Tuesday, March 12, 2013


There's a passage in Paul's letter to the Ephesians that has been regarded by many evangelicals and other Christians as THE passage regarding marriage.  It is taught in many premarital counseling sessions including those that I have led.  Many have testified of its benefit in guiding their marriages and keeping them on the right track.  Yet, for some, it has been a cause for consternation; it is seen as an expression of Paul's misogyny or of the paternalistic views of the biblical writers.  It has been interpreted by others as teaching total male dominance.  It has been used to define roles and lines of authority.  Yet other interpretations seem to reduce it to little more than "be nice."

The passage as usually quoted is Ephesians 5:22-33:
          (22) Wives (submit) to your own husbands as to the Lord, (23) because the husband is head of his wife as also Christ is Head of the church and He Himself is Savior of the body.  (24) But  as the church submits to Christ, so also the wives to their own husbands in everything.
          (25) Husbands ­love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, (26) that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, (27) that He might present to Himself the church glorious, not having spot or wrinkle or any such things, but that she may be holy and blemish free.
          (28) In the same way husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his own wife loves himself.   (29) For nobody ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church.  (30) Because we are members of His body.  (31) "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be devoted to his wife, and the two will be one flesh."
          (32) This mystery is great, but I am speaking about Christ and about the church.  (33) However, also you -- each one of you must love his own wife even as himself.  And the wife must see that she regards her husband with reverence.

When I was initially exposed to this passage I was a young single (teenage) male.  I can't say that the home I was raised in conformed very closely to these instructions.  Uni would agree that her home did not reflect them either.  Yet this was presented as the standard we were to build our marriage upon, even though we had no example of how this was to be done.  But we tried.

Anyway, after 56 years of marriage and nearly as many years of studying this passage and of trying to live it out, I felt I'd say a few things about it, especially concerning the husband's responsibility.

First of all, we should note that it's part of a greater context regarding the filling of the Spirit.  Go back a few verses to verses 18-21:
          (18) And don't get drunk with wine, for that is self-destruction, but be filled with the Spirit, (19) speaking to each other in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and praising the Lord with your heart, (20) giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father, (21) submitting to each other in the fear of Christ, ...

I believe the husband's responsibility is not emphasized strongly enough in the study of this passage.  This is a problem whether one sees it as the major passage on proper marital roles or whether one opposes it as a statement of patriarchal dominance.

We should notice that the husband is not commanded to "be the head," nor is he commanded to "exercise headship" (whatever that means); we are simply told that the husband is head of the wife.  This is apparently a God-appointed role.  Nor is he commanded, as some seem to read this, to "make his wife submit."

There is only one imperative given to the husband, that is to love his wife.  The word is used six times in this passage.  This is how he is to submit to his wife.  The command might seem obvious, even redundant, to a twenty-first century reader; after all isn't "love" the reason we marry in the first place?

To a first century reader, however, this word might come as a surprise.  Marriages were often arranged by parents, or entered into simply for convenience.  Love was not always a factor.  And a Twenty-first century marriage, even though ostensibly entered into for "love" might be entered into for a number of other factors.

We should also note that the word Paul uses is not simply the word for affection or sexual desire.  The word "love" is agapao, the kind of love that God has, that which seeks the greatest good in its object.  It is the only kind of love which is commanded and it is often given with a comparison:
          "Love your neighbor as yourself."
          "Love each other as I have loved you."

And we husbands are commanded to exercise this love toward our wives "as Christ loved the church."  Of course, by "the church" is meant not a building or a denomination or an organization, but the whole aggregate of humanity who belong to Him.

The extent of that love is also given:  "...and gave Himself for it."  I, as a husband, am to love my wife enough to die for her.  I suppose many husbands, myself included, have at one time or another envisioned ourselves performing some daring act of rescuing our wives -- from drowning, from a burglar, a rapist, or an oncoming freight train -- even to the point of giving our lives, though we'd never know what we'd do till we found ourselves in such a situation.

But there's more; Paul also tells us the goal of Christ's love, "that He might sanctify her ... that He might present to Himself the church glorious ..."  Christ died for us, not simply to pay for our sins and bring us forgiveness; He died for us to make us into all that God had intended for us to be.  This is God's purpose for us, found stated throughout the New Testament -- to make us into glorious beings -- like Christ Himself.

If that was Christ's goal in giving Himself for us on the cross, if that was the goal of Christ's love for us, is not my ultimate goal in my love for my wife to be the same -- or at least similar?  I believe that the answer is yes!

It would seem then that my love for my wife should have the goal of helping her to become all that God intended for her to be -- to put what is best for her ahead of what's best for me.  This idea turns all the traditional thinking about marriage on its head.  In the culture I was raised in, the wife seemed to be a sort of auxiliary to the husband, helping him to reach his goals, career or otherwise.  And even though marriage has changed much in the last half-century, this is still, I believe the understanding.  And for many, this passage of Scripture is believed to reinforce that concept.

This does not mean that the wife is to dominate; the passage teaches the headship of the husband.  But neither does it mean that the husband is to dominate the wife.  It presents mutually submissive roles where love dominates and each partner seeks the best for the other.

See also:


Trent said...

I enjoyed this. I thought it was well done. Thanks for your thoughts Bill.

Bob McCollum said...

Hi Bill,
Hope you and Uni are fine and happy.

Submissiveness is one of my favorite human character traits. Love going to lunch with a group of friends who can't decide where to eat because all have no interest in being in control. Slows things down a bit, but it always makes me smile.

And isn't it fun to submit to a wife who so clearly adores you?

Men who snap at their wives and try to dominate them miss out on so much.

Good, clear thinking Bill. Nice post.

Bob McCollum