Lesson 9, Series 1: EPHESIANS 5:21-33 NLT

For this study, we recommend using the New Living Translation.  It is always helpful to compare several translations.  For example, in Spanish it is interesting to note that the Bible of the Americas starts verse 21 in the middle of the previous sentence.  According to the editors of the NLT,

“The goal of any Bible translation is to convey the meaning of the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts as accurately as possible to the modern reader….In the New Living Translation, this is accomplished by translating entire thoughts (rather than just words) into natural, everyday English. The end result is a translation that is easy to read and understand and that accurately communicates the meaning of the original text.”

Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188.  All rights reserved


Pray, opening yourself to what God wants to reveal in his Word.  This passage is well known and can bring passionate opinions.  We suggest that before starting to go back to the principles of inductive study on the page Inductive Bible Study.

Please remember two key points of inductive study:

“Perhaps the greatest challenge is the first OBSERVATION step.  It is tempting to rush through a brief observation and quickly jump to interpretation and application.  If you can discipline yourselves to spend the majority of the study time on observation, your learning will be richer and truer to the original intent of the Word.”

In INTERPRETATION: Strive to discover and explain the author’s purpose. Leave aside subjectivism, biases, personal opinions, or the need to verify a doctrine. Let the passage speak for itself.”

Read Ephesians 5:21-33 multiple times.

OBSERVATION – What does the text say?

  1. Underline all key words.
  2. Add in all the verbs using another color.  Note the verb tenses used.
  3. Circle all prepositions and connector words with another color.
  4. Put a square around all the comparisons and contrasts
  5. What can you observe about the advice given to the wife and that given to the husband?  (Compare amount of space used, main emphasis, etc.)
  6. Note the illustrations Paul uses here.
  7. Discover the structure of the passage: For example, To whom is Paul speaking in verse 21?  Look closely at the first phrases of vs. 22 and 25, and how each section develops.

INTERPRETATION – What did the text mean to the original listeners?

  1. Verse 21 starts with “And further”.  What is Paul referring to in the previous section?
    1. In Greek the verbs are such that is it more like this:  Be filled with the Spirit (vs 18) by:  singing psalms. . . giving thanks. . . and submitting one to another.
  2. What can we learn from the structure of the passage?
  3. Discover the original meaning of key words:
    1. Create a list detailing what Paul indicates about submit.
    2. Create a list detailing the passage’s description of love.
    3. What does head mean according to the passage?  Make a list of what Christ (the head) does for the church (his body).  Where does the interpretation that head means authority come from?  Read several paragraphs from an article by Gilbert Bilezikian (see the end of this study).
  4. Why does Paul quote Genesis 2 verse 21 here?
  5. What is the main idea of the passage?

APPLICATION – How do we apply this text to our lives?

  1. How is the culture where you live different from these biblical principles?
  2. How have you put this teaching in practice in your life?  What might you do this week?
  3. For more information and study we recommend the following books in English and Spanish:
    1. Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family Gilbert Bilezikian
    2. Why Not Women : A Biblical Study of Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership, L. Cunningham, D.J.Hamilton, J.Rogers.

The meaning of the word, “head, from Gilbert Bilezikian

A basic rule of sound hermeneutics requires that no biblical term or concept be infused with meanings foreign to it. For this reason, the meaning of head in the New Testament must be defined from within the New Testament itself. It cannot be assumed that the value of head in the English language as authority, leader or master carries over automatically into the New Testament’s use of the same word head.

There is no doubt that, among his multiple functions in regard to the church, Christ is authority, leader and master over the church since the scope of his universal lordship includes the church. Therefore, what is under scrutiny is not the concept of the lordship of Christ over the church. Rather, it must be determined whether the word head, when used to describe Christ’s relationship to the church, carries the same meaning of lordship or whether it is invested with a different value. The glib assumption may not be made that, because head denotes authority in English, it also does so in the language of the New Testament.

Fortunately, the meaning of head can be easily determined within its scriptural use with reference to the headship of Christ in relation to the church, his body. Whatever function the head of the church performs in connection to the body defines the meaning of the term head in the New Testament.

The word head is used five times in the New Testament to define the relation of Christ to the church. As will be shown below, the use of head is consistent in all of those texts.

Eph. 1:22-23. The passage that immediately precedes this text exalts the supremacy of Christ in his session. But in relation to the church, the role of Christ is described as being appointed as head for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. The headship of Christ is never over the church in the New Testament. Here, it is for the church. As head, Christ gives the church fullness. He provides for the church’s growth. The function is not one of authority but of servant provider of what makes the church’s growth possible.

Eph. 4:15-16. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows and builds itself up. The function of the head in relation to the body is to provide it with growth. Headship is not an authority role but a developmental servant function.

Eph. 5:23. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. As head of the church, Christ is its Savior. If head had meant authority, the appropriate designation for Christ would have been “Lord” instead of “Savior” which is consistently a self-sacrificing, life-giving servant role in the New Testament.

Col. 1:18-19. Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead. Through his blood, shed on the cross, all things are reconciled to God. In a passage that celebrates Christ’s supremacy over all creation, this text describes Christ as the source of the life of the church through his resurrection from the dead and because of the reconciliation obtained through his self-sacrificing servant ministry at the cross. Headship is not defined in terms of authority but as servant provider of life.

Col. 2:19. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows. The function of head in relation to the body is not one of rulership but of servant provider of growth. Christ as head to the church is the source of its life and development.

This survey indicates that head, biblically defined, means exactly the opposite of what it means in the English language. Head is never given the meaning of authority, boss or leader. It describes the servant function of provider of life, growth and development. This function is not one of top-down oversight but of bottom-up support and nurture.  From Gilbert Bilezikian