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Sermon on the Mount
13. Christian Husbands and Christian Wives (Ephesians 5:21-33)
"21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The Holy Family also had to work at submission, love, and self-sacrifice. Detail from Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo (1617-1682, "The Holy Family with a Small Bird" (c. 1650), oil on canvas, 144 x 188 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Larger image.
22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- 30for 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." 32This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." (Ephesians 5:21-33)
This next section of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-6:9) deals with proper relationships between people, what German scholars call a Haustafel (Table of Household Duties):
- Wives to husbands (5:22-25)
- Husbands to wives (5:26-33)
- Children to parents (6:1-3)
- Fathers to children (6:4)
- Servants to masters (6:5-8)
- Masters to servants (6:9)
It is common in our day to dismiss Paul because he doesn't agree with modern ideas of political correctness and feminism. He encourages slaves to obey their masters. How could Paul expect us to take him seriously if he says such things?
Paul lived in a day when Christianity was just seeking to become established in the Mediterranean world. Christians were already considered "atheists" because they refused to worship the Roman and Greek deities. If Paul had encouraged the women to exercise their freedom and the slaves to rebel against their masters, the vital truths of Christianity would have been eclipsed by social and political issues, and the new faith would have been utterly crushed.
If you've studied history, you've learned that you must judge a person's actions by the standards of the society in which he or she lived, not by modern standards, which change every few years, anyway. Don't discount Paul because he lived in a patriarchal society that condoned slavery. If you take the time to see what he is saying, you'll come to realize that his words are indeed revolutionary. In his careful Christian teaching are the seeds of true equality.
Submit Yourselves (5:21)
"Aren't you tired of all these jokes about the President?" asks Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show." "I'm not!" he cracks. And proceeds to tell joke after joke, night after night, degrading our President on television. Whether or not we voted for the President, we must respect him and submit to his authority. If I were to take constant potshots at the President, God would be on my case, since submission to authority is necessary for good order in society, and God did not come to bring chaos and anarchy, but good order (Romans 13:1-6). In a free society I can say nearly anything, but that doesn't make it wise or right. "'Everything is permissible for me' -- but not everything is beneficial" (1 Corinthians 6:12).
One of the key words in 5:21-6:9 is "submit." You'll discover that submission is not the same as obedience. Nor does Paul does not teach "chain of command" like some have insisted. Let's see what he does teach.
The Greek verb hupotassomai used in the theme verse 21 is used in a reflexive sense, "subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey."1 Hupotassomai is a compound of two words hupo, "under" (from which we get our "hypodermic," "under" the skin) + tassō "to place, to station, to place in a certain order."2 Paul is saying, "subject yourself." Rather than teaching rote obedience in action and word, Paul is teaching a voluntary placement of oneself under another "out of reverence for Christ" (vs. 21b).
While this often involves obedience, this is not quite the same as obedience. In Figure 1 you can see that Paul could have used a number of words if he had meant raw obedience here. Instead, he uses hupotossaomai, meaning "to subordinate onself," to voluntarily place onself under another's authority. This is much different than to unquestioningly obey or to obey only grudgingly. Children are told to obey (6:1). Slaves are told to obey (6.5-6), but wives are told to voluntarily submit to their husbands.3
Fig. 1. Overlapping Greek Word Connotations Related to Hupotassomai. Larger image.
It is important to note that submission has nothing to do with the inherent worth or value of an individual. Paul teaches equal value and standing before God: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ" (Galatians 3:28). Peter teaches that wives and husbands are "joint heirs of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7). But to teach that equal value means equal authority is foolish and leads to anarchy. Even in the most egalitarian of societies, we have authority relationships that must be honored to promote good order. Thus the principles Paul teaches here have validity two thousand years later in modern society. They are just applied somewhat differently in different situations and cultures.
"22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything." (5:22-24)
The reason given for a wife to submit to her husband is that he is "the head of the wife as Christ is of the Church" (vs. 23). Those who teach "chain of command" from headship, equate "head" with "boss." In his letters, Paul uses the Greek noun kephalē, "head," in a number of ways, some of which overlap, as illustrated in Figure 2:
- Origin (Colossians 1:15, 17, 18; 1 Corinthians 11:3). The theme verse of Ephesians is, "to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). Christ is the beginning -- and the end, and all creation finds its right place in him. Unity is a strong undercurrent in this verse as well is throughout Ephesians. The idea of "one flesh" in 5:31 is related.
- Source, Creator (Colossians 1:16). We derive our idea of "headwaters" from this concept.
- Sustainer (Ephesians 4:16; 1:23; Colossians 1:17; 2:19).
- Source of Growth (Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 2:19)
- First in Rank (Colossians 1:18)
- Ruler (Ephesians 1:20-22; Colossians 1:10). Our "headmaster" carries this idea.4
Fig. 2. The Inter-Relationships of Kephale Concepts in Ephesians and Colossians. Larger Image
But these concepts are related to Christ's headship, not a husband's, you protest. Perhaps, but 5:23 seems to indicate that "the husband is the head of the wife as (in a similar way) Christ is the head of the church." We can't push this to its fullest extent, of course, since husbands aren't divine. But as we will see, they do have many responsibilities towards their wives that relate to the concepts contained in kephalē. And nowhere in this passage is "boss" one of those concepts.
Verse 24 indicates that "wives should submit to their husbands in everything." This means that in all areas the wife is to let her husband make the final decision. Does this mean she is not to disagree with her husband? By no means!
A wife's particular personality and gifts will be different from her husband's in any given marriage. In her areas of giftedness and strength, she will provide strength to the marriage and leadership in those particular areas.
Submission "As to the Lord" (5:22b)
Just because the husband has final responsibility doesn't make him wise or right or omnipotent. When there is a conflict, the wife must do whatever she can to help him see things from a broader perspective. She must lovingly and submissively correct him when he is wrong, not to put him down (that would be placing herself over him), but to build him up and make him a better man (that is, true servanthood).
What if the husband leads the wife and family to do something stupid? I think submission requires going along.
What if the husband requires the wife to do something illegal, immoral, or which endangers her safety or the safety of the children? According to some teachers I've heard, she can tell God, "I was just following orders." That didn't work as a defense for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and it won't work here. To submit to a husband "as to the Lord" means that the Lord is the supreme head, and that his commands take precedence over those of a husband when they are in conflict. Sometimes a submissive wife will need to say, "I'm sorry, but I can't in good conscience do that." We can't compromise our faith and conscience to uphold the principle of submission. But, within the wide bounds of a marriage, a wife should be submissive to her husband. So says the Apostle Paul, whom Christ appointed to instruct His Church.
Q1. (Ephesians 5:22-24) Why should a wife submit to her husband? According to these verses, to what degree is a wife required to submit to a husband who is not a Christian or
who is a carnal Christian? Does submission mean a wife doesn't verbally disagree? What if there's a conflict with the wife's conscience?
Husbands, Give Yourselves Up for Your Wives (5:25-30)
"25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- 30for we are members of his body." (5:25-30)
If you think submission is difficult, wives, look at what Paul says to your husbands: "Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (vs. 25). Jesus laid down his life for the benefit of the Church. Husbands are to do no less towards their wives -- that is, if they are serious about their role as "head."
A lot of men I know are selfish, self-absorbed, and immature. Jesus calls us to grow up. Just as Christ humbled himself before his disciples and washed their feet, so husbands must humble themselves before their wives and family in order to serve them unselfishly. At the Last Supper "a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest." No doubt this was the context of Jesus washing their feet.
"The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (Luke 22:24-27)
In Mark's gospel, this passage concludes with the words:
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)
This is what it means to be head: source, provider, sustainer, source of unity, source of growth. Yes, ruler, too, but only in the context of this service. Our love for our wives is to match Christ's love for his church. Our service to our wives is to match Christ's giving up himself for his church.
Serving the Imperfect Wife (5:26-27)
Notice that Christ's example of service and redemption to an imperfect church is the model for a husband's love:
"25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (5:25-27)
When we become impatient with our wives, our love needs growing. When our wives make mistakes and show their human imperfections, we must love them as Christ loves us imperfect humans and bears with our weaknesses. How much can we put up with, husbands? Our standard is Christ's love for sinful humanity. And his patient, costly, sacrifical quest finally is bringing about a beautiful, radiant Bride that has been cleansed and is whole. We should not imagine that our love for our wives will require less.
Q2. (Ephesians 5:25-30) Does being head of the wife involve being "boss"? Why or why not? What does being "head" require of a husband? What is the example husbands are to follow in headship?
One Flesh (5:28-32)
Paul sets a very high standard for love, patience, and humble service. Then he gives a second rationale. If you can't love your wife because it is Christ's way, he is saying, then love her for your own benefit:
"28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- 30for 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.' 32This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church." (5:28-32)
This passage contains a very simple but very profound concept: "He who loves his wife loves himself" (5:28b). Think about it. Why is it true? Precisely this: "The two will become one flesh" (5:31) quoting Genesis 2:24. Jesus also used this ancient verse to teach on marriage:
"So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:6).
"Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies," says Paul. "He who loves his wife loves himself" (5:28). As a young husband I was off in my world doing my thing, and, sad to say, oblivious to some of my wife's struggles and hurts. In the midst of a real struggle she was having, this passage came home to me. This isn't just her problem, this is mine. We are one. What hurts her, does indeed hurt me. What helps her, does indeed help me. When I began to understand this, I began to take her needs much more seriously and began to love her as head rather than try to make her conform to my wishes that were causing her pain.
Now even this seems kind of selfish: If you want to help yourself, then help your wife. Isn't this just love for our own benefit? I don't think so. True headship must consider the needs of the whole body, not just the needs of the head. "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Paul is speaking to hard-headed, self-willed husbands like me. He's saying, "You dummy! Don't you realize that you and your wife are one? If you can't treat her right for her sake, then treat her right for your own sake."
Our culture has largely forgotten this truth, and our marriages are suffering for it. We have emphasized each partner's rights and freedoms and self-identity so much, that we have under-emphasized the couple's essential unity, oneness. When we marry we are charting a single course together. We are not going our separate ways while living together for economic convenience and sexual pleasure. We are one, whether we understand it or not. And actions that erode that essential unity work against our marriages. Yes, we are unique individuals, and we must not smother one another and try to suppress one another's uniqueness. But the key to marriage is not our uniqueness. It is the uniting of our uniqueness to be one. The body analogy, which Paul uses in our passage, is apt: respecting our individual functions and gifts, we work for the good of the body, the whole, the one couple, the "corporation." We are truly "one flesh" -- that is the core of Paul's teaching here.
Q3. (Ephesians 5:28) In what sense is a husband's care for his wife's needs just common sense in taking care of his own needs? What is
the principle from Genesis 2:24 that underlies this?
The Marriage of Christ and His Church (5:32)
"This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church." (5:32)
The theme of unity in Ephesians offers a great deal to help our marriages. Unity and love are the underlying themes of this passage, not "chain of command." But this is bigger than just me and my wife or you and your husband. "This is a profound mystery," says Paul, "but I am talking about Christ and the church" (5:32). The principles which underlie our marriages, also underlie Christ and his church: love, honoring uniqueness, and celebrating unity. We all must voluntarily submit to Christ, whether or not we happen to like it at the time.
Pulling It All Together (5:33)
"However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." (5:33)
This passage began with a call for mutual submission: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21). The form of our submission may be different as our roles are different. For the wife this submission takes the form of "respect." The Greek noun phobos, "fear," carries here the connotation of "reverence, respect."5 The Christian wife has respect for her husband's role as head and acquiesces to it willingly (5:33). For the husband this submission means loving his wife so much that he gives up his selfishness to help her and strengthen her.
Moving Toward the Ideal
I am inevitably asked, "Am I to submit to my husband if he is a selfish clod who doesn't care for me?" Yes (1 Peter 3:1-6), and your loving submission can cause him to grow in Christ and grow in his love for you. Can you submit to a selfish man because you trust him? No. Only selfless love builds the kind of trust the church has in Jesus. To an immature, selfish man that submission will require great trust in Christ to help in the situation. To a loving, caring, Christian husband, that submission will be more and more from the heart.
"How can I love my wife and care for her when she is bossy and bitchy?" You are to love her in spite of herself, just as Christ loved us in spite of ourselves, and gave himself up on the cross to free us from our sins. Only Christ's love for an imperfect church could have brought about her cleansing, perfection, and wholeness.
Q4. (Ephesians 5:32) In what sense is Christ our Husband as individuals? As a church? What are the implications of this for our lives? What does this say about Christ's responsibilities towards us?
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Ephesians 5:21-33 is an ideal, of course, not where we start, but where we are headed. This is not a scripture to use to beat over your wife's or husband's head, but for us as individuals to learn from and pattern our own lives after. To the degree that a husband is loving and trustworthy, a wife is able to submit more fully and trustingly. To the degree that a wife is loving and submissive, a husband can care for her and lead the family to a better way of life. As we imperfect spouses stop blaming our mates and seek to be what we are supposed to be in Christ, then -- gradually -- Christ can bring about the beautiful marriage that Paul describes here, a marriage that patterns itself after the marriage of Christ and his church.
Father, we fall so short of this ideal of Christian marriage. Please help us to develop a heart of love so that this can work in our lives and in our marriages. Teach us to submit. Teach us to give of ourselves sacrificially. And forgive us when we fail. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22)
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." (Ephesians 5:25)
"In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself." (Ephesians 5:28)
- Hupotasso , BDAG 1042.
- Hupotasso , Thayer 615.
- For a carefully footnoted study of submission and headship, see my paper, Headship (kephalē) and Submission (hupotassomai) in Ephesians 5:21-33.
- Phobos, BDAG 1062.
In-depth Bible study books
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- Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ