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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Does Ephesians Even Teach Gender Roles?

Updated: Feb 12

Does the book of 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.

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. Does Ephesians even teach gender roles? No - the book of Ephesians refers to the familiar gender roles of the patriarchal Roman society to contrast with the unfamiliar believers' roles to submit to one another. 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. While this letter is to the Ephesians, it is also addressed to us: the readers. Paul encourages them 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 one body, 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 the secret truth that God gives Gentiles the same riches promised for Jews; Christ living in you, giving you the hope of glory (Col. 1:25-27). In Paul's letter to the Colossians and Galatians, he talks about us all being one in Christ: no Gentile or Jew, citizen or slave, male or female (Colossians 3:11, Galatians 3:28). The letters to Ephesians and Colossians give a picture of unity as you honour and love one another to imitate Christ.

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

In chapter 1:1-14, Paul praises God, the source of all spiritual blessings; God made us appear righteous and blameless and adopted us to the family of faith. In verse 5, Paul says that Jews, Gentiles, women, men, slaves, and citizens are all adopted. He uses the legal term that makes us all co-heirs. We all have the same full legal standing as a male heir 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 in verse 4 and completes the thought by saying in verses 11-12 that Gentiles who put their hope in Christ are also chosen. In verse 13, Paul states that God adopts you into God's family when you hear the message of truth and believe it. Then the Holy Spirit seals God's promise of your inheritance and your redemption.

In 1:15-23, 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 made him the head, which is a source of life.

Vineyard photo credit: Elaine R Kelly

The head-body illustration is very similar to the vine-branch illustration 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. Jesus speaks of his food as doing God's will (John 4:34). 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 branches that stay connected to the stem, conveying and receiving energy, will live, grow and produce fruit. The whole united vine, including the stem and branches [Christ and 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 needs the branches to grow. Ephesians 1 introduces the topic of Jesus united with the body of believers, providing life and peace. The union of Christ and the church is mystical and powerful:

"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

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. This chapter is about how 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.

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

In chapter 3, 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. Paul reveals the Good News that Gentiles and Jews will share in God's blessings and the promise made through Christ Jesus. 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, and that they will understand the breadth, length, depth and height of Christ's love. This chapter 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. God's power can work in all of us to do more than we can imagine, for God's glory.

According to John Flavel, ths Great Mystery is illustrated by:

- 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

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

In Chapter 4 Paul challenges us to respond to God's love and blessings. In 4:1-3, 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. 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.

Photo: wikimedia

In 4:4-16, Paul repeats that we are united because there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God. 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 the gifts for the purpose of building up the whole body of Christ until all believers are united in faith and attain mature adulthood. Women would grow to mature womanhood or become full-grown women, but Paul writes to all believers, and since some male readers might feel upset seeing female terms, I use the more accurate term, 'mature adulthood'.

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, which means the gifts 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 them up. 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.

Paul uses the metaphor of a body with Christ as the head and the assembly of believers as the body. Christ is the source of life and power for all the parts of the body of believers, the church. The head may refer to the unity of the body, since 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. We are empowered by the one Holy Spirit. From Christ, 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.

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).

Christ is the source of forgiveness, our life, nourishment, strength and growth. The church is Christ's body; the body of believers is filled with Christ.

In 4:17-32, Paul instructs believers to live differently, not like unbelievers. 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

Ephesians 5:1-2 concludes the description of the unity of the body and how believers may live differently. We are to imitate God, just as dearly loved children imitate their fathers. Paul instructs both men and women to follow the example of Christ, who loved us sacrificially.

In Ephesians 5: 3-14 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. 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. In verse 14, 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)

Starting at Ephesians 5:15, 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. 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 admonish 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 in Ephesians 5:15-20 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 submitting to one another as equals, 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. 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, and a third of these concern unity. I speak more about mutuality here.

Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall, the author of Paul and Gender, points out that the original says: 'submit to one another in reverence to the Lord, wives to husbands' (Eph. 5:21-22). Cynthia Long Westfall explains in an interview with Sheila Wray Gregoire there was no verb instructing wives to submit to their husbands. Likewise, Marg Mowczko points out that the verb is simply implicit from the previous phrase where Paul instructs all believers to submit to one another. Readers were familiar with the relationship of wives and husbands in the household codes designed by the Greek Philosopher Aristotle and Paul uses the familiar to describe the unfamiliar.

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 also does not tell wives to treat their husbands as their Lord in Eph 5:22. Paul repeatedly says there is one Lord: Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:5, 1 Cor. 8:6, Romans 10:12). In contrast, Paul is saying that the wife is acting out of reverence to the Lord God, similar to: “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).

In Ephesians 5:23 Paul uses the unity of the wife and husband to illustrate the unity of Christ and the church. Paul points out that just as the husband is the source of life and provides food, shelter, and protection for his wife, Christ is the source of life for the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. While only Christ is our Lord and Saviour, making us holy, Paul points out that the church is subject to Christ, as a wife is subject to her husband. Young's Literal Translation puts Eph. 5:24 this way, "even as the assembly is subject to Christ, so also [are] the wives to their own husbands in everything." Again, Paul refers to the familiar Greco-Roman marriage relationship to illustrate the new and unfamiliar relationship between Christ and the church. His main point is not marriage, but Christ and the church.

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. Verses 21-23a could be paraphrased as:

Submit to one another as wives submit to their husbands as the paterfamilias.

The role of the wife in the Greco-Roman marriage is held as an example for husbands to follow.

Bruce C. E. Fleming states that Eph. 5:24 and 5:25 are two separate ideas. Ephesians 5:15-24 is one message about how Christians ought to live, submitting to one another, following the example of how Christ served the church. Paul discusses mutual or reciprocal submission from 5:15-24 and describes Christ's love for the church in 5:25-30. He suggests using parenthesis to see the focus of verses 25-30:

  • Just as Christ is the head of the church, his body, he saves and serves the church

  • Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, we give up ourselves to Christ

  • Just as Christ nourishes and tenderly cares for the church, love one another as you love your own body

Jesus Demonstrates Mutual Submission

Beginning with verse 25, Paul flattens the hierarchal marriage structure in the first century, upsetting the balance of power by bringing husbands down to the level of serving their wives. Paul presents an 'upside-down kingdom' where men are told to act like women. Paul tells husbands to love their wives 'in the same way that Christ loved the church body'. Paul explains in 5:26-30 how husbands can imitate the way Christ loved the body of believers:

  • 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

Husbands reduce the power imbalance by treating their wives' bodies as well as their own (effectively lowering themselves and lifting up their wives). We have another picture of how Jesus loved the church body in John 13:12-17:

"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.