I have made the case that the controlling metaphor for the husband and wife relationship in the Ephesians’ household code is the metaphor of head and body as visually identifiable parts of an organically indivisible unit. It is a masterful play on the idea that “the two become one flesh.” As we examine these passages, we see complementary ideas about husband and wife that must be matched correctly. The metaphor is frequently said to teach that the husband’s role is to “be the head” and the wife’s role is “to submit.” As Sarah Sumner (162) has pointed out, the matching pairs are as follows:
Husband and Wife
Head and Body
Sacrifice and Submit
Love and Respect
Head relates to body. Sacrifice relates to submit. Still, within the metaphor the husband is characterized as the “head” and the wife as the “body.” What is Paul conveying by this? Let us take a look at the instruction to wives first.
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.
The first line prior to the chiasmus says wives are to be subject to their husbands as they are to the Lord. We know that husbands are not like Christ in many ways but in some regard, they apparently are according to verses 23-24. How?
As we saw earlier in this letter (1:18-23), and in Colossians (1:15-20), Christ is higher and prior in status to all else that exists. He is behind all that exists and sustains it. But specifically, where Christ outshines all others is in sacrificial love. At the center of the chiasmus is “…the body of which he is the Savior.” It does not say “… the body of which he is the ruler.”
Christ had supreme power. He surrendered that power, even to the point of death, in order that he might do what was best for the church. Clearly, the husband is not his wife’s savior. However, in the Greco-Roman household, as with Christ over creation, the husband is the one with supreme power. The metaphor casts the husband as the one who is preeminent in surrendering power (he is the one who has power to surrender), even to the point death, that he might do what is best for his wife. This quality makes Christ and the husband preeminent in their relationship to their bodies. In the kingdom of God, the highest status goes to the one who puts himself last. That paradoxically makes them the head. It is this demonstration of sacrificial love that compels us to place the one who sacrificed for us ahead of ourselves. In other words, you end up being “subject to one another” as in verse 21. I believe this is the theological justification for wives to submit to their husbands.
There is another very pragmatic reason for this instruction. Roman authorities are already suspicious of this bizarre Jesus movement were people of different status, ethnicity, and condition of servitude, meet together for worship and call each other brother and sister. They worship some crucified nobody from the backwaters of Judea yet refuse to worship Roman gods along with their own god. The husband was the head of the household in that he was the member that represented the household to the world. The wife behaving in ways that were dishonorable to the husband would bring reproach not only to the wife but also to the husband and the entire household. It would fuel the suspicion of detractors and hamper the witness of the church. Therefore, a wife being subject to her husband was missional in that it rejected the status obsession of the Romans while avoiding giving needless offense to the culture.
The power of the metaphor is this: In submitting to her husband, she is submitting to herself as well. Remember that “the two have become one.” The head and body are fused as one and of course she wants the head of the fused body to receive honor. It is her head! The idea of a human body that purposely does things to make its head dishonorable is ludicrous at several levels.
So in case husbands did not get the sacrifice concept, Paul makes it unmistakably clear:
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.
Husbands love your wives to the point of death. This is the minimum standard. This is the polar extreme of “husbands rule your wives for the sake of preserving the social order.” Then Paul presents a chiasmus for husbands:
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.
At the center of chiasmus is the absurd notion of a human being with a head who conceives of itself as separate from its body for whom it holds nothing but contempt. It is not organically possible, particularly when you keep in mind that according to Greek physiology the head does not control reason and action. You might as well say your foot has developed its own will and hates the rest of the body.
Instead, in the second and fourth line we have a husband who loves his wife by nourishing and tenderly caring for her. I am convinced that what we have here is another instance of “head” as life-giving source. Line five likens it to the idea of Christ as head of the church “…from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love” (4:16) and “…from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” (Colossians 2:19)
The paterfamilias has the power to put himself first or his wife first. She is dependent on him for food, shelter, legal protection, and status within the culture. He represents her to the world. But once again the metaphor transforms the equation. “The two have become one.” “He loves his wife as he loves himself,” because she is himself! The idea of body parts at odds with each other is silly.
Now let us revisit the closing:
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.
Here Paul states his explicit intention. He has written of Christ as head and church as body elsewhere, including earlier in this letter. We have seen in both Ephesians and Colossians how connecting the body to Christ alters the body’s status and animates the body. In Genesis 2, we have Adam and Eve “becoming one” body. Paul declares that he is intentionally mixing his metaphors. He is innovatively applying the “head and body” metaphor to husband and wife. He is innovatively applying the “two become one” metaphor to Christ and the church (possibly informed by his composition of 1 Corinthians 6:15-19 I wrote about yesterday?). Each informs the other.
Paul concludes his instructions to husbands and wives with this summary:
33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Now we see Paul’s answer to the problem of how to work out the fictive family status-neutral relationship of siblings in Christ in the context of the husband wife relationship. Mutual submission captured in the metaphor of being an organic unit. The husband with power submits to his wife and makes sacrifice his mission, while the wife who was previously without status and now has it, places her status in service of her husband and the Kingdom of God.
In one sense, the surface behavior of the wife may not look very different. However, she is empowered. No longer does she submit as one of inferior rank, forced to obey. Now she chooses to submit as a full missional partner in the Kingdom of God. I think we can imagine what changes in attitude would accompany her actions.
It is the husband for whom we might expect to see some observable difference and he is the one who must actually part with something for this new perspective to work. He no longer gets to play the status card to get his way. But imagine what other men in this culture would think when they observed the loving respectful attitude this man’s wife showed him as he lived out sacrificial love toward her. And imagine what other women would think when they observed the love and care extended to this woman by her husband. This is missional stuff!
What we do not have here is a command to husbands to be the “head” (read “ruler” or “authority over”) their wives. We do not have a teaching on maintaining a divinely ordained family hierarchy. We have an injunction of mutual submission and then a metaphorical teaching on how that looks in a first century Greco-Roman household.
What we also do not have here is a teaching of egalitarian family decision-making. There is still a patriarch and there is a wife. But neither do we have a teaching of a divinely ordered patriarchy. That the “two become one” in marriage is a culturally transcendent reality. Paul is applying it to the Greco-Roman context of patriarchy. I’m not sure if Paul had a specific vision in mind of exactly how his teaching could change patriarchy into something else but I am thoroughly convinced he had a vision that patriarchy would radically change.