In Ephesians 5:22-33 Paul makes several statements about the relationship between husbands and wives, and he presents the relationship between Jesus and his Church as a model or example. Some think that Jesus’ authority is given here as an example for husbands to follow, but Jesus’ authority is not mentioned in this passage. Rather, unity is the example, and Paul uses a head-body metaphor to illustrate this.
Metaphorically, Jesus is the “head” united to the Church, which is his “body” (Eph. 5:23, 30). Unity was made possible, and is maintained, because Jesus loves the Church and gave himself up for her. The Church sustains this union by being fully cooperative and faithful to Jesus.
In marriage, the husband (the metaphorical “head”) and the wife (the metaphorical “body”) are united. To foster this unity, Paul urges husbands “to love their wives as their own bodies.” And he adds, “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the Church” (Eph. 5:28-29).
Paul continues with the theme of unity by quoting Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). (Again, note that leadership and authority are not simply not mentioned in this passage.)
Paul was not teaching husbands to be the leaders, and wives to be the followers. Instead, he urged husbands to love and nurture their wives, and he urged wives to be deferential, cooperative and loyal (i.e. submissive), as well as respectful, to their husbands.
In Ephesians 5:22-33 husbands and wives are singled out and given instructions concerning certain attitudes and behaviours, but this doesn’t mean that wives are exempt from being loving and nurturing towards their husbands, or that husbands are exempt from being submissive and respectful towards their wives, especially as Ephesians 5:22-33 is prefaced by a call to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), and chapter 5 opens with a call to love sacrificially (Eph. 5:1-2).
These instructions for mutual submission and sacrificial love in Ephesians 5:1-2 and 21 are given to all Christians: submission isn’t just for wives, sacrificial love isn’t just for husbands.
Genuine and reciprocal love and loyalty were absent in many marriages in the first century Greco-Roman world. It is in this context that Paul wrote Ephesians 5:22-33 and pressed for unity in Christian marriage, with the union of Jesus and the Church as the model.
For more on this passage, see the related articles below.
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
Equality and Unity in Ministry – 1 Corinthians 12
Paul and Women, in a Nutshell
1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in a Nutshell
The Status of Christian Women, in a Nutshell