The passage that has received vigorous debate on this topic is in Ephesians 5, and it reads as follows:
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of his wife as the Messiah is the head of the church. It is he who is the Savior of the body. Indeed, just as the church is submissive to the Messiah, so wives must be submissive to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives as the Messiah loved the church and gave himself for it, so that he might make it holy by cleansing it, washing it with water and the word, and might present the church to himself in all its glory, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind, but holy and without fault. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies. A man who loves his wife loves himself. For no one has ever hated his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, as the Messiah does the church. For we are parts of his body—of his flesh and of his bones. "That is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great secret, but I am talking about the Messiah and the church. But each individual man among you must love his wife as he loves himself; and may the wife fear her husband.
Starting with v. 22, Paul begins his version of the household code with instructions to wives, and this initiates a pattern that he will follow throughout the code. The reason for this is because Christians were viewed as subversive to the household laws. An example is the inviting of wives, children, and slaves, to believe in Christ whether or not the pater familias [male head of the household] did. This was clearly a rejection of the male’s authority to determine the religion of the whole household. Hence, biblical laws made it clear that the traditional cultural submission of wives, children, and slaves, are now “to the Lord” instead of the male head and of what he approves.
Thus, Paul describes the ways in how the male head should serve his wife, children, and slaves, and this was not part of the traditional cultural teaching. It shocked male readers to learn that they had a responsibility to serve those whom they were brought up to believe should serve them! To learn that their wives were equal heirs of God’s grace [1 Peter 3:7], or that they should behave towards them in the same way Christ did in giving his life for the good of the church [rather than as Christ ruling in heaven], was a novel idea that turned the cultural ideas on its head.
The proper ordering of the household was a common topic in the philosophical and exhortatory literature of the Greco-Roman world. It was an important element in the political philosophy of Plato [4th century b.c.], and his own discussion of the household shows that he was taking up a topic that was already part of philosophical tradition. Aristotle [4th century b.c.] also discussed household management under the heading of how to govern the city-state. His views were adopted and published in the 1st century b.c. by Arius Didymus, the court philosopher of Augustus, and they reappear in Stoic, Jewish, Neo-Pythagorean, and early Christian texts.
Since the topic is so common in extant Greco-Roman literature, it is not surprising that the early Christian discussions of household management resemble those of the prevailing culture [a full list of scriptures are Colossians 3:18–4:1; 1 Peter 2:13–3:7; 1 Timothy 2:1–3:13; 6:1–2; Titus 1:5–9; 2:2–10; 3:1]. Thus, Paul is writing to the Ephesians in a time and place where Christians were thought to be a social threat, and thus the household code was part of a strategy to deal with this threat. Paul articulates a vision of the Christian home that outwardly looks no different from the highest societal expectations of the day but internally is radically different. Outwardly, Paul pictures the Christian pater familias as ruling benevolently over wife, children, and slaves according to prevailing cultural expectations, but inwardly the submission of the wife to the husband becomes a metaphor for the submission of the church to Christ.
By identifying the wife with the church body, of which Christ is the head, moreover, Paul detaches both the Christian home, and the church that meets there, from society and gives it a glorious place alongside the ascended Christ [Ephesians 1:19–23; 2:6]. This strategy makes the church less visible within its hostile environment at the same time that it retains for the church a sense of separation from pagan society, with its futile way of life and darkened understanding [Ephesians 4:17–5:20]. Paul is applying the teaching of Jesus to the household, not as a revolution from below, but as a revolution from above. The one with power gives up power in the service of others, just as Jesus did. Wives are addressed as equal to husbands in the responsibility they bear for their own behaviour. This approach of the equality of men and women owes to the Old Testament teaching that “God created mankind in his own image; in his own image God created them; he created them male and female.” [Genesis 1:27].
Gregory [4th century Bishop of Nyssa] carefully qualifies the distinctions in this image: “The one who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming who he is. Then Scripture takes up the account of creation and says, ‘God made them male and female.’ Everyone knows, I think, that this aspect is excluded from the archetype: ‘In Christ Jesus,’ as the apostle says, ‘there is neither male nor female.’ [Galatians 3:28]. And yet Scripture affirms that man has been divided sexually. Thus the creation of our nature must in some way have been double; that which renders us like God and that which establishes the division of the sexes. I think that by these words Holy Scripture conveys to us a great and lofty doctrine, and the doctrine is this. While two natures—the divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes—are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them. For in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned—of the divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female—for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life. That the intellectual element, however, precedes the other we learn as from one who gives in order an account of the making of man; and we learn also that his community and kindred with the irrational is for man a provision for reproduction.”
Gregory is asserting a necessary truth: men and women are intellectually equal. The differences between the human sexes are in regards to the reproduction of our species, where the human male has a specific sexual function, and the human female also has a specific sexual function. Hence, while Paul emphasizes the submissiveness of wives to their husbands, he qualifies this admonition: “as to the Lord.” Wives should submit to their husbands only if their husbands were like Christ! Thus, the husband’s role as head of the wife is compared to Christ’s role as head of the church. The woman must see Christ in the man.
In contrast, Demosthenes [4th century b.c. Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens] states how men viewed women: “We have courtesans for our pleasure, prostitutes for daily physical use, wives to bring up legitimate children and to be faithful stewards in household matters.”
Furthermore, according to rabbinic tradition, Judah the Prince [2nd century a.d. Rabbi] enjoined every Jewish man to say the following three blessings every morning: “I thank the Lord that he did not make me a Gentile, a woman, a boor [a peasant].”
Next in v. 23, Paul repeats his head-body imagery from Ephesians 4 to describe the role of Christ in relationship to the church. Here he applies similar imagery to the role of the husband in the marriage. Just as Christ provides leadership to the church and is its principal source of provision, the husband is called to the same function on behalf of his wife.
Theodoret [5th century Bishop of Cyr] asserts: “The apostle has been very constrained in setting forth this analogy. Its purpose is to encourage women to respect men and to implant in men an affection for their wives.”
Furthermore, Paul clarifies in terms that are both emphatic and explicit: “the Messiah is the head of the church. It is he who is the Saviour of the body.” By doing this, he affirms Christ’s authority over the church, but his primary emphasis lies in his use of this authority to save the church. This correlation between Christ’s role as “head” and his role as “Saviour” is reminiscent of the passages in Ephesians 1-4, where we see Christ as having authority over all things, including the evil spiritual powers, for the benefit of the church. Therefore, Paul pictures the wife’s submission as the recognition of the authority of a husband who imitates the self-sacrificial, nurturing, and supporting roles that Christ fills with respect to the church!
Chrysostom [4th century Bishop of Constantinople] summarises: “When they are in harmony, and their children are being reared well and their household is in good order, their neighbours will smell the sweet fragrance of harmony, along with all their friends and relatives. But if the contrary is true, everything is overturned and thrown into confusion.”
What if Christ failed as “head”? Paul says elsewhere, “if the Messiah has not been raised, your faith is worthless and you are still imprisoned by your sins. Yes, even those who have died believing in the Messiah are lost. If we have set our hopes on the Messiah in this life only, we deserve more pity than any other people.” [1 Corinthians 15:17-19]
Cyril [4th century Bishop of Jerusalem] states: “If the cross is an illusion, the resurrection is an illusion also, and ‘if Christ has not risen, we are still in our sins.’ If the cross is an illusion, the ascension is also an illusion, and everything, finally, becomes unsubstantial.”
Thus, to model a false messiah would be fruitless and futile, for the model by which husbands ought to reflect would then be nothing more than a mere illusion! However, Paul reaffirms: “But at this moment the Messiah stands risen from the dead, the first one offered in the harvest of those who have died.” [1 Corinthians 15:20].
Furthermore, it’s also possible that the words “saviour of the body” describes what happens in the sexual relation between husband and wife, and their total [spiritual, social, and physical] communion. Both husband and wife are in their sexual union one another’s “saviour.” This doesn’t mean that they can be the “saviour” of each other’s souls [compare with John 4:42, since only Jesus is the “Saviour of the world”], yet they both can be “saviour” in protection from improper personal conduct, or from an intolerable suffering of the body [compare with Genesis 3:16]. Remember that God’s curse included a blessing for the offspring of Eve who was to bruise the “head” of the Shining One [Genesis 3:15], so in the New Testament it is confirmed that “women will be saved through childbearing” [1 Timothy 2:15]. Inasmuch as the husband in his marital relation contributes to his wife’s salvation through motherhood [in this case, 1 Timothy 2:15 can be translated: “she will be saved through the birth of the Child”], he is aptly called her “saviour.” Its logical conclusion is that marriage is an antidote against overflowing carnal desire, and that sexual intercourse is sanctified when it aims at conception.
Next in v. 24, Paul adds that wives should submit to their husbands “in everything.” It shouldn’t surprise us that this verse has resulted in vigorous debate among readers. Some Christians shy away and believe that Paul simply made a mistake [after all, doesn’t this contradict the beautiful egalitarian comments above?], thinking that Paul had an unrealistic notion of marriage, imagining that husbands would micromanage their households and wives would submit to their management in every detail. But the phrase “in everything” is not intended to be taken woodenly to mean in everything no matter how harmful, silly, or sinful. When Paul tells the Corinthians “in every way we’re troubled but not crushed” [2 Corinthians 4:8], he does not mean that he bore every known affliction, but that he faced much trouble. So here he would assume that his readers understood the expansive nature of his language, appreciate the general point, and make exceptions in the hard cases where necessary.
That this interpretation is on the right track is also clear from the assumptions that lie beneath the discussion of a nearly identical problem in Paul’s Stoic contemporary Gaius Musonius Rufus, who had a young man approach him over an issue of being forbidden from studying philosophy by his father. He asked Musonius whether one must “obey one’s parents in all things.” The philosopher produced a series of examples in which a father instructs his child to do something harmful out of ignorance or to do something wrong out of wickedness. At the end of his list, he comments that “even to ask the question” of whether compliance is required in such cases “is scarcely necessary”. He then goes on to apply the principle behind these obvious cases to the study of philosophy, where its application was less obvious. This account is instructive for us to understand Greek language nuance because it shows that the sweeping principle of obedience to parents “in everything” was commonly accepted in Paul’s time [compare with Colossians 3:20] and that the principle was commonly understood not to apply in cases where ignorance, harm, or wrongdoing came into play. In the same way, Paul knew that when difficult situations arose, wives should use their discernment to “determine what pleases the Lord” [Ephesians 5:10], even if it meant noncompliance with their husband’s wishes.
Gaius Musonius Rufus also wrote beautifully: “But in marriage there must be above all perfect companionship and mutual love of husband and wife, both in health and sickness and under all conditions, since it was with desire for this as well as for having children that both entered upon marriage. Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.”
Ambrosiaster [4th century] summarises: “Here is Paul’s analogy: As the church takes its beginning from Christ and therefore is subject to him, so too does woman take hers from the man and is subject to him. There is a crucial difference, however, between Christ and the church as opposed to man and woman. The essential difference is that the woman is of the same nature as the man. The church, on the other hand, can participate in Christ in name but not in nature.”
Next in v. 25, Paul turns to the responsibility that husbands have toward their wives. Once again, the analogy between Christ and the church is critical to his instructions, and once again, Christ’s work on behalf of the church is the critical element in the analogy. In v. 23 Paul has said that Christ is the Saviour of the church, and here in v. 25 he explains how he has become the church’s Saviour: he “gave himself for it.” This has happened as a demonstration of his love, and this is the kind of love, Paul says, that husbands should have for their wives. The sweeping nature of the demand placed on the wife [earlier in v. 24 with the phrase “in everything”] is therefore matched by an equally sweeping demand on the husband. Like Christ, the husband is to love [the Greek agapaō] his wife by the sacrifice of his own life on his wife’s behalf [Ephesians 1:7; 2:13–16; 5:2]. Here Paul breaks the boundaries of traditional Greco-Roman advice on marriage. The idea that the husband should expend his life in the care of his wife is unusual. The far more typical approach to marriage was that the wife should manage the household well in order to free the husband from domestic concerns and enhance his social prestige. In contrast, Paul’s comparison between the husband’s love for his wife and Christ’s love for the church implies that the husband’s love for his wife should be “wide, long, high, and deep” [Ephesians 3:18–19] that it includes the sacrifice of his own social prestige and well-being, indeed his life, for the sake of his wife [compare with Philippians 2:5–8].
Chrysostom continues: “Thou hast seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Wouldest thou have thy wife obedient unto thee, as the Church is to Christ? Take then thyself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever—refuse it not. Though thou shouldest undergo all this, yet wilt thou not, no, not even then, have done anything like Christ. For thou indeed art doing it for one to whom thou art already knit; but He for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way then as He laid at His feet her who turned her back on Him, who hated, and spurned, and disdained Him, not by menaces, nor by violence, nor by terror, nor by anything else of the kind, but by his unwearied affection; so also do thou behave thyself toward thy wife. Yea, though thou see her looking down upon thee, and disdaining, and scorning thee, yet by thy great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness, thou wilt be able to lay her at thy feet. For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though thou shouldest suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.”
Describing Christ’s love as the source, inspiration, criterion, challenge, and promise of marital love, Paul presents an alternative not only to the famous, but also to the infamous love stories connected with names, such as Zeus, Solomon, Paris, Odysseus, Oedipus, Pyramus, Tristan, Don Juan, Abelard. His alternative is also distinct from scientific [philosophical, medical, psychological, sociological], not to speak of commercial ways of describing, prescribing, or proscribing love. Paul’s choice and procedure do not demonstrate lack of concern for personal and environmental, cultural and accidental factors that influence the common life of a couple. But at this place he does not give counsel in an individual marriage situation. Neither does Paul’s argument prove that he did not ignore what Jewish and Gentile poets, novelists, philosophers, historians, doctors, psychologists, orators, and the simple people’s proverbial wisdom before and at his time had taught about sex, eros, love, and marriage. But when he attempts to present Jesus Christ as the gift and giver, the teacher and healer of love, he makes that specific contribution to human knowledge and experience which can be expected of an intelligent Christian. Paul can do no better than tell the unique story of Christ. By letting the Messiah sit on that throne which in some discussions about marriage is attributed to sex, Paul has not denied the power and function of sex, but has placed it together with other easily idolized forces on a level where it may fulfil its function properly.
Next in v. 26, the analogy between the love of husbands for their wives and the love of Christ for the church leads to a digression on the relationship between Christ and the church. The first clause states the purpose for which Christ gave himself for the church [that he might sanctify it], and the second clause states the purpose for which Christ sanctified the church [that he might present her to himself in splendour]. The second clause is more elaborate than the first clause and clarifies that Paul thinks of the sanctification and splendour of the church in moral terms. This consecration of the church as the people of God was accomplished by means of “cleansing” the church. The Greek word katharizō was used in antiquity in agricultural and architectural contexts to refer to sifting grain, pruning plants, or clearing a building site. When the church was cleansed from its sin, it was then set apart as “holy.” How has this cleansing happened? Viewed from one angle, it happened when Christ gave himself for the church, since the purpose of this giving was to sanctify it, and its sanctification involved its cleansing. But Paul adds a phrase to view the cleansing from another angle, that the cleansing took place by “washing it with water and the word.” Through the centuries the vast majority of interpreters have thought that this phrase refers to baptism. Many simply assume this without argument. Those who do offer reasons for this reading explain that the “washing” is most likely baptism.
Marius Victorinus [3rd century] conjectured: “Here we take “the church” to mean every believer and everyone who has received baptism. The believer is brought to faith by the washing in water and the invocation of the Word. But how is this applied to a husband’s conduct toward his wife? This is not entirely clear. One possible view is that the mystery of baptism is being rehearsed in this metaphor. On the other hand, if we refer this to the endurance of the husband, which entails his giving himself for the wife and bearing and suffering all that is hers, even sharing in all that she endures, she is being cleansed with water and the Word—that is, she is being purified in the Lord’s sight when he renders her pure and by his endurance makes her ready to be sanctified by washing and the Word.”
However, if the reference is metaphorical, it need not refer to the literal water bath of Christian baptism. There were many occasions for ceremonial washing with water in antiquity, and it was a common custom across a number of cultures for the bride to wash in water or touch water either in preparation for the wedding or as part of the ceremony. To refer to the “washing it with water” would not necessarily have recalled the specific water rite of baptism. Passing through water can be a rite of passage and indicate the exit from one dominion and the entrance into a new realm and life, as indeed Israel’s passages through the Reed Sea and the Jordan indicate [Exodus 14–15; Joshua 3; compare with Isaiah 43:2]. Thus, the love of the betrothed pair, Christ and the church, is described as the standard for the married life of a man and a woman. This love is so full of hope that it forgets what lies behind: it is telic, not static; imaginative, not pedantic; self-giving, not devouring; creative, not analytical; passionate [in the sense of uplifting] rather than condescending, compassionate [compare with Ezekiel 16:8–14]. Essential to this love is the vision which animates it, the continuous act of creation which reveals its power, and the perfection which emanates from it. There are a number of significant psychological trajectories here:
1. It’s that the person is seen as a paragon of beauty, virtue, and wisdom. In him or her is realized and incorporated what, at best, has been seen in a dream, hoped for in yearning, or anticipated in vague imagination. The experience of love then means that one specific person has become the culmination or end of the dream, the incarnation of the idea, the presence of the eternal or timeless, the peace and wholeness which seemed beyond reach. Enthusiastic lovers claim to have found what nobody else can ever find—the one perfect incorporation of the ideal—and they encourage and inspire other people to find and enjoy other embodiments of the absolute.
2. Human love does not by nature lead upward, but Christ’s love is the cause and model of marital love. Christ does not offer a convenient and cheap way out of the limitations and possible disappointments of inter-human love. Rather Christ’s love is described as a way leading him deep down into involvement with a church composed of such Jews and gentiles as were formerly dead in sin and are in temptation to relapse into their past. Basic and exemplary for the husband’s love is the love of Christ which means engagement in great tasks, even on earth. The woman is not considered blameless in herself, but rather her bridegroom gives his life for her in order to make her perfect by overcoming whatever traces of death in sins may still defile her.
The vision of love described by Paul is unique: this lover has the will, the power, and the success to make his bride perfect. He loves his beloved only for her own sake. He seeks no other or higher reward than her alone. His love, incorporated in his bride, is an end in itself. The Messiah has set out and will not rest until she appears before himself glorious and free of any defect. To summarize, Paul begins to digress from his instructions to husbands into a description of why Christ has showed his love for the church by giving his life for it. He did this to cleanse the people who would make up the church from their sin and to set them apart as God’s special people. This cleansing, sanctifying action was applied to them when they were washed in the verbal proclamation of the gospel, that is, when they heard the gospel preached, believed it, and were sealed as God’s special people by the Holy Spirit [Ephesians 1:13–14].
Next in v. 27, thus from v. 26, if the imagery of a bridal bath lies somewhere in the background, then it continues here in the second purpose clause, where Paul states that Christ has sanctified the church in order to present it to himself “in all its glory.” The church is pictured as a young bride of dazzling beauty. Her youth is evident from her unwrinkled skin, and her skin is unblemished as a result both of her youth and of the bridal bath she has just taken.
Chrysostom continues: “She is of God’s fashioning. Thou reproachest not her, but Him that made her; what can the woman do? Praise her not for her beauty. Praise and hatred and love based on personal beauty belong to unchastened souls. Seek thou for beauty of soul. Imitate the Bridegroom of the Church. Outward beauty is full of conceit and great license, and throws men into jealousy, and the thing often makes thee suspect monstrous things. But has it any pleasure? For the first or second month, perhaps, or at most for the year: but then no longer; the admiration by familiarity wastes away. Meanwhile the evils which arose from the beauty still abide, the pride, the folly, the contemptuousness. Whereas in one who is not such, there is nothing of this kind. But the love having begun on just grounds, still continues ardent, since its object is beauty of soul, and not of body. What better, tell me, than heaven? What better than the stars? Tell me of what body you will, yet is there none so fair. Tell me of what eyes you will, yet are there none so sparkling. When these were created, the very Angels gazed with wonder, and we gaze with wonder now; yet not in the same degree as at first. Such is familiarity; things do not strike us in the same degree. How much more in the case of a wife! And if moreover disease come too, all is at once fled. Let us seek in a wife affectionateness, modest-mindedness, gentleness; these are the characteristics of beauty. But loveliness of person let us not seek, nor upbraid her upon these points, over which she has no power, nay, rather, let us not upbraid at all, (it were rudeness,) nor let us be impatient, nor sullen. Do ye not see how many, after living with beautiful wives, have ended their lives pitiably, and how many, who have lived with those of no great beauty, have run on to extreme old age with great enjoyment. Let us wipe off the ‘spot’ that is within, let us smooth the ‘wrinkles’ that are within, let us do away the ‘blemishes’ that are on the soul. Such is the beauty God requires. Let us make her fair in God’s sight, not in our own. Let us not look for wealth, nor for that high-birth which is outward, but for that true nobility which is in the soul. Let no one endure to get rich by a wife; for such riches are base and disgraceful; no, by no means let any one seek to get rich from this source.”
Paul is picturing the groom bathing the bride [v. 26] and presenting her in all her splendour to himself [v. 27]. The metaphor has taken this turn because the picture of a typical wedding has merged with the imagery of Ezekiel 16:8–14. There God imagines Israel as his young bride, whom he has bathed, cleansed, anointed, and clothed in finery and jewels. Here in Ephesians, Christ takes the place of God in that imagery, and the church fills the place of Israel. Again, however, Paul breaks the boundary of a traditional image. In Ezekiel 16 the imagery of the bride is part of a prophecy against Israel for its unfaithfulness to God: once made beautiful by God, Israel had become a prostitute through its promiscuous alliances with other nations and their gods. Paul’s image runs in the opposite direction: those who comprise the church were once stained, but through the death of Christ and the preaching of the gospel, Christ has cleansed them and set them apart for himself, just as a young and dazzlingly beautiful bride, in all her finery, is presented to the groom. Implicit in this claim that the church is the resplendent bride of Christ, then, is a call to live in a way that is consistent with this status.
Next in v. 28, the practical aspect of the imagery now becomes explicit again as Paul moves out of his reflection on the relationship between Christ and the church and back to the advice on marriage that has prompted it. The greater emphasis comes with the way Paul states the obligation of husbands. In v. 25 he has merely said they are to “love your wives,” but here he strengthens the element of duty involved in this admonition: they “must love their wives.” The addition of the reflexive pronoun “their” corresponds to v. 22: just as wives are to submit to their own husbands, so here husbands are to love their own wives. Both terms highlight the exclusive nature of the relationship between husbands and wives: they are to have a level of commitment to each other that is qualitatively different from their commitments to other men and women.
Chrysostom continues: “To how much greater a similitude, and stronger example has he come; and not only so, but also to one how much nearer and clearer, and to a fresh obligation. For that other one was of no very constraining force, for He was Christ, and was God, and gave Himself. He now manages his argument on a different ground, saying, “so ought men”; because the thing is not a favour, but a debt.”
Those last words from Chrysostom are significant. Love your wives in such a way that you owe a debt! Thus, Paul says: “as they love their own bodies. A man who loves his wife loves himself.” Here’s an allusion to Leviticus 19:18, which urges each Israelite to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Paul speaks of the husband loving his wife because she is himself. To us this may sound odd, but it probably would not have puzzled Paul’s readers. Some of them, like Paul, knew that Genesis 2:24 spoke of husband and wife as “one flesh.” The point then is not that the wife is a mere body for the husband but that there is an organic unity between husband and wife making them “one flesh.” It does not say that the two simply become one, or one person, but rather “one flesh.” In other words they become different parts of a third entity—a couple. This may also explain why Paul does not use the headship-subordination concept of men and women in general. Only those who are united in a one-flesh union become the head and body of each other, just as the spiritual union between Christ and the church makes the headship-subordination relationship possible and real. This leads to a further point: subordination presupposes a relationship of identification and union in the first place.
After the cause, quality, and totality of the husband’s love has been described by the reference to the glorious, unique, and powerful originator and model, Jesus Christ, the perfect lover [vv. 25–27], the effect of such love upon the wife is now described. What is a wife in the presence and under the impact of love abounding? She is her loving husband’s body, her husband’s alter ego. In fact, Greek grammarians argue that instead of calling the wife her husband’s “body,” Paul might equally have called her his “soul,” for in the bible neither “body” nor “flesh” have a necessarily derogatory meaning. Since the church title “body of Christ” is honorific, the description of the wife as the husband’s “body,” and the invitation to love this “body,” mean glorification [v. 27], not devaluation. Paul wants to show how creative love is. Only through the event of Christ’s love did the gentiles become members of the same body [Ephesians 3:6]. In the same way, only through love do a man and a woman become so intimately “one” that the husband can call her “his body,” and his love for her, love for his body. A man does not bring this body into marriage, for how can he? Outside the union with one woman, he does not know what love for that “body” is, since he does not know or possess in himself the power to love as he is entitled to love. Rather this body, this oneness, this love is a gift he receives! He knows of this gift because he knows Christ and his love. He finds the same gift confirmed in marriage. In short, Paul is unable to describe marital love without speaking of Christ’s miraculous gift!
Curiously, the Greek verb opheilousin for “must” has a more specific meaning. In secular Greek, opheilō means originally that something has to be paid back to a god or to a man. Combined with an infinitive [as in v. 28] the verb can describe a moral obligation. Among the Greek moral philosophers, general duties that exist by nature or correspond to the supreme virtues are introduced by formulae such as prepon or kathēkon [“it is fitting”]. Since the context of v. 28 speaks of the love of Christ and its effect, not of a law or custom, this passage does not prescribe what “must” to be done for reasons unknown or according to some general standard of decency, but urges an attitude and acts of recognition, gratitude, and public attestation. The love of the husband for his wife is a necessary, voluntary, joyful, and public affirmation of the love of Christ for his body, the church.
Next in vv. 29-30, Paul explains that husbands are to care for their wives physically and emotionally as they care for themselves.
Chrysostom curiously states: “It is all too evident that our bodies have many defects. One is lame, one has crooked feet, another a withered hand, each a weakness in a different member. Nevertheless the person does not complain or cut off the defect. Rather he often treats it better than the other members—and all this quite reasonably, since it is his own.”
But, doesn’t the phrase “no one has ever hated his own body” contradict Paul himself, since he battled against his own body [Romans 7:7–25]? Or, what about other negative attitudes of the “body” as understood by Christians [Galatians 5:19–21, 24]? In fact, it seems to flatly contradict Luke 14:26—the text according to which Jesus expects that for his sake “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can’t be my disciple.” In turn, the rich farmer who appears to love his flesh when he finds delight in food and drink, is headed for death according to Luke 12:19–21. On the basis of Matthew 19:12, Origen [3rd century] took drastic steps against his own body. Many ascetics, flagellants, and mystics found ways to obey the command of Colossians 3:5 [to “put to death” the members of their bodies, together with “sexual sin, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed”]. The solutions offered for such contradictions against the wording of v. 29 include the following arguments:
1. In v. 29, Paul describes the normal and natural behaviour of man; self-hatred is against nature.
2. The self-love [which is also mentioned in Leviticus 19:18] undergoes correction and purification whenever it is confronted with God’s command.
3. Not in itself is the flesh hateful, but only by accident, because of the impact of sin.
4. He who corrects his self-love by disciplining his flesh and subjecting it to the Spirit, does not really hate himself, but acts out a superior love: “As for me, how good for me it is that God is near! I have made the Lord God my refuge so I can tell about all your deeds.” [Psalm 73:28].
Isaac Watts [in 1719] wrote a fitting hymn:
1 GOD, my supporter and my hope,
My help for ever near,
Thine arm of mercy held me up,
When sinking in despair.
2 Thy counsels, Lord, shall guide my feet
Through this dark wilderness;
Thy hand conduct me near Thy seat,
To dwell before Thy face.
3 Were I in heaven without my God
’Twould be no joy to me;
And whilst this earth is mine abode,
I long for none but Thee.
4 What if the springs of life were broke,
And flesh and heart should faint?
God is my soul’s eternal rock,
The strength of every saint.
5 Still to draw near to Thee, my God,
Shall be my sweet employ;
My tongue shall sound Thy works abroad,
And tell the world my joy.
Next in vv. 31-32, Paul now uses the language of Genesis 2:24 to support what he has just said in vv. 29–30. What part of his previous discourse was he trying to support? Was he supporting the idea that Christ and the church are one body? That husband and wife are one body? Both ideas? On one hand, the quotation comes directly after Paul’s statement that Christ nourishes and cares for the church as his body [vv. 29b–30], and Paul concludes the quotation by saying that he is applying it to Christ and the church [v. 32b]. On the other hand, the quotation itself concerns the union of a man and a woman in marriage, and the larger context in which Paul uses it argues that a husband should love his wife as he loves himself. The quotation probably refers to both themes.
If this is correct, Paul is saying in v. 31 that God has instituted marriage because the church is Christ’s body! This probably means that the union of husband and wife as “one flesh” was originally intended to prefigure and illustrate the union that Christ now has with the church. This is something that could become clear only after Christ had died to create the church in its new, multiethnic form [Ephesians 2:14–15; 3:8–11], and this is why it is a “great secret,” a truth that could be known only through God’s gracious revelation of it. Paul says in effect: the mystery I am about to describe is especially mysterious, but I am going to say it anyway: when I refer to the well-known establishment of marriage in the book of Genesis, I am talking about Christ and the church.
The passage that Paul quotes from is the crowning finale to the story of creation in Genesis 1-2. After forming Adam from the earth [Genesis 2:7 uses yāṣar as a means of material process over time, therefore human evolution is completely compatible here, especially since yāṣar is spelled with two yods, causing 2nd Temple Jewish theologians to conjecture that this can represent the good and evil inclination within man, even before the fall in Genesis 3], God recognized that Adam needed a helper to correspond with him [Genesis 2:18]. This photo of 4QGen(g) is a true gem, for it’s a fragment that has persevered the spelling of two yods, thus we can conclude that this isn’t a misspelling in the Masoretic Text. The Dead Sea Scrolls gives us insights into the spelling and variants of Hebrew words over 1,000 years before the Masoretic Text.
A sense of suspense builds in the narrative as we read that though God had formed the animals from the earth [on the 6th day in Genesis 1] like Adam [Genesis 2:19 uses yāṣar, but this time with only one yod], but none of them is found to correspond with him [instead Genesis 2:20 shows Adam to be the first taxonomist].
The narrative tension is resolved when God brings a woman to Adam, poetically described as coming from Adam’s “side” [Genesis 2:21–22]. Unfortunately, translations of this passage give the impression that Eve literally came from a rib of Adam’s side. However, a careful analysis of the passage will show that Adam himself didn’t believe this! The first words out of his mouth was a song of praise: “At last! This is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. This one will be called ‘Woman,’ because she was taken from Man.” [Genesis 2:23]
More than a rib is involved here, because Eve is not only “bone from my bones” but also “flesh from my flesh.” The Hebrew word is sēlāʿ, and is not an anatomical term in any other Old Testament usage! Outside of Genesis 2, the word is used architecturally in the tabernacle and temple passages [right throughout Exodus 25-38; 1 Kings 6-7; Ezekiel 41]. In Akkadian, the cognate term ṣelu is also architectural. The Sumerian equivalent is TI, which intriguingly also means “life.” These two meanings are both applicable to Eve, since she is made from Adam’s architectural side and her name identifies her as the “mother of everyone who was living” [Genesis 3:20]. Hebrew as a language developed relatively late [from the 2nd millennium]. Any traditions preserved from the patriarchal period or earlier would likely have been transmitted in the languages of Mesopotamia [Sumerian, Akkadian, or Amorite]. Thus the unusual imagery here gives the impression that since Adam was in “deep sleep,” God virtually divided him in half to create Eve. But this is pretty radical surgery! Thus we need to understand the phrase “deep sleep” [Hebrew is tardēmâ and the Greek equivalent is ékstasis] to fully unravel the context.
The usage of this Hebrew word [and it’s Greek equivalent] is always in the context of someone becoming unresponsive to the human realm in order to receive communication from the divine realm [examples include Abraham in Genesis 15:12, Elihu in Job 33:14-18, and Peter in Acts 10:10-11].
Tertullian [2nd century] states: “We hold the soul to be perennially active because of its continual movement, which is a sign both of its divinity and its immortality. So, then, when rest comes—rest, that special comfort of bodies—the soul disdains an idleness that is alien to its nature and, deprived of the faculties of the body, makes use of its own. This power we call ecstasy. This occurs when we are deprived of the activity of the senses. Lacking sensory input the soul reflects conditions akin to delirium [a deprivation of the senses]. Thus, in the beginning, sleep was preceded by ecstasy, as we read: ‘God sent an ecstasy upon Adam, and he slept.’ Sleep brought rest to the body, but ecstasy came over the soul and prevented it from resting, and from that time this combination constitutes the natural and normal form of the dream.”
Ephrem the Syrian [4th century] also states: “It is likely that Adam saw in his dream what was done to him as if he were awake.”
Augustine [4th century Bishop of Hippo] again states: “Hence we are justified in concluding that the ecstasy in which Adam was caught up when God cast him into a sleep was given to him so that his mind in that state might participate with the host of angels and, entering into the sanctuary of God, understand what was finally to come. When he awoke, he was like one filled with the spirit of prophecy, and seeing his wife brought before him, he immediately opened his mouth and proclaimed the great mystery that St. Paul teaches: ‘This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she has been taken out of man. And for this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be the two in one flesh.’ These were the words of the first man according to the testimony of Scripture, but in the Gospel our Lord declared that God spoke them. For he says, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh’’? From this we should understand, therefore, that because of the ecstasy that Adam had just experienced he was able to say this as a prophet under divine guidance.”
Thus we can conclude that Adam’s “deep sleep” was for the function of preparing him for a visionary experience rather than a surgical procedure. Thus the unusual imagery of Adam being cut in half would not refer to something he physically experienced, but to something that he saw in a vision. It would therefore not describe a material event, but rather an important understanding of a reality eloquently stated in Genesis 2:23 [the argument Paul has been making throughout vv. 22-32], that all men should sing joyfully that all women are “bone from my bones” and “flesh from my flesh.” This is a significant perspective, since this isn’t describing the material origin of Eve. For clarification, the humans in Genesis 1 pre-exist Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, because they are generically described as being fruitful, multiplying, and migrating around the Earth [humans originate from North East Africa ~150,000 years ago]. Thus, Genesis 2 continues the creation story where God localizes himself at a particular geographical position [the four rivers align perfectly with the Persian Gulf Oasis ~70,000 years ago], and thus Adam and Eve would have been born within the midst of a human population, and thus become archetypical high priests for God’s abode in Eden, along with his Divine Council.
Thus, the vision would concern Eve’s identity as ontologically related to Adam. Once we see that gender identity is under discussion, we conclude that all womankind are from the “side” of all mankind. Thus, the emphasis of Paul’s point is that marriage is the rejoining and the recovering of humanity’s original state, that in marriage, man and woman are indeed “one flesh.” Thus, ontology trumps biology. The vision for Adam [and thus Paul’s utilization of this for edification and instruction to the church] is to teach that wives are not just a reproductive mating partner. Her identity is the husband’s other half, his “military ally” [from the Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdô in Genesis 2:18, where the phrase indicates military assistance].
Finally in v. 33, Paul returns to the practical relationship between husband and wife and offers a concluding summary of his admonitions to both. Each husband must love his own wife as himself because she is “one flesh” with him. The way Paul puts his admonition recalls Leviticus 19:18, which is also framed in the singular and also compares love for the other with love for oneself. If this recollection is intentional, then Leviticus 19:18 is redefined by the unique sense in which the wife is the husband’s neighbour. She is “one flesh” with him and thus the closest possible neighbour! The wife, for her part, should “fear” her husband. It is a subtle recognition that in terms of the balance of power bestowed by Greco-Roman society on husband and wife, the wife had the more difficult role. In a society in which women had less say over who they married than men, and less power within the relationship once the marriage had taken place, it was important for a household code that had been transformed by the gospel not to be heavy-handed in its instructions to the less-powerful partner. This recalls his instructions to all believers in Ephesians 5:21, that they should “submit to one another out of reverence for the Messiah.”
So here “fear” recognizes the authoritative role of the husband, but also the way in which Paul has tempered that role with extensive instruction to the husband to love his wife. But what if the wife is married to someone who does not love her as Christ loved the church? Thus the wife’s “fear” is her appropriate response to her husband’s headship that should be exercised in self-sacrificial love. In the Song of Solomon 1:2–7; 2:3–17; 3:6–11; 5:2–16, we read about the love of two unequal partners. She is a country girl, and he is the king. While Paul does not presuppose an unequal social standing of wife and husband, there is yet a resemblance between Paul’s “fear” of the wife and the “weak with love” in Song of Solomon 2:5; 5:8.
The psychological significance here is that it appears paradoxical that a person desires what he fears. In the sphere of love this ambivalence has been known for ages. It is felt in the frequent anxiety of the bride who impatiently yearns for the dreaded moment which will open her to love. The “fear” may as well mean “desire.” A woman moved by this “fear” will by no means seek to make herself autonomous in relation to him who loves her and she will receive him as one who in his own imperfect way reminds her of the true head of all the world, the church, her lover and herself: Jesus Christ [Ephesians 1:23; 4:15–16; 5:23, 29–30]. She will be willing to be a companion to him as a very special “military ally” [Genesis 2:18]. There is nothing degrading in “fear” thus interpreted. Within the limits set by his contemporary world, Paul attempted to show that a woman is neither primarily passive, nor weaker than, nor inferior to man. He describes the union between husband and wife as a give and take, an exchange of offering and receiving, seeking and finding, tension and fulfilment. Unless he and she are different there cannot be meaningful unity, but only boring sameness, stifling identity, abstract egalitarianism. Unless they demonstrate together to one another and all others what it means to be truly human, they do not live up to the creation of humans in God’s image as “male and female” [Genesis 1:27]. They are true mates and a convincing pair inasmuch as each one of them is active and passive, imaginative and yielding, preceding and following, in carrying out their special responsibilities for one another. According to Paul it is to be expected and it may happen that the husband’s abounding love finds the response of the wife’s admiring and festive fear.
Chrysostom beautifully concludes: “How, one may say, is there to be love when there is respect? Love is most powerfully present when accompanied by respect. For what she loves she also reveres, and what she reveres she also loves. She reveres him as the head and loves him as a member of the whole body. God’s purpose in ordering marriage is peace. One takes the husband’s role, one takes the wife’s role, one in guiding, one in supporting. If both had the very same roles, there would be no peace. The house is not rightly governed when all have precisely the same roles. There must be a differentiation of roles under a single head.”