Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33

Or, The Chiastic Structure of Ephesians 5:22-33

Paul's Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33

Ephesians 5:21-33 is a passage that is often considered crucial in understanding the obligations of husbands and wives in Christian marriages. When we study and speak about this passage, phrases are usually dissected and closely examined, and certain words and phrases are highlighted – especially those that relate to the wife’s obligation. However, I have rarely heard a minister speak at length about the primary message that Paul presents in this passage. What is Paul’s main point here?

When we step back and read the whole passage in English there seems to be an overall lack of cohesion in Paul’s writing. Paul seems to be alternating between different subjects. Paul mentions wives, then husbands, then Jesus and the Church, then husbands, and then wives again. This chopping and changing makes confusing reading for most readers who are used to English literary styles. But it would not have been confusing for people in Bible times.

Paul used a common literary device found in literature of Bible times and found in the Scriptures. He used a chiasm to draw people’s attention to his main point. A chiasm is a way of arranging thoughts in sentences to form na X-shaped pattern.[1] The thoughts are stated sequentially in one direction until a main point or climax is reached; then the thoughts are repeated in reverse order. In a chiasm, the main point is often at the centre of a passage. Ephesians 5:22-33 is in fact beautifully structured with a vital main point at the centre.

By understanding the chiastic structure of Ephesians 5:22-33 we can see that Paul makes, not one, but two (or more) corresponding statements about wives, husbands, and Jesus and the church; and he repeats key thoughts such as sanctification, love, and the head-body metaphor, etc. It is important to consider each statement along with its corresponding statement to gain a fuller understanding of Paul’s teaching in this passage.

Here is Ephesians 5:22-33 arranged to show the chiastic structure. I’ve underlined key words that are repeated in the corresponding statement.

A Wives, [submitting] to your own husbands as to the Lord [2]

B For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church

C He himself is the Saviour of the body

D But as the church is subject to Christ, also the wives to their husbands in everything

E Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for her

F That He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word

X That he might present to himself the church in all her glory

F1 Having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she would be holy and blameless

E1 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself.

D1 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also the church.

C1 Because we are members of his body.

B1 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

BX This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and with reference to the church.

B2 Nevertheless, let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself

A1 And the wife is to respect her husband.

When we recognise the structure of this passage we can more clearly see Paul’s message. Paul’s main message here is not just about marriage; it is about Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:27, 32). The point he is highlighting is that Jesus wants to sanctify the Church and present to himself the Church in all her glory. This glorious message is lost when we persistently focus on the obligations of wives and husbands and try to interpret this passage only through the lens of pre-supposed gender roles.

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Ephesians 5:25b-27

This is the main point that Paul wanted to communicate. Paul makes this clearer by adding: I am speaking with reference to Christ and with reference to the Church (BX). This is the message we should be highlighting more.

Here is an example of what happens when we miss Paul’s real intent in this passage:

This man has taken Ephesians 5:22-35 to be primarily about marriage and has ignored or misunderstood Paul’s main point. [My brief critique of his message is in endnote 3.] Nevertheless, there is important advice for husbands and wives in this passage; and by reading Ephesians 22-23 as chiasm we gain more understanding about Paul’s instructions and what he meant by the wife being submissive and the husband being the “head”.[4] [More in this here.]

Paul links submission with respect in the ‘A’ sentences (Eph 5:22, 33b). So it seems that submission and respect are somehow related. It is important to note that the word for “submit” does not appear in the older, better manuscripts containing Ephesians 5:22, it is merely inferred from the preceding verse where Paul’s calls for mutual submission among all believers, that is, among Christian brothers and sisters.[5] The entire passage of Ephesians 5:22-33 is introduced by a call to mutual submission: “Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

In the ‘B’ statements, Paul links “the husband is the head of the wife” with a verse that goes back to Genesis 2: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:23, 31, cf 33a)Many people read the word “head” and interpret it metaphorically as “leader” or “authority”. Yet “head” rarely had the metaphorical meaning of authority in Ancient Greek. Paul’s real implication of using the head and body metaphor is of unity. Paul writes about the unity between Jesus Christ and the Church, and uses this example to encourage husbands to love their wives as they love themselves.

There is no mention of authority or leadership in this passage, either from Jesus or from husbands.[6] Yes, Jesus is the Lord, leader, and ultimate authority of the church, but this is not mentioned in this passage. Likewise, patriarchy, male leadership, or a gender hierarchy is not being taught or condoned in Ephesians 5:22-33.

I cannot see any implication of a gender hierarchy in the following statements, only unity, equality, affinity and love:

  •  … husbands ought even to love their own wives as their own bodies …
  • … the two shall become one flesh …
  • … each individual among you [should] also love his own wife even as himself.

Because many Christians have missed Paul’s main point, they believe that Paul used marriage to illustrate the close relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church.  Actually, it is the other way round: The unity between Jesus Christ and his Church is a profound model for marriage. As followers of Jesus, both husbands and wives should be building unity, nurture, love, and respect in their marriages.

However, we must never lose sight of Paul’s main point here: One day Jesus is going to present to himself a sanctified and spotless Church. This is the glorious hope of every Christian man and woman.  (See 2 Cor. 4:14; Col. 1:22)

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.  Jude 1:24-25 


[1] Chi (from chiasm) is the Greek letter that looks like an X.

[2] The Greek word for “submit” does not occur in Ephesians 5:22 (the verse addressed to wives) in the better, older Greek manuscripts. The word occurs in Ephesians 5:21 where it is used in the context of mutual submission: “submit to each other”. The theme of mutual submission between believers carries on from verse 21 into verse 22.

[3] Stephen Um says it is the husband’s role to sanctify his bride and make her presentable before Christ. If this is correct (and it’s not) that means that unmarried women are less sanctified than married women. There is a kind of sanctification that comes by being married to a Christian, but this sanctification has nothing to do with gender (1 Cor. 7:14).

The Bible teaches that Jesus is the Saviour and Sanctifier of men and women, and he presents the Church to himself. This is the main point of Ephesians 5:22-33. Yet Stephen Um has misappropriated the salvation and sanctification that Jesus brings and ascribed it to husbands.

Also, Stephen always links the word “spiritual” with the word “head,” even though the term “spiritual head” is absent in Ephesians 5. “Spiritual head” is an assumption he has read into the text. And to say that “head” has the metaphorical meaning of “leader”, as it does in English but only rarely in Koine Greek, is simplistic and inaccurate.

Furthermore, the idea that the husband is the final arbiter in difficult decisions has no biblical basis whatsoever. The only biblical precedent I can find for decision-making in marriage is in 1 Corinthians 7:5 where it speaks about husbands and wives making a mutual decision. There are some other flaws in Stephen’s message, but what is worrying is that he begins by foolishly saying, “The Bible is very, very clear . . .” implying that what he is about to say is biblical and that his interpretation is the obvious and correct one. I disagree with his interpretation.

[4] Paul is not speaking about men and women in general but about husbands and wives.

[5] In older Greek manuscripts the masculine present middle participle hupotassomenoi (of the verb hupotassō) occurs in Ephesians 5:21, but no participle or verb of hupotassō occurs in verse 22. The continuing theme of submission is implied but not stated verse 22. It is not uncommon in Greek grammar for an unstated verb, etc, to be understood from preceding verses. (See also my article here on a similar idea.)

Here is Ephesians 5:21-22 in the SBL Greek New Testament with my literal translation:

21 ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ.
Submitting to one another in reverence of Christ.

22 Αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ,
The wives to their own husbands as to the Lord,

The SBL Greek edition (based on many ancient Greek manuscripts) can be found here.

Note, however, that in this version, the 1550 Stephanus text (based on a few much less ancient manuscripts), a participle of hupotassōhupotassesthe, has been inserted in the text to help with comprehension. (Hupotassesthōsan is found in verse 22 of some texts such as the Codex Sinaiticus.) One of the oldest papyri that we have of these verses is Papyri 46 and it does not have a participle (or verb, etc) for hupotassō in verse 22.

[6] It is important to note that only Jesus is mentioned in the verses about sanctification in Ephesians 5:22-33. A husband cannot “cleanse” his wife. A husband does not act as saviour or sanctifier. (More on this here.) A good husband acts as cherisher and nurturer.

Further Reading: I am indebted to Kristen Rosser for her three part series which points out that marriage is not an illustration or model of Christ and the church.  More on this here and here and here.

Related Articles

Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters 
Other articles about “Head” and Kephalē here.
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell 
The Responsibilities of Husbands in Ephesians 5
Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 5:33)?
A Suitable Helper
Submission in Marriage
Submission and Respect from Wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6
Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8
Articles on Mutual Submission

Posted April 30th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Christology, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, The "Difficult" Passages, , , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

39 comments on “Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33

  1. Sarah says:

    Great post! I never even knew about a chiasm before. What are the other examples of a chiasm in scripture that you know of?

  2. Marg says:

    There are numerous chiasms in Scripture. Some are only a couple of verses long. Some people think entire books of the Old Testament (such as Leviticus) may be chiasms.

    My favourite chiasm is the creed (or hymn) of Philippians 2.

  3. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  4. Kristen says:

    Thanks so much for the endorsement, Marg! I love the way you’ve presented this!

  5. Marg says:

    My pleasure! And thanks. 🙂

  6. Becky says:

    Marg, I’ve read about chiasms, but you do such a great job of explaining it! Thank you for helping me understand something I’ve been trying to grasp for a long time. As usual, you make a lot of sense. 😀

  7. Marg says:

    Thanks Becky. I’m working on an article about the chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 at the moment.

  8. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  9. […] the NT talks about Christ being the head of the church and husbands being heads of their wives, it is referring to unity, not hierarchy. […]

  10. […] The word kephalē is also used in the Ephesians 5:23.  This time it is used in the context of husbands and wives.  But Ephesians 5:21-33 does not mention any kind of leadership from the husband, only sacrificial, nurturing love. […]

  11. Judy says:

    Hi Marg,
    what do you think it means when it says “wives should submit to their husbands in everything”. Do you have a study on the Greek word for “submit”? I couldn’t find it, sorry.

    Some conservatives would argue the woman would have to agree with everything the husband wanted, as she is required to “submit in everything” where as when it speaks to the church in general, it simply says “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

    What are your thoughts on this?
    Thanks 🙂

  12. Marg says:

    Hi Judy,

    On the three occasions that Paul writes directly to wives telling them to submit to their husbands he adds a phrase about the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m not exactly sure of the full significance, but I do believe that Paul adds these phrases to qualify a wife’s submission in some way. For instance, I do not believe that wives submitting “as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22) or “as the Church submits to Christ” (Eph 5:24) or “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col 3:18) means that wives are obligated to submit to a husband’s harmful, selfish, silly or sinful requests or behaviour.

    In Titus, Paul gives his reason for wifely submission as cultural: “so that no one will malign the Word of God (Titus 2:5 cf 1 Tim 6:1). In Greco-Roman society, which was patriarchal, unilateral wifely submission was the ideal. Paul didn’t want rebellious, Cretan wives making Christianity look bad. In our society equality is the cultural ideal, so Christians who emphasize one-sided submission from wives are causing the Word of God to be maligned: the very thing Paul wanted to avoid.

    In 1 Peter 3:1 Peter gives the reason for wifely submission as evangelistic: “so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.” So Peter’s instructions here were not written with Christian marriage in mind.

    As for the phrase “in every thing” in Ephesians 5:24: It is important to note that the Greek word for “every” and “all” is often used relatively in the New Testament. That is, it doesn’t always mean positively, absolutely “every” and “all”. I believe that Paul wanted wives to be submissive to their husbands in every area of their lives in a general sense, not just in some select areas, but there is no reason for women to ignore their own conscience, intellect, volition, needs or desires. The Bible commends several women who went against their husbands wishes and disobeyed authorities.

    I also do not believe that Christian submission necessarily implies that the person we are submitting to (deferring to) is the leader or boss (Eph 5:21). Mutual submission is the ideal. (Even in the mutual submission verse there is a qualifying phrase about Jesus Christ.)

    I think any wife, or husband, who is being considerate, humble, loyal, caring and deferential is being submissive. Too many churches exaggerate submission in an unhealthy way. More here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/submission-in-marriage/

  13. Judy says:

    Thanks Marg 🙂 It’s an interesting discussion as quite a few comps now would also clarify that it doesn’t include enabling sin and abuse.

    Can you direct me again to the article please about the Bible commending women going against a husbands wishes when say they were dangerous or immoral?


  14. Marg says:

    Abigail is the only Bible woman I know who went against her husband’s wishes because what he wanted was “dangerous”. Other Bible women disobeyed rulers. (The New Testament says we need to obey governing authorities but this is not emphasized nearly as much as wifely submission.)

    “Several holy women went against authority figures, disobeyed laws and disregarded the wishes of their own husbands. Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed Pharaoh’s command, and God blessed them for their disobedience (Exodus 1:15-21). Rebekah and Abigail went against their husband’s wishes. There is no hint of censure against Rebekah in the Bible (Genesis 27:1-28:2); and Abigail was commended for her wise and brave actions (1 Samuel 25). Queen Esther, in order to save the Jewish people, disobeyed a law and risked her life by coming into her husband’s presence without being summoned (Esther 4:11; 5:1).” From here http://newlife.id.au/bible-study-notes/1-peter-3_1-6/ And even though Sarah is put forward as an example of wifely submission she didn’t submit to Abraham’s wishes to keep Ishmael.

    More on Abigail here: http://newlife.id.au/christian-living/abigail-1-samuel-25/

    More on the double standards in pushing for wifely submission but not submission to governing authorities: http://newlife.id.au/christian-living/submission-double-standards/

  15. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 22-33 […]

  16. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  17. Marg says:

    Sure. In older Greek manuscripts the masculine present middle/passive participle hupotassomenoi (of the verb hupotassō) occurs in Ephesians 5:21, but no participle or verb of hupotassō occurs in verse 22. The continuing theme of submission is implied but not stated verse 22.

    It is not uncommon in Greek grammar for an unstated verb or verbal idea, etc, to be understood from preceding verses. (See also my article here on a similar idea.)

    Here is Ephesians 5:21-22 in the SBL Greek New Testament with my literal translation:

    21 ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ.
    Submitting to one another in reverence of Christ.

    22 Αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ,
    The wives to their own husbands as to the Lord,

    The SBL Greek edition (based on many ancient Greek papyri and manuscripts) can be found here.

    Note, however, that in this version, the 1550 Textus Receptus (based on a few much handled, and not very ancient, manuscripts) a participle of hupotassō, hupotassesthe, has been inserted in the text to help with comprehension. (Hupotassesthōsan is found in verse 22 of some texts such as the Codex Sinaiticus.)

    One of the oldest papyri that we have of these verses is Papyri 46 and it does not have a participle (or verb, etc) for hupotassō in verse 22.

    The critical apparatus (technical information at the bottom of the page) of many Greek New Testaments supply this information, but it can be a bit difficult to follow.

    There are a few variants for verse 22. However, whether stated or implied, mutual submission to one another and to one’s own husband is clearly the message in these two verses. Hupotassō, whether in verbal or participial form, means being submissive, cooperative, allied, loyal, etc, These are good qualities to have in marriage. More on this here.

    I hope this helps.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hi Marg, I have been wanting to linger longer at your site for a while, but never got around to it. I’m so glad I am now able to, and must say I am enjoying it.

    I have a question. Can you give me a reference or more information about Ephesians 5:22 and the missing verb? Some people are disputing it, and I want to be able to support the argument with references.


  19. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Marg. Is it OK if I quote you?

  20. Marg says:

    Yes, that’s fine. It was a good question of your’s and I have edited my article to include most of my answer as endnote 5 of the article.

  21. Don Johnson says:

    I am glad you pointed out Um’s mistakes. His teaching needs to be repudiated, it is simply not Christlike. I have learned to beware teachings that start with “The Bible is very clear…” as it is often an indication that it is not, but that the speaker thinks it is. His teaching is a mixture of truth and falsehood and we need to be discerning, thanks for your help in that.

    One minor point I have is that your article discusses a truncated pericope, where it is truncated both at the start and end, the pericope goes from Eph 5:15-6:9. Truncating pericopes is one of the ways to take Scripture out of its immediate context and thereby manipulating what God intends to be taught. When a comp like Um does this, I disagree with his premise that this is a good way to proceed, as it is not. It allows Um to not discuss relevant text in the pericope as God gave it to us that is crucial to a good understanding of what is going on in this section. I see the best response to bad teachings like Um’s to show in all relevant ways where he botches it.

  22. Marg says:

    Yes, that’s true Don. The passage begins earlier. And the participles in Ephesians 5:19ff, including hupootassomeoi in 5:21, are subordinate to the verb “be filled” in the Ephesians 5:18. (Not sure if subordinate is exactly the word I’m looking for.) “Be filled with the Spirit” is a key thought here. As are the instructions in Ephesians 5:15 and 17 which begins the passage.

    And the passage continues with instructions for other members of the household in Ephesians 6:1-9.

    Nevertheless, in amidst the instructions about how to live as people filled with the Spirit is some wonderful, important theology about Jesus Christ and his beloved church.

  23. […] The idea that the man is the leader or authority in marriage is based on a faulty and biased interpretation of Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3. […]

  24. William Bunton says:

    I love the way this was researched and written. God is a God of empowerment and order. No man is a real man if he has to cling to a single passage that has been often misconstrued. Both parties in a marriage should consider one another out of love not obligation.

  25. […] Ephesians 5:21-33 is about sacrificial love and mutual submission, and not about leadership.  There are many words for leaders and leadership in the Greek language.  These words are never used for husbands in the Greek NT. […]

  26. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  27. […] And I have an article on Paul’s main point in Ephesians 5:22-33 here. […]

  28. […] There is no place for a caste system or a fixed hierarchy in the body of Christ (2 Cor 5:16-17 NIV). There is no place for either favouritism or discrimination (James 2:1ff).[2] Jesus especially warns against notions of power, prestige, and primacy among his own followers. In Jesus’ kingdom the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, and the last are first. […]

  29. […] PAUL’S MAIN POINT IN EPHESIANS 5:22-23 […]

  30. Matthew Enns says:

    I have gained so much from these posts. I am a convinced egalitarian from other sources, and now this.
    May I offer an alternate composition of the tensions?
    In many of your articles you seem to emphasize the point of no male headship/female submission. I don’t think you need to do that in order to emphasize Christian mutuality. Here’s why.

    In the body, we are all 1 Cor 12:1-13 demonstrators of the Spirit. Whether greek or Jew, slave or free, (male or female) we are all demonstrating the Spirit of God. So, as regards our life in the body and the life of Christ among us, we are all able to demonstrate the life of Jesus in any context so that His fullness is on display.

    And that is my point. His fullness is also compatibly on display in marriage. Marriage is a picture of the fullness of Jesus. He is indeed a head with a body. A body whom he defers to, serves, loves, cares for, regards with total respect. His body yields to His leadership because of the greatness of His care for her. The human role of husband and wife can demonstrate this in their house. BUT when they are engaged in Church life, they are deferring together to the great Head, Jesus, and receiving His ministry and ministering it out to each other so that all may grow in all ways into Him who is the head, even Christ, through the working of each individual member (male and female) (Eph 4:15,16).

    So, in summary, I don’t think it is necessary to argue for marital equality to somehow defend Christian equality, as both are compatible and necessary for the full display of Christ. When I am a husband, I show off Jesus by how I serve and nurture my wife. When I am in Christian ministry, I defer to the Christ coming out of any person, male or female, greek or Jew.

    Thanks for the hard work! I have received so much from these, and this point has stuck out to me, and now I shared it.

  31. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33  (if you know what a chiasm is, you’ll particularly like this) […]

  32. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  33. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  34. Tim says:

    Hi – I’m probably way out of my depth here with you guys being experts at the Bible, but I believe one of the key things to note is, no matter how we interpret wives submitting to husbands, the husband must love his wife as Christ loves us (the church).

    How Jesus practically demonstrated love is often a chasm away from how some Christian husbands believe they should love their wives and this has always challenged me – “How did Jesus love the church? … and how should I love my wife based on His example?”

    Anyway, an inspiring article – many thanks!

    • Marg says:

      Great comment, Tim. Jesus can be a tough act to follow in some respects. Nevertheless, he is our example and our role model.

      The whole chapter begins with a call to love as Jesus loved: “. . . walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2 ESV). But just in case some of the men didn’t think it applied to their relationships with their wives, Paul highlights the giving of self, and sacrificial love, specifically from husbands to wives, later in the chapter.

      I read this today:
      “Paul teaches husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). Agape [love] is giving up one’s own desires for the best good of another. What a fine definition of submission! Respect and honor from the wife and true agape love from the husband are descriptions of the mutual submission expected of all Christians in relationships (compare verses 21 and 33).”
      Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace & Truth, 2004, 2009) (Kindle Locations 1741-1744).

  35. […] Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 […]

  36. Matt Slick says:

    Woefully insufficient. Women are not to be pastors and elders. This article seems like an attempt to justify the contrary.


    • Marg says:

      I’m genuinely mystified. This article is about marriage.

      Ephesians 5:22-33 has nothing whatsoever to do with pastors, elders, or church leadership, either male or female, and neither has this article.

      If you think this article is about church leadership, then you will indeed find it woefully insufficient.

      (Please read the article more carefully if you wish to comment again. This comment is very close to being off-topic.)

  37. […] Margaret Mowczko has written beautifully about this passage here. This is a passage about the unity between Jesus and the church, which is a great mystery. […]

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