“Be Subject to One Another Out of Reverence for Christ”: Unity, Charity and Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21-33


Few passages in the Pauline corpus are more controversial for modern readers than the “household code” of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. In three sequential pericopes, St. Paul first offends modern notions of equality by exhorting wives to “be subject to your husbands as to the Lord” (5:22 RSV),1 justified by the assertion that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church” (5:23); he likewise insists that “children … obey [their] parents in the Lord” (6:1), perhaps the least controversial of his commands, which however is offset at once by a suggestion entirely outrageous to modern sensibilities, that “slaves … be obedient to those who are [their] earthly masters, with fear and trembling” (6:5)! There is an unambiguous hierarchy in the Pauline household: those who hold places of less power—wives, children, slaves—are to submit to those with more, and St. Paul’s exhortations to husbands to “love your wives” (5:25), fathers to “not provoke your children to anger” (6:4), and masters to “forbear threatening” (6:9) hardly seem to balance out the radical inequality of these relationships.

Modern scholars tend to approach this text from a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” likely due to the problem of satisfactorily interpreting it without scandalizing present-day sensibilities. One trend in modern scholarship has been to focus on apparent contradictions within the text and certain unusual features of the text compared with the rest of the Pauline corpus, leading to the conclusion that the text is not of genuine Pauline authorship. For example, some scholars point out, St. Paul appears to contradict the exhortation with which he opens the pericope, “be subject to one another” (5:21), with the highly traditional household code which follows it: “While the household code is introduced by a plea for mutual submissiveness, the submissiveness enjoined in the code itself is not mutual.”2

Household codes such as this, typically known in modern scholarship by their German name, Haustafeln, were common in the ancient world. Therefore, Paul is supposed to have adopted an extant Haustafel of Jewish or Hellenistic origin, or at least the common features and language of one, and woven it into his letter to the Ephesians with a light Christian gloss.3 Scholars such as Raymond Brown also point out apparent theological differences between Ephesians and the undisputed Pauline letters, such as that the author of Ephesians uniquely refers to Christ as “head” of the body (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23). The analogy between the relationship of husband and wife with that of Christ and the Church is likewise new in Ephesians (cf. 5:23-32), as well as the presentation of “the whole Church (rather than individuals or the elect) as the object of God’s saving action in Christ (1:22-23; 5:25-27).”4 For these reasons, some scholars, Brown foremost among them, dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians altogether.5 Whether St. Paul is the author of some, all, or none of the letter, the thrust of this argument is that “in this Haustafel Christ or some Christian formulae are placed in the service of a marriage concept inherited or recast by Paul [or another pseudonymous author] from the views and customs of his environment,”6 and therefore “the change of time and culture permits or requires present-day Christians to reject the injunctions”7 of Ephesians 5:21-6:9.


In this paper, I will argue against the practitioners of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that the “household code” of Ephesians 5-6 is not a mere cultural artifact which might or ought to be disregarded to avoid giving offense to modern Christians; rather, it is a thoroughly Christian and Pauline text, which is part of the apostolic deposit of faith and need only be correctly interpreted for modern readers. Indeed, interpreting this passage rightly is an urgent need in a culture such as ours, which is currently experiencing the total breakdown of marriage and family life.

I will begin with a sociolinguistic study of two key words, ὑποτάσσω (v. 21)and χεφαλή (v. 23), arguing that by choosing these words St. Paul is deliberately subverting the traditional language and pattern of a household code. These words are critical to understanding the analogy of the unity of the body, which is the foundation of Paul’s exhortation to mutual submission. I will therefore go on to briefly examine St Paul’s analogy of the Church as Christ’s body and bride in the letter to the Ephesians, since the Christ-Church relationship is the model Paul gives for the relationship of husband and wife.

Finally, I will examine the two commands with which Paul concludes his advice to married couples: the husband is to “love his wife as himself,” while the wife is to “respect her husband” (v. 33). I will argue that this twofold command in fact particularizes the exhortation to mutual submission of v. 21. The role of the husband is first to love the wife and give himself up for her in total self-gift; the role of the wife in the first place is to be loved and then to make a reciprocal self-gift, which includes her respect and obedience to her spouse. I will thus argue that St. Paul really means what he says when he calls for the mutual submission of husbands and wives, as modeled on and motivated by the reciprocal self-gift of Christ and the Church, first of the Bridegroom to the Bride and then of the Bride to her Bridegroom. I will conclude that, far from adopting a conventional text of his culture and giving it a Christian flavor, St. Paul has “colonized” a preexisting cultural form and used it as a vehicle to transmit the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ever ancient and ever new.

Against a “Hermeneutic of Suspicion”

If the content of the household code were merely a cultural artifact, a bit of historical detritus left over in the Pauline corpus, then Christians would indeed be free to reject it. The declaration Inter insigniores by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified this question concerning St. Paul’s instruction to women on wearing veils in 1 Corinthians 11:6. The Congregation teaches that Paul’s counsel was “probably inspired by the custom of the period … concern[ing] scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance” and therefore that “such requirements no longer have a normative value.”8 However, the Sacred Congregation contrasts this minor disciplinary precept with another controversial Pauline instruction to women, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in which the Apostle requires them to remain silent in the churches. This instruction “is of a different nature” and, indeed, “is bound up with the divine plan of creation (1 Cor 11:7; Gen 2:18-24).”9 For this reason, the Congregation concludes, “it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.”10 Rather, it is an authentic and perennial Christian teaching, part of the apostolic deposit of faith, which it is the duty of exegetes and biblical theologians to interpret in our own cultural context. 

The same criteria of interpretation would seem to apply a fortiori to Ephesians 5:21-32, in which the mutual submission of husbands and wives is explicitly related by Paul to the divine plan of creation: “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body … Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies … for no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church … ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Eph 5:23, 28-29, 31; cf. also Gen. 2:24). Indeed, Christ is present in every line of this instruction to husbands and wives: both are to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21), wives in obedience to their husbands “as to the Lord” (v. 22), and husbands in love to their wives “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). This is no minor, culture-bound matter of household discipline; rather, it springs from the very heart of how Christians are to live out their faith in relation to one another as “imitators of God” (5:1).

The Significance of Ὑποτάσσω and Χεφαλή

Nevertheless, there are interpretative questions which must be addressed. The objection raised by Bruce, that “the submissiveness enjoined in the code itself is not mutual,”11 seems a good one. How are we to understand the command to husbands to love their wives as an expression of “mutual submission” when the wives are commanded far more strongly to “be subject in everything to their husbands” (v. 24)? The beginnings of an answer may be found in a closer inspection of St. Paul’s use of the words ὑποτάσσω in v. 21 and χεφαλή in v. 23. The first is a compound of the preposition ὑπο, “under,” and the verb τάσσω, “to arrange.” A slavishly literal translation of the verb would thus be something like “to arrange under” or “to place beneath,” namely, one person, idea or object below another.12 In v. 21, the verb is used in the middle/passive voice, ὑποτασσόμενοι, which “describes a voluntary act of submission to another person,” specifically a “permissive action” by which “one complies with the wishes of another.”13 This accords with the typical English reading of the verse. However, it is significant that St. Paul has chosen ὑποτάσσω here instead of ἄρχω (“to rule or govern”), the latter of “which is more prevalent in contemporary Greco-Roman Haustafeln.14

St. Paul’s reference to the husband as “head” (χεφαλή) of the wife is also unusual in this context. A reader familiar with other classical Haustafeln would more likely expect ἄρχων (“one who rules”). Aristotle, for example, uses the passive participle τῶν ἀρχομένων (“those who are ruled”) to describe the children and wife in relation to their husband and father,the ἄρχων (“ruler”).15 Other typical texts of the time refer to the husband and father of the household as δεσπότης or κύριος (roughly “master,” as of slaves, or “lord”).16 To be sure, χεφαλή may also convey the meaning of “one entrusted with superior rank, authority, or power,”17 as for example the book of Judges refers to Jephthah as “the man who would be the Israelites’ head (χεφαλὴν) and captain” (Jdg 11:11) or as David confesses to the Lord, “You have preserved me as the head (χεφαλὴν) of the nations” (2 Sam 22:4). Yet St. Paul has chosen to describe the husband here not as the lord of a little fiefdom, to whom those who are ruled must submit, but as the head of a body, in which reciprocal, voluntary submission must be the rule. That χεφαλή has been more commonly interpreted to mean unilateral headship, as if it were a synonym of ἄρχων, unfortunately ignores “how metaphor plays a vital, interpretive role in this passage”:18

We need to also factor in the author’s choice of χεφαλή (‘head’, v. 23) in relation to σῶμα (‘body’, v. 28) and σάρξ (‘flesh’, v. 29). This relational metaphor strongly implies that χεφαλή and σῶμα are symbiotic. The instruction is that the husbands should ‘love their wives’ (ἀγαπᾶν τὰς ἑαυτῶν γυναῖκας) ‘as their own bodies’ (ὡς τὰ ἑαυτῶν σώματα, v. 28). With respect to the husband and wife metaphor, the connection between body and head (with the implication that neither can function without the other) is further cemented by the reference to Gen. 2.24 where husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ (σάρxα μίαν).19

Two other features of the verb ὑποτάσσω support this reading. First, the “subject-affectedness” of the middle voice in Greek, coupled with the use in v. 21 of the pronoun ἀλλήλοις (to one another), “evinces an unfolding, ongoing, reciprocal activity between subjects.”20 This verb thus belongs to a semantic category known as the “reciprocal middle,” which particularly emphasizes the mutual interactivity of the subjects.21 Furthermore, though it expresses a command, this verb is not in the imperative mood; rather, it is the last of five successive participles attached to a prior imperative, “Be filled with the Spirit” (πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι), found in v. 18b. Although it can also be understood as an independent participial imperative, as the RSV and most translations render it, this participle belongs grammatically to the preceding verses and might thus be translated differently: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vv. 18-21). All Christians are to be filled with the Spirit and, in consequence of this, to be subject to one another.

Rather than the unambiguous categories of “ruler” and “ruled” found in contemporaneous texts such as Aristotle’s, St. Paul is presenting an image of a family so closely united in the Spirit as to be one body. To be sure, the husband is the head of the body, but “the body does not consist of one member but of many … The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’ … but God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another (ἀλλήλων)” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 21, 24-25). Indeed, “in using the metaphor of head and body, Paul is not accenting the notion of authority but rather of profound union and mutual belonging.”22 This union between husband and wife is precisely the same “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” realized on an interpersonal, individual level, which St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to maintain in 4:3; it is the selfsame unity which unites all the members of the Church to one another and the whole Church to Christ. The means of realizing and maintaining that unity is to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love” (4:1-2) and therefore “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).

The Church, Body and Bride of Christ

Christ’s own headship of the Church is the model and archetype of the husband’s headship of his wife, as St. Paul writes in v. 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” In the first place, it is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3) who establishes Christ as head over the Church: “He has put all things under (ὑπέταξεν) his feet and has made him the head (χεφαλή) over all things for the Church, which is his body (σῶμα)” (Eph 1:22-23). This assertion comes at the conclusion of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that they might know “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19). What was the event in which God’s great might was revealed? The Paschal mystery, “which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). It is in the context of Christ’s self-sacrifice and especially His resurrection, then, that the Father has subjected all things under his feet and made him head over his body, the Church. Christ’s headship of the Church is inseparable from his self-gift: “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, 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” (5:25-27).

The beautiful and detailed imagery of these verses portrays the Church as a maiden for whom Christ laid down his life. “The goal, mentioned twice,” comments Mary Healy, “is that the Church be ‘holy,’ that is, set apart from what is profane, and presented to Christ as a resplendent bride. With the ‘washing of water’ Paul alludes to the sacrament of baptism, envisioning it as a prenuptial bath—only in this case the Bridegroom shows his humility by himself bathing the bride, rather than female servants or family members as was customary.”23 The washing of baptism, of course, is the participation of each of the members of the Church in Christ’s sacrifice, for “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … buried therefore with him … so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Christ’s self-gift on the Cross for the sake of his beloved, then, is the very act by which he “washes” and prepares the Church for their wedding; his resurrection consummates forever the nuptial union of Bridegroom and Bride, constituting Christ as the Church’s one head and savior (cf. Eph 5:23).

The inseparability of headship and self-gift reveals the true meaning of χεφαλή in Ephesians. It is not primarily about the unilateral authority of the head over the body but rather “precedence in the giving and receiving of love:the ‘husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Eph 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’”24

“Husbands, Love Your Wives”

Given that the husband has precedence in the order of giving and receiving love, it is not surprising that “the part of Paul’s instruction addressed to husbands (5:25-30) is far more extensive, and perhaps more challenging, than that addressed to wives, as it has absolutely no precedent in Greco-Roman or rabbinic literature.”25 The husband is to love his wife with Christ-like agape-love, which includes giving himself up for her: “As Christ demonstrated his limitless, unconditional love by dying for us on the cross, so husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives by seeking their good, regardless of the cost to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:4). Paul could not have set a more demanding standard.”26 Indeed, it is an impossible standard, as Mary Healy admits, “except by experiencing Christ’s paschal mystery as a power at work in one’s own life. A person is able to imitate Christ only by participating through grace in the act of love in which he died for us.”27 This bespeaks the vital necessity for the husband to first receive Christ’s initiatory, self-sacrificial love, for “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). If “head” bespeaks precedence in giving love, the man must first receive this love from Christ and then “go and do likewise,” corresponding to Christ’s self-gift in his own gift of self to his wife.

It is precisely this union with one another in Christ which St. Paul emphasizes in vv. 28-32. At the beginning of the pericope, his exhortation was to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ)” (v.21), or more literally, “in the fear of Christ,” a “spherical use” of the pronoun ἐν which suggests “a ‘corporate mystical union between the believer and Christ’ [such that] ‘one is in the sphere of Christ’s control’.”28 Husband and wife are only able to fulfill the radical demands of agape-love “because we are members of his body” (v. 30). St. Paul is outside the realm of analogy now:  “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28) because “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v. 31), as indeed Christ is “one body and one Spirit” (4:4) with His Church (5:32). Here the analogical language of body and head earlier in the pericope is revealed to be more than a rhetorical device: it is “a great mystery” (v. 32), a sacrament of union. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 18), the husband is to love his wife and “nourish and cherish [her], as Christ does the Church” (5:29), and indeed with the very same love with which Christ loves and cares for the Church. 

The final verse of this pericope serves as a summary of St. Paul’s advice to husbands and wives: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself (ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν), and let the wife see that she respects her husband (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα)” (v. 33). The typical English translation of this verse is a bit misleading, however, in that it portrays the two commands as if they are on an even plane. Admittedly it is difficult to render the nuance in translation, but “whereas ἀγαπάω is in the imperative, φοβέομαι is a subjunctive”29 which is part of a ἵνα clause. The typical function of a ἵνα clause is to denote purpose: let A be done in order that (ἵνα) B might be done. Hence, Armstrong argues, 

It seems that ἵνα is expressing an ‘ideal’ state of the relationship between the subjects (husband and wife) … The more specific command is for the husband to love his wife (as himself), and the wife (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ), so that she might respect her husband (ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα). There is a reciprocity and dependency between subjects here—if the husband fails with his task, she just might not respect her husband.30

These are Paul’s final words on the form that mutual submission is to take in a Christian marriage. It is the husband’s initiatory self-gift, laying down his own life in love for his beloved, which makes possible and calls out from her a reciprocal self-gift in the form of obedience and respect. Both husband and wife are called to a radical kind of loving sacrifice which is made possible only by union with and in Christ Jesus, “who has made us both one” (2:14).


In this paper, I have argued that, “although the source of the New Testament Haustafeln has its roots in Greco-Roman writers, especially Aristotle, the Ephesian code is unequivocally different.”31 In the first place, St. Paul’s choice of the words ὑποτάσσω (v. 21)and χεφαλή (v. 23), instead of more common and more unambiguously authoritative language such as ἄρχω, seems deliberately to subvert the traditional language and pattern of a household code. Rather than conceiving of the family as a tiny kingdom over which the husband and father is the undisputed ruler, St. Paul describes it as a body of which the husband is the head. His headship, however, is modeled on Christ’s headship of the Church, which is characterized and constituted by Christ’s initiatory act of love on the Cross, a total self-sacrifice without remainder for the sake of his beloved. The husband is called to give of himself to his wife with the very same love, which will in turn enable his wife, receiving his self-gift, to entrust herself to him in obedience and respect. Just as the husband’s initiatory act of self-sacrifice love “makes room” for his wife’s reciprocal response, it is Christ’s act of love first of all which enables the husband (and indeed the whole Church) to love likewise. All Christians are members of Christ’s body; likewise, the husband and wife are “one flesh,” and thus become “an earthly image of, and in some way participate in, the ineffable mystery of Christ’s love for his people.”32 

Above all, I hope this argument has shown that Ephesians 5:21-33 is a thoroughly Christian text, “premised on the fact that the Gospel has power to radically transform the dynamics of family relationships and the social structures marred by sin.”33 Though the form of the Haustafel and the social structure of the household it presupposes belong to Paul’s cultural and historical context, the content of this Haustafel is the pure Gospel of Christ. Its call for mutual submission, its radical demands for the husband to love his wife as himself and to sacrifice himself for her and its insistence that both spouses are united in one flesh, with the consequences of truly reciprocal love which that entails—these would have been quite as shocking to readers in Paul’s day as the text’s purported sexism is in ours. Now more than ever, in our age of skyrocketing divorce rates and an epidemic of broken families, it is essential that we read and preach this text rightly, with conviction and without fear, to remind men and women of the dignity of their vocation. They are called to love one another not out of pragmatic self-interest, but to make visible and tangible, to one another and to the world, the very love of Christ.


  1. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), 383.
  3. For a representative survey of scholars who hold variations on this perspective, cf. Markus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 551, fn. 249. Cf. also Barth, Bibliography 19, “Ethical Catalogues and Haustafeln,” in Ephesians: 4-6, 824-825. 
  4. Peter S. Williamson, “Who Wrote Ephesians? An Online Postscript,” 4, at Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, http://www.catholiccommentaryonsacredscripture.com/.
  5. Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 627–30. Brown claims on pg. 629 that “70 to 80 percent of critical scholarship” rejects Pauline authorship, although Williamson corrects this claim with a later study, which indicates that by the 1990s, authors publishing works on Ephesians were evenly divided between accepting and rejecting Pauline authenticity.
  6. Barth, Ephesians, 655.
  7. Barth, Ephesians, 652.
  8. Paul VI, Inter insigniores [Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood] (15 October 1976), §4. 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Bruce, Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 383.
  12. David Michael Park, “The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Examination of Hupotasso and Kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33,” The Evangelical Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1987): 118.
  13. Karl L. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō in Ephesians 5.21-33: A Linguistic Approach,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 13 (2017): 158.
  14. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 154.
  15. Aristotle, Politics, 3.1278b.38-1279a1, translated by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 2nd ed., 72. Qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 168.
  16. Kelvin F. Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33 as Christian Alternative Discourse,” Trinity Journal 39 (2018), 1-29 (16), qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 158, fn. 23.
  17. Cf. Park, “Structure of Authority,” 118-119.
  18. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 158.
  19. Ibid, 159.
  20. Ibid, 165. Emphasis added.
  21. Ibid, 163.
  22. Mary Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111, no. 8 (2011): 13.
  23. Ibid, 14.
  24. Ibid, 13. Inner quote is from St. John Paul II, General Audience (September 1, 1982), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 485.
  25. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 748.
  26. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 14.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd. ed.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994),pp. 157, 159, qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 169-170. 
  29. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 159.
  30. Ibid, 159-160.
  31. Ibid, 167.
  32. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 15.
  33. Ibid.

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