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. – Ephesians 5:22-33 ESV
Paul has strongly stressed the need to know and obey the will of the Lord (Ephesians 5:17). He has called each member of the congregation to live as a light in the midst of the darkness of Ephesus by submitting to the control of the Holy Spirit within them. Together, they were to shine the light of God’s life-transforming glory into the dark recesses of the sin-soaked society around them. The fledgling church in Ephesus was to be a beacon of hope as they allowed the Holy Spirit to fill them. His presence and power would overflow and impact all their relationships. Paul indicates that this Spirit-empowered change in their corporate interactions will leave them “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5:19 NLT). As the Spirit makes the will of God known and then empowers the Ephesians to obey it, they will see their relationships radically changed, and their gratefulness to God increase. But it will all begin with their willingness to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
It’s interesting to note how verse 21 is often overlooked or ignored by those who take issue with verses 22-24. In the modern-day church, there are many who find Paul’s words regarding wives submitting to their husbands as old-fashioned and heavily patriarchal. They view them as antiquated and no longer applicable in today’s more modern and enlightened context. There is little debate that, when taken out of its context, Paul’s teachings about submission within the home can sound like he has a low regard for women. But nothing could be further from the truth. Paul is not suggesting that wives have less value or worth than their husbands. He is not treating them as second-class citizens or subjugating them to an inferior role in the marriage relationship. He is simply continuing his discussion on knowing the will of God and allowing the Holy Spirit to apply that will to everyday life so that the Ephesian believers might be lights in the darkness.
Paul brings up the institution of marriage because it was something the Ephesian believers shared with their unsaved neighbors. Marriage was an accepted part of everyday life in Ephesus. Christians were not the only ones who participated in the God-ordained institution of marriage. But Christians were the only ones who could demonstrate what God’s will was concerning marriage.
Within the 1st-Century context of Greek culture, Paul’s teaching regarding husbands and wives was radical and unexpected. The prevailing view of the day held that wives were little more than property. Oftentimes, they were treated more like slaves than helpmeets. In general, women were seen as inferior to men and accorded little honor or respect.
“After centuries of Christian teaching, we scarcely appreciate the revolutionary nature of Paul’s views on family life set forth in this passage. Among the Jews of his day, as also among the Romans and the Greeks, women were seen as secondary citizens with few or no rights. The pious male Jew daily said a prayer in which he thanked God for not making him a woman. And he could divorce his wife by simply writing ‘a bill of divorcement’ (which must include the provision that she was then free to marry whomever she wanted). The wife had no such right.” – Leon Morris, Expository Reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians
But Paul was not attempting to write a commentary on gender equity or trying to rectify centuries of ungodly thinking about the role of women in society. His interest was in helping Christian husbands and wives apply the will of God regarding marriage to their own homes. And his words must be kept within the context of his call to mutual submission found in verse 21. That’s the key to understanding verses 22-33.
Don’t forget how Paul opened this section of his letter.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV
How are mere humans supposed to imitate God? How can fallen men and women model their lives after a holy and completely righteous God? The only way they can do it is through a relationship with the Son of God. It is only through faith in Christ that anyone can be made right with God. And as believers are transformed into the likeness of Christ through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, their lives inherently imitate God because they emulate the One who “expresses the very character of God” (Hebrews 1:3 NLT).
Paul opened this chapter by calling the Ephesians to imitate God by demonstrating the same kind of sacrificial love that Christ poured out on them. God so loved the world that He sent His Son (John 3:16), and He “showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT).
Now, in verses 22-33, Paul is taking this call to imitate God by loving like Christ and applying it to the institution of marriage. He is focusing his attention on the one place in society where love and submission could and should be practiced and prove the power of the Spirit of God to apply the will of God to everyday life.
Paul begins by addressing the wives, telling them to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22 ESV). It’s amazing how often the last four words of his statement are left out by those who take issue with this passage. They also overlook his emphasis on wives and their own husbands. This is not intended as a blanket statement regarding the relationship between all women and all men. This has less to do with gender than it does with the God-ordained institution of marriage and the divine definition regarding the roles of husbands and their wives. And it only applies to Christian marriages. What Paul is prescribing here is only possible when both husband and wife share a common faith in Jesus Christ.
When Paul calls the wife to submit to her husband, he is not issuing a command to subjugate herself to a lower or inferior status in the relationship. He is not suggesting that the wife is of lesser value or importance to God.
“People often misunderstand submission. It does not indicate inferiority or involve losing one’s identity and becoming a non-person. Some women fear that submission will lead to abuse and or a feeling of being used. Submission does not mean blind obedience or passivity. It means giving oneself up to someone else.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Ephesians
Paul is teaching the will of God concerning the marriage relationship. A Christian marriage is to look distinctively different than a non-Christian marriage. A husband and wife who are also a brother and sister in Christ are to model a radically different kind of marriage. Their interactions with one another are to be in keeping with the will of God and empowered by the Spirit of God. And it begins with a willingness to submit to or come under God’s providential plan for the marriage relationship.
These 12 verses, when taken in their context, reveal that the Christian marriage is to reflect the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. This must not be overlooked or discounted. That is the whole point of Paul’s teaching. The wife is intended to represent the church, the holy and spotless bride of Christ. The husband represents Christ, who demonstrated His love for His bride by laying down His life. Jesus gave His life so that His bride might have fulness of life. He died so that His bride might live. He sacrificed His body in order that the church might be cleansed and made holy. He modeled selflessness in the form of sacrifice.
In the same way, the wife is to model selflessness in the form of willful submission. The church, the bride of Christ, willingly submits to Him because it is God’s will. And when a Christian wife submits to her Christian husband, she is doing so “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22 ESV). Or to put it another way, she submits to her husband in the same way that she submitted to the Lord – through faith – trusting that God’s will and His ways are best. Paul doesn’t suggest that she submit only when her husband acts like Christ. That is where faith comes in. She is expected to do God’s will whether the conditions are perfect or the outcome looks predictable. That’s why Paul added, “as to the Lord.” Ultimately, she is trusting that obedience to God’s will is preferable to her own desire for autonomy or self-will.
What Paul is suggesting is not only difficult, but it is impossible – without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. No one likes to submit. There is no human being that likes the idea of coming under the authority or leadership of another. Yet we all do it every day if we feel like we will receive some benefit from having done so. Employees submit to their bosses, in order to get a salary. Citizens submit to their governing authorities, in exchange for protection and the preservation of their rights and freedoms. You might call it a form of quid pro quo.
But Paul is suggesting something altogether different. He is calling husbands and wives to follow the example of Christ. He willingly submitted to the will of His Father, even to the point of laying down His life (Philippians 2:6-8). He willingly sacrificed His life so that His bride might be made holy, righteous, and pure. And when a husband and wife, two people whom God has formed into one, do the same thing, they bring Him glory. They reflect His will and imitate His very nature – together.
And Paul sums up his teaching by calling it a “great mystery…an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one” (Ephesians 5:32 NLT). On a human level, it makes no sense. It seems illogical and impractical. To today’s modern sensibilities, it seems out of date and out of touch with reality. But Paul is revealing God’s will, not marriage advice. And he does sum up his teaching about this great mystery with some rather simple advice:
So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. – Ephesians 5:33 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.