#5. Holiness in the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Part of JesusWalk -- Vision for the Church

Dear {FIRSTNAME Friend},

It is now the last week of our five-week study. If you're getting bogged down, I understand. That's human. But this is the last week -- and essential for your vision of the Church. I urge you to strengthen your weak knees and finish the study. You -- and Christ's Church -- will be stronger for it.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Ralph

Text

Ephesians 5:21-32

[21] Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

[22] Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. [23] 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. [24] Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

[25] Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her [26] to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, [27] and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. [28] In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. [29] After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- [30] for we are members of his body. [31] "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." [32] This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church.


Exposition

To conclude our study of a Vision for the Church in Ephesians, I want to consider what Paul says about the purity and holiness of the Church.

"... 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." (5:25b-27)

However, this passage is nestled right among verses that talk about submission of wives to husbands -- an interpretational battleground. To study this passage I feel like I'm running the gauntlet between the ultra-traditionalists what want wives to obey their husbands and feminists who are try to free wives from this role.

A huge amount of literature has accumulated about the meaning of the keywords -- "submit/subject" and "head." But instead of trying to be comprehensive, I'm going to limit my comments as much as possible to what this passage says about the Church rather than about husbands and wives! If I don't touch your pet interpretation, please forgive me, but I'm trying to maintain a laser focus on the Church so we don't miss the vision we should see here.

And please, dear friends, in our online forum discussion, let's not argue the relationships between husbands and wives. Let's keep our focus on the Church. (I know that's going to be hard to do, but you're a disciplined group, I know.)

Mutual Submission (5:21)

Verse 21 serves as a transition between Paul's allusion to spiritual worship in the setting of a house-church and a discussion of relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters.

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." (5:21)

Some see verse 21 as the theme verse for what follows, urging mutual submission to each other in our family and social relationships. I disagree. In verses 18-20 Paul refers to Spirit-filled corporate worship, where each person is contributing his or her part to the worship. This is much like the worship prescribed for the Corinthian church:

"When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church." (1 Corinthians 14:26)

When one was sharing, others were to be silent and wait their turn. Because Christ was in their midst and inspiring this beautiful worship, Paul tells the Ephesian believers, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21).[1]

What Does Submission Mean?

Just what does "submit" (NIV, KJV) or "be subject" (NRSV) mean? The Greek verb hupotasso derives from two words -- hupo, "under" and tasso, "place, put, arrange." In the active voice it means "to subject, to subordinate." In a passive sense, "to become subject." There is also apparently a middle voice that means "subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey."[2] The middle voice, however, rather than meaning baldly "obey," carries the idea of voluntarily placing oneself under another, "to submit voluntarily ... to lose or surrender one's own rights or will."[3]

There are several words which are similar to "submit oneself voluntarily" (hupotasso) -- "respect" (phobeo), "obey rulers" (peitharcheo), and "obey" (peithomai) -- but none carries quite this precise connotation: "to sub-ordinate oneself, to place oneself under." If Paul had wanted to convey "obey" rather than "voluntarily subordinate oneself" he would have used those words.

What Does Headship Signify? (5:21-24)

Doesn't "head" in 5:23 mean "leader" or "ruler" or "the brains of the outfit"? It's not that simple. While the Hebrew word rosh, "head," often refers to "chief" of a tribe or class, when translated into Greek Septuagint, the anatomical usage of "head" was usually translated by the Greek word kephale, but the "chief" meaning was usually translated as archon or archegos, "ruler" (which doesn't appear in our passage). In our verses, "head" (kephale) appears alongside "body" with a clear theme of essential unity of the head with the body.

In the ancient world you didn't think with your brains -- that's a modern idea. You believed, understood, thought in your heart (Mark 11:23; 16:14; Romans 10:9; Proverbs 23:7; Matthew 13:15; ) and kidneys (KJV "reins"; Jeremiah 11:20; 12:2; 17:120; 20:12), you felt in your bowels (Colossians 3:12).

In Ephesians and Colossians several ideas are attributed to Christ as head, though we're not exactly sure of the source of Paul's head-body imagery:

  • Origin, source (Colossians 1:15-18; 1 Corinthians 11:3)
  • Ruler (Ephesians 1:20-22)
  • Sustainer (Ephesians 4:16; 1:23; Colossians 1:17; 2:19)
  • Source of supply, unity, growth (Ephesians 1:10; 4:15-16; Colossians 2:19)[4]

The point here is that "head" is though of as much more than "boss." Yes, the idea of "ruler" is present, but alongside other images of headship -- origin, sustainer, and source of growth and unity.

Wives Submit to Your Husbands (5:21-24)

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." (5:21-24)

I've heard some pretty crude analogies to headship, such as "chain of command," but as you have seen, head implies much more in this context. Wives are told to submit to their husbands "as to the Lord," that is, as part of their submission to Christ. If, however, husbands require wives to do things that are immoral, illegal, or sinful, a wife's greater submission to Christ would require her refrain from submitting to her husband in those areas. Her husband is not God or Christ to her. There are many practical issues that this raises, but we need to move to our focus on the Church itself.

The Church Submitting To Christ (5:24a)

"Now as the church submits to Christ...." (5:24a)

Ask yourself: Just what does it mean for the Church to submit to Christ? What are the earmarks of a congregation that is submitted vis-à-vis one that is not? Let me suggest a few; perhaps you can think of some others:

  • A submitted church listens and seeks to find out what Christ wants.
  • A submitted church is faithful to believe and transmit Christ's teachings, even in a culture that is hostile to them.
  • A submitted church is committed to carrying out Christ's work in the world.
  • A submitted church is not selfish about members getting their own needs met, but zealous that Christ's priorities are primary.

Our vision for the church is to flesh out what it means to be submitted to Christ.

Christ's Love for the Church (5:25)

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...." (5:25)

Husbands who want submitted wives they can boss around don't have a clue what it means to love. The reason that wives can submit fully to Christian husbands is that they trust fully in the sacrificing, self-giving love that has been demonstrated. Outside of love, voluntary submission cannot operate from trust.

Just how much does Christ love the Church? Your church? Your congregation? So much that he gave up everything -- everything! Our vision for the Church includes basking in the wonderful agape love of Jesus for us! A love that gives over oneself so that the prize may be won, so that the church can be saved and formed.[5]

Christ's Purpose for the Church's Purity (5:26-27)

Christ loves us as we are, but he has plans to transform us into all that we can be:

"...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." (5:25b-27)

This analogy of the Church as a Bride goes back to the Old Testament understanding of Yahweh as Israel's betrothed husband (Isaiah 54:5; 62:3-5; Jeremiah 3:14; Ezekiel 16:8; Hosea 2:19-20). We see this theme of the Church as the Bride of Christ in the New Testament in this week's passage as well as 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Revelation 19:7-9; 21:2, 9-10.

Normally, a bride who would prepare herself for her wedding by a special bridal bath, by putting on beautiful clothing, and by keeping herself pure for her husband. But in our passage God does all the preparation of the bride. It is strongly reminiscent of a graphic passage in Ezekiel where God takes a bride from her squalor:

"I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord." (Ezekiel 16:9-14)

Sadly, in Ezekiel's prophecy, the bride turns to prostitution. We Christians are much like the bride in Ezekiel. We have sinned grievously, but now we are washed. There is a very strong passage in 1 Corinthians 6 which describes our past state, as well as our forgiveness, washing, and present state of grace:

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

A Sanctified and Cleansed Church (5:26)

Sometimes we think of sanctification and holiness in a personal, individual sense. We think of it in moral terms, of sins we abstain from, rather than in terms of positive virtues which we practice. What does it mean for the church, rather than just the individuals in it, to be sanctified? Let's examine this passage phrase by phrase.

"...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word...." (5:25b-26)

"To make her holy" (NIV, NRSV) or "sanctify" (KJV) is the Greek verb hagiazo, "include a person in the inner circle of what is holy, in both cultic and moral associations of the word, consecrate, dedicate, sanctify."[6]

"Cleansing" is the Greek verb katharizo, "to purify through ritual cleansing, make clean, declare clean."[7]

"Washing of water" employs the Greek noun loutron, "bath, washing."[8] This word is used twice in the New Testament, here and in Titus 3:5 ("He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit."). Both passages probably allude to Christian baptism that figuratively washes away our sins (Acts 22:16).[9]

"Through/by the word" expresses the role that the word of God has in our faith and conversion. "Through" (NIV) and "by" (KJV, NRSV) translate the Greek preposition en, a "marker introducing means or instrument, with."[10] "The word" is probably of the gospel or good news that saves us (Romans 10:8; 1 Peter 1:25), rather than a baptismal formula or our confession of faith at baptism.

A Glorious Church (5:27)

Now consider the words used to describe the bride that Christ has purified. It is a vision of the Church very difficult for us to see and apprehend, since we see the church so very differently.

"... To present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (5:27)

Usually the bride's father would present her to the groom. But here God both cleanses the church and presents her to the groom in all her splendor. Let's look at the words Paul chooses to describe this Church:

Glorious. The Greek adjective that modifies "church" is translated variously "radiant" (NIV), "glorious" (KJV), "in splendor" (NRSV), "in all her glory" (NASB), and "resplendent" (Marcus Barth). The word is endoxos, which is formed from the noun doxa, "glory, brightness, splendor, radiance." Endoxos means, "pertaining to possessing an inherent quality that is not ordinary, glorious, splendid."[11]

Without Stain. "Stain" (NIV) or "spot" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek noun spilos, "spot," figuratively, "stain, blemish," here meaning "a spot on the church."[12]

Without Wrinkle. "Wrinkle" is the Greek noun rhutis, "a wrinkle."[13] For good measure, Paul adds "or any such thing." Are these spots and wrinkles from age? Probably not. They refer to flawless complexion and skin, that is, physical perfection, which is figurative of moral perfection.

Holy. "Holy" is the Greek noun hagios, "dedicated to God, sacred." Here it seems to shade over into the sense "holy = pure, perfect, worthy of God."[14]

Blameless. "Blameless" (NIV) or "without blemish" is the Greek adjective amomos, "pertaining to being without fault and therefore morally blameless."[15] This phrase is often used of sacrificial animals that are whole and not injured or crippled in some way and thus qualified to be sacrificed to a holy God.

There's a triumphant old Gospel hymn by Ralph E. Hudson (1843-1901) called "A Glorious Church" taken from this passage:

'Tis a glorious church without spot or wrinkle,
Washed in the blood of the Lamb."

How do we reconcile this vision of a glorious church with the imperfect church we observe with each week? Is this just a future, eschatological view of the Bride of Christ when Christ comes?

It is a picture of the future. But we need to begin looking at the present-day church in the way Christ looks at it. Christ has already forgiven and cleansed us. He has already made us holy and without blemish in his sight. He has washed away our sins. We need to start living like what we are.

My brothers and sisters, I call you to a vision of the Church that is beyond your own. I call you to Christ's vision for his church. If we who are leaders begin to look at the church as holy and glorious before the Lord, we'll begin to preach and teach differently. We'll worship differently. We'll speak about the church differently -- and we'll begin to actualize the Church as it should be.

Loving One's Own Body (5:28-30)

When I was a young husband, the following passage helped me think differently about my wife:

"In this same way, 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, just as Christ does the church -- for we are members of his body." 'For this reason 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." (5:28-32)

"Nourishes" (KJV, NRSV) or "feeds" (NIV) is the Greek verb ektrepho, "to provide food, nourish."[16] "(Tenderly) cares for" (NRSV, NIV) or "cherisheth" (KJV) is the Greek verb thalpo, literally, "make warm," then figuratively, "cherish, comfort."[17]

This idea that your wife is your own body and should be treated as such, is a profound one. That your husband is your own body and should be treated as such is a transforming thought.

But just as profound is the concept that you and I are one body and one spirit with Jesus Christ our Lord -- that concept is life-changing! The Church is holy because she is united with Christ. This is a profound mystery, but one which should shape our thinking about our own congregations and the Church universal.

We cannot be satisfied with self-absorbed church traditions that prevent the Church of Jesus from being all she can be. All denominations and fellowships have a tradition of reform or restoration buried somewhere deep within their histories. We must break through afresh to this reform and revival to become again what we are in fact and in deed -- the glorious wife and visible representative of Jesus Christ on earth. Amen. 


Prayer

Lord, we fall so short of what you have designed us to be. We marvel at your patience with us. Your patience must be reflective of your great love for us, and your life-long commitment to us as your wife, your own body, your own adopted beloved bride. Forgive us for our blindness. Forgive us for our stubbornness to honor our traditions over you. And form us again to be submitted wholly to you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"... 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." (Ephesians 5:25b-27)


Offering (optional)

This is the final week of "Vision for the Church." If you have received from this series and are able, I invite you (based on Galatians 6:6) to make a small donation to Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries to help us continue to offer Internet Bible studies to thousands of people around the world. If you can't give now, no problem. But please pray for this ministry. Thank you. http://www.joyfulheart.com/joyadmin/offering.htm 


Questions

It's going to be hard to keep from discussing husband and wife relationships. But I ask you to discipline yourself to do just that. Not because these relationships aren't important, but because if we discuss them now we'll miss out on lessons we should be learning about Christ and his Church. Thank you.

  1. (Ephesians 5:21-24) What does "submission" mean in regards to the Church's relationship to Christ? What does your own submission to Christ mean in practical experience? What would a congregation look like that actually took seriously submitting its corporate life to Christ? We talk about Christ being the Head of the Church. What does this mean in actual practice, if anything?

    Exposition http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/5_holiness.htm#Q1
    Forum http://joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=22&t=99

  2. (Ephesians 5:25) What does it mean that Christ "gave himself up" for the Church? What does this teach us about God's commitment to us? Was this sacrifice altruistic or self-serving or both?

    Exposition http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/5_holiness.htm#Q2
    Forum http://joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=22&t=100

  3. (Ephesians 5:26) What constitutes "holiness" of a church? Is the church holy because of Christ's sacrifice for her, or because of her own actions, or both? How can we be holy without being legalistic and judgmental toward one another?

    Exposition http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/5_holiness.htm#Q3
    Forum http://joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=22&t=101

  4. (Ephesians 5:26) How does the word of God work in the cleansing, purifying process? How should the word of God be implemented in a congregation to achieve these purposes? How can we use the word for purification without relying upon threats of hellfire to scare people into repentance?

    Exposition http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/5_holiness.htm#Q4
    Forum http://joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=22&t=102

  5. (Ephesians 5:27) In what sense is the Church "glorious" or "resplendent"? Is Paul talking about the present era or when Christ comes? How do you determine this?

    Exposition http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/5_holiness.htm#Q5
    Forum http://joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=22&t=103

  6. (Ephesians 5:28-30) In what sense should we love the Church because it is our own body? Because we are part of it? What will that kind of love produce in our actions? Why do we need to repent of despising the Church and begin to love her aright?

    Exposition http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/5_holiness.htm#Q6
    Forum http://joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=22&t=104


References

Standard abbreviations are found on the references page. http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/refs.htm

  1. Many of my conclusions about this passage came from an unpublished paper I wrote in seminary, "Exegesis and Exposition of Ephesians 5:21-33" (12/4/1975) for a Family Life Education class, which included 71 footnotes! I'll be suggestive, not exhaustive, in this lesson's footnotes
  2. BDAG 1042. Among lexicographers, Lidell-Scott and Danker-Ardnt-Gringich ignore the middle voice, while Abbott-Smith and Thayer comment on it.
  3. Gerhard Delling, "hupotasso," TDNT 8:39-46, especially p. 40.
  4. C.C. Kroeger, "Head," DPL 375-377. Wayne Grudem, "The Meaning of Kephale ('Head'): A Response to Recent Studies," in John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Crossway, 1991), Appendix 1, pp. 425-468.
  5. "Gave (himself) up" is the Greek verb paradidomi, "hand over, turn over, give up a person as a technical term of police and courts" (BDAG 761-763).
  6. BDAG 9-10.
  7. BDAG 488-489.
  8. BDAG 603
  9. This is the traditional interpretation and is supported by G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 200-204. But some deny this and see it instead as a spiritual cleansing. So O'Brien, pp. 422-423; Barth, 2:691-699. I think its pretty hard to deny a reference to baptism, but we shouldn't push the analogy too far.
  10. BDAG 326-330.
  11. BDAG 332-333.
  12. BDAG 938.
  13. BDAG 908.
  14. BDAG 10-11.
  15. BDAG 56.
  16. BDAG 311.
  17. BDAG 442.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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