The opening portion of the household code in Ephesians deals with husbands and wives (5:21-33). It contains rich and compelling imagery that teaches unity between husband and wife in keeping with the theme of the rest of Ephesians
Remember that in Greco-Roman households the paterfamilias ruled over his wife. The marriage arrangement was primarily a contractual agreement to produce offspring that would advance the paterfamilias’ lineage. The wife saw her primary allegiance lying with her family of birth, not her husband’s family. This is not to say that tender relationships did not develop between husband and wife but it was not the focal point of marriage. Greek philosophers instructed husbands to rule over their wives and households for the sake of the social order.
Notice how this household code begins. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Just as in 1 Peter and in Titus, we see a much different ethic presented than what we see in the Greco-Roman household codes. It is an ethic consistent with the fictive family metaphor of siblings in Christ where striving for status is replaced by other-centered love and affection. This sets the agenda for what follows.
I have presented verses 21-33 according to an outline that I have developed on my own. Some folks with greater knowledge of Greek than I have will need to scrutinize my presentation but I think it helps to highlight the argument Paul is making. I will discuss it at length below but before reading this familiar passage I want to draw our attention to one thing. Paul uses a “head” metaphor beginning in verse 23 but please notice that nowhere does Paul tell the husband to be the head of the wife. Whatever “head” means here it is not an activity that the husband does in relationship to his wife. The husband is the head of the wife. Paul is reporting on a reality not prescribing a role.
ORGANIC UNITY IN MUTAL SUBMISSION
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
HUSBAND AS HEAD 23 For the husband is the head of the wife
PREEMINENCE OF HEAD just as Christ is the head of the church,
HEAD/BODY UNITY the body of which he is the Savior.
HONOR TO HEAD 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ,
HUSBAND AS HEAD so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind -- yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.
WIFE AS BODY 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
LOVE BODY He who loves his wife loves himself.
HEAD/BODY UNITY 29 For no one ever hates his own body,
SUSTAIN BODY but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it,
WIFE AS BODY just as Christ does for the church [his wife/bride], 30 because we are members of his body.
ORGANIC UNITY IN MUTUAL SUBMISSION
31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
I have written about three different ways of perceiving a physical head as it relates to metaphors:
Function – According to the Greeks, the anatomical function of the head was to provide life-giving sustenance and nurture to the rest of the body. It is the origination point from which the rest of the body springs up.
Representation – The head is the most visible and physically distinguishing part of the body. The face and head are the primary means by which we identify a whole person. The head represents the whole body to the world.
Elevation – The head is at the top, the highest point, of the body. In Greek, high elevation signifies prominence, preeminence, and importance.
What we have here is something quite unique according to Gordon Fee. Nowhere in Greco-Roman literature do we have a person described as the “head” and another individual as the “body.” This metaphor is an innovation by Paul. Some of the elements of function, representation, and elevation are at work here but the primary thrust of the metaphor is this: Two visibly different entities melded into an organic and inseparable whole. Technically, this is not so much a “head” metaphor is it is a “holistic organism” metaphor symbolizing unity.
The key to unlocking this passage is in verse 31, which is a quotation for Genesis 2:24. The “two becoming one flesh” was an expression of a spiritual and physical reality. The terminology clearly refers to a spiritual and emotional oneness, but the Hebrew mind did not have the Greek duality of spiritual and physical. The physical manifestation of the two becoming one was sexual intercourse; the male and female sex organs merging in complementary ways that correspond to what happens mystically. Because of the minimization of the significance of sexual behavior in a relationship in contemporary life I think we need to examine what Paul writes about this topic in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Here is Kenneth Bailey's presentation of this passage (See Women in the New Testament, Lecture 6:
12 “All things are lawful for me.”
But all things are not helpful.
“All things are lawful for me.”
But I will not be enslaved by anything.
13 Food is meant for the stomach
and the stomach for food
and God will destroy one
and the other.
The Body is not for prostitution but for the Lord
and Lord for the Body
14 and God raised the Lord
and will raise us up by His power.
Paul is apparently quoting rationalizations he has had the Corinthians are giving for eating food sacrificed to idols and for having sexual relations with temple prostitutes. Paul observes in 13a that food is of no consequence because both the food and the stomach that consumes it pass away. But the body is different according to 13b-14. The body will be raised on the last day. It is of eternal significance. Then in verses 15-19, Bailey offers this seven stanza chiasmus:
A 15 Do you not know
that our bodies
are members of Christ?
B So taking the members of Christ
shall I make them members of a prostitute?
May it never be!!!
C 16 Do you not know that the on joining a prostitute
Becomes one body with her?
D For it is written.
“The two shall become one.”
C’ 17 But the one joining to the Lord
becomes one Spirit with him.
B’ 18 Flee from prostitution!!!
Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body
But the immoral man sins against his own body.
A’ 19 Do you not know
that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?
which you have from God
In D we find the focal point, “The two become one.” In C and C’ we see that having sexual intercourse with a (female) prostitute unites the man to the prostitute in ways that will not allow for some Gnostic split between physical debauchery and spiritual purity. By joining complementary anatomy, the two become one in more ways than one. In A, B, B’, and A’, we see that we are members or appendages of the body of Christ and in joining our bodies to prostitutes we physically and mystically unite Christ to prostitutes. Then Paul writes:
You are not your own
20 You were brought with a price
So glorify God in your body.
“Two becoming one” is not simply any two individuals having emotional fondness and erotic connection. From the ancient Jewish perspective, physical union between two sexually complementary beings (a man and woman) is the material manifestation of a far deeper mystical reality.
Paul is making the combination of "head and a body” parallel to the “two becoming one.” There are two visually distinguishable entities united into an inseparable whole where the nature of the functioning is so thoroughly melded you cannot isolate distinct functioning.
So now let us consider how this metaphor plays out with respect to the instructions to husbands and wives.