What Does It Mean that Women Are to Submit to Their Husbands? (Ephesians 5)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

22Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
—Ephesians 5:22–33

Authority and God’s Design

In each of the three sections of Paul’s household code (Eph. 5:22–33; 6:1–4; 6:5–9), he first addresses those who are under authority (wives, children, and slaves) before addressing those in positions of authority (husbands, parents, and masters). Wives are commanded to submit to their husbands. The words “your own” (idios) indicate that Paul is addressing “wives” and not “women” generally.

They also indicate that a wife is not expected to submit to everyone’s husband, but specifically her own husband. The use of the middle voice of the verb (carried over from Eph. 5:21) emphasizes the voluntary nature of the submission. In other words, Paul says that a wife is to submit willingly to her husband but nowhere does he say that husbands are to demand submission from their wives, because they should not need to do so. Next, Paul offers a comparison (“as to the Lord”), which provides motivation for women’s submission to their husbands. When a woman voluntarily submits to her husband, she is simultaneously submitting to the Lord.

Paul then offers a reason why wives should submit to their husbands. He says, “For the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph. 5:23). A wife should submit to her husband because God has placed the husband in a role of authority over his wife. “Head” here clearly represents “authority over” and not “source” (Eph. 1:22; 4:15). Notice that Paul does not base his argument on culture or societal norms. Instead, he bases it on the God-appointed leadership role given to the husband (1 Cor. 11:3–12; 1 Tim. 2:11–13). Submission does not imply an inherent inferiority. Christ is equal in status to the Father but willingly submits himself to his Father’s will (1 Cor. 15:28). In the same way, women are equal in value and worth to men, since both are created in God’s image. But, based on God’s design, men and women assume different roles in the marriage relationship. Again Paul draws a comparison: “as Christ is the head of the church.” Christ is the head of the church in a way analogous to the husband’s being the head of his wife. Paul further clarifies that the church is Christ’s “body,” an image used earlier in Ephesians (Eph. 1:23; 2:16; 4:4, 12, 16). Christ relates to the church as “its Savior,” as he redeemed her for himself.

ESV Expository Commentary

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Ephesians 5:24 restates the previous admonition by reversing the order: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Just as the church voluntarily submits to Christ, so also wives should freely and willingly submit to their husbands. The prepositional phrase “in everything” should not be taken absolutely, since a wife should not submit to her husband in matters that are sinful, harmful, or contrary to God’s commands (Acts 5:29). And yet these words are not conditioned on the husband’s love for his wife. Although there may be exceptions, the focus of the passage is on the importance of the wife’s willing submission to the leadership of her husband (even if her husband is an unbeliever).

Self-Sacrificial Love

After commanding wives to submit to their husbands, Paul turns his attention to the husbands by commanding them to love their wives. Based on other ancient texts, it is somewhat unexpected that Paul urges husbands to love their wives instead of urging them to rule over or domineer their wives. In extrabiblical Jewish literature, husbands were rarely exhorted to love their wives, and the verb “love” (agapaō) was never used in Greco-Roman household codes in relation to the duties of husbands. Here the command is to follow Christ in the way of love. The fact that this exhortation is repeated signifies its importance (Eph. 5:28, 33; cf. Col. 3:19)

The manner in which husbands should love their wives is compared to the way “Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25). Christ’s love for his bride (the church) becomes the standard by which a husband should love his bride. Specifically, Christ’s love is most clearly demonstrated in how he “gave himself up for her.” His love was self-initiated and self-sacrificial. The parallel, however, should not be pressed. A husband should be like Christ with his self-sacrificing love, but he does not die in her place, nor does he sanctify or cleanse her. He should, however, be willing to sacrifice everything to protect and care for his wife.

Just as Christ nourishes and cares for the church, so a husband naturally should nourish and care for his wife.

Ephesians 5:26–27 introduce three purpose clauses identifying the goal of Christ’s self-sacrificial love for the church. First, Christ gave himself up for the church “that he might sanctify her” (Eph. 5:26). “Sanctify” (hagiazō) means to make holy or set apart, and the concept is derived from the OT practice of setting something or someone apart to God (Lev. 8:11–12; 11:44; 16:16–19). How is it that Christ sanctifies his bride? He “cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” That is, the church is sanctified and purified by the cleansing power of the gospel. Most commentators have taken the reference to “the washing of water” as referring to baptism, the most poignant Scriptural form of cleansing, in which Christ cleanses for himself a people (1 Cor. 6:11; Titus 3:5). The language here may further be drawn from the imagery of the bridal bath found in Ezekiel 16:8–14. Specifically, Paul writes that the church is cleansed by the “word” (rhēma), which most likely refers to the gospel (Eph. 6:17; Rom. 10:8, 17; Heb. 6:5; 1 Pet. 1:25).

Second, Christ sanctifies the church “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:27). The idea of presenting most likely alludes to the Jewish custom of presenting the bride, which here is applied to Christ’s presentation of the church at his second coming (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2, where Paul presents the church as a pure virgin to Christ). At the end of time, when Christ presents the church in her splendor, she will be “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). The lack of “spot” or “wrinkle” speaks of the outward perfection and beauty of a young bride who has no physical defect. These terms here, however, are used spiritually to represent the church’s moral purity and excellence. The final purpose clause amplifies the previous negative statement and clarifies that Christ will present the church without any flaws so “that she might be holy and without blemish.” Earlier Paul had reminded his readers that God chose them before the foundation of the world so that they might be “holy and blameless” (Eph. 1:4).

Love How God Intended

For a second time Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives. The introductory phrase “in the same way” (Eph. 5:28) links the statement to the previous verses (Eph. 5:25–27): just “as Christ loved the church . . . in the same way husbands should love their wives.” The repetition of the verb “love” signifies its importance in this passage (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33).

Paul adds a second comparison, stating that husbands are to love their wives “as their own bodies.” Some view this statement as unexpected (since the text transitions from Christ’s love to self-love) or too demeaning (since it subjects the wife to her husband’s selfishness). Paul, however, provides a practical and concrete example of love in the marriage relationship. Just as it is natural for a man to love, nurture, and protect himself, in the same way he should love, nurture, and protect his wife. Further, the ultimate example of one loving his own body has just been demonstrated in Christ, who loved his own body (the church) to the point of death (Eph. 5:25).

The final phrase in Ephesians 5:28 (“He who loves his wife loves himself”) introduces a parenthetical explanation of the preceding clause (“as their own bodies”). It demonstrates that Paul’s point is not merely to discuss a man’s love for his own body but to signify how natural it should be for a husband to love his wife. It is possible that Paul is applying the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Since the wife can be regarded as a husband’s closest “neighbor,” this text would apply especially to the marriage relationship. In addition, because the husband and wife become “one flesh” (Eph. 5:31), when the husband loves his wife, he is also loving himself.

So as not to be misunderstood, Paul further clarifies his previous comments concerning a husband’s self-love. He writes, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Eph. 5:29). Although Paul sometimes uses the word “flesh” (sarx) with a negative connotation, here it simply refers to one’s physical body. Additionally, the words “flesh” and “body” (sōma) are used interchangeably in this context (cf. 1 Cor. 6:16), and the use of “flesh” here anticipates the quotation of Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5:31.

Although there may be exceptions, it is generally true that people do not hate themselves. Rather, the average person naturally takes care of himself, which is evidenced by the fact that he “nourishes” (feeds) and “cherishes” (looks after) his own body. So, a husband ought to be attentive to the needs of his wife. Paul again uses the Christ-church relationship to make a comparison (“just as Christ does the church”). Just as Christ nourishes and cares for the church, so a husband naturally should nourish and care for his wife. Paul next offers a reason for why Christ lovingly nurtures and tenderly cares for his people: “because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:30). In a similar manner, husbands should care for their wives as their own bodies. Thus, the union of believers with Christ is analogous to the one-flesh union of husband and wife.

In Ephesians 5:31 Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, which is “the most fundamental statement in the OT concerning God’s plan for marriage.”1What makes this citation difficult to interpret is not the content but how it connects to what Paul has just said. If it is related to a husband’s relationship with his wife, Paul is saying, “A husband should love his wife because they are one flesh, just as God intended from the beginning.” However, the most immediate context (Eph. 5:30, “because we are members of his body”) refers to Christ and the church, not the husband/wife relationship. The purpose of the citation centers on the last phrase of the quotation (“the two shall become one flesh”). Although the quotation is applicable to both the relationship between Christ and the church and the relationship between a husband and his wife, the former relationship is Paul’s main focus; in Ephesians 5:32 he explicitly states that he intends the quotation to refer to Christ and the church.

That Paul is not merely speaking of the husband/wife relationship becomes evident in Ephesians 5:32: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Paul calls the Christ-church relationship a “mystery,” which in Paul’s usage refers to the plan of God once hidden but now revealed in Jesus (Eph. 1:9; 3:3–4, 9; 6:19; Rom. 16:25). Second, Paul calls this mystery “profound” or great (megas), stressing the magnitude or significance of the mystery. Third, Paul specifically identifies the mystery as referring to “Christ and the church.” Just as the first Adam was joined to his wife and they became one flesh, so also the last Adam is joined to his bride so that they become one with him. Note that Paul’s argument cites Christ’s relationship with the church as the template after which human marital relationships are patterned, not vice-versa. The mystery is not merely the Christ-church relationship but is more specifically the “interplay of human marriage and the divine marriage between Christ and his people. . . . A Christian marriage . . . reproduces in miniature the beauty shared between the Bridegroom and the Bride.”2 God created human marriage so that his people would have a category for understanding the relationship between Christ and his church.

Love without Exception

Paul now returns to his original topic of the husband/wife relationship (signaled by “however”) and offers a concluding summary. This time, however, he addresses the husbands first (“let each one of you love his wife as himself”), making his appeal emphatically personal (“each one”). Such a strong focus on the individual stresses that Paul expects every husband (and wife) to embrace these divine standards personally. In essence, Paul is declaring that no one is exempt from diligently fulfilling these commands. The charge for the husband to love his wife as himself is similar to Paul’s earlier exhortations (Eph. 5:25, 28). The charge to the wife, however, is slightly different. Whereas earlier wives were exhorted to submit to their husbands, here they are exhorted to respect them (“and let the wife see that she respects her husband”). The verb translated “respect” ( phobeomai ) is often translated “fear” in the NT. The idea in this context is not terror but reverential respect based on the husband’s God-given position of authority. Also note that there are no conditions placed on these commands. The husband is to love his wife regardless of whether she willingly submits to his leadership. Similarly, the wife is to submit to and respect her husband whether or not he loves her as Christ loved the church.

Notes:
1. Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos, 1999), 429.
2. Ibid., 433–434.

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.



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