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Does Ephesians Even Teach Gender Roles?

Does Ephesians teach that a wife must submit to her husband as her 'Lord/Master'? No.

Does the Bible tell wives to be silent and not to teach their husbands? No.

Does the Bible say that a husband is in authority over his wife? No.

Does Ephesians even teach gender roles? No.

What is the source of these ideas? I dug deeper into Ephesians 5, a chapter often used to promote women being subservient, and the whole book of Ephesians, which gives it context, and here's what I found:

The book of Ephesians teaches about the unity of believers and the unity of Christ and the church. The writer refers to the familiar gender roles of the patriarchal Roman society to contrast with the unfamiliar roles of submitting to one another for those who are in Christ.

Paul uses the union of two people becoming one flesh in marriage to illustrate the union of Christ and the body of believers, the church. Christ is a title for Jesus; it is the Greek word for Messiah, the deliverer promised by the Jewish prophets.

Teaching about Unity in Christ

Paul writes his letter to the Ephesians while he is in prison in Rome, likely about AD 60-62. He spoke boldly there for two years (Acts 19:8-10) and is friends with many of them. Paul encourages the Ephesians (and us) that Jesus is the source of our new eternal life. All history came to its climax with Jesus and the adoption of all creation into God's family. His main point is to reveal the Great Mystery, that awesome revelation of truth that God brings unity to all things in heaven and on earth, unity and peace between Jews and Gentiles, unity between Christ and the body of believers, making us all co-heirs of God's promises. The letter is full of hope about God's love, peace, and unity.

Paul also refers to this Great Mystery in his letter to the Colossians. Colossae is a town about 120 miles east of Ephesus and Paul's letter to the Colossians was written around the same time as his letter to the Ephesians: while Paul was under arrest in Rome in AD 60-62. Paul tells Colossians that God commissioned him to reveal a secret truth: God gives Gentiles the same riches promised to Jews. Gentiles may also have new life in Christ, new hope (Col. 1:25-27). In Paul's letters, he talks about believers being one in Christ: no more divisions between Gentile/Jew, slave/citizen, female/male (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 4:3-6, Colossians 3:11). Paul's letters give a picture of unity as believers honour and love one another to imitate Christ.

Chapter 1: Adopted with an equal share in God's promised inheritance

First, Paul praises God, the source of all spiritual blessings; God made us appear righteous and blameless and adopted us to the family of faith. Paul says that Jews, Gentiles, women, men, slaves, and citizens are all adopted (v. 5). He uses the legal term that makes us co-heirs, giving all the same legal standing as male heirs in Roman culture. In verses 9-10, Paul talks about how God has revealed a Great Mystery to us that Jesus brings forgiveness and unity to all things and all people in heaven and on earth. Paul refers to the chosen people of Israel (v. 4) and says Gentiles who put their hope in Christ are also chosen (v. 11-12). God adopts you into God's family when you hear the message of truth and believe it (v. 13). Then the Holy Spirit seals God's promise of your inheritance and your redemption.

Paul thanks God for them, their faith in Jesus, and their love for all God's people. He prays that God will give them wisdom and that they will see the hope and richness of God's inheritance and God's power. God's power raised Jesus from the dead and placed all things under his feet. The church is not under Christ's feet, but part of Christ's body (Eph. 1:22-23).

Chapter 2: New Life and Unity in Christ

In Chapter 2, Paul talks about how we have a new life, because of God’s great love and mercy. He credits God’s grace that we are saved, through faith; it is not through our own works. Paul addresses Gentiles, a word that denotes anyone who is not a Jew. Before, Gentiles were excluded from citizenship in Israel and from God’s promise, but now both Jews and Gentiles are united in Jesus Christ. Before, the Jewish Temple had a barrier or dividing wall that kept Gentiles out of the Temple Courts and the Holy of Holies, but Jesus destroyed the barrier, uniting them into one body of believers. Christ brought peace to the strife between Gentiles and Jews and opened the way for both to access the heart of God, the Holy of Holies. Jesus brought about the unity of Jews and Gentiles, welcomed all as citizens of Israel, and adopted them as equal heirs in God's family (2:19). Jesus is the head of the corner (foundational stone) of the living temple as well as the head of the corner (capstone at the top of the pyramid) that holds the temple together (v. 20-22). The head of the corner joins and holds together all the stones of the pyramidal structure.

Chapter 3: the Great Mystery that we are members of one body

Paul reveals to the readers the Great Mystery that God revealed to Paul: the secret truth that through Christ, the Gentiles are co-heirs with Jews, members together of one body (3:2-6). Paul reveals the Good News that Gentiles and Jews will share in God's blessings and the promise made through Christ Jesus. Paul reinforces the idea that all humans are equal, regardless of race or heritage, and that they can be unified in Jesus, the Christ, and grow in love.

Paul explains this Great Mystery of unity in Christ using three illustrations:

- branches grafted onto a stalk, uniting to make one tree

- husband and wife by marriage becoming one flesh

- head and limbs becoming one body

"Every one of these is more lively and full than the other: and what is defective in one, is supplied in the other; but yet neither any of these singly, or all at them jointly, can give us a full and complete account of this mystery." -- John Flavel, Method of Grace in the Gospel Redemption (1)

Paul tells his friends not to be discouraged about his imprisonment or suffering because Paul is fulfilled using his gift from God to tell Gentiles about Jesus. Paul prays that God will strengthen them with power through the spirit, that they will be rooted and established in love, grafted onto Jesus, the vine (3:17). Once rooted in God they will grasp the breadth, length, depth and height of Christ's love. God's power can work in all of us to do more than we can imagine, for God's glory.

Vineyard photo credit: Elaine R Kelly

The root stalk and branch illustration can be explored by looking at the vine and branches in John 15:5. When a branch is grafted onto a stem, the stem [Christ] is the source of water and minerals for the leaves and branches [the body of believers]; the leaves collect energy from the sun and feed the stem. As the energy is shared through vascular tissues in the stem, branches, and leaves, the branches live in the stem and the stem lives in the branches. The stem joins and holds together all the branches as one plant. The branches that stay connected to the stem, conveying and receiving energy, will live, grow and produce fruit. The whole united vine, including the stem [Christ] and branches [the body of believers], grows as each branch and leaf does what it is equipped to do. When a vine is grafted on, the rootstock is cut open and the vine stem is inserted. The sap of each plant intermingles and they grow as one plant. As long as they are united, the root is the source of nutrients and the stem is the source of buds and fruit. The root supports the branches (Romans 11:18), yet the root depends on the branches to grow. Jesus provides life for believers, yet depends on believers to grow the church on earth. Ephesians 1 introduces the topic of Jesus united with the body of believers. The union of Christ and the church is mystical and powerful:

Chapter 4: Our Response to Live Worthy of God's Call

Paul challenges us to respond to God's love and blessings. Paul refers to God's glorious plan to adopt us and give us the full inheritance as described in the first half of the letter (4:1-3) Paul says 'therefore/ then/ so/because of this', he 'calls/ urges/ begs/ beseeches/ appeals' to us from his position as a prisoner for the Lord Jesus to live in a worthy of God's call: to live in a way that is loving, providing food and drink as Jesus did, being humble, gentle, patient, and loving, eagerly keeping unity in the bond of peace.

Paul repeats that we are united because there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God. (4:4-16). While we are all different, with different gifts, talents, or passions, we are united by being empowered by the one Holy Spirit. Once we become believers, we begin a new life. God gives each one of us a special gift: some to be apostles, some prophets, some to preach or proclaim God's word, and some to shepherd, pastor, minister, serve, teach, or care for God’s people. Paul says we receive gifts by God's grace; he does not specify any particular gifts for any particular gender or race. Paul does not set limitations or terms that women only exercise their gifts for the building up of other women. On the contrary, God gives gifts for the purpose of building up the whole body of Christ until all believers are united in faith and attain mature adulthood. Boys might grow to manhood, and likewise, girls would attain mature womanhood or become full-grown adults.

The application of gifts to be used by both men and women to build up the whole body of believers is very consistent with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 14:26 'When you [brothers and sisters] come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up." This indicates no restrictions on men and women sharing instruction, revelations, tongues or interpretations. Paul also instructs women on how to pray or prophesy in the hearing of the mixed assembly of believers (1 Corinthians 11:5). Paul clearly states the purpose of the gifts given to believers is to build up the body of believers; they are not to be either misused or hidden. Any gift God gave a man or woman is not to be used to silence others, dominate them, cut them off, or weaken them, but to build up fellow believers. Any gift God gives you is not to be hidden, but to be shared publicly, for the good of the body of believers. If we all employ God's gifts to us, Paul says we will no longer be children, tossed about by various ideas, but instead speaking truth with love. We will grow up to be like Christ in every way.

body system
Illustrating the unity of the body, the need for all parts

Paul's second illustration of the Great Mystery of Unity in Christ is the body.

Christ is the head, or source of life (2) and power for all parts of the assembly of believers. Together, the head and the torso make one united body (1). The head supports every joint, ligament, nerve, and muscle, conveying and receiving information from the body. The head makes the whole body work together, united through the central nervous system. The head [Christ] is the source by which all the parts of the body of believers are centralized, joined and held together. The body of believers grows stronger and builds up as each part draws closer to Christ and does what God equipped him or her to do. As we imitate Christ and love one another, the whole body is united by Christ. Just as a branch that breaks off from a vine dies, a part of the body that breaks with the head dies. In the same way, a head without a body cannot survive. Jesus provides life for believers, yet depends on believers to be his hands and feet on earth.

"There must be perpetual union between the head and the members, or else death follows—and the death, mark you, not only of the body, but of the head as well. They are dead when they are divided." - Charles Spurgeon (1)

Paul explains what he means about the body of believers belonging to Christ in his letter to the Colossians.

Do not let anyone disqualify you... not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with a growth that is from God." (Colossians 2:18-19 NRSVUE).

Paul also discusses how you can be disqualified by abusing your freedom and indulging in temptations (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul instructs believers to live differently, not like unbelievers (4:17-32). Put off your old self, with its deceitful desires, and put on your new self, becoming like God in your attitudes and actions. Stop telling lies because we are all parts of the same body. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Stop stealing and go to work so that you will have something to share with the poor. Stop saying critical or hurtful things, but say things that will build others up so what you say will be a blessing to those who hear you. Do not be bitter, vengeful, or evil, but be kind, compassionate and loving. Forgive each other as God forgives you.

Chapter 5: Because we are One Body, Love one another as you Love your own Body

Therefore, since we are united with Christ, believers can live differently, walking in love, both women and men following the example of Christ, and loving sacrificially (5:1-2).

Ephesians 5:2 tells both men and women to love as Christ loved

Paul reminds readers to avoid prostitution, impurity, jealousy, greed, obscene language, or vulgar jokes because that serves a false god and cuts you off from God's inheritance (5:3-14). Believers are full of light in the Lord, and the light produces every kind of goodness and shows what is wrong and shameful. Jesus is the light of the world, showing us how to live (John 8:12). Paul wants us to see the light, be awakened to the truth, and alert to the injustice and wrongs around us. Paul quotes Isaiah 26:19, 51:17, 52:1 and 60:1:

"Wake up from your sleep, Climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light!" (Ephesians 5:14 MSG)

Paul says that since the light exposes us, we should be loving and good, and live wisely and not foolishly. Instead of being filled with liquor spirits, be filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul says you show you are filled with the Spirit by (1) speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (2) singing and making melody to the Lord (3) giving thanks (4) submitting to one another out of respect for Christ's rule (5:15-21). Submitting to one another is listed as a consequence of being filled by the Holy Spirit.

Paul echoes these instructions in Colossians 3:15-16. Paul says that since we are members of one body, we are to (1) be ruled by Christ's peace, (2) be thankful, (3) teach and correct one another through psalms, hymns, and songs, and (4) sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts. This means women and men teaching and admonishing one another, using their gifts to build up the body of believers. Paul gives no indication of women only teaching and admonishing women.

Live as One Body: Submit to One Another

The discussion of teaching and encouraging one another leads to verse 21:

  • and submit to each other out of respect for Christ. (CEB)

  • being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (AMP)

While we don't talk often of equals submitting to one another, there are many examples of those in authority who are also in submission: leaders who serve their people, employers who listen to employees and adjust according to their needs, managers who submit a report to peers for review, businesses seeking client satisfaction. We each play a variety of roles, sometimes as the vendor and other times as the client, sometimes the student and other times the teacher. All of the verses ending in 'one another', such as 'love one another', and 'serve one another', point to mutuality. The phrase 'one another' is used about 100 times in the New Testament, (3) and a third of these concern unity. I speak more about mutuality here (4)

Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall, the author of Paul and Gender (5) points out that the original language does not tell women to submit. It says: 'submit to one another in reverence to the Lord, wives to husbands' (Eph. 5:21-22). Cynthia Long Westfall explains in an interview (6) with Sheila Wray Gregoire there was no verb instructing wives to submit to their husbands. Likewise, Marg Mowczko points out that the verb is implicit from the previous phrase (7) where Paul instructs all believers to submit to one another. Readers were familiar with the relationship between wives and husbands in the household codes designed by the Greek Philosopher Aristotle.

1. Marriage as an Illustration of Unity

This passage as Paul's third illustration of the Great Mystery of unity in Christ. Paul is not addressing marriage, but using the familiar Greco-Roman household structure to describe the unfamiliar. His main point is to explain the Great Mystery of unity between Christ and the Church.

Ephesians 5:22 uses marriage to illustrate how believers are to yield to one another

Ephesians 5:22 is not a command that wives submit to their husbands. It is a reference to the familiar pagan household codes to explain the unfamiliar concept of submitting to one another:

'for example, as wives to husbands'.

Paul points to the familiar Greco-Roman marriage where a wife submitted to her husband, to explain how believers can submit to one another. He tells all believers, including husbands, to follow the example of wives and submit to one another.

Paul also does not tell wives to treat their husbands as their Lord (Eph 5:22). Paul repeatedly says there is one Lord: Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:5, 1 Cor. 8:6, Romans 10:12). Instead, Paul is saying that the wife is acting out of reverence to the Lord God. His instruction is consistent with: “Whatever work you do, work at it with all your heart as if working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23); ‘it is the Lord Christ you are serving’ [not human masters] (Col 3:24); and ‘there is no favouritism’ (Col. 3:25).

When Paul says "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body" (Eph. 5:23), he may be saying the husband is the source of unity, joining and holding together the family. The paterfamilias was the head of a Roman family, the oldest living male, the source of the family's ancestry, and the prominent name by which the family is known. It was expected that the members of the family might sacrifice their well-being to serve the head of the family, but Paul explains that Christ gave the example of the head of the family sacrificing his well-being to serve the family, the most prominent person lowering himself to serve the least honoured person.

Ephesians 5:24 uses pagan norms to illustrate how to submit to one another

Ephesians 5:24 is not a command that wives be subject to husbands.

It is a statement of fact that they are; that is the position of wives in the Greco-Roman culture. Paul tells the body of believers to be subject to Christ, the way that wives of the time were subject to their husbands who were the paterfamilias in the Greco-Roman culture. In effect, Paul is saying, 'Submit to one another as wives submit to their husbands as the paterfamilias.' His main point is not about marriage but about how men and women can submit to one another and be united in Christ.

Bruce C. E. Fleming agrees that the main idea of Ephesians 5 is that Christ and the church are united in one body.(8) He states that Ephesians 5:24 and 5:25 are two separate ideas.(9) Paul discusses how Christians ought to live, filled with the Spirit, speaking and teaching one another, submitting to one another (5:19-24). Then Paul discusses Christ's love for the church (5:25-32). He suggests using parenthesis (10) to see the focus of imitating Christ:

  • submit to one another just as Christ and the church are united (v. 21-24)

  • love one another just as Christ loves the church and have hiimself for the church (v.25-27)

  • love others as you love yourself, just as Christ loves the church as his own body (v.28-32)

Fleming explains there is no household code (11) in Ephesians 5 at all; it is not instructions for marriage.

Jesus and Paul call for Mutual Submission

When Jesus washed his disciple's feet, he illustrated how Jesus loved the church body (John 13:12-17) and how we are to serve one another.

"When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Jesus tells all believers to love one another as he loved them, and by your love, everyone will know you are disciples of Jesus (John 13:34-35). Jesus's call to serve one another, mutual submit, and Paul's tells us to submit to one another, yielding to one another's needs (Eph. 5:21).

Marriage is reimagined without a Hierarchy

According to Marg Mowczko, Paul tells husbands to lower themselves, giving up some of their male honour and privilege, and elevate their wives, nurturing and caring for them as their own body. Paul flattens the hierarchal marriage structure in the first century, upsetting the balance of power (12) by bringing husbands down to the level of serving their wives.

"Paul wanted a levelling of status and honour between husband and wife. By reducing a distinction in status, a greater degree of head-body, one-flesh unity would be achieved. Unity is Paul's aim." Marg Mowczko (13)

This is not about a husband being a provider, protector or sanctifier for his wife. Only Christ redeems us, washes us, and makes us holy. This is not even about husbands dying for their wives, since all Christians are called to love sacrificially, as Christ did (5:2). Just as Christ put his physical needs below ours, and we put our needs below God's. It is mutual.

Why does Paul single out husbands to love sacrificially, just as Christ did (Eph. 5:25) when he told both men and women to love one another as Christ did (Eph. 5:2)? By making a separate statement telling husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the church, Paul affirms that even though the wife is subject to her husband in that society, the command to love one another also applies to how husbands treat their wives. We serve one another as Christ served us, men serving women and women serving men. It is mutual.

Paul writes that wives submit to husbands in ways that honour God and husbands are to love their wives in ways that honour God (Colossians 3:18-19). All believers, including husbands and wives, are to yield to one another. It is mutual.

Patrick Mitchel summarizes views from Cynthia Long Westfall's landmark book, Paul and Gender. (14) Dr. Westfall says Paul applies mutual submission to the Greco-Roman Household codes, contrasting the culture of believers with the Greco-Roman culture of male power and privilege. Wives are little new, as they are already expecting to submit in that culture, but they are made equal as husbands are likewise told to submit (5:21). Husbands are told to reduce the power imbalance by treating their wives' bodies as their own. Paul is primarily talking to husbands, depriving men of their more honoured role by putting obligations and restrictions on them. The way Christ treats the church is held as a model for how husbands treat their wives. Husbands are being reduced to doing women's work: bathing, laundry, and clothing (5:25-27). Paul explains in 5:26-30 how husbands can imitate the way Christ loved the body of believers (14):

  • gave up his privileges for her sake

  • gave up his human life to serve the church body

  • Washed her in a bath of clean water

  • Laundered her clothing

  • Clothed her without stains or wrinkles

  • Love her as you love your own body

  • Feed her

  • Nurture and take care of her the way that Christ takes care of the church body

The Main Idea: Marriage Illustrates the Great Mystery of the Union of Christ and the Church

Paul concludes by summarizing that this mutual love and mutual submission exemplify the profound mystery of the unity between Chris and the church. Paul emphasizes love, unity, and mutual submission. Paul explains a husband and wife are united to become one flesh (Eph. 5:31). Any understanding of Ephesians 5:22-32 as an affirmation to follow the Greco-Roman hierarchal marriage ignores the call to mutual love that creates unity.

This chapter uses the illustration of two people becoming united as one in marriage to represent the Great Mystery of how Christ and the church are united as one. Paul describes the love of Christ and the church and builds to reveal the main point of the chapter, the Great Mystery that we are united in Christ.

The mystery [of two becoming one] is great; but I am speaking with reference to [the relationship of] Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32, AMP)
marriage unity illustrates God and the church

Marriage union illustrates the unity of Jesus and the church

Paul does not provide a picture of Jesus and the body of believers as a model for marriage or say anything about why marriage was created. On the contrary, the marriage union of two persons becoming one flesh illustrates the Great Mystery of the unity of Jesus and the body of believers.

Paul gives commands to Husbands

While Paul talks about Christ and the church, not about marriage, Paul affirms a husband is to love his wife as his own body (Eph. 5:28), This command echoes Jesus who said the second and greatest commandment for all believers is: "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:38-39, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:25-28, James 2:8) and "Treat others in the same way that you want them to treat you" (Matthew 7:12). Loving means listening and treating a person with respect, as you would want to be treated. We are to love one another as Christ loved the body of believers. The example of loving your own body shows husbands how to live in unity with their wives.

Ephesians 5:33 respect is a consequence of love

Paul goes on to explain to husbands that they should love their wives in order that wives may reciprocate with respect and honour for husbands (Eph. 5:33). Dr. Cynthia Westfall reveals that this was written in Greek as a cause-and-effect phrase (6). Another commentator, Divine Dissident (15) explains that Ephesians 5:33 contains a "hina clause" which is regularly translated "in order that":

  • children should obey their parents "in order that" it will go well with them (Ephesians 6:2-3)

  • Fathers should not be harsh with children "in order that" the children won't be discouraged (Colossians 3:21)

  • Slaves should honour masters in order that God's name may not be slandered (1 Timothy 6:1)

  • Female elders should behave reverently and teach what is good in order that they may encourage young women (Titus 2:3-4)

  • Younger wives are to be self-controlled and productive in order that God's name may not be slandered (Titus 2:4-5)

  • Likewise, younger men are to be self-controlled and do what is good in order that those who oppose them might be ashamed (Titus 2:6-8)

  • Wives, yield to your husbands in order that you might win over a husband who does not believe the word (1 Peter 3:1)

  • Husbands, in the same way, yield to your wives, respect them as equal heirs of God's new life, in order that nothing will hinder your prayers.

  • Love one another repay evil with blessing in order that you may inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9)

In every case, the command is to the first party, not the second party. The hina clause shows the impact or result of the first party's obedience of the second party. Ephesians 5:33 is not a command that a husband love his wife and a command that a wife respect her husband. It is a command that a husband love his wife in order that a wife might respect her husband. Paul is addressing husbands, not wives. Paul does not tell a wife to respect her husband.

ephesians quote
Ephesians 5:33 Wives are Examples

Ephesians 5:33 is not a command that a wife respects her husband;

I know that most English translations do not read this way. They have mistranslated the hina clause, resulting in a command that a wife respect and submit to her husband. That's not what Paul wrote.

Paul revealed the truth that when a husband loves his wife, she will respect him. The secular world has discovered this biblical truth: you earn respect when you give respect to others (16). Being loving, kind, considerate, listening, helping, responsible for your actions and open to change, are all ways of earning respect. I speak more about love and respect here.

Chapter 6: Upsetting Power Structures By Changing the Heart

Paul addresses a list of people who are subject to other people in the familiar structures of the Greco-Roman society (Eph. 6:1-9). First-century wives, children, and slaves have less power, but Paul recognizes and addresses each group with respect and dignity, acknowledging that they each have their own minds and ability to act.

Paul acknowledges the Greco-Roman hierarchal and overturns it for Christians, telling those in dominant or powerful positions to serve those in lower positions. Just has Paul has told husbands to lower themselves to submit to wives, he addresses others in hierarchal roles. Paul is consistent with many places where the Bible tells us God brings down the powerful and uplifts the lowly or those in humble positions (Psalms 138:6, Proverbs 3:34, Matt 23:12, Luke 1:52, James 4:6). Jesus himself taught that those who were in authority should serve others (Luke 22:24-26). Women of the Bible also said that God would uplift the humble: Mary (Luke 1:51-52) and Hannah (1 Samuel 2:7-8). The words the prophetess Huldah spoke to the king of Judah are recorded in Scripture and authoritative for men and women. Huldah says the king will die in peace because he humbled himself before God (2 Chronicles 34:27).

First, children are told to obey their parents, both father and mother and reminded that the commandment to honour both father and mother comes with a promise that things will go well for them (6:1-4). Then Paul flattens the hierarchy by telling parents not to provoke their children.

Next, Paul instructs slaves to obey their earthly masters and he flattens the hierarchy telling slavemasters to follow the same instructions he gave to the slaves (6:5-9). Paul told slaves to serve their human masters, show goodwill, and work as if they were working for the Lord. Then he tells masters to serve their slaves with goodwill and stop threatening or abusing them. Paul asserts that all people, whether they are slaves or masters on earth, are equal before God and God does not show favouritism based on your earthly position.

The Junia project discusses how Paul's apparent acceptance of the pagan hierarchal structures and slavery of his day have led some to think patriarchy or slavery are acceptable to God (17). Dr Craig Keener explains that while Paul does not address the institution of slavery or slave-related laws in society, Paul calls for Christians to show mutual submission between slaves and slaveholders(18). Marg Mowczko explains that by telling those in powerful positions to humble themselves in service to others, he is undermining the pagan power structures (19) flattening the un-Christlike hierarchies.

This passage parallels Paul's letter to the Colossians where he addresses wives and husbands, children and fathers, servants and masters and reminds them that God shows no partiality based on a person's position in life (Col. 3:18-25). Paul reiterates God's impartiality in his other letters, stating that we are all equals: there is no longer Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Peter and Paul Agree on Mutuality

Peter instructs all people to be submissive: to governors (1 Peter 2:13-16), to everyone, brothers and Sisters (1 Peter 2:17), and to slave masters (1 Peter 2:18), wives to serve husbands (1 Peter 3:1), husbands to (1 Peter 3:7), shepherds to serve the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3), youth submit to elders (1 Peter 5:5), and all people serving one another with humility (1 Peter 5:5). Peter states that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). I write more on 1 Peter here.

Marg Mowczko reminds us that Peter also asks us to submit to one another (20) (1 Peter 5:5). Peter affirms mutuality in marriage when he says that a wife accepts her husband's authority and 'in the same way' (21) her husband accepts his wife's authority and treats her with respect (1 Peter 3:7-8).

Unity in Christ and Mutual Submission

From Ephesians 5:15 to 6:9 Paul provides examples of unity and mutual submission, climaxing with the Great Mystery of the unity of Christ and the church. There is no more dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, no more hierarchal structure for those who are in Christ. He concludes with a reminder for believers to submit to one another, as is honourable to God and gives Christians a good reputation in the community.

Just as Paul did not affirm following the Greco-Roman marriage hierarchy, he does not endorse slavery. In fact, Paul tells husbands to serve like women, parents to honour their children, and masters to 'do the same things' for slaves that slaves do for masters. Instead of imposing external controls to change unjust power structures, Paul calls us to change our hearts and to love one another as we love ourselves. This is exactly the way Jesus set out to change the world: by changing our hearts.

Any biblical interpretation that puts one group above another group is inconsistent with Jesus's words to lift up the humble and serve one another, Paul's instructions to those in higher positions to serve those in lower positions, and Peter and Paul's words about God's impartiality.

Chapter 6: Be Strong in the Lord

After describing how believers might submit to one another, Paul tells the brothers and sisters to be strong in the Lord and his great power (6:10-20). To teach new, Gentile believers about how God will defend them, Paul refers to the familiar Roman armour (22) to explain the unfamiliar Hebrew scriptures:

  • Belt of truth at your waist (Isaiah 11:1-5 describes a descendant of Jesse will come with righteousness and justice(23), the Messiah will be a righteous warrior bringing justice to the oppressed; wearing a belt of righteousness and faithfulness)

  • Breastplate of righteousness (Isaiah 59:17 says the coming Messiah will wear the breastplate of righteousness and helmet of salvation)

  • Boots carrying the good news of peace to help you stand strong (In Isaiah 52:7 the redeemer's feet bring good news, proclaim peace and salvation)

  • Shield of Faith to extinguish the arrows of the evil one (In Psalm 91:4-5, God is defending his people against enemies; shielding you against the arrows against you)

  • Helmet of God’s salvation (Isaiah 59:17 says the coming Messiah will wear the helmet of salvation)

  • Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (John calls Jesus the Word of God, and Isaiah 49:2 says the saviour will have words like a sharp sword; Hebrews 4:12 calls God's word sharper than any sword)

In other words, if we allow the Messiah to live in us, God's power will defend and protect us against temptation and evil. We will be equipped to build up the body of believers (Eph 4:12), be held together by the unity that comes from Christ (Eph 4:13), and reach mature stature in the fullness of Christ (4:13). Paul reminds them to pray at all times, to persevere, and to pray for all the believers, and for Paul himself to be able to speak fearlessly and reveal the Great Mystery of the good news that Christ unites us in peace (Eph. 2:14, 4:3, 6:15).

Be Encouraged

Paul's final words explain his reason for writing is to encourage them (6:21-24). Paul sends peace to the brothers and sisters and love and grace to all the believers. Paul sends the letter with “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, [who] will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing”. This echoes Paul’s sentiment in Colossians 4:7 “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.”

The letter to the Ephesians is one of joy, gratitude and encouragement. It uses the pagan household codes and the unity of marriage to illustrate the unity of Christ and the body of believers. Paul calls all believers to be united in peace by yielding to one another: Jews and Gentiles, Masters and Slaves, Men and Women. He calls believers to build each other up and stand strong and unified against the attacks of the evil one, and above all, to love other people as they love themselves.


My study of Ephesians shows that we are all equals, for Jesus broke the barriers and brought peace between Jew and Gentiles. All of us, men and women, are given gifts by the Holy Spirit to use to build up the body of believers. We are all called to love one another sacrificially, as Christ loves the church, his body. The union of two people becoming one flesh in marriage is an illustration showing the union of Christ and the church body of believers. As wives were subject to husbands in the first century, the church is subject to Christ, the source of our life and sustenance. Both men and women are called to submit to one another, teach and admonish one another. Jesus is the light that shows us right from wrong, and we will be rewarded for our actions, for God shows no favouritism. We are called to change our hearts and to live in love. I hope this review of the book of Ephesians builds you up, encourages you, and makes you feel united as a valuable part of Christ's body of believers.



Other sources:

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor


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