“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:22-27, paraphrased)
Paul now begins his epic analogy concerning the connubial love of the husband for his wife and Christ’s love for His church. Christian marital co-habitation perfectly mirrors God’s purpose for the church, for no other institution is more sacred. Reciprocal duties are addressed, for marriage is founded on the premise of mutual consideration and respect. Although each partner is not under equal authority, each has equal responsibilities to one another and to the Lord. This passage serves as a definitive New Testament statement regarding marital happiness.
While concubines and polygamy are legally sanctioned throughout the Old Testament, there is a marked distinction between the morality of the husband and that of the wife. Even contemporary Judaism relegates females to a much lower social level than males. But the New Testament declares both men and women to be “equal in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). At first glance, it seems contradictory for Paul to declare woman as absolute equals as members of the body of Christ, yet here make such a bold statement concerning the wife’s voluntary submission. Due to the plague of biblical illiteracy in the twenty-first century, many of God’s truths appear “dated.” But without apology or explanation concerning domestic leadership roles, Paul first addresses believing wives. God makes no provision for His standards to be downsized to fit contemporary sociology. “The head of the woman is the man (I Cor. 11:3). However, the same verse firmly states “the head of every man is Christ.” Peter affirms that wives are to be in subjection to their husbands (I Pet. 3:1).
A husband’s love for his wife reflects Christ’s sacrificial love for His church. The concept of God as the Husband of His chosen people is not new. “Your Maker is your Husband: the Lord of Hosts is His name” (Isa. 54:5). “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isa. 62:5). Although at times Israel is pictured as an adulterous wife, God is married to His people (Jer. 3:8-14). As Hosea exemplified in his loyalty to his wife, even though she was disloyal to him, so Christ continuously proves his fidelity for His Church (Hos. 1:2-3).
The preceding verses confirm Paul’s desire for all to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-21) and then immediately connect us with divine principles regarding the marital union. The vital role of the Spirit is essential for a successful and productive marriage.
“Wives” applies to all married Christian women, regardless of her educational background, ethnicity, or spiritual maturity. His remarks in this passage are revolutionary in an era when men are the dominate gender.
This passage in Ephesians serves as a model for the way in which the husband relates to his wife and Christ relates to His Church. It should be noted that “submission” infers neither subservience nor the denial of a woman’s rights. Christian women are usually superior to men regarding empathy, self-denial, patience, gentleness, and spiritual discernment. Christianity is designed to improve the character of both genders. While the husband has a right to guide and direct, he has no right to suppress and control. “As unto the Lord” is the phrase that establishes the parameters of the wife’s subjection. She cannot violate God’s Word to please her husband. The phrase “your own” means “one’s private and unique possession.” She is to please her own husband, not men in general.
The verb to “submit” (hypotasso) occurs 23 times in Pauline literature and denotes subordination to another worthy of respect. It has a very different meaning than the term “obey” in Ephesians 6:1 and 6:5 concerning children and servants. The wife is not commanded to obey (hupakouo) her husband as a child or a slave. “Hypotasso” stresses the concept of voluntary, continuous submission and an unwillingness to argue. This term carries the idea of willing obedience under godly leadership and bespeaks a cheerful cooperation. It is the responsibility of each husband to portray the Christ-like characteristics that make him worthy of her fidelity. A good husband guides and directs, for domination does not breed love but resistance. In a perfect world, a wife willingly submits to a husband who understands divine self-sacrificial love.
The intimate marital union is the perfect illustration of dependence upon Christ and obedience to Him. To function effectively, every home needs headship, discipline, and order. The godly husband leads his wife as well as his family. Christianity promotes and exalts a woman to be under the man’s protection. “Head” here means “source or origin,” and points back to creation when woman is made from the man (Gen. 2:23). Paul takes his readers back to Eden to establish timeless marital principles (Eph. 5:31). As Adam is the “source” of his wife’s existence, so Christ is the source of the existence of His Church.
A balanced theology of the curse of original sin is in danger when one believes it includes the husband’s power over the wife. God’s curse was in response to the actions of the carnal nature, but the curse did not give men absolute authority. After they ate the forbidden fruit, Adam’s “rule” over Eve concerned functional order rather than autocratic rule (Gen. 3:16). The wife is not “the weaker vessel” (asthenestero) as a result of the curse (I Pet. 3:7). Asthenestero refers only to the female anatomy. This “weakness” is to her advantage, for it is God’s design she be sheltered and cared for by a loving husband. She is to be as supportive as he is to be protective. The wife “is to be subject to her husband as the Lord has designed ” (Col. 3:18). This reaffirms God’s timeless marital plan.
The husband becomes a type of “savior” (soter) only in the sense of a one who practices self-denial. In the two dozen times “soter” is found in the New Testament, it always refers to Jesus or God, never to human beings. Although a man cannot save his wife, he can gently guide her into the arms of the One who can. As our Savior offers His Church fellowship, protection, and security, so must the husband. A man should save his wife from anything that might degrade her character, but to carry the analogy of the husband as “savior” any further does this text an injustice.
The wife’s “gentle and quiet spirit” which is “precious in the sight of God” (I Peter 3:4), is meant to help offset the stress of the husband’s greater responsibilities. God intends mutual love and respect to permeate the atmosphere of the home. The concept of her obedience was instituted “that the Word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:5). Woman was created to complete the man rather than to compete with him (I Cor. 11:9). A wife who respects her godly husband walks in a freedom unknown to most women. It is the carnal nature that drives women to usurp authority over men and for men to belittle women. No woman tends to submit to an ungodly man. This is why reciprocal respect is at the center of joyful, functional marriages (Eph. 5:21).
The statement “subject in everything” refers to all things within the marital relationship. No husband has the right to force his wife to violate scriptural principles. The disparagement of women is not part of Paul’s equation. Any thought of servility is totally absent.
As Christ’s obedience sets the standard for a wife’s submission, so His sacrificial nature sets the standard for a husband’s love. Paul proposes Christ’s characteristics are the supreme example of good husbandry. The husband is tasked with familial guidance and should seek to love his bride as Christ loves His bride. He is required to accept responsibility for his bride as Christ accepts responsibility for His Church.
Although it is fashionable to blur or erase the lines of God’s constituted authority, the husband as head of the home is God’s universal plan for happy marriages. But if the obligation of wives to summit seems demanding, it is far outweighed by the duties of the husband. Paul does not place the wife on the same level as the husband, but neither does he place the husband on the same level as Christ. This is reinforced in I Corinthians 11:3 where he states that God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man, and man the head of the woman.
Without the stipulation to “love” (agape) the wife, some men would be tempted to abuse their authority. He is to rule by love, not by force. Agape always indicates that the one who loves will wholeheartedly give himself for the advancement of the object of his affection. The command to agape wives is thrice repeated (vs. 25, 28 & 33). A man who agape loves strives constantly to improve the life of the one who is loved. The concepts of self-sacrifice are not equal, for the wife is not told to sacrifice herself for the husband. A husband’s love is to be measured by the extremely high standard of Christ’s selfless love for His Church. When God chose to communicate with the human race, He did so vicariously. True marital success demands sacrifice. Just as everything Jesus does for His Church is for her edification and advancement, likewise a husband will regard no sacrifice too great if he has Christ’s spirit of selflessness. The husband is to counsel his wife in love, exemplifying the gentle instructions of the Holy Spirit. By setting the standard so high, the dignity and welfare of the Christian wife is safeguarded.
“As Christ loved His Church” is the qualifying clause, for no greater love exists. Christ’s love for His bride is without reservation. He made no prenuptial agreement with her. His dowry was His blood. The word Church (ekklesia) is feminine. His vicarious giving of Himself was for her. In offering Himself as her mediating sacrifice, He was determined to save her life at the expense of His own.
A husband loves his wife too much only when he loves her more than Christ loves His Church. Because this is not possible, the real danger is the possibility of deficient love rather than excessive love. Jesus did not love His Church because she was lovable or to make her lovable. Indeed, there is no human rationale for loving us at all. He loves us because the objects of His love need to be loved, not because we deserve it. It was Jesus’ love for His Bride that held Him on the cross; not the nails.
The motivation for Christ’s love for the Church is provided via powerful imagery. As a virgin is ceremonially purified prior to her wedding, so the Bride of Christ is now being prepared for Him to be received in heaven. The wedding of Christ to His bride is graphically depicted by the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19: 7-9).
Common to both the Old and New Testaments is the idea of external washings as symbolic of internal purification. The phrase “having cleansed” is congruous with the figure of the laver, but here it is a reference to the preparatory bathing of the bride. None would argue that the Church has her share of imperfections, yet Christ’s aim is to present her as a chaste virgin to Himself ( I Cor. 6:11 & II Cor. 11:2). Christ suffered to sanctify and consecrate His Church as a bride is cleansed prior to her presentation to her husband. His Bride must be purified (hagiase) in order to be accepted into His presence.
Some imagine “washing” (loutron) refers to water baptism, but New Testament writers often use water in a metaphoric sense (Heb. 10:22). “Now are you clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you” (John. 15:3). Furthermore, “loutron” literally means “a bath” and baptism is never referred to in the sense of bathing. Paul points out that the Word has the cleansing effect, while stating nothing concerning emersion. The cleansing of the bride is an obvious symbol of regeneration rather than baptism. Because salvation cleanses a person from the corrupting influences of sin, to be unwashed means to be unregenerate. This is evident, for the only other New Testament use of the noun “washing” states that Jesus saves His people by the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). To definitively state that physical sacramental baptism is in view here is theologically reckless.
The Church is incapable of cleansing herself. All her purity and beauty she owes to Christ. Although unworthy of His affections, He has orchestrated the circumstances whereby He can present us to Himself, in unsullied splendor, being cleansed from sin. In ancient Jewish weddings, the groom said to his bride, “Behold, thou art sanctified unto me,” as he placed the ring upon her finger.
The word “sanctify” (hagiazo) means “to set apart for sacred use.” This verse deals with holiness, for it is a husband’s primary duty to promote his wife’s spirituality. When a husband imitates Christ’s love for His Bride, he will endeavor to protect her spiritual welfare.
Jesus prayed for His disciples to be “sanctified by the word of truth” (Jn. 17:17), not by ceremonies and rituals. His bride is to be cleaned by the Word of God. Since “word” (rhemati) refers to “what is uttered by a living voice,” it verifies the need for couples to know their Bibles and remain open to the guiding voice of the Spirit. The Bible was given to couples as the ultimate marriage manual so the Spirit can reveal the truth of God’s Word to them. When it is properly applied, it has a cleansing influence on all aspects of marital life.
Christ’s ultimate aim is to present of the Church to Himself and He is the only One qualified to prepare us for that dynamic event. His Church is deemed “glorious” (endoxon), meaning “full of splendor and beauty; radiant; honorable.” Though the Church is unworthy to be His Bride, He prepares her to be received as worthy. As the Bible closes, an angel announces, “Come and I will show you the Bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Rev. 21:9).
The Church, while on earth, is surrounded by impurities which perpetually threaten her holiness. “Spot” (spilon) is used metaphorically regarding any moral blemish. Spilon refers to defects which would disqualify an animal for sacrifice. By His work on the cross, Jesus removed the spots of sin which would make His bride unattractive. The love of Christ for His Church defies explanation. His great heart goes out to His Bride because of her spots, knowing one day she will be free from all earthly imperfections. The Church is the sole object of His affection and He has never threatened to divorce His bride.
The Church is also destined to be without “wrinkle” (rhutida). Rhudita is a term that means “to draw together” as seen in aging skin. No sign of decay will be found on the Bride of Christ, for she will never grow old. The negative terms “spot, wrinkle, or any such things” are used to contrast the word “glorious” in this verse. A “spotless church” is not idealistic, but realistic. It is also futuristic, for His blood continues to remove all spots from sin-stained souls. His Church will be presented perfect on that great day.
Points to Ponder
1. Since the husband is to pattern his life after Christ, what must he bear in mind (John 15:13)? How does this verse serve to define the duties of a good husband?
2. What do Colossians 3:18 and Titus 2:5 have in common?
3. Paraphrase Paul’s instructions to husbands in Colossians 3:19.
4. If Ananias and Sapphira would have obeyed God, how might their story have been rewritten (Acts 5:1-12)?
5. In what way is water used symbolically in Hebrews 10:22?
6. What continues to cleanse and purify all Believers (John 15:3)?