Guess What Paul Has in Mind for Marriage?

Today I’m happy to have as my guest Dallas Theological Seminary student Shena Ashcraft, who has spent the past semester doing an independent study focused on the Roman household codes and what they have to do with Paul’s instruction about marriage in Ephesians 5. For a video version of this content, go here.

Rewind with me to the 1980s, when kids in classrooms and at kitchen tables were playing the classic board game, Guess Who? Both players chose a secret character card that the opposite player would try to guess by asking only yes or no questions. Their opponent had hinged pictures of all the characters in front of them on a game board. The kids took turns asking questions like, “Does your person have a beard?”

“Nope.” So they eliminated full-beard Ricardo and chin-strap Philip by turning down those characters’ pictures.

“Is your person wearing a hat?”

“No.” They dismissed tight-lipped Maria in the fancy beret. And also, Bernard with his militant cap. 

Those 80’s kids are all grown up now. And many of them are asking and answering different questions. They want to know how to live in a way that pleases God. They want to know what to do with their finances, their hobbies, and their marriages. They want to imitate Jesus.

So, let’s zoom in on marriage and play a new game. We’ll call it Guess What Paul Was Saying about Marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33? And instead of a game filled with cartoon faces, we’ll have ideas, concepts, and statements. Together, we’ll eliminate misconceptions to see how Paul intended to put the manifold wisdom of God on display (Ephesians 3:10).

First, let’s flip up all the tiles. Next, we’ll grab some resources—several Bible translations, commentaries, dictionaries, first-century historians, ancient philosophers, and modern interpreters. Maybe we’ll brew an Earl Grey because we’ll play this game through. Ready?

“Is Paul the type of writer who is straightforward and easy to understand?”

“Hardly ever.”

Ephesians 5:21-33 is interpreted in a variety of ways. Evangelical Bible teachers and scholars understand Paul’s words on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is marital hierarchy—where the husband has authority in the marriage. On the other side is marital equality or mutuality.[1] Other scholars ask thought-provoking questions beyond the typical hierarchy/mutuality spectrum.[2] Even in their differing opinions, most scholars agree there are quality arguments throughout this range of ideas.

Since the issue isn’t crystal clear, on our gameboards, we can eliminate two misconceptions: Everybody agrees on what Paul meant in Ephesians 5 and There’s only one decent interpretation.

“Would Paul consider himself a social revolutionary?”

“I don’t think so.”

Paul is not looking to incite revolt. A social revolution would have drawn unwanted attention and persecution to Christian gatherings. David Balch writes that the Romans accepted or rejected foreign cults by judging the groups’ ability to maintain acceptable household management.[3] For first-century Romans, they followed the order of Aristotle and other philophers—of husbands ruling and wives being ruled, husbands commanding and wives obeying. Bible Project’s Tim Mackie explains the common belief that an erosion of the rule within a household was believed to be an erosion of the rule of the entire Roman Empire.[4] Paul needed to avoid rejection and the appearance of eroding an empire.

In Ephesians 5, Paul even used the common format, associated with Aristotle for social relationships, called the “household code.”[5] Paul’s audience was familiar with the format. So were the people commissioned to maintain proper household and governmental management. Paul may be utilizing the household codes here in the way Peter used the household codes, as a witness to the culture. “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. (1 Peter 2:12).”

Paul wasn’t on a mission to lead an upheaval of the Roman government; his mission was to spread the gospel to Jews and Gentiles. So we can turn down two more tiles: Paul picketed at the imperial palace and Paul was prompting a social revolt.

“If not a revolutionary, was Paul trying to preserve the cultural hierarchies?”

“No. Paul is rarely looking to maintain a cultural status quo.”

Remember, Paul didn’t invent the ranked “household code” template used in Ephesians 5 and 6. It was passed down through the centuries and he borrowed it—then rearranged its layers. It’s the reconstruction which we should note. Paul removed Aristotle’s directive for men to rule over women and ignored Aristotle’s assumption of both permanent inequality between the sexes and of men having an aptness for command above women.[6] Instead, Paul advised wives to voluntarily place themselves lower than their husbands (Ephesians 5:22). And then, Paul told husbands to do the same—to give themselves up for their wives (Ephesians 5:25). The Ephesian 5 instructions to wives would have been comparable, although not identical, to the social status quo. But the charge to the husbands would have dissolved hierarchical layers.

The combination of what Paul says to husbands and what he says to wives puts them both at the bottom of social hierarchies as they imitate the humility of Jesus.

Paul used the template. But he reshaped its purpose. Much as we have done with the game Guess Who?.

Paul isn’t a social revolutionary, but neither is he promoting the status quo. We can dismiss two more tiles: Don’t rock the boat and Aristotle would be proud.

“In Ephesians 5 is Paul telling wives to submit? And husbands to lead?”

“Yes. No.”

The original Greek text and a sentence diagram provide clarity on submission. Our English translations of 5:22 often say something like, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” In the Greek, though, this sentence doesn’t have an action word. The verb submit is implied, rightly, from the previous verse, which also is not a sentence. Verse 21 translates to something like, “and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The sentence diagram has to start back at verse 18, where Paul instructs believers to “be filled with the Spirit.”

Submitting describes the outcome of being filled with the Spirit. Wives are submitting themselves (like believers do to one another) because they are filled with the Spirit. Here’s an illustration:

Be filled with the Spirit (verse 18)
speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs… (verse 19)
giving thanks to God the Father… (verse 20)
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ… (verse 21)
wives to your husbands… (verse 22)

To the husbands, Paul repeats the instructions he gave to all believers at the beginning of Chapter 5. He tells them to imitate God and “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Paul tells the husbands to love in two ways, each an imitation of Christ. First, love, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Do you hear the echo from verses 1 and 2—love, as Christ, gave himself up? Then Paul tells husbands to “care for their body (their wife), just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29).

Husbands are told to do two things, love sacrificially and care like Jesus. Paul gives neither the Aristotelian command for husbands to rule over their wives nor an instruction to lead. 

So, we flip down: Ephesians 5 promotes a vertical hierarchy, where one submits because one leads.

“Does the “head and body” metaphor give the husband an elevated position or privilege?”

“Tricky one, but no.”

For this, we have to look beyond our modern, western understanding of the metaphor. Then we have to look at what Paul does with the metaphor.

Metaphors rarely mean the same thing in all places. When we use head as a metaphor in our modern, western context, it most often connotes some type of authority or leadership—like that of the head of a committee or organization. That was not the case in the first-century Greek language.[7] Scholars have debated the original meaning of head for decades, finding it to mean either source, authority, or prominence. And the exact meaning may be important, but the way Paul used the metaphor is even more important.

Seneca was a Roman philosopher contemporary to Paul. He described citizens’ behavior as it relates to Nero, the emperor, their head. He said citizens are willing to fling “themselves and all they have into the breach whenever the safety of their ruler craves it.” Because the people understood that their well-being and survival depended upon the well-being and survival of their head.[8] The metaphor here shows the head and its body caring and preserving the head for the sake of all.

But Paul upends that idea. He tells the metaphorical head, the husband, not to preserve himself and his position, but to give it up in the same way Christ gave himself up for the church—through service, sacrifice, and death. If head had any cultural implications of importance, Paul turned it upside-down in favor of preserving the body, that is the wife, and promoting the upside-down kingdom of God.

Perhaps, there’s a better way to understand the metaphor. Perhaps, it’s found in the greater context of the letter.

Let’s eliminate the misconception and the abuse it has caused over the years: The “head” metaphor gives the husband a position of prominence and The wife is a subordinate.

Next question.

“Does the context of the letter give us a clue to understand Paul’s instructions for marriages?”


In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul has a particular priority in mind. The context of the whole letter demands a priority of unity; then, 5:21—33 requires more specifically a priority of marital unity.

From the start, Paul casts a kingdom vision—God’s plan for new creation and how believers are to live into it. It begins with his reminder that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world (1:4) for his purpose—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth (1:10). Unity.

Then Paul used language of connection to describe the relationships of Jews and Gentiles with one another and with God. The believers are included (1:13). They are with Christ (2:5-6). They are one group from two and one new humanity from two (2:14-15). They are joined, built, and held together (2:21-22, 4:16)). They are heirs, members, and sharers together (3:6). They are empowered together (3:18). They are urged to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (4:3-6). And it is through this oneness that the “manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (3:10). The entire letter promotes oneness as God’s mysterious revelation.

Ephesians 5:21-33, then, points to oneness for marriages. We are certain Paul carried his theme of unity through to the directives for husbands and wives. Our ears perk when we hear him appeal backward to the Hebrew Scriptures. In 5:31, he quotes Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his mother and father and be united to his wife, and two will become one flesh.” Two become united as one.

Context matters so much.

Turn down: Context, Schmon-text and Paul has one expectation of men and a different expectation of women.

Four or five guesses remain on the board game, but we already know the answer.

Final question.

“Is unity the goal of Paul’s instructions?”

“Yes, you got it! You’ve won the game!”

Paul envisioned a unified humanity, not a social revolution or a status quo. Paul’s purpose in Ephesians 5:21-33 has to be viewed through his lens of unity. To elevate any other purpose above unity, would be to twist the incredible message Paul was specifically tasked to share. If we elevate hierarchy as his primary purpose, we would deform unity. If we elevate a message of equality, we would discount the beauty of oneness from two.

In Ephesians 5, it is the oneness that gives understanding to the head and body metaphor. There is something about the level of intimacy between husbands and wives and Christ and his church, that this specific metaphor is not used in the other relationships addressed in the household codes. A head and body are so intimately connected, that they become one.

And unity explains the directives to each member of a marriage. Wives, be filled with the Spirit, volunteering to be made lower than your husband. Husbands, be filled with the Spirit, loving and giving yourself up to your wife. In Christian marriage, submission and sacrificial love become synonyms that unite husbands and wives. Spouses should give up any prominence or status. Instead, they should both imitate Jesus and choose to continually put themselves at the bottom of socially constructed hierarchies.

This is the mysterious revelation of God in Ephesians and the story of the Bible—

two humans become one,

two humanities become one,

and eventually all things in heaven and on earth

will. be. united.

[1] Near one end of the spectrum is the hierarchal work, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Near the other end of the evangelical spectrum is the egalitarian work, Discovering Biblical Equality, edited by Ronald Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall. Falling between those two: Andrew Bartlett’s Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts.

[2] In Neither Egalitarian nor Complementarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate, Michelle Lee-Barnewall encourages Christians to think beyond our individualistic culture-driven questions of authority and equality to ask the types of questions the text was answering in first-century Greco-Roman culture.

[3] In Let Wives be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter, David Balch explains the precedent set within the Greco-Roman world, in which extreme tension and persecution (murder, imprisonment, and stripping of independence) existed between the Roman government and two religious cults. The followers of the god Dionysus and the goddess Isis were specifically targeted for the behavior of their women. Balch shows how documents linked the criticism of Dionysus and Isis cults to criticisms of Judaism and later, Christianity. Balch writes, “Christians had to conform to the expectations of Hellenistic-Roman society so that society would cease criticizing the new cult.” In following the prescribed order, “they might become socially politically acceptable to their society.” (88)

[4] Bible Project, Ephesians course. https://bibleproject.com/course/ephesians/

[5] While the pattern of the household codes is often associated with Aristotle, in Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church, Nijay Gupta leads us to multiple philosophers using the codes to uphold governmental and household arrangement (pages 183-185)—Aristotle, Seneca, Plato, Lucius Valerius, Plutarch, Philo, and Ben Sira. 

The philosophers’ template provided hierarchical pairings of household relationships. Husbands ruled wives, fathers ruled children, and masters ruled slaves.

[6] From Aristotle’s Politics: Book 1: Chapter 12, “A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature . . . The relation of the male to the female . . . the inequality is permanent.”

[7] In Men and Women in Christ, Andrew Bartlett shows that this metaphor began showing up as “authority,” in Greek use around the second century AD.

[8] This is expanded on in Michelle Lee-Barnewell’s book Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian and her article, Turning Kephale on its Head: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Ephesians 5:21-33. She cleverly says, Paul turned kephale (that’s the Greek word for head) on its head.

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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