Metaphors are powerful.
With a picture that’s worth a thousand words, a metaphor can translate the unknown and abstract into concrete and known. It gets our attention and engages our emotions and imaginations. However the meaning of a metaphor can be perplexing, especially when it’s used within an ancient cultural context.
Understanding metaphors takes work because they are imprecise by nature. The image demands patience as it invites us to a leisurely stroll around it, looking at the metaphor from all angles like a sculpture in a museum. It is a picture to be pondered, not to be passed over quickly without questioning assumptions and initial perceptions. Metaphors require thoughtful examination but they resist efforts to reduce it to a statement of facts or a dictionary definition.
Like the one in Ephesians 5.
By tradition, the metaphor in this passage has been reduced to a model and a mandate: The husband is the authoritative head to which the wife, his body, submits. In everything. Therefore the husband must be the spiritual leader of the home and the wife must be the respectful follower. Lately conservative interpreters have conceded to adding a halo of loving sacrifice on his head in connecting the husband to Christ in order to soften the current cultural resistance to submission.
No mystery here.
The problem is Paul says there is a mystery. In fact there is a PROFOUND MYSTERY. In verse 32 Paul explicitly ascribes it to Christ and the Church. But he also clearly links the mystery to the “one flesh” union of a husband and wife in verse 31. The quote from Genesis 2:24 occupies a special place in the immediate context which serves then to inform the head and body metaphor used by Paul. But before I address the significance of verse 31, let me back up to the previous verses and suggest an alternative understanding of those verses.
In Ephesians 5:22-27 the relationship between the head and the body, or the husband and the wife, cannot be understood apart from the reigning paradigm of verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Verse 21 supplies the verb “submit” for verse 22, which is verbless.) This verse is critical to understanding the rest of the chapter.
Like a pair of reading glasses that have been left on the table for too many years, the verse has been ignored to the detriment to our understanding of the metaphor. Once the glasses are put on, you gain an alternative reading of Ephesians 5 and a vision of a mutuality that God intended from time of Genesis 1 and 2. Paul takes his command in verse 21 and fleshes it out in the following three spheres of relationships: marriage, parenting, and slavery. In each of these spheres, Paul applies the principle of mutual submission, which would have been counter-cultural to his audience.
Let me start with the last and work my way back. Slaves submit by humble obedience and wholehearted service while masters submit by treating their slaves with kindness and fairness. Children submit by obeying and honoring their parents while fathers submit by not exasperating their children but instead by being involved in their nurturing. Assuming consistency, Paul also applies the principle of mutual submission to the husband and wife relationship.
The issue at hand is not who is in authority but how we are to treat one another within the current cultural context of hierarchical relationships. Paul is not prescribing an authority structure (otherwise we would accept slavery today) but is fleshing out mutual submission within those relationships.
Interestingly when Paul addresses the marital relationship, not much is offered as to how the wife submits to the husband. This is conjecture on my part but perhaps the readers of Paul’s day know fairly well what submission looks like for wives since they have been submitting for hundreds of years and that is why Paul’s instruction to wives does not need further explanation.
What is new to his readers is the inference that husbands are to submit to their wives. So Paul spends more time on submission for a husband who seeks to follow Christ. Such a husband will love his wife like Christ loves the Church. That kind of love sacrifices for the other and puts the other before him. The words of Paul describe a kingdom-defining, culture-defying relational dynamic unknown to the typical first century Christian husband.
However, care must be taken to not make the correlation between the husband and Christ too closely. A husband’s love cannot accomplish for the wife what only Christ can do. A husband does not make a wife holy – only Christ does. A husband cannot cleanse her through the word – only Christ does. A husband does not present his wife to Christ as a pure and blameless bride – only Christ does. Husbands are NOT like Christ in this way and the husband is NOT responsible for the wife’s spiritual state. This is an inappropriate extrapolation from the metaphor. In fact Paul has already stated that only Christ is the Savior of the church, which includes both husbands and wives.
During the first few years of my marriage, I had a very clear picture of what I expected from Jon – a knight in shining armor come to rescue me from my slide into a spiritual pit where I was slowly losing my passionate love for Christ. I had hopes that Jon as my “head” would lead me back to Christ.
That didn’t happen. And for good reason. Jon was not my “savior.”
As my spiritual state deteriorated I began to panic. I did everything I could to avoid the slide down, digging my heels deep into the side of the hill through counsel, mentoring, reading, and praying. I tried to respond to Jon’s attempts to lead but he had his own spiritual journey and he didn’t know how to lead me. It was painfully awkward for both of us. When I gave birth to three sons in three years, our family devotions became child-friendly but not desperate-wife-friendly.
I finally quit taking communion. That’s when it hit Jon that I was in deep spiritual trouble. He felt helpless. Seven years into our marriage I hit bottom and abandoned my faith in Christ.
But Christ did not abandon me. With the help of a woman who eventually became my mentor, Christ revealed himself to me and I was transformed. That transformation not only impacted my journey with Christ but it also impacted my journey with Jon. We began a new dance.
A dance of adults in which we individually took ownership of our own spirituality.
A dance of equals in which we respected each other’s unique form of spirituality and leadership.
A dance of lovers in which we shed our facades and grew in love and knowledge of each other’s true selves.
A dance of full humanity in which we faced our weaknesses and leaned into each other’s strengths.
In those years after my transformation, our dance was really awkward, at times painful as we stepped on each other’s toes. But with each passing year we got better at dancing. And it’s still getting better. Sometimes he leads and sometimes I lead. In our understanding of mutuality in partnership we believe the leader is the one who is stronger and more gifted. The follower is the one who humbly accepts limitations and trusts the other.
Over time the dance has become smoother. It’s become more graceful. Thirty-three years later it’s definitely more fun!
So how IS the husband like Christ? If he is not the wife's savior, then how is he to love her? How does he "give himself up for her"?
Paul goes on in the next section, 5:26-33, to explain how the husband’s relationship with his wife correlates to Christ’s relationship with the Church introducing it by the phrase “in the same way.”
Paul takes the correspondence of husband-wife and Christ-Church to a deeper and more profound connection – the mysterious one flesh union. The head/body metaphor is not a model for setting the husband above the wife in authority or responsibility. It is a metaphor for unity, one that is founded on their marriage union as equal partners of grace in a relationship of mutual submission. Notice that Paul does not exhort the husband to become the head of his wife. He states what is the reality of marriage – the husband is connected to his wife as a head is to the body.
For Paul, the mystery of this union is best pictured by a human body that is viewed holistically. Using a Jewish literary device called a chiasm, Paul connects the concrete metaphor of a head with its body to a theological mystery. (Many New Testament scholars acknowledge Hebraic or Semitic styles employed by the NT authors.) Here is how these verses are laid out as chiasm:
(A) husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
(B) After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.
(C) For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.
(B) This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
(A) However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
I believe many make a mistake in applying linear thinking to this passage of Paul’s writing. The main point is not at the end – husbands love your wives and wives respect your husbands. The main point is in the center, identified by the chiastic structure: A husband is to leave his family of origin and be united with his wife in a one-flesh union.
Surrounding the main point of the one-flesh union are the layers of implication. First, the one flesh marriage union is a picture of the “marriage” union of Christ to the Church, his Bride. It is as impossible to separate a husband from his wife as it is to separate Christ from his Church.
Second, it is impossible for the husband to hurt his wife without hurting himself. A husband is united to his wife in a mysterious and organic way such that he must love his wife like it is assumed he loves himself. A husband’s headship is defined as a nurturing role of feeding and caring, not as a leadership or decision-making role. It is the same nurturing role described by Paul as defining Christ’s headship in Ephesians 4:15-16.
If Paul had wanted to perpetuate a patriarchal model of marriage, it would have made more sense to appeal to the order of creation or the deception of Eve which he uses in 1 Timothy 2:13. Instead he appeals to a verse that defines the core of a marriage – the mysterious union of husband and wife where two individuals become “one flesh,” a metaphor that corresponds to the head-attached-to-body image.
The relationship of the head to the body is not a function of authority but a function of unity and a necessity to life. You can cut off an arm or leg and you still have a body that lives. But cut off the head and you kill the body. Paul is exhorting husbands to embrace what has been true since the day the vows were exchanged and the marriage was consummated. A husband is connected to his wife in a mysterious union of one flesh, of one body. Therefore he must act out that union by submitting to his wife and loving his own “body” by giving himself up for her. A husband cannot treat the marriage as if he is independent of his wife.
I do not believe Paul is exhorting the husband to step into a role of spiritual leader (note: “lead” or “leader” is never used in this passage), but to step with his wife in a partnership of unity by connecting to his wife like a head needs to connect with its body. Disconnection from his wife hurts her, even “kills” her as it would if a person was beheaded. It will also "kill" him.
This is what it felt like for me during a very rough time in our marriage. Our dance had stopped. Jon was overwhelmed with fulltime teaching and parttime management of a program for the school district. He was hardly home.
And I kept myself busy as well, first with homeschooling and later with seminary and church ministry. We quit spending time together just for fun and for romance. Jon was focused on juggling his work and his students and he was happy to have me take care of everything else. We were managers living as housemates in a disconnected dance.
Finally one evening I told Jon I had lost my feelings of love for him. I told him the long-term disconnection left me numb and unable to respond to him with any feeling. I also assured him that I had no intention of leaving him. I was committed to our marriage. But I could no longer maintain my façade of happiness and needed to be completely honest. There were no demands, I said, just a deep desire for him to really know me, for him to know how empty and broken my heart was.
It was terribly difficult for me to say these words to him. I knew it would hurt him deeply. Jon didn’t say much but with his eyes and his embrace, he received my words with grace and humility. And then in the following months he acted.
Within one year our marriage was completely transformed and our hearts were reconnected. Our one flesh union was no longer just a theological statement but became a deeply felt reality.
Paul’s metaphor for marriage is not a model or a mandate. It is a PROFOUND MYSTERY in its image of unity that cannot be fully explained but is intended by God to be experienced. This is true of both marriage and Christ and the Church. (If you want to consider something that will really blow your mind, especially if you still insist on equating headship with leadership, read Alan G. Padgett’s As Christ Submits to the Church where he argues servant leadership IS mutual submission.)
Understanding of the head and body metaphor for marriage as a picture of unity rather than leadership makes more sense to me within the immediate context of Ephesians 5:21—6:9 as well as within the whole book where unity is a main theme. I offer this alternative understanding of Ephesians 5 to couples who want an alternative story for their marriage. I offer it to couples who actually live this kind of unity and co-leadership despite the story they have been told in the church. I respect the decision of those who choose to remain loyal to the traditional story but I suggest that a husband’s role of leadership be assigned by gifting and agreed to by mutual consent rather than a mandate based on a possible misreading of Ephesians 5.
I read this quote recently: “Therapy is the art of changing a person’s controlling metaphor.”
I want to offer a different controlling metaphor to those marriages which struggle with the burden of an oppressive interpretation of Ephesians 5. I think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captures the intent of Paul’s metaphor in his poem, Song of Hiawatha, and offers a 19th century version of the metaphor:
As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other!