This is a guest post by Christy Hemphill on how complementarians misuse Ephesians 5 and utilize/sexualize the household code.
Ephesians 5 is a hot topic at the moment, thanks to the controversy over a book excerpt posted and then removed from The Gospel Coalition website on March 1. As a woman who spent four decades either in or adjacent to soft complementarian spaces, I have seen Ephesians 5:22-33 referenced more than any other passage to try to teach me things the Bible doesn’t really say about men, women and marriage. I wish we could establish more common ground between complementarian and egalitarian Christians, and one thing we agree on is the fact that exegesis matters, and we need to understand the logic underlying a text before we try to apply the truth we think it teaches to our specific cultural context.
I have worked for a decade in minority language Bible translation and I have a very specific area of small expertise in the interpretation and translation of figurative language that I would like to share, to lend some linguistic analysis support to the current Bible interpretation discussions Christians are having.
Understanding what the original hearers would infer based on their cultural knowledge is a big part of understanding a text that relies on metaphors, similes, symbols, and figures of speech to assert something true. An organized set of concepts and experiences related to a specific part of reality is what linguists call a conceptual domain.
People from different cultures have many experiences in common when it comes to parts of reality like marriage, cooking, or agriculture. But each person’s conceptual domain of knowledge of those things will differ because of differences in culture, concepts, and lived experiences. At the cognitive level, metaphorical reasoning links our understanding of one conceptual domain (usually one related to something concrete or some embodied experience) to our understanding of a different conceptual domain (usually one that is more abstract or removed from experience) and this conceptual link results in figurative language.
So to understand what the figurative language in the Bible is communicating, we need to look at what conceptual domains are being linked, and what knowledge would have been part of those domains for the original audience of the text.
Before we read Ephesians 5:22-33, we should look at its discourse context and what conceptual domains are activated before we get to chapter 5. Ephesians is a letter that focuses on the great eschatological mystery that God is uniting all things in heaven and earth under Christ until “the times reach their fulfillment”(Eph 1:9-10). It is true that Christ’s authority over everything is in view when the first image of what complementarians like to call “headship” is introduced. God has placed all things under Christ’s feet (i.e. separate from his body, in a position of submission) and appointed him the head to the church, over all things (1:22). Notice that the church is not under his feet (an authority image). The church, as the body of Christ, is suffused with “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way,” an image of unity and inseparability (Eph 1:22).
Paul goes on to teach that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ to form the church in chapter 2, and he expands on this revealed mystery of the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ in chapter 3. Chapter 4 explains how keeping “the unity of the Spirit”(4:3) is the groundwork for growing into a mature body whose head is Christ (Eph. 4:15), and then chapter 4 and the first part of chapter 5 lay out the ways in which Christians should and should not behave as a unified and mature body. So we have already been accessing the concrete conceptual domain of bodies to talk about the abstract conceptual domain of unity for five chapters.
This brings us to Ephesians 5:21-6:9, where we are given a kind of text called a household code. These were common in the Roman world and typically set out the guidelines by which the members of a household (husbands, wives, children, and slaves) were supposed to relate to one another. All of the talk of unity and a body building itself up in love and interdependence (4:16) has preceded the command “Submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, wives to your own husbands as to the Lord” (5:21-22). The body conceptual domain and the unity conceptual domain should still be forefront when we are presented with the imagery that follows.
Unfortunately many complementarian readers don’t come to the passage primed to find out how it relates to the unity conceptual domain in the same way I think the original hearers would have. They come to the passage with an authority conceptual domain activated. They hear “wives submit,” and they think about leaders and followers and Christ being a leader with authority over all things. Commands are part of the authority conceptual domain, so the command to wives stands out to them as pretty significant.
When the original audience heard that wives should submit to their husbands, it probably would not have caught their attention. It was not new information, that’s how all the household codes went. It’s what comes next that relates to the unity conceptual domain that they would have been accessing while listening to this whole letter. Why should a wife submit? Because “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”
It is also unfortunate that when reading this passage in English, when we hear ‘head,’ we might think ‘leader,’ because that is one sense of ‘head’ in English. We are very likely to hear ‘leader’ if we come to the passage trying to link it to our authority conceptual domain. But when the original audience heard this passage in Greek, they didn’t hear “Husbands are the leader of the wife,” they heard a metaphor that linked the unity domain with the body domain. They heard, “Husbands are the head of the wife (who is the body)”
Remember they have been thinking about the church body that is the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. The church body and Christ the head are an inseparable whole. The whole letter up until this point has been emphasizing the unity of the church with Christ as head of the body. It has not been emphasizing the authority of Christ, the leader over the church, his followers. “Husbands are the head of the wife” would have been something that woke people up. Wives were used to submitting to husbands because they were in authority over them. But what does submission even look like if a wife and a husband are the same body!
Then we come to the passage that has brought us some truly terrible theological takes lately. It’s also been used for a long time in complementarian spaces to tell us the Bible says things it doesn’t say about “headship”: Ephesians 5:25-26.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (NIV)
Husbands, as head of the body, the wife, are commanded to love their wives in a way analogous to the way Christ, as head of the body, loves the church.
The metaphor husband is head, wife is body doesn’t make sense or explain anything unless we link the body conceptual domain to the unity conceptual domain and let bodies explain something to us about unity. There are some obvious entailments from that link that teach us truth. Headless bodies and bodiless heads are monstrosities that cannot even live, let alone do anything. The church that is not united to its head Christ, joined to one another in love by his spirit and empowered to do good is dead. Christ depends on his church to be his body on earth while he sits at the right hand of God in heaven. The church and Christ form an interdependent whole. So now we learn that an analogous kind of unity and interdependence is necessary in marriage as well.
The metaphorical reasoning goes something like this:
Head=husband, wife=body, head+body=whole body=unity, so husband+wife=unity
Head=Christ, church=body, head+body=whole body=unity, so Christ+church=unity
These two head and body unity images are then related in a command that is given as an analogy. Analogies assert that A relates to B in the same way X relates to Y.
Wives are for husbands what the church is for Christ; bodies that form a whole with the head. Heads must love wives in the same way Christ loves his church. How does Christ love the church? As his own body that he cares for.
Paul gets excited and goes on a bit of a tangent here and introduces a new metaphor, the church is the Bride of Christ. But don’t get confused because we were just talking about husbands and wives and think this means the church is the wife of Christ! The church is a bride in this new metaphor.
The church as the bride of Christ image is used throughout the New Testament, but we need to think of the ancient conceptual domain around weddings and how it might be different from our experience to understand what it explains. In the ANE a woman became a bride when she was betrothed. The groom would pay a bride price to the woman’s guardian to guarantee she would be kept pure and virginal until he came to claim her on the wedding day. Weddings were not announced with much advance warning. The groom showed up and threw a feast, and the bride was supposed to be prepared. Maybe she would wake up every morning wondering if this would be the day her groom would come.
This imagery of the coming groom and the waiting bride is connected in other places in Scripture (see Revelation 21) to the eschatological imagery that started Ephesians, the day when the times reach their fulfillment, and Jesus the Lord returns to earth to rule and claim his faithful people, as God unites heaven and earth in the New Creation.
In Ephesians 5:26-27, there is a long subordinate purpose and result clause describing what Christ the groom’s sacrificial love for the church his bride accomplishes. Christ sanctifies and cleanses his bride to present her to himself holy and blameless. The gospel is full of inversions of what people expect and this is a beautiful one. The ancient audience would expect the groom to pay a fair bride price so that a guardian will ensure the bride is kept pure and present her to him blameless on his wedding day. Here, Christ, the groom is the guardian and he pays an unimaginable bride price even though the bride isn’t blameless. But he loves her so much and his love is so powerful he makes her pure.
For all those people sexualizing the relationship between Christ and the church, no, just no! Christ makes his bride more virginal, he does not ravish her! The church is not the wife in a bridal suite. The church is the pure, spotless bride, waiting for the eschatological wedding day when God unites heaven and earth and she is presented to her groom blameless, sanctified by the most powerful love earth has ever seen and bought with the most costly bride price ever paid. It is not a sexual image at all.
But we need to remember as we process this tangent and the introduction of a new metaphor church is the bride, Christ is the groom, that the “in this way” that husbands are commanded to love does not connect back to the idea of purifying a bride and presenting her holy on the last day. It connects back to the body/unity metaphor and the sacrificial love that Christ the head shows for his body the church.
I would like to point out a fundamental metaphorical reasoning error that I see all the time when complementarians read this passage. They see that in the passage both husbands and Christ are mapped to the head and they see an analogy that relates Christ the groom’s demonstrated love for his bride to a command to love their wives. They come with their authority conceptual domain where Christ is a supreme leader with everything under his feet. ‘Head’ in English means leader, so they start identifying themselves with Christ the supreme leader, and then they end up seeing metaphors in the text that simply aren’t there.
The husband is not Christ in this text. The church is not wife in this text. Husbands are not commanded to love in a way that sanctifies wives as Christ sanctifies his church. Husbands do not present wives to Christ in the eschaton. Although the text commands wives to submit to their husbands because they are one, the text does not say husbands have authority over wives like Christ has authority over the church or lead their wives like Christ leads the church. Those ideas are imposed on the imagery by accessing a different conceptual domain that the head/body imagery of the text doesn’t use.
I know it is probably inevitable that complementarians and egalitarians will bring different assumptions to a biblical text and draw different conclusions from what they find. But we should be able to agree that figuring out what the original audience would have most likely understood from the figurative language used is essential to understanding the metaphorical reasoning behind what the figurative language is asserting (and also definitely not asserting) about abstract realities. We should be able to find some common ground on what the text itself does or doesn’t mean.
Christy Hemphill (@CJHemphill4) and her husband Aaron work as linguistic consultants on a minority language Scripture translation project in southern Mexico, where she homeschools her three children. Prior to her work in Mexico, she worked as an educator for eight years in various contexts including high school, museum education, college, and adult education. Christy has a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics/TESOL from Old Dominion University, and a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics/Bible Translation from the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics at Dallas International University.
See also: “Kephale is a Body Part: Unified Interdependence in Relationship in Ephesians 5” by Christy Hemphill