An Ethical Prescription View of Ephesians 5:22-33

When it comes to gender roles in marriage, no passage is more central to the conversation than Ephesians 5:22-33, except perhaps Genesis 1-3. It’s a fascinating and nuanced conversation. When my now-wife and I were discerning marriage, we spent a lot of time reflecting on what marriage is Biblically and how our relationship ought to be. I was surprised by some of what we found, some related to Ephesians 5 and some not. I’d like to share some of those thoughts for this post.

When people look at Ephesians 5, many will be drawn to the debate about if there are hierarchical gender roles in marriage. This is unfortunate, because the text really is a beautiful masterpiece that should be deeply reflected on beyond that single question. That said, being drawn into that is exactly what I’m going to do today.

If you plan on getting married, it’s key you’re both on the same page about the alleged hierarchical gender roles. This is not hierarchical roles in the sense of value, nor a difference in role based off of biological necessity, nor roles freely entered, whether for personal or contextual reasons. Rather, I mean inherent, gender-based roles that are hierarchical in the sense of leadership; or, in other words, power. It’s important to note that this conversation is quite different from gender roles in church, so we should all table that for another day. That said, let’s start with the passage:

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

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 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

There are two views of Paul’s words here that I will be looking at – one that I call the “structural prescription” view and the other I shall call the “ethical prescription” view. They both have basically identical exegeses (Paul’s words to his original recipients), but are different hermeneutically (what it means for us today).

The first would say that Paul is, with his instructions to the Ephesians, prescribing the social structure marriage ought to have. Paul’s instructions for wives to submit is not just an ethical command for the wives of the first century Mediterranean world, but is defining the hierarchy between husbands and wives for all time. In other words, it is both an ethical instruction for his letter’s recipients and structurally defining for all times.

The second view is saying that Paul is prescribing how to live well within a given, culturally supplied, social structure. His teaching wives to submit is not defining the structure, but teaching the household to live well within a marriage social structure imposed on them. Additional Scriptural data would be necessary, on this view, to determine if there is any universal structure between husbands and wives.

To me, these two views are the live options if we’re committed to the authority of Scripture. Views that take Paul to be simply wrong, or wrong because he’s blinded by his cultural moment, or whatever, I find to be unacceptable for anyone taking the Bible seriously. For the purposes of this post, I will simply trust that, whether you may be a Christian or not, you agree these are the Biblically faithful options.

I think the ethical prescription view is correct, for several reasons. First, Paul’s instructions are for the household as a whole, not just about marriage. Second, the marriage structure is essentially the same as found in the ancient Mediterranean world, except with love inserted. Third, living in such a way that your culture thinks well of you – with obvious bounds, or at least obvious in theory – is a Biblical virtue, which comes explicitly into play in other passages regarding marriage ethics. Finally, an ethical prescription view fits better with Genesis 1-3. With the exception of the last point if I’m right about Genesis 1-3 (which, as one of my favourite scholars puts it, “I could be. I don’t think I am. But I could be.”), none of my points, on their own, are definitive in my mind. However, I find the cumulative case to be quite persuasive.

Let’s start with the whole of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 (with vs. 21 as the clear pivot that ties the earlier section and this one together). It’s all one big set of instructions for households. All the groups he addresses are the elements in the typical households of the day. Addressing the household as a unit was common practice for Paul’s day:

The section 5:21-6:9 addresses what we call “household codes.” In Paul’s day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of “religions from the East” (e.g. Isis worship, Judaism, and Christianity), which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for these values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on. These exhortations about how the head of a household should deal with members of his family usually break down into discussions of husbands-wife, father-child, and master-slave relationships. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight from standard Greco-Roman moral writing.

IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 1st Ed.

To me, then, we ought to think of Paul as addressing the household primarily and only marriages secondarily, as a part of the household. Minimally, they are connected in the apostle’s mind in some way. For me then, if we’re to believe that Paul is defining what our marriage structure ought to be for all time, we need to take the whole of the household structure, as that’s what he’s primarily instructing on. But this commits us to holding that, minimally, the Roman version of slavery is ok, as slaves were also part of the household structure. Every time there are instructions for how husbands and wives ought to treat one another in the New Testament letters, it is accompanied by instructions to slaves as well (Eph. 5, Col. 3, 1 Pet. 2-3, Ti. 2). This should make us resist a structural prescription view for obvious reasons.

Next, the hierarchical structure present in Ephesians is the same as the Mediterranean household structure of the day. Paul radically transforms it by inserting love into the picture, but the hierarchical structure itself isn’t touched:

Most ancient writers expected wives to obey their husbands, desiring in them a quiet and meek demeanour; some marriage contracts even stated a requirement for absolute obedience. This requirement made sense especially to Greek thinkers, who could not conceive of wives as equals. Age differences contributed to this disparity: husbands were normally older than their wives, often by over a decade in Greek culture (with men frequently marrying around age thirty and women in their teens, often early teens.)

IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , 1st Ed

This, to me, lends high credibility that he’s not defining a structure, but teaching how to live well within the given structure. This is what we all recognize Paul was doing with his instructions for slaves and is generally what’s believed around the whole head coverings situation too, and so we ought to believe that’s what he’s doing for husbands and wives. Let me illustrate this principle with a substitution:

Workers, submit to your own bosses, as to the Lord. For the boss is the head of the worker even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also workers should submit in everything to their bosses.

I happen to think this makes perfect sense. Now, if this were Paul’s writing to your workplace, would you think that he’s defining what the authority structures of workplaces ought to be, or is he assuming the authority structure and telling workers and bosses how to live like Christ within their given workplace structure? Is he defining the org chart or telling you how to live within it? I find the second to make more sense. This is precisely the ethical prescription view. This is also the exact line of thinking that is taken when it comes to slaves. By the way, no one responds we are being unfaithful to Paul and the Word of God by thinking that way when it comes to slaves in the household.

Perhaps our structural prescriptionist will reply and say, “Aaron, your comparison to workers and bosses was interesting. But isn’t a boss, by definition, the one in charge? Wouldn’t that mean that, according to your comparison, husbands are, by definition, the one in charge?” Well, maybe. As we’ll see a littler further down this post, the only perfect metaphor is not a metaphor. In Paul’s day, as we have seen, husbands were the boss by definition. They just were in charge. To address them as such would have been appropriate. But it doesn’t follow that he thought it was ideal that the male spouse gets the boss role, or that there should be a boss role at all (or, as we’ve seen, that 30-year-olds should be able to marry 15-year-olds). In other words, as I’ve said, why think he’s defining the ideal org chart? Why think he is so high on the Mediterranean household structure? I’d think, if he’s defining the structure, he’d point to Genesis 1-2 as Jesus did to define his ideal, not the Greco-Romans. But, Paul was writing to real people. He needed to address them where they were at.

An interesting note is that wives are never instructed to love their husbands in our passage. Of course, we are all called to love. We are also all called to submission (vs. 21). Yet structural prescriptionists would typically say that it is still not part of the husband’s role as a husband to submit, outside of the inherent submission that happens through love. This would be similar to a supervisor’s role as a supervisor not involving submission to those they supervise. They should in many cases, but that’s not a part of their job description, per se. Likewise, it seems to me that the structural prescriptionist view entails that it is not a wife’s role as a wife to love her husband. I think that is fascinating. I also think it adds implausibility to the structural prescriptionist view, implying that Paul was submitting to the structures of his day.

The reason it would be ok for Paul to not be explicitly and directly changing those structures, however (he was 100% working to change them, though, in my opinion), leads us into our third point. Living well according to the culture and authority structures of your day, even if they are not ideal, is a Biblical virtue. We ought not to sin, or allow such things to demand our total allegiance, and we ought to partake in non-violent prophetic critique, but living well and in submission to culture and authority structures is a Biblical command. There is more to this than can be said in this post, but let me give a few examples.

It’s most beautifully expressed in the Old Testament, in my opinion, through the life of Daniel. The whole idea of third-way-exilic living comes into our background information here. But for the New Testament, take 1 Peter 2:11-17, the beginning of a major section in the book:

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority,14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:11-17

Clearly living well within your cultural context was important to the apostles. Living such good lives in your context that the people around you glorify God when Christ returns seems to even be the driving factor for the following section, and Peter explicitly says we ought to submit to human authorities. Interestingly, Peter follows this up with how slaves ought to live, and then how wives ought to live in submission to their husbands, and then how husbands ought to live. For Peter, then, it appears honouring your context and culture is, at least, a part of his justification for the marriage structure.

Though Paul doesn’t mention it explicitly in Ephesians, he does use this idea as a justification for ethical practice in other places. It’s most clear in Titus 2:1-10:

You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled.In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.

Titus 2:1-10

In Ephesians, Paul is talking to the general Christian populace. But when he is talking to a teacher, Titus, he explicitly justifies much of the women’s ethics within the household, including being subject to their husbands, for the reason of no one maligning the word of God (vs. 5). This makes great sense in the world and culture of his day. He justifies several other instructions in this passage for the reason of making God’s people and teachings seen as positive to the outside world, as well. Again, much can be said here – including how trying to minimize persecution comes into play for both wifely submission and slaves obedience – but minimally, we can say that the apostles took seriously the principle of living well according to your culture when it doesn’t cause us to sin. As Dr. John G. Stackhouse says:

[W]hen society was patriarchal, as it was in the New Testament context and as it has been everywhere in the world except in modern society in our day, then the church avoided scandal by going along with patriarchy, even as the Bible ameliorated it and made women’s situation better than it was under any other culture’s gender code. Now, however, that our modern society is at least officially egalitarian, the scandal (ironically enough) is that the church is not going along with society, not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call without an arbitrary gender line.

Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism

Because the Apostles honoured culture, it increases the probability of the ethical prescription view of Ephesians 5:22-33, as well as all the other marriage hierarchical passages.

My final point for preferring an ethical prescription view is that it fits better with Genesis 1-3. I have written about this in a few posts before (here, here, and here), so I won’t go into much detail. But, in the Genesis account, men and women are given the same level of authority. They have been given, I think, biologically necessary roles between the two of them, but there is no inherent hierarchy or inherent power structure within any of those roles. They could have chosen to enter into hierarchy for whatever reason, as is often done in daily life, but it would not be inherent or universally God ordained based on gender. In fact, men taking the power position in spite of women is explicitly a consequence of humanity’s rebellion against God.

Now, let me address some likely counter-points.

What about Paul’s comparison of husbands to Christ; to being the head even as Christ is head of the church? Doesn’t that make this universal? One phrase I like to use is, “The only perfect metaphor is not a metaphor.” In other words, for something to have a perfect comparison to something else, the only thing that you can possibly use to compare it to is to the thing itself. So, whenever someone is trying to compare two things, they are necessarily only comparing the things in a limited way. The things are alike in some way, but not all ways. What is it, then, that Paul was saying are alike between husbands and Christ? It would not take much work to think of several things in which husbands and Christ are most certainly not alike. So what are, in Paul’s mind?

To say that, because Paul made a comparison to Christ, we ought to take a structural prescription view is simply a non-sequitur. To claim as such is just to assert that you think the across-all-time attribute of Christ’s authority is a part of the points of comparison, and that’s just to assume the structuralist conclusion, not argue for it. Further, I don’t think that is at all obvious, and I have given reasons above to think not. Husbands were in charge – it was simply the fact of the matter in the ancient Mediterranean household structure that husbands were the head – and therefore comparing them to Christ is a perfect analogy for how wives and husbands ought to conduct themselves in the roles they have found themselves in. It doesn’t mean that husbands are universally the head, any more than Paul would be defining a universal org-chart. They were the head at the time in the household organizational chart, so Paul says wives ought to treat them as such. But that doesn’t imply Paul was defining the org-chart for them. It would actually be strangely coincidental, if you think about it, that the Apostles would be subscribing the household/marital org-chart of the ancient Mediterranean for all peoples and all times, even if he did radically adjust it by restricting the husband’s absolute authority by his command to sacrificial love. Paul making a comparison of husbands (in his day, I think) to Christ, then, doesn’t really provide a counter point, in my opinion. One would need to argue why the across-all-time attribute of Christ’s authority ought to be considered in the points of comparison, not just state that a comparison was made.

Someone who holds the marriage structure to be universal, like our structural prescriptionist, may present another objection to our conclusion and say that marriage isn’t something that can be defined by one’s culture. It’s a universal institution and, therefore, God would be greatly concerned with its structure. He would not leave it to be defined by the shifting tides of our world. I completely agree. However, it’s again simply a non-sequitur to say that because God has defined a marriage structure that a power hierarchy based on gender is one of those structures. I happen to think God has defined a great many transcultural structures about marriage. Genesis 1-2 is where Jesus went to find that ideal (Matt. 19), and Genesis 2 argues against any inherent hierarchy.

If an ethical prescription view is correct, which I think it is, it lands us in some tantalizingly interesting waters. If we must categorize it as complimentarian or egalitarian, it certainly fits better into the latter, though I am resistant to use that label. However, though I don’t think this view leads necessarily to the following conclusion, I think a good case could be made for it: the very interesting result of an egalitarian view that, at the same time, does not find complimentarianism morally wrong; at least not inherently so. It implies that, while there is no universal gender based hierarchy across time, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a hierarchy, albeit absent sinful corruption. I can hear the egalitarians in the room screaming at me already, but this seems to me to be quite Biblical.

Contrary to the current cultural milieu I find myself in, authority and power are not seen as wrong in the Bible. The Son submitted to the Father, for example. We are called to submit to governing authorities, even when they are obviously not perfect or the ideal government structure, as we saw above. We are called to submit to parents and elders. Our question regarding power is how one uses authority and power. And though we – and even more so the Bible – are quite aware of the history of humanity’s abuse of power, it doesn’t follow to power being inherently wrong. I have many female elders who think we are losing something beautiful and profound when we move away from complimentarianism. I don’t doubt them. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the power structure we choose is, in and of itself, morally neutral. I have many female elders who know and practice the beauty in egalitarianism, too.

In my mind, though I believe it would be wrong to categorically place women into a submissive role, any particular complimentarian marriage would only be morally wrong today on two possible counts: it makes the outside world malign the Word of God, making the teaching of the Lord our God unattractive, or, rather than both parties lovingly agreeing to the roles in mutual submission (vs. 21), it lives into the pronouncement God gave the woman in Genesis 3:16, having power being taken and abused for selfish purposes. I think structural prescriptionists need to take a good, hard, sober look regarding these points.

I believe, if we are serious about scriptural authority, we ought to believe that what Paul and the other apostles wrote about marriage was the Godly thing for them to write to their recipients. It has been assumed by many that this implies a structural perscriptionist view; what many might call some form of complimentarianism within marriage. That is what people seem to call a “face value” reading, despite both views being well within the bounds of normal Biblical hermeneutics.

However, I think that the structural prescription view is far from obvious. In fact, an ethical prescriptionist view is, in my opinion, a more obvious reading of the apostles’ writing, and it also accords with Genesis 1-3 better, precisely where Jesus appealed to for his marriage ideal (see Matt. 19:1-12). I think this implies that any marriage hierarchy, egalitarian or complimentarian – whether that be patriarchal or matriarchal – is quite permissible, in and of itself. It seems to me to be agreeable that principles from Romans 14 can be employed here, given all parties convinced of the structure’s goodness within a particular context and taking into account principles from Titus 2.

And if you think about it, that’s not that crazy. We all enter into hierarchical relationships in terms of power all the time, like at work or at school or with servers in restaurants. Hierarchy is not, in and of itself, wrong. Certainly there are many many unjust hierarchies, and our push-back against it has definitely been born out of those contexts. However, we would be kidding ourselves if our misgivings were not, at least in part, due to the expressive individualism of our age. That said, I do not believe the Bible imposes a universal gender based power structure in marriage.

What the apostles wrote was beautiful and, with any amount of background study showing, extremely progressive for the day. I know I didn’t do too much unpacking of it as I was primarily commenting on the power structure, but it just rocks. It was an absolute tightrope walk. Paul managed to honour the culture he was in, submitting to its household structure, while at the same time radically undermining it with his insertion of contextualized Christlike love. Since the Mediterranean household and marriage structure are not the structures of our day, I don’t believe the apostles would have us submit to them. Rather, they would have us take the principles that were in the background of their minds as they wrote. Love and submission are Christlike; submit to every human institution with non-violent prophetic critique; honour culture; radically undermine injustice with the new humanity Christ calls us to, rooted in love. It’s a tightrope to walk. But, what. a. life.

Keep Pondering,


9 thoughts on “An Ethical Prescription View of Ephesians 5:22-33

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