Ephesians 5:22-33 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.This passage has offended many a feminist sensibilities because of the idea of ladies having to submit to their husbands, which is an idea that goes against all that feminists preach. So, in an effort to sound more sensitive I have heard many people say that it means to respect your husband. Many of them are keying off of verse 33 which does state "respects her husband," this however, ignores what occurs textually in verse 22 and the preceding context.
I believe verse 21 "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21) helps set the frame of the entire passage as that which precedes this verse speaks of living a Christ-like life and that which follows calls for us to mirror the relationship of Christ and the Church. This is an image that I believe we have lost in our church. One that I believe will prove vital in our understanding of the Pastoral Role, however that is a topic for another time.
Back to verse 22, hupotassesthosan (I apologize if I messed up the transliteration) is the verb which unequivocally gives lie to the idea that respect is all that is meant. The BDAG Greek English Lexicon informs us that it means to cause one to be in submission to another or when it occurs in the passive to submit yourself willingly. There can be no question that we are talking about willing submission particularly when we have verse 21 setting the frame for the following verses. However, this is not to be understood in the classic patriarchal sense as it was used in the past to keep women down. This passage happens to be a case study on why prooftexting is a bad idea, because what follows destroys any notion that the male half of the relationship is one of dominion.
The man is called to act just as Christ did as the head of the church. Guess how he did it. He washed people's feet. Christ's headship is not one of dominion it is one of submission and more importantly love. Christ as the head of the church loved his bride, the church, so much he sacrificed his well-being and his life in order that she could be made pristine and live.
What is being asked of husbands and wives is not that men dominate their wives and that the women should put up with it, rather they are being asked to mirror the relationship of Christ and the church. Submission plays a part in this image. (Let me note here that because of sin we will not perfectly display this imagery, so don't submit to that which would be sinful and don't be afraid to lovingly correct your husbands when they err, we need it as much as anybody else.) And we destroy this image when we limit ourselves to just respect. We as the church do not merely respect Jesus. We live in submission to him, because he loved us so much that he sacrificed himself for us. This is the relationship we should have in marriage one of mutual submission and sacrificial love.