Ephesians 5: 21-33
‘Wives submit to your husbands, husbands love your wives’ – Paul’s Ephesian teaching on marriage has provoked many arguments. But in our heated discussions we often miss the mood and feel of his original words. Paul’s words were not designed to provoke, in fact he talks of love and submission with such warmth that we can almost imagine the couple cuddling next to a cosy fire. The man pours out his love and the woman receives to it. There is neither dominance nor subservience in his tone; Paul just invites a man and a woman to be who they were designed to be. And it begs the question ‘How do we make a beautiful text look so ugly?’ Today I would like to challenge you to take a step back and to look at this text with new eyes.
Paul starts his exhortation on marriage saying ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (21). How beautiful is that! He is asking the man and the woman to be humble and to put each other first. He wants them to be considerate and generous. He is telling them to yield and to make things easy for one another. He is saying ‘Come on guys. That’s your partner; put a smile on their face!’ Paul’s opening statement here is foundational to everything else he says afterwards. Isn’t that great? This is the kind of marriage councillor you were looking for!
Paul then says ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything’ (22-24). Why does he suddenly make submission specific to the women? Because only one can lead and Paul says God has designed things so that the husband is the head of the wife. Now we have to understand, he is not asking wives to do something unnatural here. Most women I’ve met want their husbands to lead; they certainly have no desire to lead their husbands! The problem normally arises when the man doesn’t take the responsibility of a leader, or he tries to dominate. So here’s a word for the men. First, authority comes when we take responsibility; it’s natural for people to follow a person that makes things happen. So in a marriage you need to be that person. If the wife does everything, she takes on an automatic authority because she is being responsible. Second, domination is taking more authority than God has given. It forgets that marriage is a partnership and that the woman’s submission is hers to give, and not for the man to take. So I ask the husbands to please think on this.
Now the ladies also need to do some thinking here. They need to think how they can help. Not every man is automatically a dynamic leader, but you can help him to become one by showing him how much you believe in him, and how much you trust him to lead. It’s often said that ‘Behind every great man is a great woman.’ I think there is a degree of truth in this statement. A woman of substance and patience can go a long way to helping her man to be a good leader. Very often the man is just lacking some self belief deep down, and there is no one better than a loving lady to build your confidence!
Paul says that wives should submit in ‘everything.’ This is a generalization. He isn’t suggesting that the wife practice blind obedience. If a husband tells his wife to steal, she obviously must not do it. God is her first authority and the one who gives authority to her husband. But in addition to this Paul teaches that husbands and wives should engage in mutual decision making. For example in 1 Corinthians 7:5 he says ‘Do not deprive each other (sexually) except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.’ I think we can assume Paul is talking about a kind of fast here where the couple is away from each other for a period of time. But the important thing to note is that both partners must agree to the decision – it is a mutual arrangement. Paul is calling for the couple to consider each other’s needs first. And this kind of considerate decision making should happen with most things.
But how do you decide mutually when one is the leader? Pastors and elders do this all the time. They will discuss a subject, hear each other out, and then the pastor will say ‘Ok, I guess we are agreed, so here is what we’ll do.’ Or in the case of disagreement, he will say. ‘Ok, I guess we are not agreeing, but so that we can move forward I would like to suggest we do this.’ The final decision rests with the pastor, but he tries his best to hear what the elders are saying and to make the final decision as mutual as possible. It’s all about being considerate and being one in heart as you move forward.
Paul then says ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (25). In this text he spends more time teaching the husbands than he does the wives. Is this significant? I think so. If the leader leads well he will be easy to follow. If he loves well he will be easy to submit to. In this paragraph Paul discusses what it means to love well and he holds up Christ as the supreme example. A good lover is prepared to lay down his life for the one he loves. Christ did this for his bride. Here we see a strength the world knows little about. The leader who has the strength to die for his followers wins their hearts, and when you have a person’s heart you have the whole person. Few are called to die physically, but all husbands can die to their own desires as they put their wives first. And of course wives should do the same.
Here it helps to know what kind of love speaks to your partner. In other words, what is their love language? It’s no use saying ‘My wife should know I love her because I provide for her.’ She may be the kind of person that doesn’t read mere provision as love. She may need you to get up close, look her in the eye tenderly and say ‘I love you.’ She may be the kind that only feels love when you engage in meaningful conversation. We can all relate to this because although we understand God’s provision to be a part of his love for us, we still don’t feel the love until God touches us or speaks a loving word into our hearts.
Now Paul’s full statement says ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives…’ (25-28). The idea of washing your wife with God’s word makes more sense in a culture where woman were largely illiterate and it was mostly men could read and write. In such a situation the most decent thing any husband could do for his wife is explain the Scriptures to her. But Paul’s referral to the husband following the example of Christ seems to imply that the husband should also take his place as the spiritual leader in the home. And this has great significance even in an educated world.
Many men think that leadership in the home starts with being the source of money. It doesn’t, it starts with being the source of spirituality. Look at all the great husbands and fathers in the Bible. Some made good money, others just had their basic needs met, but all were strong spiritually.
If you are going to take your family to the ‘Promised Land’ you must be connected with the God of that land and carry his vision and passion within you. If you are too busy to pray, read the Bible, or attend church, you are too busy period – and need to get rid your idols. When the bread winner’s quest for money becomes main thing, he puts his kingdom before Christ’s.
Being a good spiritual leader in the home isn’t a hard thing. All a husband needs to do is to dedicate an hour in the morning to pray and read the Bible before heading to his place of work. In this time he can get all he needs to feed his wife and family.
It’s important that wives don’t try to ‘preach’ to their husbands, even if they know more. When they do this they take authority over their leader and head. Rather they should set an irresistible example in the home. Peter said ‘Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should … be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.’ (1 Peter 3:1-4).
Paul then says ‘Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it’ (28). His analogy of the head and body here is good. A head and body are one, they go through everything together. What pains the body pains the head as well. Husbands need to learn to listen to their wives like athletes listen to their bodies. You may be the head; you may make the final decision. But your body will tell you what you need. And it only benefits the head to have a healthy body. A wife who is spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy is a blessing to her husband; so a husband should do what is best for her in every way he can.
Finally Paul says ‘”A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church’ (32). Here Paul is showing us that marriage is simply a reflection of who God is as he is revealed in Christ. God is a lover and his people are his Bride, so marriage should be seen as sacred and holy. It is something that should be lived out before a holy and loving God. He is watching at all times to see if our marriages are a good reflection of his nature, and he is as eager to see our marriages flourish as he is to see our individual lives flourish. So husbands and wives should make every effort to pray and read the Bible together on a regular basis. The more God is actively brought into a marriage the more it will become a genuine reflection of him.