Pursuing Partnership, Part 15A: What Does the Bible Say? The Disputed Passages-Eph 5

Pursuing Partnership Series: Men & Women In Leadership
Part 15A: What Does the Bible Say? The Disputed Passages, Eph 5

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor

A Second Look at Ephesians 5:21-33

In my last Pursuing Partnership post, I argued that it was fair, and even beneficial to take a second look at the passages traditionally used to support the prohibition of women in leadership in church and family settings. Over the next two months, we will look at a number of these passages, starting now with Ephesians 5:21-33. This is one of the passages commonly used to support “male headship” within the home. As with many other disputed passages, to the average reader, the English translation seems quite clear.

  • While everyone is called to submit to one another, wives are specifically told to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives.
  • Husbands are designated as the head of the wife, comparative to Christ’s headship over the church.
  • While the husband, as the head, must by definition lead, he should do so in a loving and sacrificial way since this was the way that Christ treated the church.
  • While it is complicated (even, a mystery), the marriage relationship is a picture of the Christ’s authority and care for the church.
  • Just in case there is any confusion about the message, a husband should be loving in his leadership, and the wife should be respectful in her submission.

It seems simple, but many people—both pastors and everyday Christians—don’t realize that there are significant exegetical and interpretive questions that orthodox, faithful biblical scholars have been discussing for decades. For the sake of those who are new to this longstanding debate, I will highlight a few of the major issues and then provide some further resources to explore.


The English word “head” can have a number of meanings. In my first search of an English dictionary, I found 38 different meanings just under the noun form of the word! Most commonly, it refers to the part of the body that sits on top of the shoulders and contains the brain. It also can refer to the chief or leader (as in, “the head of an organization”), to wisdom or intelligence (as in, “he’s got a good head on his shoulders”), or to the source of a river or stream. In most cases, we are left to determine the meaning of the word based on the context in which it is used.

The same is true when understanding the meaning of kephale, the Greek word that is translated “head” in Ephesians 5. During the New Testament period, it had several uses, but “leader” was not one of them, according to many Greek and New Testament scholars (including a growing number of complementarians). Instead, many scholars now believe that kephale indicates the head, as in the source of something. While this is an unusual idea for us, honoring one’s source was an important idea in Greek and Roman culture, and could indicate that the idea of unity, not authority, is the main issue in this passage. In fact, many scholars note that the unity of head and body fit with the analogy to one’s own body in verses 29-30 as well as the reference to Genesis 2:24. In this case, the idea would be less about the wife submitting to her husband because of a hierarchical authority, and more about a wife showing support or honor (see more about “submission” below) to her husband because they are unified.

While leadership and authority are commonly connected to “headship” in our culture, there are many biblically faithful scholars who would argue that unity—not authority—is the point of “head” in Ephesians 5. Others continue to see “head” as an indication of an authority structure.

Marriage, Christ, and the Church

Various scholars see different purposes in using marriage as a metaphor for Christ and the Church (explicitly stated in verses 31-32). Those who see a hierarchy of authority within marriage see this hierarchy confirmed by the comparison of the husband’s actions toward his wife and Christ’s actions toward the Church. Because Christ clearly has authority and leadership over the Church, the husband is called to exercise his leadership in the same loving way.

Other scholars see the connection not in authority, but in unity and oneness. Verse 23 describes the church as Christ’s body, followed by the affirmation that he is the body’s head, inseparable and necessary for life and function. Both the body and the head will want to serve and care for one another. Christ has loved the church because he is united to it, and husbands are commanded three times in this passage, not to lead, but to love their wives. Oneness is indeed a profound mystery!

These two issues provide just a small glimpse at the conversations that are happening around this oft-cited passage about husbands and wives. By reading scholars in their own words, readers can begin to appreciate the level of scholarship, the commitment to Scripture, and the many nuances brought by both sides of the debate. Take a few moments to assess your own background and assumptions, dive in, and read some scholars who have new-to-you viewpoints. Pray that God will honor your work and commitment to his Word, and that he will lead his church into a fuller understanding of his gospel.

There is another aspect of this passage that causes division among complementarian and egalitarian scholars: the apparent command for wives to submit. We’ll look at this term in next week’s post when  I’ll also give you a number of resources to follow up in your own further study on this Ephesians 5 passage.

For Discussion:  How do you understand these terms and why?  How have you understood their application in your own life?