I often see couples wince in marriage counseling when I bring up Paul’s admonition to wives in Ephesians 5. Paul’s instructions to married couples begin with those fated words, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Denominations have divided over that verse and been misunderstood by many more.
Recently we were studying Ephesians 5 in our connection group. We had a rich conversation about the passage that hinged on the chapter’s two most important truths about marriage. Each of those truths is grossly neglected in contemporary discussions around Ephesians 5, and each deserves to be re-examined.
Before we even jump into the passage about marriage, let’s remember that Ephesians 5 and 6 speak of what it looks like to live the Christian life. The section begins and ends with a practical call to live out that faith in community (5:1-20) and with an understanding of the spiritual realm in which we live (6:10-21). Sandwiched between these two general calls to the community is an invitation to live that out as husband and wife, as children, and as bondservants. In the first section, Paul urges us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:1-2. He goes on to speak about how we are to live that out with our sexuality, our tongues, our hearts, our partnerships, our use of alcohol, and even our songs. He concludes that as we give thanks, we are to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
With this invitation to the community, Paul then speaks about how this is worked out in marriage. There are two truths that Paul wants us to ensure we don’t miss as he considers marriage.
First: Paul argues in Ephesians 5 that marriage is a God-ordained drama that points to something bigger than us. Several times in the passage Paul tells us that our marriages are a play that God has designed to point to his relationship with the church. Would you re-read the passage with me and look for all the times Paul likens the wife to the church and the husband to Jesus in this drama?
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.wife
In the passage, Paul draws the line between wives and the church or the husband and Christ seven times. Before we get tied up in the details of how we should live out this divine-directed drama, let’s not forget that the most important thing is what the drama is pointing to: Jesus and his love for the church. And who is Jesus in the drama? The husband!
Before we bury ourselves in the admonitions Paul has for husbands and wives, consider the weight of the metaphor.
The husband bears the responsibility of portraying Jesus in the drama of marriage. To play the role of the church is a high calling, but more daunting still is the calling to portray Jesus! However we read this passage, whatever we make out of the wife’s call to respect her husband, we must necessarily understand the husband’s role to be held to a higher standard. It is the husband, not the wife, after all, who is to play out the part of Jesus, who “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 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.” Take note, men. This is a more taxing calling than submission and respect (which, if we take verse 20 seriously, husbands are also called to).
The second fundamental truth as we live out this drama is that it reminds us how much God loves us. The fact that God uses marriage as the drama to display his love for us shows us how intimate the relationship he calls us into is. Paul’s words in verses 31 and 32 are wild. Paul says that all the way back to the very first marriage—Adam and Eve—God has been creating a picture to demonstrate that his Son would one day leave heaven to come for us, his bride. Every time we see a husband love his wife sacrificially, we ought to be reminded of Christ’s great love for us and the intimate relationship he desires to have with us.
We come to the Bible with so much cultural baggage, but If we stand back from the passage and read it afresh, we should not miss what is most explicit in the text. Paul’s call for marriages to portray Jesus’s love for the church and the church’s respect for her Savior ought to challenge us profoundly and encourage us greatly.
Let’s not miss the forest through the trees. Wherever we fall on the complementarian-egalitarian debate, our marriages are intended to aim at this holy target.
In our marriages, we live out a divine drama that points to the most profound truth: God loves you and gave his Son so that you could be in a relationship with him.