Husbands and Wives
Topic: Expository Scripture: Ephesians 5:22–5:33
Synopsis: The marriage relationship; for many, the source of life’s greatest joys, but sometimes (too often) the source of life’s most painful moments. As divorce rates soar (even among followers of Jesus) we look to the Scripture for help and wisdom. In Ephesians 5:22-33, we find that the path to a healthy marriage lies in submission. But who is to submit to whom? In this message (entitled Husbands and Wives), as we examine this passage together, the answer may surprise you.
One of the most beautiful weddings I ever witnessed was one that I performed early in my ministry, while we were living in Alaska. It took place in the summer, outdoors, next to a lake. God blessed the couple with a perfect, sunny day. The ceremony was held in a kind of natural amphitheater under the trees, facing the lake. As guests arrived, a string quartet was playing. The bride walked down a path through the forest to join her husband-to-be in front of the guests. After the exchange of vows and the completion of the wedding ceremony, instead of a recessional the couple walked down to the edge of the water, where they got into a canoe together and paddled away across the lake.
It was a beautiful event, capturing all the idealism and romance of marriage. But the question I want to ask as we picture ourselves paddling away in that canoe is this: What lies on the other side of the lake? When we get out of the canoe onto the ground of everyday living, how does the reality match our high hopes and romantic dreams?
For most, if we are honest, reality falls short of what we had hoped for. I recall another couple I married. I was with the young husband several months after the wedding. I noted that he seemed depressed, so I asked him how things were going. He shared with me the struggles he was having in his marriage. I’ll never forget his poignant, pain-filled summary: “Before we were married, she thought I was wonderful. It seemed like I couldn’t do anything wrong. Since we’ve been married, it seems like I can’t do anything right.”
For many, the path ends in divorce. For others, an empty shell of marriage remains; together in name but not in spirit. Even for the best of marriages, married life is a mixture of ups and downs, with good days and bad days, happy years and hard years. Marriage is the most complex of all human relationships. Through marriage, we may experience some of the very happiest moments in our lives. And in marriage we may also experience some of the worst and most painful moments in our lives as well.
What help does the Bible give us in building strong and healthy marriages that will stand the test of time? One of the most complete and thorough discussions of marriage in the Bible is found in the text before us today in Ephesians 5:22-33.
Let me read it:
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
I don’t need to tell you that these verses are controversial in today’s polarized world of political correctness. To use the words “wife” and “submit” in the same paragraph, let alone in the same sentence, is to ignite a firestorm of protest and debate. In my opinion, we as Christians tend to make one of two different errors on this passage and its teaching.
One error is to ignore it. We know it’s in the Bible. But parts of it, anyway, seem so out of date in this day of women’s rights and gender equality and women’s liberation that it is an embarrassment. So we kind of blank it out, relegating it to the trash heap of cultural relativism, and go about trying to order our marriages according the accepted theories and teachings of our day. As a result the marriages of those of us who follow Christ often differ very little from the marriages of the unbelievers around us.
The second error in approaching this Scripture has been to abuse it and misapply it. Distortions and caricatures of the true Biblical teaching found in this text have led to real harm being done in some churches and in many homes – and, sadly, this harm is often done in the name of Christ by selectively quoting from this Scripture.
I am going to try to avoid both of these errors by seeking to approach this passage in its truly Biblical balance.
The first point I want to make is one that is often missed. Most Christians who know their Bibles are aware that this Scripture teaches wives to submit to their husbands. But many Christians are unaware of the fact that this same passage teaches husbands to submit to their wives. Did you know that? It is true.
In fact, if I could imprint one sentence into your consciousness this morning, it is this: Mutual submission is the path to a healthy marriage. Did you get that? Let me say it again: Mutual submission is the path to a healthy marriage.
Why do I say that? Well, let’s go back into the context of the previous paragraph. The controlling verb in the previous section is the command to all believers in verse 18 to “Be filled with the Spirit.” We defined that as “living under the Holy Spirit’s influence or control.”
Paul then goes on to give three evidences or accompanying activities that are an evidence of the Spirit’s influence. One of them is Spirt-filled praise. Another is a thankful spirit. The third one is given in verse 21: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
That final description of Spirit-filled living sets the stage for all that Paul is going to say in the following paragraphs, including the one we are looking at this morning. “Submitting to one another.” “Mutual submission.” But what does that mutual submission look like in our different relationships? That is what Paul is about to describe. And he starts with marriage, and he starts with wives in verse 22:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Now, before any of you husbands nudge your wives and say “See, I told you so!” let me point out something very interesting. In the best and oldest Greek manuscripts of this text, the word “submit” does not occur in this verse. That’s right! It’s not there. To make sense of this verse, we actually have to go back to verse 21. A literal rendering here, combining these two verses, would be: “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” That means, men, that you cannot even quote verse 22 accurately to your wife without including verse 21 and acknowledging the fact that this is to be a relationship of mutual submission. Mutual submission is the path to a healthy marriage.
Now, having said that, we must also acknowledge that the specific shape that mutual submission takes does vary for husbands and for wives. Let’s look at this carefully.
Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord. This does not mean that the wife is to submit to her husband as if he was “the Lord.” Rather, it means that the wife’s submission to her husband is to be undertaken as an act of obedience and submission to the Lord Jesus himself and because of a desire to surrender to his will and his influence in one’s life.
Let’s go on to verses 23-24:
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Even in the context of mutual submission, these are difficult words. What is Paul saying? Common sense tells us that in any working relationship, especially one as complex as marriage, there needs to be a leader, a head; one person must have the final say. Many marriages flounder along for years in a perpetual power struggle; who is going to be in charge? Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul simply tells us in plain words; in marriage, God has appointed that role to the husband.
You may ask, “Why?” Listen very carefully to my answer. “I don’t know!” I do know that there are no implications here of superiority or inferiority. The Scripture makes it very clear both male and female are made in the image of God; that in Christ, there is “neither male nor female.” Women, along with men, are “fellow heirs of the grace of life.” But within marriage, God instructs the wife to place herself under the authority of her husband as an act of submission and obedience to God in the same way that the church is to place herself under the authority of Christ as head of the church.
Maybe a Biblical comparison will help. The Bible is clear that Jesus, the Son of God, is God and that he is equal to the Father. “I and the Father are one,” Jesus said. Yet Jesus also repeatedly expressed his submission and obedience to the Father and to the Father’s will. There is no implication of inferiority or superiority in being or value between them. I encourage Christian wives to follow Christ’s model in your approach to marriage. In pursuit of the ideal of “mutual submission”, the essence, the heart of it, wives, is your willingness to accept the basic pattern that God has laid down for marriage and to accept your husband’s authority and to give him the respect that comes with that, and to do it all as an act of obedience to Christ himself.
Well now, at this point we husbands have it made. We are the heads; kings of our castles. Now all that remains is to sit back and bark orders while our wives wait on us hand and foot!
Not according to the Scriptures! Remember verse 21. “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Mutual submission is the path to a healthy marriage.
So, what does mutual submission look like when applied to the husband in the context of marriage?
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (verses 25-27)
Wow! Is that a high standard, or what? The word for “love” here is “agape”. It is not “eros”, the love of sexual passion. It is not even “phileo”, the love of friendship and affection. This is not the kind of love you fall in and fall out of. This is a self-sacrificing love of the will. It means to value the other person highly and to desire the best for them. It is a passionate concern for the other’s highest good, regardless of personal cost. This is sacrificial love.
“Love your wife the way Christ loved the church.” And how did Christ love the church? He “gave himself up for her.” He loved the church so much he went to the cross for her. Men, how much do you love your wife? Is it this kind of love? Christ’s love was a serving kind of love. Remember what Jesus said? “The Son of man of did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life.” That’s how Christ loved the church.
Do you remember what happened in the upper room, during the last supper Jesus had with his disciples? His disciples were engaged in a debate over which of them was the greatest. Do you remember what Jesus did? He got up from his place at the head of the table. What did he do next? He took off his outer garment, and in the simple tunic of a servant, he went from disciple to disciple and washed their dirty feet. He was the head of the feast. He was the guest of honor. He never abdicated that role. He never gave up his authority. When he was finished, he said: “You call me Master and Lord. And you are right, because that is who I am.” Yet he laid aside that position, that privilege to serve his disciples. Men, when is the last time you washed your wife’s feet?
Husbands, that is the first standard, the first model for what “mutual submission” means in your role as husband and as “head” in your marriage. Lay aside your rights and privileges, and serve your wife the way Christ served the church. It is the model of servant leadership.
There is another standard that Paul lays out in these verses for us as husbands. It is a standard with an internal logic. Love your wife the way you love yourself.
28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
There is a strong internal logic to these words. “Love your wife as you love your own body.” “He who loves his wife, loves himself.” The internal logic lies in the foundational Biblical concept of marriage, found all the way back in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
This is God’s ultimate plan and purpose in marriage; a permanent bond in which two people become “one flesh.” Husbands, your wife is part of you. And you are part of her. Together you are one flesh, one body. Treat her as though she were a part of you. How do you treat your own body? You nourish it. You cherish it. When your body is hungry, you feed it. When your body is cold, you put on a sweater. When it is thirsty, you give it something to drink. When it is tired, you rest. Treat your wife the same way, because she is you. You are one flesh. When you love your wife, you are loving yourself.
Men, your wife is not your slave or your servant. She is not your play thing. She is more than your source of sexual pleasure. She is more than your fertile field into which you sow your seed. And she is more than the mother of your children and the manager of your home. She is part of you. You are one flesh.
That is why abuse of any kind in a marriage is such a horrendous distortion of marriage as God intends it to be. “No one ever hated his own flesh.” Someone who mutilates and abuses his own body is mentally disturbed. We put such people in strait jackets and lock them in padded cells. A man who abuses his wife, verbally, emotionally or physically, is hating himself and abusing himself. Because his wife is part of him. The husband and wife are one flesh. Mutual submission means treating our wives in ways that acknowledge and respect that essential oneness.
In verse 33, Paul wraps up his teaching on marriage in a simple summary statement: However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
That is what mutual submission looks like. And it marks the path to a healthy, Biblically balanced marriage.
A couple of final words. Many times, we have a tendency to come to a passage like this and to play the game of “I will if he will,” or “I will if she will.” “I will submit to my husband if he will love me the way he’s supposed to.” “I will love my wife if she will submit to me the way she is supposed to.”
Waiting for your spouse to change before you do your part is an endless waiting game. There is only one person you are responsible for and only one person you can change – and that is yourself. That is where you have to start.
And let me reiterate a warning that is similar to one I have given before. “Don’t try this on your own.” The kind of marriage I have been describing represents supernatural living. It goes against human nature, because fallen human nature is essentially selfish and sinful. This is supernatural living, possible only under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Remember that is the context for this passage: Be filled with the Spirit. Seek his help. Ask for his filling and his influence, and submit to his leading. Then and only then will you be able to fulfill your God-given role and responsibilities in marriage.
I know a message like this raises a host of questions and “what abouts”. We could stay here all day and never answer them all, even if I had the wisdom to answer them, and I don’t. I know there are complexities to every situation, and I don’t offer these words as an easy 3-step or 5-step or 12-step formula. But I know there is power in these words. I know that, in the midst of your own complexities, if you meditate on these verses and humbly seek God’s wisdom and leading, he will guide you. And as he guides you, he will give you his strength to do what he is calling you to do.
- Read Ephesians 5:22-33 together.
- “We all know that the Bible instructs wives to submit to their husbands. But what is less well known is that the Bible also instructs husbands to submit to their wives.” On what basis did Pastor Cam make this statement? Do you agree/disagree and why?
- “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church…” What does this mean? What does it not mean? What are the implications in a marriage?
- “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church…” What does this mean? What are the implications in a marriage?
- “He who loves his wife loves himself.” (v.28) What does this mean and what is the internal logic behind the statement? (see v. 31)
- “Mutual submission is the path to a healthy marriage.” Discuss this theme statement from the sermon. Does this reflect the reality in your marriage? What changes do you need to make?
- What are the risks of the playing the waiting game (I will if she/he will.)?