A Literary Look at Ephesians


You may or may not be familiar with the verses that state, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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” (Ephesians 5:22,23). This is a passage that has often been taken out of context to condone all kinds of unequal treatment.

As an English teacher, I sometimes look at the Bible through a literary lens. Doing this has a way of making stories and verses appear in a different light, and it adds to my overall understanding of the Bible. In this case, you have to look just one verse above verses 22 and 23, ignoring the section headers. Remember, those chapter separations and section headers were added way after the books of the Bible were written. Paul’s original letter to the Ephesians didn’t have any of that.

Ephesians 5:21 tells us, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Now, looking at this passage literarily, that sure looks like a thesis statement to me. And anyone who has ever taken an English class knows that where there’s a thesis statement, there’s an academic paper. In this case, Paul here appears to be writing what we would call a persuasive paper. The thesis statement tells us that the following verses will lend evidence to support Paul’s primary claim that we must submit to one another.

So, let’s look at that supporting evidence. Wives are told to submit to their husbands. OK, that tracks with the thesis. Wives -> Husbands. Verse 25 then tells husbands, “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This means that the submission is not a one sided thing. Paul’s assertion is more like: Wives <-> Husbands. With husbands and wives mutually submitting to each other, there is no abuse of power.

But Paul isn’t finished yet! Moving past those distracting chapter divisions, Chapter 6 starts off by Paul saying, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” This is his second next round of supporting evidence. Following in the same structure as before, Paul adds, “Fathers (parents), do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Based on Paul’s previous structure, these verses look like:             Children <-> Parents. When children submit to their parents, and parents submit to their children, the child grows up with a sense of value that can lead to the healthy marital relationship outlined in the previous verses.

Then, Paul jumps into the dynamic of slaves and masters. “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Ephesians 6:5), and “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9). A modern way to look at this is bosses and employees, or really any relationship that is created out of a worldly power dynamic. Imagine a world where bosses submitted to their employees and employees submitted to their bosses. Slaves <-> Masters. Just like Paul’s previous examples, this ideal creates a balance where there is no power abuse.

All of these verses may call to mind Galations 3:26-28, another letter from Paul. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Without the painful distinctions that are made by racism, classism, and sexism, we can see that we are all saved by the blood of Christ. That makes us all equal. That means we should all mutually submit to one another.

But, what would a persuasive paper be without a conclusion? Look no further! Paul does not disappoint. Ephesians 6:10-20 jumps into the Armor of God, complete with military metaphors. Paul implies an ongoing battle that we must be prepared to fight. What kind of army can defeat the enemy while constantly fighting each other? Definitely a losing one. We must be united as one team!

A world where every single person submitted to every single other person would be a world full of selflessness. It would be a world where growth and harmony could be fostered, and we would be free to concentrate on our fight with the real enemy.  

Stephanie Wilczynski has been involved with Enspire Productions since 2009. She is pursuing a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Andrews University.