Eph 5:21-33, Some Ideas on Theological Context

A Few Contextual Ideas about Christ’s Mediatorial Headship for the Interpretation of Paul’s Marriage Instructions in Ephesians 5:21-33

Eph 5:32-33  This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.  (33)  Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

Westminster Confession of Faith 8:3 “The Lord Jesus… to the end that he might…  be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator and surety. Which office [namely, mediator] he took not unto himself, but was thereunto called by his Father [the Covenant Lord], who put all power and judgment in his hand, and gave him commandment to execute the same [namely, power and judgment].”

These words can cause great consternation because Paul is obviously drawing from a much larger principle. Without understanding this principle it is impossible to understand rightly the way that this passage applies to the Church today. Three points to help situate and interpret this passage in light of God’s lordship over all spheres.

  • God’s Kingdom over all Spheres
  • Christ’s Kingdom’s Covenant Structure as A Model for All Structures
  • Regulative Principles for each Sphere

1. Jesus rules all Spheres

Not many would argue against the separation of Church and state, but few realize the need to distinguish between other powers and spheres than just those. The “two kingdoms” get a lot of press, but what if I told you that, though this idea is good, it is actually one step in a few that need to be made. There are lots of spheres over which God is the ruler.  it is a helpful start because if fights against the old medieval system was Ecclesiacratic- rule by the church. This was defied by the Erastian system of State over the Church (state church system such as the Anglicans, or Lutheran Church in Germany), usually confused with a theocracy, but really this is a civic-rule over the church and all other spheres, autocracy is more accurate. Finally, in the Puritan view emerged, where the State, Church, family, individual, and education were separately governed as different and legitimate powers with distinct roles and all governed by God’s will. Though the principles of the word of God were differently administered in the various spheres, they were all nonetheless ruled by God’s law, to the best of their knowledge at the time.       

The Puritans, though they lived uunder the auspices of the crown in an Erastian state, were working toward true liberty in the rule of law in all spheres. This separation of powers (spheres of Authority) was later rediscovered by Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper developed the thought further to exclude the Establishment Principle (a State Church) and replace it with a State Religion. Thus the first true articulation of a theocracy the world has ever seen since ancient Israel emerged in Kuyper’s Netherlands. Kuyper founded the Free Reformed Church of the Netherlands, which is “Free” in the sense of free from the rule of the state. A theocracy is where all legitimate parallel spheres of authority are ruled by their own independent hierarchy and regulative principles based on the word of God. God is the direct ruler of all of life by a Covenantal structure. This was Kuyper’s vision, and, I believe, it was also the vision of the apostle Paul.    

The mediatoral headship of Christ describes to us how Jesus is head of the church. But it also gives us a model for the way all authorities rule under the Lordship of God Almighty. Christ ia a model for all eathly rulers of state, heads of the family, heads of the school, heads of business, and heads of scientific inquiry (this list is by no means exhaustive). There are many legitimate powers and all need to be brought under God’s rule. The public Christian life is essentially promoting the rule of Law by all various authorities, but done so to the glory of God, not the will of man.

2. Jesus rules by Covenant Structure as a Model for Earthly Powers

There are three parts of a Covenant structure. There are three components to this structure: Lord, Mediator, and Mediated. The mediated and mediator, like body and head, are a unified organism which serves the Lord. All spheres are regulated y this kind of arrangement. Notice the following examples.

Culture, Adam, and Christ: Notice that in Genesis 1, God was the Lord, Adam and Eve, the Mediators, and the Creation was the mediated. Notice in Genesis 2 in the Marriage Union that God was the Lord, Adam the mediator (Naming), and Eve the mediated. Notice in the Covenant of Works, Gen 2:17, cf c.3. That Adam was held responsible, as God was the Lord, Adam the Mediator of the Mediated Eve and the rest of their Posterity/seed.  Of Course, Jesus is the Mediator of the New Covenant, God the father is the Lord, and the Church is the bride (eg. Mediated). So there we have the Spheres of creation stewardship (cultural mandate), Marriage, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Redemption all governed by Covenant structures. There are others.

Education and Business: Jesus Mentioned that the student is not above his master, Matthew 10:24. He is making an argument from the obvious state of the thing (it is a given that the student is not above his master) therefore the principle here (that the Disciples must learn to Serve God as mediators if they want to lead the church as Elders) is clear. So, by parity, one can see the Covenant structure of education in Jesus’ assumption of the student being mediated by the teacher, who imparts education in the way the Covenant Lord would have him. This is spurious, but it is the only thing which makes sense of the analogy which Christ drew out for the Apostles. He then went on to describe the similar structural organization of that of the Slave-Master relationship, vs 25. And this latter idea undergirds the parables in Matthew 24-25 where the master comes to his slaves.  So here we see the spheres of both education and business (hard and soft capital?).

Further, these structures exist in the Church, as the Elders of the church act as mediators for the body of Christ corporate, and ar thus held to account for the body, I Cor 3:15, and Hebrew 13:17. Of course the body of Christ is mediated by Christ directly before the father, nevertheless he gives it structure by elders, Titus 1:5, Exodus 18 (of course Maimonades argued that this Eldership structuring method goes back to Noah and even into the pre flood era).  So, here we see that the local church as a corporate body is structured by this Covenantal Lord (Jesus), Mediator (Elders), and mediated (body of believers).

State: Also David and the state of Israel were arranged in a way that is obviously Covenantal (II Sam 5:1-5). The picture of the Covenant is a body (and organism) which is comprised of Lord (who organized the Covenant), head (who mediates the body to the Lord), and body (who is mediated to the Lord by the head). We see this in the terms “bone and flesh” used by the Elders of the Tribes of Israel as they are analogous to the “bone and flesh ” phrase in Adam’s Covenant proclamation to Eve (Gen 2:23). “Bone” “Flesh” is the Old Testament term for body of the head. They make up the bone and the flesh of the body, which the head is an organic part and which leads the community as a unit after the will of the Covenant Lord.  

Summary: All spheres are ruled by these Covenant structures. Here, Paul Mentions Christ as head of all, Eph 1:22, and about all Submitting ultimately to Christ as he is the head of all,5:21. Then Paul went on to describe the specific spheres of Marital union, Children/parents, and Business relations (5:22-6:9). These structures are all arranged by this same method. Thought there are differences on the specific application to the various spheres, they are all arranged Covenantally. Each has a Lord, Mediator, and Mediated. Of course this must be dislodged from the context of ancient Israel who has specififc curse sanctions placed upoin them concerning their tenure in the land.

3. Regulating Each Sphere Differently

In order to interpret this passage rightly one must understand the ethical context of the Christian faith. We believe in a Doctrine of Analogy (the law is analogous to God’s Communicable Attributes), and human reason (imago dei) which is able to interpret that reality as revealed by God, but we also believe in sin and its effect of making men suppress the truth and worship the needs of the created rather than the glory of the Creator.

Covenant Structure and Ethics: The job of the mediator of the Covenant, the head, is to lead the body into obedience to the Covenant Lord. This is what Adam failed to do, and is what Christ Achieved. Therefore the husband ought to love his wife, as Christ loved the church by doing the will of Christ, by being submitted to Christ, v21, even to the point of death. This is exactly the meaning of when Christ died for us. He was being submissive to the will of the Covenant Lord, the Father (John 17:4-5). Therefore the ethics of the kingdom are not based on the will of the body (a very democratic way of doing things), but rather the rule of law which glorifies God.

Spheres and Regulation: If the Spheres are regulated by God’s law, for God’s glory, then we see that the obvious way to mediate is to lead by God’s standard. This is clear in the words of Paul when he tells husbands to “Love their wives.” (Eph 5:25) “Upon these two commandments the whole Law and Prophets depend” Matthew 22:40. It is obvious that Paul gives a summary statement of the Law, but he implies the law nonetheless. How does this work?

Simply, Different Laws have different regulation, however they are all based on the same Laws, Love of Neighbor, and Love of God, which is explicated in the Ten Commandments. The Regulative Principle of Worship is usually the only way that this is dealt with. Worship in the church is very tightly regulated. There is very little we can do in worship, because it is to the point, and relatively short compared to the rest of life’s endeavors. However, every Sphere has a distinct regulative principle. That is to say, each sphere, though based on the same Law, are regulated by different specific applications of the Law. So for example in the Bible there is the difference between state law, individual law, ceremonial/worship law, family law, educational law, and etc. Paul dealt with the individual in 4:17-5:21, then the Family in 5:22-6:4, Slaves and Masters in 6:5-9, and he dealt with the State elsewhere in Romans 13, the Church in Ephesians 4:7-16, Titus, and 1 Timothy.

So Paul addressed these distinct spheres each with different laws, or regulative principles. So though the whole law may be summarized in Love, it must still be explicated  and soundly applied to the minutia of all spheres of life. It is the duty of the head and body parts of all these spheres to live to the glory of God, under Christ’s kingship (Eph 5:5), and in submission to Christ (5:21).


The public Christian life is essentially promoting the rule of Law by all various authorities, but done so to the glory of God, not the will of man. Therefore, the test of being a good husband means understanding biblical principles and loving, living, and leading your family by them. Being a good wife means submitting to the will of God as you husband leads you in those paths. This is a symbiotic relationship. The Head leads in the way that God would have it, and the body submits to the will of the head as it mediates the will of God. This same principle is true of all spheres. All are coming under the kingdom of Christ (Eph 1:22-24).