Verse 21 functions as a bridge from a discussion of worship to the household. The text reads, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” which Thurston calls, “the principle that governs the whole code.” For, as Boring and Craddock point out, “in the Christian community there is a mutual serving of one another that takes precedence over all social structures.” All Christians are called to this mutual submission “out of reverence for Christ” or “in the fear of Christ,” which implies “worshipful awareness that one is dealing with the Creator.”
Many English translations, such as the NIV, NASB, ESV, NKJV, The NET Bible, GOD’S WORD Translation, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible leave verse 21 in the above heading. That decision can lead to some misunderstandings of the domestic code in 5:22–6:9, for it can make it seem as though the author of Ephesians only expects the “inferior” to submit to the “superior.” Verse 21, however, calls all Christians to “be subject to one another.” Neller also argues that while 5:21 belongs grammatically with 5:19–20, “Thematically, and grammatically, however, 5:21 is linked even more closely with 5:22–6:9, where the concept of mutual submission is elaborated.” Throughout the instructions to wives and husbands, the text weaves back and forth between images of Christ and the church and earthly family life, “which has the effect of lifting the marriage relationship to sacred level.” As Witherington points out, it is important to remember “we have a comparison, not an identification, of two different kinds of relationships – husband and wife, and Christ and Church.”
As the “subordinate” party, wives are addressed first. The verb translated “be subject” in verse 21, Ὑποτασσόμενοι (from ὑποτάσσω), is not present in verse 22, which the NRSV translates, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” The use of ἰδίοις is important, for it shows that the author is not saying all women should be subject to all men or all women should submit to male church leaders, but that the text is discussing the relationship of husbands and wives and does endorse monogamy.
Bratcher and Nida note, “In Greek this verse does not have a verb. In translation the verb must be supplied from the participle of ‘to submit’ in the preceding verse.” Neller seeks to soften the verse by arguing that submission and obedience are not synonymous concepts. So, while children are told to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters, wives are only told to submit themselves. He argues wives are never commanded to obey their husbands in the New Testament. While Neller makes an attractive argument, “submission” and “obedience” are used in parallel in New Testament domestic codes and have overlap in meaning. As Bratcher and Nida argue, ὑποτάσσω means “to be subject to, obey, be ruled by.” They also note, “This verb is used in military contexts of a subordinate’s relationship to his superior in the army hierarchy.” ὑποτάσσω, however, does not necessarily refer to “degrading servility,” since, as Ralph Martin points out, “1 Cor. 15:18 shows how submission characterizes the relationship between Christ and the Father, and elements of voluntary consent and agreement are found in places where the term is employed (1 Cor. 14:32; 16:16) as well as Eph. 5:24.” Bratcher and Nida continue to argue, “as to the Lord . . . is to be understood to mean that the Christian wife’s attitude toward her husband reflects her (and his) relationship to Christ.”
As a theological rational for a wife submitting to her husband, the text says in verses 23, “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Here, like in some other New Testament passages, the image of the church as the bride of Christ is adapted from the Old Testament image of Israel as the bride of God (Hos 1–3; Ezek 16:8–14; Mark 2:18–22; Matt 22:1–4; 25:1 – 13; Luke 12:35–38; John 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 19:7, 9; 22:2, 9, 17).
Scholars disagree on the meaning of κεφαλὴ or “head” in verse 23. There are two major camps who argue the κεφαλὴ implies “source” or “ruler/leader.” Figures like Gilbert Bilezikian, Catherine Kroeger, and Gordon Fee argue that “‘head’ in the Greek NT rarely or never designates a leader or anyone with some type of authority,” and instead arguing that κεφαλὴ in Paul’s writing means “source” or “beginning.” So they argue the emphasis in this passage is on the oneness of Christ and the church.
Other scholars, like Wayne Grudem and Joseph Fitzmyer argue that “‘head,’ when used metaphorically by Greek writers (including Paul), may signify some type of leadership role with varying degrees of authority. According to them, ‘head’ rarely or never means ‘source.’” They thus argue that κεφαλὴ implies the leadership of the husband over the wife.
Neller notes that evidence exists for understanding κεφαλὴ as both “leader” and “source,” but even less evidence exists for “source.” Neller argues that “previous usage of a word does not alone determine its meaning.” Neller defends this by noting that New Testament writers often redefine words out of their Christian experience. Also, the head/body metaphor used in the Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22–23, 4:15–16, and 5:23 is unique in biblical writings. Neller also notes that the “head” metaphor in Ephesians 5:23 differs from the one in 1 Corinthians 11:3, so readers should not read 1 Corinthians into Ephesians. Neller says, “The headship of the husband derives not so much from who he is (male), but by what he does (serve), i.e., his leadership in loving self-denial and sacrificial service.” Witherington similarly argues that head here refers to the “head servant,” for “we are reminded of the discussion of ‘the one who would be greatest’ in the Gospel tradition (Luke 22.25ff.).”
The rational continues in verse 24, which says, “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” Witherington argues, especially in light of the analogy used between husband/wife and Christ/church, that Paul assumes a Christian marriage in making this command. Talbert notes, “The point is not, ‘Be subject because you are subject to Christ,’ but rather, ‘Be subject in a way that is analogous to your subjection to Christ.’”
After the instruction to wives comes the instruction to husbands, which takes up nine of the twenty-two verses within the Ephesian Haustafel. In verse 25, husbands are instructed, “love your wives.” This demonstrates the primacy of love with the Ephesian code. Much of the rest of the instruction to husbands provides a theological rational for that love. First, husbands are told to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (25). So, husbands are instructed to love (ἀγαπάω) their wives with “active and unceasing and self-sacrificing concern for her well-being.”
Husbands are told to love their wives sacrificially “in order to (ἵνα) make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word” (26). This passage includes, in the phrase “cleansing her with the washing of water,” a reference to baptism, which was “accompanied by the interpreting word.” Boring and Craddock postulate that this accompanying word may be a confession of faith, the words of the baptizer, or “the purifying word of the Christian message.” The text continues in verse 27 arguing this cleansing is needed “so as to (ἵνα) present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that (ἵνα) she may be holy and without blemish.” Purity within verses 26–27 is stressed in both positive and negative ways and includes, as can be seen above, three ἵνα clauses, two of which, 26a and 27 c, “open with a similar concern for holiness and sanctification of the church.”
Verses 28–29a say, “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.” So, as Boring and Craddock point out, “even this ‘self-centered’ love becomes a model for the love of husband for wife.”
Again, a connection is made between the love of a husband for his wife and the love of Christ for the church, as 29b–30 say, “just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.” As a rational for Christ’s love for the church, verse 31 says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,” which is a quotation of Genesis 2:24. Boring and Craddock note, “The author sees in the unity of man and wife in Gen 2:24 a prototype of the unity of Christ and the church” and “the love of Christ for he church as the prototype of human marriage, in which two separate persons are merged into one.” Martin sees verse 31 as the central phrase in 5:22–33 because of its connections with Genesis 2:24 and Mark 10:7–8 and its point that men and women “so yearn for each other that they are ready to leave their earthly parents.”
Verse 32 says, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church,” meaning the author applies Genesis 2:24 to the unity between Christ and the church, which he calls “a great mystery.” Martin notes, “The ‘great mystery’ is a typical idiom in this letter for God’s saving plan, once concealed but now made known through Paul’s Gentile mission and ministry.” The connection of the unity of Christ and the church with the unity of a husband and wife or a household powerfully implies, as Thurston points out, “The process of unifying the church still begins in the home,” which is where the churches met for worship.
Verse 33 then serves as a summary of 22–32, saying first to husbands, “Each of you, however, should love (ἀγαπάτω) his wife as himself.” Sampley argues that the instruction to husbands bears a close relationship to the LXX translation of Leviticus 19:18b, which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Sampley notes, however, that there is a difficulty with this connection since Ephesians 5:33 does not use πλησίον or neighbor as the object of love, but instead uses γυνή or wife. Sampley notes, however, that ἡ πλησίον μου is used nine times by the lover to refer to his beloved in the LXX of Song of Songs. Due to the interchangeability of πλησίον and γυνή, Sampley concludes Ephesians 5:33a is indeed patterned after Leviticus 19:18b. Then the text says, “and a wife should respect (φοβῆται) her husband.” φοβῆται, which comes from φοβέω, means “literally, ‘to fear,’ although the connotation here is to reverence or show respect.”
In the domestic codes, like the one in Ephesians, more of the tension that exists between Galatians 3:28 and the “leveling out” of distinctions and the fact that the New Testament authors lived in a patriarchal society with certain expectations for men and women can be seen. Witherington sees the Ephesian Haustafel as Paul’s attempt to “reform the patriarchal structure of his day, a structure he inherited, adopted, and adapted,” by rooting it in the relationship between Christ and church. The Ephesian domestic code thus advocates a “qualified patriarchy.” Husbands, parents, and masters are not told to lord their authority over their wives, children, and servants, but given instruction to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). As Ira Jolivet notes, “While Ephesians assumes the basic hierarchies of the ancient world, it also corrects their worst abuses and points beyond them to an ethical life in which traditional patters of subordination and superiority break down in a context of responsibility and love.”
 Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James Luther Mays (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991), 67.
 M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (
 The GNT, NCV, CEV, and NLT place verse 21 under the same heading as the instructions to husbands and wives. The KJV, ASV, and RSV do not have headings, but place verse 21 in the same paragraph as the instructions to husbands and wives.
 Boring and Craddock, 610. Martin asks the question, “Is the writer chiefly interested in the model of husband and wife together, drawing on Christ and the church as illustration? Or is the basic patter a christological-ecclesiological one, which he uses to enforce teaching on the marital relationship?” (68). Martin concludes, “Yet domination by either sex is not the way our author views the relationship. His primary appeal . . . is to the example set by the heavenly Lord and his spouse, the church” (69).
 Thurston, Women in the New Testament, 139.
 F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Old
 Thurston, Reading Colossians, Ephesians & 2 Thessalonians, 142.
 Jolivet, 962.