Wifely Submission within the Rhetorical Context of Ephesians

It is often stated that wives are to submit to their husbands. Appeals are made to Eph 5:22-24 to justify such a statement. This passage of Scripture is interpreted to mean that husbands lead and wives follow, and such is the biblical stance, the God-ordained structure for marriage; deviating from this structure is considered unbiblical and displeasing to the Lord. Although many people believe Eph 5:22-24 solidify the submissive role of wives in a God-ordained marriage relationship, the rhetorical context of Ephesians leads us to interpret this passage differently, so that husbands and wives are seen as equals, in which a power struggle is entirely absent, and together they are striving to fulfill the role of the church–to do good works and to show God’s diverse wisdom, the mystery that is the gospel. We will look at the rhetorical context and see both how Eph 5:22-24 fits and ought to be interpreted with respect to the letter’s rhetoric.

The Letter to the Ephesians is an epideictic piece of rhetoric. As such, it seeks not to deliberate or to prove, but, rather, it seeks to praise. In this case, it seeks to praise God for the deeds he has done through Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity, as explicitly demonstrated in the Church. The deeds are first mentioned in the exordium (Eph 1:3-23) and later expounded and amplified in more detail in the narratio (Eph 2:1-3:21). God has brought his children from death to life, saving them from their sins, seating them with Christ at his right hand in the heavenly places. The moral end of these deeds, established in the narratio, is twofold: for the Church both to do the good deeds God prepared for them to do and to proclaim God’s diverse wisdom to the world. This moral end is expounded and amplified in more detail in the exhortatio (Eph 4:1-6:9). The Church is to be unified, to live according to the new person, to imitate God, and to live wisely. The peroratio (Eph 6:10-20) summarizes the whole of the narratio and the exhortatio, just as the exordium does, but it does so in an eloquently concluding fashion: God continues to do good deeds by providing the armor necessary for overcoming the wiles of the devil, and the armor metaphorically depicted stems from God’s other deeds, the moral end of those deeds, and the exhortations comprising the moral end. Ephesians praises God for what he has done, tells of those deeds and their purpose, proclaims in more details their purpose, and ties it all together in the call to be strengthened by God, use His armor, and withstand the devil.

Wifely submission is part of the Ephesian haustafel (Eph 5:21-6:9), which is part of the fourth section of the exhortatio (Eph 5:15-6:9), which calls the audience to live wisely, making the most of the times, which are evil. Living wisely is stated as not getting drunk with wine but being filled by the Spirit, which entails speaking and singing in hymnody, giving thanks, and submitting to each other (Eph 5:15-21). The haustafel explains what it means to submit to each other. Within this haustafel, there are three pairings: wives-husbands (Eph 5:22-33); children-parents (Eph 6:1-4); and slaves-masters (Eph 6:5-9). The wifely submission is stated first in Eph 5:22-24 and reiterated, albeit with different terms, in Eph 5:33. Submission for the husbands to their wives is redefined as love, for parents to their children it is redefined as nourish and discipline, and for masters to their slaves it is redefined as not threatening. Children are instructed to submit by obeying their parents, and slaves are instructed to submit by obeying their masters. Wives are instructed to submit by fearing or respecting their husbands.

On the surface, the wifely submission appears to solidify the statement that the Lord wants wives to follow their husbands and not the other way around. Let it be known that Eph 5:22 does not explicitly state, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” The verb to submit is absent from Eph 5:22. Indeed, this verse has no verb; it is supplied from Eph 5:21 (middle voice of to submit). As a result, whatever meaning is evident in the preceding verse must be carried over into the next. Ephesians 5:21 calls all believers to submit to each other. Therefore, Eph 5:22-24, provides a mere example of what it means for all believers to submit to each other in the case of the marital relationship, specifically for wives. This submission is substantiated by an appeal to the Christ-Church relationship. Christ is the head of the Church, so the husband is the head of the wife; the Church submits to Christ, so the wife submits to the husband. But things are not always as they seem. The rhetorical composition leads us to a different conclusion than the prima facie interpretation. There are four contextual factors involved: the context of the haustafel; the context of the head analogy as found in both the exordium and the exhortatio; the context of the narratio’s moral goal and its amplification in the exhortatio; and the context of the peroratio.

In the haustafel, both the children and the slaves are instructed to obey. Wives, however, are not. Something is different. Submission is not synonymous with obedience. Furthermore, submission is not merely respecting leadership of a superior. Submission in this context is mutual for all parties, whether children or parents, slaves or masters, or wives or husbands. Within the context of the haustafel, we have to conclude that wifely submission is something different than we might expect. In fact, the terminology changes later. Ephesians 5:33 summarizes the wife-husband pairing within the haustafel. It instructs wives not to submit but to respect or fear their husbands while husbands are instructed to love their wives. This change in vocabulary forces us to interpret the wifely submission differently. Wifely submission entails not obedience, not inferiority, but respect.

It is noteworthy that in the wives-husbands pairing husbands are neither instructed to lead nor to rule, but, rather, they are told to love their wives. Their love is to be modeled after Christ’s love for the Church. Christ loved the Church sacrificially, seeking to cleanse the Church and present her to himself as a holy, blameless, spotless, and glorious being. Additionally, their love for their wives is to be just as it is for their neighbors: “Thusly, husbands ought to love their own wives as they love their own bodies. The one who loves his own wife loves himself” (cf. Eph 5:28; contra. Lev 19:18, “. . . but you will love your neighbor as yourself”). Christ has this very love for the Church. He nourishes and cherishes the Church (Eph 5:29). The author quotes Gen 2:24, which says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will be in one flesh” (Eph 5:31). This one flesh is a great mystery, the gospel, as far as the Christ-Church entity is concerned, but it is reflected in the marital relationship, since both the Church and the wives are reliant upon their heads for growth and nourishment, and Christ and the husbands sacrificially love their bodies. Therefore, wifely submission entails respect but also reliance.

In the exordium, all things are subordinated under Christ’s feet, and Christ is appointed as head over all things in the Church, which is His body (Eph 1:22). Two things are happening here: first, everything in this world is subordinated under Christ (the verb is the active voice for to subordinate, to submit); second, Christ is made the head, and the Church is His body. However, it is the Christ-Church entity that rules over everything in this world. At first glance, it appears that submission is indeed about superiority and it is linked to the head-body metaphor as such. This understanding misses the point. The Church has been caused to sit down with Christ in the heavenly places (cf. Eph 2:6) and therefore shares in the superiority over everything in the world. The metaphor of the head-body is kept separate from this discussion of superiority. Later, in the exhortatio, the Christ-Church relationship is mentioned again, well before the haustafel. Christ is stated to be the head of the Church (Eph 4:15). It is from the head, Christ, that the body, the Church, is fit and brought together in order to grow in love (Eph 5:16). The analogy of the head has nothing to do with superiority; it has everything to do with growth. The Church relies on Christ for growth. In the exordium, the analogy demonstrates that Christ and the Church are a connected entity. In the exhortatio, the analogy demonstrates the Church’s dependence upon Christ within the connected entity for growth. If wives are to model the Church, which depends on Christ for growth, then their submission is done for growth as well.

In the narratio, it is established that the Church is to do good works (Eph 2:10) and to make known God’s diverse wisdom (Eph 3:10). This twofold statement is the moral end of all of God’s deeds. Living wisely, being filled with the Spirit, i.e., submitting, is one of the good works believers within the Church are called to do, and it is one way that believers within the Church can participate in making known God’s diverse wisdom. However, this participation does not mean that it is God’s wisdom for wives to submit and for husbands to lead. On the contrary, wifely submission was one way for wives to participate in the proclaiming of the gospel, which is the mystery. God’s wisdom is not for wives to submit, but for the Church to spread the gospel. The author of Ephesians is giving wives a role in this evangelistic goal.

In the peroratio, the speech is brought to a close. The contents of the narratio and exhortatio are summarized in an elaborate and eloquent series of metaphors. This grand metaphor, the armor of God, is utilized for the purpose of making requests for the author to speak the mystery boldly. The author thus reiterates the twofold moral end of God’s deeds, which is in the background throughout the entire speech–good deeds and evangelism. The author of Ephesians wants to gain the ability to speak boldly and confidently when he attempt to make known the mystery, which is the gospel. This concern is evident in the instruction for wives to submit, for they are participating both in the good deed of submission and making known the mystery.

Given the various literary contexts between the haustafel, exordium, narratio, exhortatio, and peroratio, we can conclude that wifely submission entails respect and reliance, not obedience and inferiority. In fact, wives are seen as equals. The author of Ephesians takes power out of the situation. There is no power struggle. Everyone submits to each other as equals, including wives to their husbands and husbands to their wives. This submission is part of a greater plan to do good and to proclaim the gospel. We have shown that Eph 5:22-33 does not mean husbands lead and wives follow, but instead the letter’s rhetoric disarms such a prima facie reading.