Some Notes for Preachers on the Reading of Ephesians Five in the Lectionary

In my years of presenting basic sacramental theology to engaged couples for pre-Cana, the interpretation of the literal sense of Ephesians five on marriage is something that has frequently occupied me. It was even an endeavor to which I was putting thought and energy while earning my MA in Theology for scripture studies. It is almost three years since our liturgical cycle last presented selections of Ephesians chapter five in the Sunday lectionary for Year B. In 2015, I freely shared in my homily one or two of the insights that I felt most strongly would help married couples today understand the literal meaning of the text. This year, having dwelt some more on the translation of Ephesians five, I feel that I have another insight or two to share. Some of these snippets will probably work their way into my homilies this August as passages from Ephesians five are again proclaimed at the Sunday Eucharist. I summarize here what seem to me the most important points for a sound interpretation of this text if a preacher is going to combine and exegetical and pastoral approach to interpret this passage for the faithful in a Sunday homily. Additionally, I wish to compare my approach to a well-known facet of Pope John Paul II’s work Theology of the Body.

While the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is debated among scholars, I rely on the introduction in our very lectionary to assume that Ephesians is not only Pauline, but directly from the hand of St. Paul himself, as this is how it is proclaimed at the Mass. I recall firstly all the long, almost run-on, sentences in the Pauline letters, which, of necessity, our lectionary needs to break up and turn into manageable chunks for a liturgical proclamation in comprehensible English. The section on marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33 is in fact part of one such sentence. Verses 5:21, 22, and 23 together, in the original Greek penmanship, are part of a sentence that begins in verse 5:18. This is quite significant. The passage on marriage is both grammatically and thematically in a larger section. Most of our Bibles translate these verses as if there is a complete break at verse 5:20, and then as if a new topic is presented in a new paragraph at verse 5:21. I think a translation that shows Paul’s drawn-out thoughts gives us a fresh look, helpful for assigning the right emphases to the section on marriage. Here I show how Ephesians 5:18–23 could be translated in a literal and continuous sentence. While it will seem either “clunky” or “wooden,” it shows the connections that Paul might have wanted as highlighted.

(5:18) Do not be drunk with wine, a life of dissipation, but be filled with the Holy Spirit, (19) addressing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, (20) giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, (21) submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ, (22) wives to husbands, as to the Lord, (23a) for the husband is head of his wife as Christ is head of the Church.

Firstly, let us note what the moral imperatives are. There are two, but they are not in verse 5:21; they are in verse 5:18. We are commanded “not to be drunk with wine,” and then commanded “to be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Both are passive commands, but imperative nonetheless. Then several ongoing actions follow (participles to the Greek readers) all as a description of a life “filled with the Holy Spirit.” These are various actions that accompany the command “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” singing, giving thanks, submitting to proper authorities. One could see that they should all go together, and it could be problematic to isolate any one of them as entirely separate from the others. But most translations and our current lectionary cut this sentence short, presenting verse 5:20 as if “giving thanks always and for everything” was the last action on the list. As a continuous translation shows, it is not.

This, in my view, is the first limitation and difficulty that is always hindering us when Ephesians 5:21–32 comes around in the lectionary. The beginning of the Sunday Epistle picks up in the middle of a sentence. Ephesians 5:21 is first translated as if the word “submitting” was an imperative, and then a subjunctive admonition is inserted for the relations of wives to husbands. Thus the passage begins in the lectionary like this:

(5:21) “Brothers and Sisters . . . Be obedient to each other out of reverence for Christ. (22) Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord, (23a) for the husband is head of his wife as Christ is head of the Church.

Here in preaching I have sometimes used imaginative (but prudent) propositions to reveal inadequate impressions of the literal sense. I suggest imagining if the real message here really did boil down to an imperative like this: “quick, we need to get all the insubordinate wives to start obeying their husbands, so as to impress the pagans and keep the Christian way socially acceptable.” People in the pews either chuckle at the apparent oddity, or say “wait, what?” It is fair to say both responses show that this proposition has not captured the real meaning in the passage.

I think it does damage to the primary meaning of the text if Ephesians 5:21–22 is ever presented as a mere imperative that a husband “should” be making certain decisions and that a wife “should not” be making any corresponding decisions impacting on each other or the family. There are many interpretations out there that can border on an endorsement of authoritarianism on behalf of husbands. Rather than any details about which decisions are made by whom, the literal sense takes as its primary focus the need to have the entire Christian disposition of verses 5:18, 19, and 20 fill the lives of believers, filling the relationship of husband and wife, the whole family, and all society.

It is precisely because the idea of obedience in verses 5:21–22 is introduced as an ongoing action, presumed to a matter of course but connected to the imperatives of verse 5:18, that the emphasis would not be simply on enforcing authority structures, but rather on considering all current authority structures in a new light, the light of the Holy Spirit. It would be complete nonsense for Paul to go around saying categorically that God wants a woman to make no decisions but only to accept the decisions of all men at all times and every moment. This would not be a societal structure, but chaos. Paul’s point was that, insofar as authority structures were being followed already (and always will be followed, even in individual family situations), they needed to be followed in a new Christian way, open to the new workings of the Spirit. And for us, precisely because our most familiar authority structures and the societal expectations do not match those that Paul was addressing, I believe that we need to highlight this even more in considerations Ephesians 5:21–32.

As for authority structures, the Gospels and Paul are in complete harmony, there is a good way and a bad way to deal with them. The good way is to make Christ the center of them. The bad way is to exclude Christ or push him to the peripheries. Or, rather, the good way is to deal with questions of authority in a way “filled with the Holy Spirit.” All changes in society, all good works in the family, all questions of influencing or bettering other people, must be grounded in the Spirit. Just think of all the Gospel sayings of our Lord that contain the same lessons.

At this point, in order to accomplish the goal of making Christ Jesus the center of family life, I do sometimes present a strategy for dealing with Paul’s analogy of “headship.” Ephesians 5:22 is in fact an affirmation of headship, ascribed to the husband in a way divinely intended towards sacramental grace. But the meaning of this headship can only be interpreted from the grace of the Paschal Mystery, and thus we must be very careful about the reliance on human analogies to understand the passage. Although my approach is somewhat philosophical, I translate the analogy from an initial concept of “natural powers” (a physiological relation of head and body), into a consideration of abilities, responsibilities, and rights. I think it is a valid application of Paul’s sacramental analogy. For example, it is of course a right of any spouse that they be treated with Christian dignity by the other spouse, and this is thus a responsibility for each. It is the responsibility of each spouse to know the mind and heart of the other, and thus each has a right to speak in turn.

This approach even gets at the issue of authority structures from another angle, and it allows for more detailed suggestions, without arbitrary imposition, of some distinguished responsibilities between husbands and wives. Paul probably did presume that husbands would always have control over a large set of family decisions (historians may give us an insight into which those were). Does it matter much if each man and each husband now finds that there is a much different list of decisions that he can make, or different set of possibilities within the sphere of his influence? For any man, it will be easier to focus on abilities and responsibilities regarding their family in our western culture. The same goes for women. The criterion to decide on such differentiated responsibilities is laid out in the imperative “be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Those possibilities are acceptable and helpful which are in accord with “addressing one another . . . singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” While this focus may not elicit any direct appreciation of the great ecclesial mystery laid out in Ephesians, it is a helpful inroad to apply the word of God to the life of the people.

Taking this approach I have utilized my own paraphrase of the verses that pertain to marriage. I have chosen to use the word “gifts” as interchangeable with “abilities,” somewhat reminiscent of the parables about the talents.

Every person, married or unmarried, has been given their own gifts and responsibilities, and each must fulfill their own without usurping those of others, as a way of serving Christ, our loving Savior. Wives put all your gifts at the service of your husband. For the Lord has given him responsibilities which you yourself cannot fulfill. Thus model your relationship on that of Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ humbled himself, dispossessed of every gift, for the good of the Church, for the salvation it is members. As gratefully, therefore, as the church receives the gifts and graces of the Lord Jesus, encourage that care for your family which your husband provides in the specific ways that God has enabled him. Husbands, you must do everything that you can for your wife out of Christ-like love, putting your gifts to whatever task Christ calls you. Christ gave you an example of sacrifice when he “handed himself over” for the Church, “to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word.” He paid for the holiness of the Church that he might make her his bride, united so closely that they are as one body. You are “one flesh” with your wife, and loving her is the only Christ-like way that you can fulfill yourself. Thus both you and she may fulfill your responsibilities for your family with the gifts God has given you. So the simplest way I can summarize this, if husbands and wives seek to be faithful to the grace of the mystery of Christ’s redemption, is that “a husband should love his wife” as himself, and “the wife should respect her husband.”1

Given my consideration of abilities and responsibilities, I think Ephesians lends itself to distinguish one set of abilities between husband and wife. There is one authority we might not hesitate to ascribe to a husband and father, a specific spiritual ability (power) that is in men, but not found in women in the same way. I present it almost as a tautology, and some may think it meaningless. But, in marriages it truly matches the analogy to Christ and his bride, and it is important to consider here. Only a husband has the ability to transmit the faith by the example of living it as a man. This may seem obvious, but I think it highly significant. It is in fact the exact opposite of what the world thinks about in terms of power. It is a true power in the spiritual sense. Without force, without coercion, without threat of disdain or approval, there is a powerful transmission of a spiritual life when a husband and father sincerely approaches God, in faith, among the presence of his family. Stereotypes of masculinity can be shed, and many should be. But the essence of living the faith in an exemplary way as a man cannot be done away with. Even the account of the Incarnation contains such a weaving of masculine and feminine holiness. They are two of the most striking impressions of the Holy Family, that Mary “proclaimed the greatness of the Lord” from her soul (Lk 1:46), and that Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Mt 1:24). We learn so much about love from our mothers, but the Catholic faith we probably learned from her words. To a beautiful effect, it can be exact opposite with our fathers. We remember his love from when he spoke, but we know the faith by how he lived.

There are some statistics that suggest this idea, that the power to pass on the faith by example is stronger in one’s father than in one’s mother. An interesting and well known study in Sweden in 1994 yielded results which connected a father’s practice of the faith very strongly to the continued practice in their children, more so than the mother’s practice of the faith. 2 The homily is a place to tread carefully when referencing statistics or studies for the sake of making generalized claims. At the same time, I think some good examples and illustrations are needed on the subject of men passing on the faith. It is a great blessing that the church has raised men and women to the honors of the altar in plenty. It gives so many examples of holiness in both masculine and feminine form. We should be using them both at various times, and many people are asking for examples of holiness among men. The point in consideration for marriage in Ephesians five is this: there is no wife who would not acknowledge that the example of faith in her husband is irreplaceable for the family. It is not far-fetched that the “headship” of a husband, if it means any particular “power,” should first be found in his ability to pass on the faith by living it.

Having summarized my approach to the topic of marriage in Ephesians five, I also want to compare it partially with the well known teaching of Pope John Paul II on the same passage. I return to verse 5:21, and try to explain how a small part of Pope John Paul II’s analysis both fits, and does not fit, with my exegesis. In his work Theology of the Body he says that verse 5:21 contains a commandment to “mutual submission,” which would be an interpretive key to any questions that arise in the following description of husbands and wives.3 He interprets a commandment “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” in a way that makes nearly identical the presumed “submission” of a wife and the commanded love of a husband. This might undercut arguments about societal roles and authority structures as they come up under the phrase “wives submitting to their husbands as to the Lord.”

In doing this Pope John Paul II steers away from any need to consider authoritative roles in the household or in the marriage relationship. I have followed his example in a different way, which seems to me more immediately based in the literal sense of the text. Some people think that his interpretation is confusing, and that the idea of an authority role still needs to be dealt with, either positively or negatively. I am certain that Pope John Paul II’s labeling of a command to “mutual submission” is highlighting a valid and helpful meaning in this passage, but I also think that his language is not very useful to reveal to modern listeners the literal sense of the passage in the setting of a homily. Many of the themes handled comprehensively in the Theology of the Body have a backdrop too deep and expansive to use as applicable homily materials.

Additionally, I think Pope John Paul II’s chosen terminology can lead to some of the same difficulties that are inherent in the current lectionary translation. We still get caught up in a felt need to accept, dismiss, or reinterpret the social relations described in verse 5:22–33 as if they were stand-alone commands, rather than descriptions of the dispositions and actions that are associated with the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Any imperative to obey authorities must be explained in relation to the overall life of the Holy Spirit, always singing, always thankful, making Christ the central figure and motive for all our family and social relationships.

If I may be so bold as to suggest that another phrase could be much better than Pope John II’s phrase, then I would use “reciprocal selflessness” to describe the core value in verse 5:21. Certainly, the admonition that any authority, respect for it or obedience to it, becomes salutary only “out of reverence for Christ” has within it the indispensable Christian quality of humility. This characteristic, which is necessarily implicit in Ephesians 5:21 and therefore one of the emphasized points of all 5:18–33 (be filled with the Holy Spirit), is also explicit in other Scripture passages from Paul. Of all other Pauline passages, I think “reciprocal selflessness” is most beautifully captured in Philippians 2:3–4, “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others.” This imperative is given to all, equally. I grant you that it would be a rather clunky turn of phrase to translate Ephesians 5:21 in this way: “be filled with the Holy Spirit . . . exercising and accepting all authority roles with reciprocal selflessness.” But I believe that this phrase very accurately captures the value that Pope John Paul II referenced constantly for the marriage relationship of Ephesians five. Even if a preacher wants to speak to the meaning of Ephesians 5:21 by presenting the exact terminology of the Theology of the Body, an alternate turn of phrase can be helpful, and maybe “reciprocal selflessness” will be a handy term, especially for comparison to other scripture passages about humility.

As a way of concluding, we can consider just a few practical suggestions for the preacher or interpreter of Scripture:

  • One can begin to interpret the whole of Ephesians in the weekend or two before the passage about marriage is read on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). Feel free to give a “heads up” that the passage of 5:21–33 is in fact a continuation of the passage read the previous week.
  • Feel free to tell people that our English translations are limited. Retranslate the literal reading of the passage to emphasize some element as I have brought out, or another element of the text that you have found.
  • Open up any of the scriptural themes among the presumed actions in Ephesians 5:18–21, of a life filled with the Holy Spirit. Rely on other scripture passages that have the theme of humility, or love, like the example from Philippians 2:3–4.
  • Acknowledge the challenges of applying the Gospel to marriages and families in any culture. When a whole culture begins to manifest those sins that erode family, certainly we know the sins have already become deep rooted. Building up the Kingdom of God by establishing families in Christ is a long game.
  • Use inspirational stories of marriages, husbands, and wives that are real practical reflections of marital virtues and holiness. Turn to the lives of the saints, including the growing number of married saints, like Sts. Louis and Marie Zelie Martin.
  • Reference Eucharistic Prayers II, III, or IV to show the example of the Holy Family is ever present in the Church. It is still in recent memory that St. Joseph was added to these prayers as “blessed Joseph,” Mary’s spouse.
  • Stay away from jokes that make exaggerations of the differences between the sexes, and be prudent about the utility of humor that is based on stereotypes of husbands, wives, fathers, or mothers.
  • In terms of humor, realistic stories and commonly enjoy caricatures about the lives of mothers or fathers can make for a fun starting point to introduce a topic. But once introduced make sure the real lesson or point is appropriate, clear, valuable, and inspiring.
  • Affirm that fathers and mothers each have unique and distinct roles for the family, without getting caught in a trap of giving minute and detailed admonitions, which impose too much significance on one or other set of responsibilities for husbands or wives.
  • Affirm that good male role models and female role models are needed in the Church, especially where there are more single parents who face great challenges for raising their children.

A last suggestion, but not least: incorporate prayer, even reciting traditional prayers or other scripted prayers centered on the theme of the family. Affirm that prayer is needed for families, and in families.


  1. I first used a version of this paraphrase in a personal blog post, July 21, 2015 at I printed up paper copies of these reflections to give away in my diocese.
  2. The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European States, ed. Werner Haug et. al. Council of Europe Directorate General III, Social Cohesion, Strasbourg, January 2000.
  3. Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 87:1—94:7. This is particularly explained in 89:3.
Fr. Timothy Naples About Fr. Timothy Naples

Timothy Naples is a priest of the Diocese of Burlington. His assignments have included parish pastorates, high school chaplaincy and theology teacher, school administration, and pre-Cana marriage preparation ministry.