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"Headship" in Ephesians

April 7, 2007
One hotly debated subject within the church and evangelicalism today is the role of the wife in submission to her husband and the role of the husband in the position of head over his wife and family. One view that is rising among evangelicals in the church is the view that submission in marriage is equal between the husband and wife. This view is called egalitarianism. They pull their Scriptural evidence from Ephesians 5:20-21, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” However, according to the wider context of Ephesians, submission in marriage is far more complex. Surely, both husbands and wives should submit to one-another, but as Ephesians 5:22-33 instructs us, it should be as the Church and Christ functions together, which Paul calls a profound mystery (Ephesian 5:32).

Understanding the term “headship” may helpful in interpreting Paul’s meaning of submission in marriage. Ephesians 1:22 is the first use of the word, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things [in] the church” (note: Paul’s use of the dative is certainly sphere, therefore, my own translation would be in the church rather than to the church). Paul is citing from Psalm 8, the dominion of the king, “you have put all things under his feet.” Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, God honored him as the king over all of creation, and more specifically made him the head of his body, the church. Here, Christ has reign over everything, but has a more intimate headship over his own body, the Church (see Ephesians 1:22-23).

Ephesians 4:15 is the second use of the word, “Rather speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” The unity of the church is the context that controls this passage. The headship of Christ is the stem of all unity and “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” when it submits itself properly(4:16). Unity within the head, that is Christ, sanctifies the Church, unifies it, and builds it up in love.

Finally, in Ephesians 5:23, “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.” The parallel is clear, in the relationship between the husband and the wife, the husband is paralleled to Christ as head and the wife is paralleled to the Church as one in submission to the headship of the husband. A biblical survey of how God historically chooses Israel or the Church as his Bride throughout wisdom and prophetic literature and how he, more specifically Christ, is portrayed as the Bridegroom throughout the gospels would be helpful, but space only allows us to look at Paul’s most detailed teaching on the subject.

There is a one-ship that is granted in the relationship between the husband and the wife as is with Christ and the Church. The Church and Christ are one body with Christ as the head, as it is with the husband and the wife, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (vs. 28), and later in verse 31, when referring to Genesis 2, “the two shall become one flesh.” This headship of the husband includes sacrificial love as Christ showed love through sacrifice (5:25-27) and nourishment (5:28-30).

Paul’s use of headship in Ephesians 5 should be related to his previous uses in 1:22 and 4:15.

  • Just as Christ is “head over all things in the Church” (1:22) so should “wives submit in everything (or all things) to their husband” (5:24).
  • Just as unity within the headship of Christ in the Church builds up the Church in love (4:15-16 – as Ephesians 2:21-22 also says, “Christ, in whom the whole structure [the Church], being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit”) so should husbands be the head over wives in order to nourish her and cherish her properly as Christ does the Church in sanctifying her and presenting her spotless (5:25-30).

So, in the eternal wisdom of God, he has chosen to create marriage to help us see the glorious picture of Christ’s love for his Church. Any distortion of God’s instruction for us in marriage also distorts his chosen means in which he displays his eternal love and satisfaction for his bride. For the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ, this truth should sober every husband and wife to pursue God’s model of marriage.

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