From Ephesians 5 in a complementarian lens, it is understood to be a reflection of how men and women ought to work together in marriage for God's glory - though I am aware that egalitarians and complementarians have opposing views in this matter i.e. complementarians believe roles are complementary, while egalitarians believe roles are equal.

How do egalitarians understand or dismantle the concept of male headship in Ephesians 5?

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5 (NIV)

  • Which Christian group is known for being egalitarian?
    – Kristopher
    Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 1:20
  • @Kris From researching the answer, I came across several who are explicitly egalitarian: Church of the Nazarene (Holiness-Wesleyan) which allows women as clergy, Pangea church (independent Anabaptist), the Junia Project led by 2 ordained women Methodist pastors and possibly other Protestant denominations. One Presbyterian church I attended as a kid in the 1980s also had a woman pastor. Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 6:03
  • You might want to quote the full passage, if you are asking about complementarians as compared to egalitarians. This question is badly structured. This kind of cherry picking is really bad form. Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 13:35
  • 1
    You Left Out This Part 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her 26 to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, 27 that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 13:37
  • Uh, sorry, I failed to up vote the answer. Let me remedy that. Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 1:13

1 Answer 1



Egalitarians emphasize the "one another" meaning of Eph 5:21 ("... submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.") to control the interpretation of Eph 5:21-33 while being silent on Col 3:18 and 1 Pet 3:1. Secondly, they interpret "head" (kephal) to mean "source" instead of "authority over".

The Longer Answer

It's interesting how several English translations (such as NLT, NIV, NRSV) put Eph 5:21 in the same pericope with Eph 5:21-33 while other English translations (such as ESV,NASB, ASV, NKJV) put Eph 5:21 in the earlier pericope Eph 5:1-21. Grouping Eph 5:21 with Eph 5:21-33 enables one to apply "submit to one another" to the husband and wife relationship.

An example of a proponent of egalitarian interpretation of Eph 5:21 is in a 2015 blog article Husbands, Crucify Your Privilege: Ephesians 5 & How Men Take the Lead by Kurt Willems, the founding lead pastor of Pangea Church in Seattle, who distinguishes Patriarchy (exemplified by the Roman culture at the time of St. Paul), Complementarianism, and Egalitarianism/Mutuality. The argument emphasizes the "each other" in 5:21 as two directional submission and paraphrases Eph 5 as:

“Husbands, in this Roman culture men have all the privilege, but in submission out of reverence for Christ, you are invited to take the lead in crucifying your privilege. In doing so, you look like Jesus and can be part of a marriage of mutual image-bearing and kingdom co-leadership.”

Another example is the Junia Project advocating the full inclusion of women in church leadership and for mutuality in marriage. The website links to a paper The Bible Teaches the Equal Standing of Man and Woman by Philip B. Payne holding a PhD in New Testament Studies from Cambridge and who wrote a 2009 book published by Zondervan Man and Woman, One in Christ reviewed here which summarizes his egalitarian exegesis of relevant Bible passages. From the review:

Therefore, Paul appropriated, according to Payne, the egalitarian vision enunciated in Gen. 1–2 and the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures. Galatians 3:28 proclaims the equality of men and women in Christ, and the text cannot be restricted to soteriology. Social and cultural implications follow from Paul’s bold declaration in Galatians. The fundamental equality of married couples is confirmed by 1 Cor. 7. Ephesians 5:22–33 in no way contradicts this since the text teaches mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). Furthermore, the word kephal? is understood to mean “source” instead of “authority over.”

Mr. Payne's paper's opening paragraph:

Is the Bible divided on the issue of gender? Many highly respected evangelical scholars believe there is a tension in the Bible between affirmations of gender equality and gender roles. Can we arrive at a consistent biblical position without doing violence to the text? Need one sacrifice good exegesis at the altar of systematic theology? Surely, good exegesis and good systematic theology go hand in hand. I have prayerfully wrestled for forty-one years with the texts’ apparent contradictions on gender and can honestly say that the biblical texts themselves have transformed my understanding. From creation to new creation, the Bible’s message about gender in the church and marriage consistently affirms the equal standing of man and woman.

With regards to Ephesians as well as the church in Ephesus, Mr. Payne made the following points in the paper:

  • Paul's affirmations of the equality of husband and wife: after discussing 1 Cor 7 as "Paul's most detailed treatment of marriage" where Paul "repeatedly uses symmetrically-balanced wording to reinforce this equality" he continues:

    Similarly, in Eph 5:21–22, the wife’s submission is explicitly one facet of mutual submission, each voluntarily yielding in love.23 Paul’s call to both wives and husbands is to defer to and nurture one another. Christ is the model for all believers, wives as well as husbands (5:2). Paul defines what he means by Christ being “head” in verse 23 by equating it with “savior” through emphatic apposition: “Christ the head of the church, he the savior of the body.” What does Christ do as “savior”? Paul explains: “Christ gives himself” for the church (5:25) and “nourishes and cherishes” it (5:29). This shows that Paul is using “head” with the established Greek meaning “source,” here focusing on Christ as the source of love and nourishment of the church.24 Paul calls husbands as “head” of the wife to follow Christ’s example as “head” by loving, nourishing, and cherishing their wives (5:25–29). This cherishing, nourishing love, not a hierarchy of authority, motivates her submission (5:23).

    The Bible approves women leading in the home. Paul treats husbands and wives equally in relation to their children (Eph 6:1–2; Col 3:20) and tells wives to “rule their households” (literally, “be house despots,” 1 Tim 5:14). If this is not leadership in the home, what is?

  • 1 Timothy 2:12: he argues that here Paul is not prohibiting women from teaching or having authority over men but "because of the ongoing crisis of false teaching in Ephesus, he prohibits women from unauthorized assumption of authority over a man." Furthermore, Paul is not prohibiting Priscilla who was present in Ephesus (see 2 Tim 4:19) from assuming properly delegated or recognized authority or how she "explained to [Apollos] the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26).

Further study

A 2009 issue of Christian Reflection (a quarterly publication of Baylor University's Center for Christian Ethics): Women and the Church (pdf here) has a book review essay Women in Ministry: Beyond the Impasse by Gretchen E. Ziegenhals covering 3 recent books, one of them is Zondervan's Two Views on Women in Ministry which includes 4 evangelical NT scholars holding seminary faculty positions with 2 arguing for the egalitarian position (Craig S. Keener and Linda L. Belleville) and 2 arguing for the complementarian position (Thomas R. Schreiner and Craig L. Blomberg).

  • Thank you for your respectful answer - this is often a controversial question and sparks lots of unhappy discussions, but your answer really answered what I wanted to know clearly.
    – Oliver K
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 3:22
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    @OliverK I'm glad to provide what you're looking for. Yes, the position is certainly controversial, and I myself is more persuaded toward the complementarian side, which as some scholars quoted here are themselves trying their best to be as egalitarian as much as the Bible (responsibily interpreted) allows. For example, the author's struggle of this blog article resonates with me. My job here, though, is to present the best case for the egalitarian position. Please let me know if I can research more for you. Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 3:37

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