When I was a junior in high school I remember my history teacher, Miss Hartzog, taking us through the notorious reign of Henry VIII. A reign so captivating that it seems like a new book, Movie or TV series about it comes out every six months. I was particularly entertained by the story of Henry’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Now, I must confess the traditional way my teacher told the story has been disputed by some historians, but it’s a great story nonetheless. I will give it to you in short:
Henry was in the market for a new wife. Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell suggested Anne of Cleves. Henry was concerned whether she was pretty enough, so they sent the painter Hans Holbien the Younger to paint a portrait to help Henry make up his mind. Hans was absolutely smitten with Anne. She was smart, funny, witty, charming, etc. BUT…she was not pretty. Hans painted from the heart rather than the eyes, and sent back a portrait of a beautiful woman. Henry married her long distance, and when she got there, he was decidedly unimpressed. Miss Hartzog was quick to point out that Anne was also unimpressed with Henry’s aging, stinky self. So they easily agreed to a quick annulment. The annulment meant that the lucky Anne would get a house and fat allowance rather than a beheading. Perhaps beauty is overrated after all.
You think I am working my way to a point about marriage, but I’m not. It’s a point about Bible study. We are now going to embark on some serious study of Ephesians 5:22-33. A passage so important to our series that it will have more than one blog. Some would think it would have made more sense to start with these blogs, but I think the issues we have addressed thus far were antecedent. That is a nerdy way of saying we needed to talk about them first.
What do Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves have to do with studying the Bible? The more important question is what does Hans Holbien the Younger have to do with it? The answer is simply that people often study toe Bible to find, and often teach, what they want to be there rather than what actually is there. Some people approach the Bible with certain conclusions in mind that they hope to validate, and when they do, they usually find what they are looking for whether it is there or not. In the biblical interpretation classes I have been privileged to teach, I often tell my students, “if you assume your conclusion, you will reach it every time.” This is a danger to which we are all susceptible, and I think it is likely that virtually all Bible teachers have done this at some point. However, careful attention to sound methods of study can help us guard against this danger.
Two of the dangerous pitfalls of Bible study are to either to find less than is there, or to find more. Interpreters of Ephesians 5:22-33 often fall into one of these pitfalls. Our more feminist leaning interpreters will interpret the passage as though it is not teaching any authority structure at all. Clever interpretive loopholes are presented in order to convince us that statements like “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and “the husband is head of the wife,” really don’t mean anything at all. Because verse 21 says “submitting to one another” (so the argument goes), all of the specifics in the following verses (except maybe the ones about Jesus saving us) may be effectively obliterated. Because any fool can see that the phrase “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” means “Every believer submit to every other believer in exactly the same way.” I mean, what else could it mean? My intent here is not to poke fun, but to observe that a highly unlikely interpretation of one phrase is used to soften, if not eliminate, the meaning of several other phrases. This is a good example of finding less than what is actually there in the biblical text.
On the other side of the spectrum, many of our complementarian interpreters find far more in the text of Ephesians 5:22-33 than is actually there. Taking the phrase “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church,” they virtually interpret this to mean “Everything Christ is to the church, the husband is to the wife.” At present, there is a very popular teaching that says that a husband is supposed to be his wife’s “prophet, priest and king,” because Christ is these things to the church. I know of very godly men who teach this, but I must candidly say that this teaching is thoroughly unbiblical and incredibly dangerous. It is a good example of finding far more than the biblical text actually says.
These two issues, as it happens, give us a good opportunity to make some exegetical observations that will prepare us for a more in depth treatment of the passage in our next blog. Let us begin with a brief overview of the book of Ephesians.
Ephesians 1-3 lay a theological foundation for everything Christian. In God’s eternal plan, he chose us, predestined us and saved us. Believers are God’s adopted children, and we share in a heavenly inheritance. God saved us for the purpose of creating His church, often called “the body of Christ,” which is a gathering of people from all nations who will spend eternity glorifying Him as he eternally lavishes his love upon us. Why did God do all of that? Because he loves us! Ephesians has sometimes been called “Paul’s epistle of love.” Then, in chapters 4-6, Paul goes on to tell us how these important truths have a practical effect on the day to day life of the Christian. God has gifted every member of the church for the work of the ministry. The fruits of salvation are good works that are characterized by love, selflessness and truth. These good works are possible because God has saved us and given us His Holy Spirit who lives in us and enables us to live the life to which he has called us. The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is called the filling of the Holy Spirit. This does not describe a process of receiving more of the Holy Spirit, but rather of the Holy Spirit filling our lives with the things that please God. The Spirit-filled life is a life lived under the Holy Spirit’s control.
The description of the Spirit-filled life is not limited to the verses that follow 5:18, but rather, it encompasses the entire “walk” section of the epistle, beginning in 4:17 and stretching to 6:20. “Walk” is a metaphor in the Bible for the way one lives. You will notice that the buildup to the command about being filled by the Spirit begins with the command “Look carefully then how you walk” (5:15). Within this section are commandments about avoiding worldliness, treating one another in a loving way, properly relating to one another in the roles in which God has placed us, and standing strong in spiritual warfare. Ephesians 5:22-33 comes to us in the context of relating to one another properly in the roles God has given us. And, oh by gosh by golly, this means that most of us have to submit to someone! Of course, all of us have to submit to God (James 4:7). But even beyond this, God has established authority structures (for a more detailed explanation of this, see the previous blog “Leadership is Service”).
Ephesians 5:22-6:9 is a unit within Ephesians that addresses three kinds of relationships in which the Spirit-filled believer might find his or herself: marriage, parent-child relationships and the workplace. The subject is introduced in 5:21, where Paul says “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In fact, the verb “submit” is implied in verse 22, and must be supplied from the immediate context. We could look at this out of context and say that this means that every believer must submit to every other believer in exactly the same way, but this is very difficult to justify when we keep reading. After describing a relationship of love and submission between husbands and wives, Paul goes on to instruct children to obey their parents. Are we to suppose that he intended us to understand this to mean that parents should also obey their children?
After the discussion of parents and children, he moves on to the subject of slaves and masters. I know this is quite a touchy subject, but slavery was a reality in the Greco-Roman world in which Paul was writing. The New Testament neither commands or condones slavery (The book of Philemon gives us a very good idea of how Paul felt about it), but it does recognize the reality. In many cities there were more slaves than free people, and a freed slave had very few options for survival, so it was not as simple as a believer simply freeing all their slaves. We should also note that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was quite a bit different than the slavery we read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as you will find if you embark on a thorough historical study of the matter. In this context, Paul commands slaves to obey their masters, while commanding masters to treat slaves justly. However we feel personally about the reality or Greco-Roman slavery, an honest read shows us that Paul did not mean that masters were supposed to obey their slaves in the same way that slaves were to obey their masters. Most evangelical interpreters (including myself) think there is an application from this text for the modern day workplace. Employees should obey their employers in the context of their workplace authority, so long as doing so does not mean disobeying God. I have had to do many tasks in an under-efficient way at various jobs because a boss or supervisor was convinced that it was better. As I said, most of us have to submit to someone.
One might say, “aha, but the word ‘obey” is used in the second two relationships but ‘submit’ is used in the first.” Unfortunately for our loophole seekers, “obey” is within the semantic range of submit. And the standard lexicon for New Testament Exegesis (=BDAG, see footnote 1 for the full bibliographic info) lists Eph 5:22 and Col 3:18 under the definition that includes this meaning. We should also mention that definition the word for “obey” in 6:1 and 6:5 lists “be subject to,” as well as “obey.” The point is that these words function as synonyms in this context. In fact, these two words are used interchangeably by Peter in 1 Peter 3:4-5: “ For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” The simple reality is that Paul is talking about submission in the context of biblically established authority structures, and he does teach a man’s authority over his own wife.
Now we must address the issue of those who would make this text say more than it actually says. We may begin by noting that the passage does not use the words “prophet,” “priest” or “king.” Actually, the words “priest” and “king” do not even appear in the book of Ephesians. Where would someone get that idea? It is an extrapolation from the phrase “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.” Essentially, the argument says that everything that this passage says about Christ and the church has a corresponding equivalent in the relationship of a husband and wife. And the activities of Christ described in this passage have a prophetic, priestly and kingly function, so the husband must have these functions for his wife. For a moment we will bypass the critical theological danger of this claim, and first expose the interpretive error.
One of the fundamental things one must understand for sound biblical interpretation is the importance of structural markers. Structural markers are linguistic tools that help us understand the developing argument, narrative, poem, etc., depending on what genre of biblical literature we are studying. In the case of Ephesians, the genre is epistolary, which means it is a letter. As Paul compares the relationship of a husband and wife with than of Christ and the church, he cannot resist the temptation to expand on what Christ has done for the church. The point of parallel is that a husband’s love for his wife should self-sacrificial, like that of Christ for the church. But to press it beyond this is going beyond Paul’s intent. How do we know where he is making a parallel and where he is speaking only of Christ? We know by his use of structural markers. The NASB translation, while not generally very pretty to read, gets us about as close as we can come to a word for word translation of the Greek text. Using this translation, let us observe the structural markers:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she [r]respects her husband.
Using the categories given to us by Howard and William Hendricks (See footnote 3), broadly speaking, we can say that there is an interchange throughout the passage between concepts that draw a parallel between the marriage relationship and the Christ-church relationship, and concepts that are unique to the latter. After saying that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, Paul uses the intensive form “he himself” (Greek = αὐτὸς ) to emphasize a distinction. Christ is the savior of the body, but the husband is not the savior of the wife. The conjunction “but” in v. 24 then shows that Paul has returned to the parallel.
I put the words “so that” in bold above. This explains the reason Christ gave himself for the church. But in truth, the unique work of Christ begins with the phrase “and gave himself for her.” The transition is a somewhat tapered one, because there is some parallel in that husbands should love their wives sacrificially, but the past tense of “gave” shows us that Paul is pointing to Christ’s death on the cross. I hope it need not be said that a husband cannot die as a substitute for his wife’s sins, taking the wrath of God on himself in her behalf. Just as importantly, a man does not sanctify or cleanse his wife, which, in context, would mean saving her from sin and making her righteous before God so that she could go to heaven. In this next blog, I will demonstrate that this is the work of Christ about which Paul is talking. For now I will just say that the “word” in verse 26 is the gospel message, and the washing is the cleansing from sin that takes place at salvation.
The word “so” in verse 28 tells us that Paul is returning to the husband-wife parallels. He clarifies his meaning by saying that Husbands ought love their wives as their own bodies. He spends some time explaining the reasoning behind this. Then in verse 32 he says “This mystery is great.” Lest the readers should be confused, thinking he is referring to marriage, he clarifies: “But I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” In other words, a man leaving his father and mother to be joined to his wife is not a great mystery, but the union of Christ and the church is. Then in verse 33, the word “nevertheless” shows us that Paul has returned to the subject of husband and wife relations to summarize his original point. If you read a translation that has a slightly different meaning in any of these details, my reasons for following the NASB will be explained in the next blog. But even if we use a slightly different translation, we see that we cannot press each aspect of Christ’s work for a husband-wife parallel, and we certainly see no indication of a husband as prophet, priest or king.
Why make such a big deal of this? Is that language harmful? Decidedly yes! I want to state what I have to say carefully, but also clearly. I know very godly people that use the language of prophet, priest and king to refer to the husband as head of the home. I also know of famous Bible teachers whom I greatly respect and from whom I have greatly benefitted who speak this way. However, it is a very serious error. Why, because it usurps messianic prerogatives and bestows them on others than Christ. To understand this, we must understand the meaning of these words. Prophet, priest and king were three very important roles in ancient Israel. The rightful king, after the demise of Saul, was a descendant of David. The title for the rightful king was “The Lord’s Anointed.” The term “anointed” is the same word (in Hebrew and Greek) as “messiah.” Jesus Christ is the last king in David’s line, and because he lives forever, his rule is forever. Therefore, in for the New Covenant people of God, encompassing both the Church and Israel, Christ is the only king. Calling a man “king of the castle” as a domestic metaphor is one thing, but to suggest that a man is king over his wife (or children) in any spiritual sense is to give him a title and rights that only belong to Jesus Christ.
In ancient Israel, as well as in the early church, God’s people did not have a completed Bible. Thus when they needed God’s revealed will, there were designated spokespeople through whom God would speak. They were called prophets. There is debate over whether there are prophets in the church today, or whether the need for prophets is finished with the completion of the Bible. This is an involved discussion that would take us far outside of our present subject. I personally do not believe there are prophets today. But, however that may be, a prophet was (and possibly is) someone through whom God speaks. Though (amazingly) some deny it, when God speaks, He is never wrong. Therefor,e a prophet is a vehicle for God’s authoritative, inerrant revelation. Anything less is not prophecy. The Hebrew word for prophet is Navee, which comes from the verb Nava. Wilson defines the verb thus: verb “to announce; to show; to deliver an oracle from God; to speak as God’s ambassador; to foretell future events; to sing songs or hymns: each implying divine inspiration” (italics mine). The Greek word for prophecy is prophaeteia from the verb prophaeteuo. The verb, like in the OT means one who speaks divine revelation .
Whether some today have the gift of prophecy today, I think we can safely agree that not every married man has it. To say a man is a prophet to his wife is to say that he has the right so speak for God in his marriage. It implies he can tell her things that she has no right to question him. I know that is not what everyone means by “prophet,” but that IS what prophet means. And when one reads the Bible and sees the role of prophets in its pages, this can get very confusing. It is a good way to give delusional men tools for abuse and manipulation and place women in a very vulnerable place. A man should, of course, try to be a godly spiritual leader in his home. But he does not have the right to speak for God.
In ancient Israel, a priest was a mediator between God and God’s people. One of the great benefits of the Protestant Reformation was that Martin Luther rediscovered the fact that every believer is a priest under the New Covenant (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6), and there is one High Priest above us all (Hebrews 4:14-15). His name is Jesus! That every believer is a priest means that every believer has direct access to God through the work of Christ. Believers need no other individual to go directly before the throne of God. To suggest that a man is “the priest of his home” is to suggest that he is somehow a mediator before God for his wife and children. This borders on the blasphemous! Consider 1 Timothy 2:5-6: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” Jesus has not left any room for a doctrine of the husband-father priesthood. Let the reader beware!
In our next blog we will comb through Ephesians 5:22-33 in great exegetical detail, and focus a great deal more on what the text IS saying. But it is very important that we not try to limit the text by our own preferences. And it is more important still that we do not squeeze out of it doctrines that run counter to the New Testament doctrines about Christ and the church. As Agur warned us so many years ago:
“Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar (Prov 30:5-6).”
Note: I deliberately chose not to cite the
major writers who hold the views interacted with in this blog. I felt it more
helpful to engage the views themselves than get distracted by who said what.
Any reader who wants references need only ask for them by email. The primary
views discussed would not be difficult to find online. Virtually and
egalitarian exegesis of Eph 5 would have some version of the first view
engaged, and the teaching that a husband is the “prophet, priest and king” of
his family is immensely popular in some circles. Anything in the blog that seemed
sarcastic was not intended as such. I deliberately write in a rather bantering style,
in the interest of being engaging. Finally, if anyone would like more thorough exegetical
validation, with commentaries and reference works, I will be happy to provide them.
I can be emailed at email@example.com.
 Bauer, Walter, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1042, ὑποτάσσω 1b.
 Ibid., 1028, ὑπακούω, 1.
 For a good description of the major structural markers, see Howard G. Hendricks and Williiam D. Hendricks, Living By the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible, 2d ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers2007), 125-26.
 William Wilson, Wilson’s old Testament Word Studies (Maclean, VA: Macdonald Publishing Company, N.D.), 330.
 See BDAG, 890.