I am rabbit trailing off my series exploring the Problem Passages in the Bible surrounding gender roles in family and ministry. This article will step back from the single verse by verse study, and examine the differences of interpretation for the overall passage at the end of Ephesians 5. A great difference between Egalitarian and Complementarian interpretation is not just who should submit and what “head” means, but how to understand the broader literary structure.
Modern academic, instructional writing always begins with introduction to the topic. Reading the first paragraph or the first sentence of the paragraph will let you know what the whole is about. It is natural for our modern eyes to start at the beginning and expect to understand the point quickly. But this is the modern tendency. It is not the rule of the ancient pen.
Instruction, in ancient writ, often placed the meat in the middle with embellishment on either side for emphasis. Like a sandwich. This literary device is called a chiasm, and it is often overlooked when interpreting Biblical text. Brad McCoy writes that “a recognition of chiastic structure leads the interpreter properly to appreciate the pivotal function and the emphatic importance of that central thought unit. (page 10)”
So, when studying Ephesians 5:21-33, it is natural to begin at the beginning and to expect the point to follow the introduction. The main point then being, marriage, with the wife as its introductory focus. It would be easy to conclude that since the wife was introduced first, her role is most important. The correlating and back up point follows: the husband’s role as head. Because Christ’s relationship with the church is buried in the middle, it is easy to assume that these truths prop Paul’s instruction for marriage described at the beginning and conclusion, with the focus being on the importance of each spouse’s specific roles.
But lets view this passage instead as a chiasm. We must search to the middle to find the point, and use the repeated and reversed (parallel) beginning and end as supporting explanations. Interpreting the verses from the pivotal message at its center subtly shifts the emphasis to the union of the church and its Savior through the metaphor of the body and its head.
What’s the meat, then?
Digested as a chiastic sandwich, Ephesians 5:21-33 is about the body becoming entitled to eternal life by the unity with the head, which is Christ. The husband then, as head like Christ, should invest likewise in his own body – his wife. Love was the motivation behind Christ’s sacrifice, and the husband is pointed to an identical action. There would be no body unless it agreed to join with the head so that it could obtain the head’s inheritance and rights, mainly eternal life. Likewise, the wife submits to the union with her head as the vehicle by which the head’s inheritance and rights become her own. The goal of marriage then, is to mimic the relationship of the head and body of Christ and the church, primarily through the action of the head/husband. John Paul Heil ties the chiasm in this chapter to the broader chiastic structure displayed in the entire book of Ephesians which propels the theme of Christ empowering the church to glorify God. It is “the self-sacrificial love of Christ himself that empowers the “church” to be “glorious,” thus further developing Paul’s doxology that to God be “glory” in the “church…(3:21).” Ephesians : Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ (p. 247) This “serves as the motive and model not only for believers to love one another (5:1-2), but also for husbands to love their wives (5:25).” (p. 248)
Starting with the meat in the middle reveals a slight emphasis change to the head’s empowering of the body by loving union. This understanding melds perfectly with the ancient laws surrounding gender and marriage. Paul was instructing husbands to treat their wives the same as they were treated in Roman culture- with the full inheritance and rights of paterfamilias. Christian wives, as part of the body of Christ, have the full privelegdges as the head (Christ), why should she not be treated as her male Christian counterparts?
More reading on the chiastic structure of Ephesians 5:21-33
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 by Marg Mowczko