loves. He transforms the church as a gift of eternal life. Everything Jesus enjoys, he makes available to his body. It is through the head, the body is equipped for true life. The responsibility of a head is to share privilege and life with the body. Those with the elevated position bring up those in the subjected role to a place of equilibrium by virtue of joining together in unity. And ultimately that is the heart of Paul’s message and Egalitarian marriage.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Eph 5:31)
An Exhaustive Study on the Meaning of “Head:” Are Women Really Free To Function Freely? by Wade Burleson quoting Lauren Fasullo
Household: Household Code in Ephesians (Part 3) by Michael W. Kruse
Christ as husband is about love not leadership by Retha
|Comps Believe…||Egals Believe…|
|For the husband is the head of the wife||Head means chief or leader. The husband is responsible for his wife. His goal is to behave as a loving leader.||Head means origin or source. A Roman husband was the key to life for his wife in that ancient culture. This was a fact, not a goal.|
|as Christ is the head of the church, his body,||Jesus’ relationship with his church is one of authority and leadership.||Jesus’ relationship with his church is one of pre-eminence. He is the first of many.|
|of which he is the Savior.||Jesus earned the right to lead his church by His death and resurrection.||Jesus’ role as savior is to transform us into His image.|
2 thoughts on “Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:23”
wow…finding an unbiased description of these two views is almost impossible. almost every article takes the worst of one view and compares it with the best of the other, and i’ve seen both sides do this. jesus just come back and sort us out, we’re a mess lol
Lord Jesus, come quickly! Thanks for your comment. I hope you found the article helpful.