Ephesians 5:21-33 is the one text in the Bible that is routinely used to demand unilateral obedience from married women towards their husbands, and as a consequence the denial of women's ability to function in leadership (for how can a woman lead others when she has to obey her husband?) The flaw in this interpretation is found in how the old family code, that guaranteed the right for some to command and demanded others obey, is placed against another reality - God's Kingdom. This isn't clearly evident when we look only at Ephesians 5:21-33, but when we expand our search, we find the clues in the next chapter.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise--"so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”[a]
Fathers,[b] do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Parents are warned not to exasperate their children and slaveowners are warned not to threaten their slaves. The latter is based on the fact that every Christan has a Master in heaven, we do not belong to ourselves (1 Cor 6:19) and although Eph 6:1-4 doesn't mention the fact that we have a Father/Mother in heaven, it's clearly present in the text as the fifth commanded was preceded by the four commandments that forbade idolatry; we must listen to God and only God, and God is called Father numerous times in the Bible. Now when we go back to Ephesians 5:21-33, we find that husbands are told to treat their wives with love, because also the church has a Head that loves the church.
Let's take a look at his a bit closer:
Eph 5:21-33 - Christ as Head
Eph 6:1-4 - God as Father/Mother
Eph 6:6-9 - God as Master
In the old Roman world, those in authority didn't answer to anyone else as far as their treatment of their subordinates was concerned. In fact, it was the other way around. Those who were subordinated were held accountable if they failed to obey (which is where we get the idea that if women would only submit a bit better, everything would be okay). Predictably the abuse of power was rampant and widespread. But the Bible doesn't see it this way. In Ephesians 5-6 those who were used to having unbridled power are reminded that their every act is scrutinized and they will be held accountable, because God does not show favoritism. A slaveowner who beat his/her slaves would be held accountable by the Master in heaven, something Jesus has already mentioned earlier:
Matt 18-23-35 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[a] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[b] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
"Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
If slaveowners and parents were held accountable for their refusal to forgive the trespasses of children and slaves (through rough and often brutal treatment), why weren't husbands held accountable for their refusal to forgive the trespasses of their wives? Of course they were - and are - is the regular answer (echoing 1 Pet 3), but why was the husband given authority then? Parents have authority for the good of the children as their immature minds cannot yet comprehend the dangers of the world; slaveowners have the authority to extract labor from their slaves and prevent them from leaving. But why does a husband have authority over his wife? A grown woman's mind isn't immature (unless prevented from growing naturally through education) and she doesn't need a parent, quite the opposite; she often becomes a parents herself. Does a man have the right to extract labor from his wife (in the form of housework) and prevent her from leaving (through denial of divorce)? If so, that would make the woman the man's slave. Who would agree with such a proposition?
In 1 Corinthians 7 husbands and wives are said to have authority over the other, which makes sense of a head-body relationship. The head makes certain demands, the body other kinds, and both need to obey the other or the body will die. In the head-body relationship that exists between Christ and church we see the same dynamic at work: Christ makes certain demands ("love one another" "serve one another through love") and the church has other demands (the church depends on God for protection and provision, forgiveness and assistance). It is here people usually cringe. Can the church demand anything from God? Consequently, can a married woman demand anything from her husband? When it comes to God, we already have God's promises; we don't need to demand what God already willingly gives. But when it comes to humans, it's not that simple. Promises are easily broken and forgotten, needs go unmet. According to 1 Corinthians 7, both husbands and wives have the right to demand something from the other, but it must be done in the spirit of love; selfish demands that don't take the other into account are un-Christian.
And this leads to the question, why was the husband given authority over his wife it selfish demands are un-Christian, as love doesn't seek it's own? A Christian woman isn't a child, or a slave, so what gives a Christian man the right to impose his preferences on his wife? Christ as a Head of church didn't impose his preferences on the church during his time with us. He spoke the truth, washed the disciples feet, died on the cross. He sacrificed, loved, gave, to make the church his very own body, to be nurtured, loved and cared for. Even today Christ doesn't impose his preferences on the church (a sinless church is God's preference, but instead of demanding it, God tolerates our weaknesses and walks with us in this vale of tears). All Christians are called to imitate Christ and therefore every married Christian man is called to tolerate the weaknesses of his wife, leading a Christlike life instead of imposing his preferences on his wife, knowing he also has a Head in heaven, who scrutinizes his every act and rewards good deeds, remembering he is a sinful man who also needs the forgiveness of his wife on a daily basis due to his own weaknesses.
Power and authority make us believe we can treat others as we please; love tells us everyone is worth the same consideration and care (Phil 2). A man who wishes his wife to treat him well, should treat his wife equally well, as the Christian life isn't about a hierarchy; it's about a circle where what goes around, comes around; the more love we send out, the more love we receive.