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Ephesians 5.22-6.4 Notes

Lesson 48: What! Me, Submit to Him? (Ephesians 5:22-24)


I chose the title, "What! Me, Submit to Him?" because I suspect that that might be the reaction of many women when they hear that I am speaking on the subject of wives submitting to their husbands. While some women might not verbalize it, they are still prone to thinking it. "How can he even think of giving such a message? Is he living in the Dark Ages?" I suspect that the feminist movement has infiltrated the church much more than we realize.

I assure you that in preparing this message, I have spent hours trying to understand the meaning and application of these verses to our marriages in this day and age. I have tried as much as is possible to divorce myself from the prevailing currents of our culture and to get at both what the Scripture is saying here and why it says it. What it says is fairly straightforward:

As the church is subject to Christ, so wives are to be subject to their husbands in everything.

That is almost verbatim from verse 24. I trust that you accept this text as the inspired Word of God, which is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). But because it goes so strongly against our cultural mindset, let me offer a few comments that may help us approach it.

First, as with all of God's commandments, the commands of our text are for our good from an all-wise, loving God (Deut. 6:24; 10:13). He originated marriage and so He can tell us how He designed it and how we must live in it if we want His blessing. God is not a cosmic male chauvinist, who is punishing women and rewarding men by commanding these respective roles in marriage! Rather, they reflect His wise and loving care for us as we obey. Also in this regard, all Christians are under authority. Husbands are not an authority unto themselves. They must submit to Christ and to the elders in a local church. To live in rebellion to authority is to live in defiance of God Himself, who ordains all authority.

Second, note that the church is in no way degraded by submitting to Jesus Christ. To the contrary, it is to the church's glory to submit to Christ. Even so, it is not degrading for a wife to submit to her husband. Rather, it results in "her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless" (5:27). Submission results in her ultimate good.

Third, the context here is the joy and thankfulness of being filled with the Spirit (5:18-20). Thus a wife's submission to her husband is not a cross that she glumly must bear. It is rather the path of joy. Just as submission to God is the way to true and lasting joy, so a wife's submission to her husband as to the Lord is the way to true and lasting joy.

Fourth, we need to understand that Christian marriage is to be a powerful witness to a selfish world where everyone is fighting for his or her rights. The world should look at Christian marriages and instantly see the difference. They should see a Christian husband tenderly and selflessly loving his wife as Christ loved the church. The world should see a Christian wife joyfully submitting to and respecting her husband, always seeking his good. The world should see Christian children obeying their parents and the parents lovingly and patiently training their children in the ways of the Lord. The difference between this picture and the garbage on TV should cause the world to marvel.

In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible uses the marriage relationship to picture the relationship between God and His people. Paul shows here that Christian marriage is an earthly picture of Christ and the church (5:32): "This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church." God created man as male and female to reflect His image (Gen. 1:27). As we saw last week, in the Trinity, all three Persons are equally God and yet to carry out the divine plan, the Son submits to the Father and the Spirit submits to the Father and the Son. There is perfect love and harmony among the members of the Trinity. There is no rivalry or competition. Even so in marriage, the husband and wife are equal as persons before God, sharing in the grace of salvation (Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7). But there is an order of authority and submission to reflect the divine image.

When a husband treats his wife poorly and puts her down, he is proclaiming heresy, that Christ abuses and puts down His bride. If he is a dictator over his wife, he tells the world that the gentle, loving Christ is a cruel tyrant. When a man abdicates his headship and lets his wife lead, he preaches that Christ does not lovingly shepherd His church and that the church is free to live out from under submission to Christ, again heretical lies. If a husband deserts his wife, either through unfaithfulness or indifference or by being married to his career or hobbies, he preaches that Christ abandons His church, another falsehood. So as married Christians, our witness to a watching world is very much entwined with how we relate as husbands and wives.

To explain and apply our text, consider four main statements:

1. To submit biblically to your husband, you must be in submission to the Lord.

Paul states (5:22), "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." The verb is in italics because it is not in the Greek text, but is carried over from verse 21. As we saw, being subject to one another in the fear of Christ is a result of being filled with or controlled by the Holy Spirit. "As to the Lord" does not mean that a wife must submit to her husband in exactly the same way that she submits to the Lord. The Lord is perfect and every husband is far from perfect (all the wives say, Amen!). Rather, Paul means that submission to your husband is a part of obedience to the Lord. If you are fighting against the idea of being subject to your husband, your attitude reflects that you are really fighting against the Lord, who ordained this order in marriage. So you must begin by yielding to the Lord and His inspired Word.

2. To submit biblically to your husband, you must recognize that he is in fact your head.

Verse 23 explains ("for") verse 22. It is significant that Paul does not say that the husband ought to be the head of his wife, but rather, "the husband is the head of his wife." It's a stated fact, not a command. Some husbands are weak, ineffective, and just plain lousy heads of their wives, but they are still in that position of authority. Douglas Wilson (Reforming Marriage [Canon Press], p. 24, italics his) writes,

Meditating on this is a very valuable thing for husbands to do. Because the husband is the head of the wife, he finds himself in a position of inescapable leadership. He cannot successfully refuse to lead. If he attempts to abdicate in some way, he may, through his rebellion, lead poorly. But no matter what he does, or where he goes, he does so as the head of his wife. This is how God designed marriage.

The fact of the husband's headship, which is analogous to Christ's headship over the church, has at least two implications:

A. The fact of the husband's headship means that there are gender-based roles in marriage as ordained by God.

While there is a sense in which all believers submit to one another (5:21), there is also a restricted sense in which wives submit to their husbands, but husbands do not submit to their wives. It is significant that whenever the New Testament addresses the subject of Christian marriage, it always commands the wife to be subject to her husband, using the same verb as here. But it never commands the husband to be subject to his wife (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:1). The verb means to put oneself in rank under another.

Also, all of the New Testament commands for wives to submit to their husbands are addressed to the wives, not to the husbands. The Bible never commands the husband to put his wife in subjection. It does not command the husband to be the head of his wife, as we've seen. Rather, it is a fact and the wife is to respond to the Lord, who designed marriage in this way, by willingly submitting to her husband.

This is not a culturally-determined role that we are free to discard, since it doesn't fit our culture. God could have created Adam and Eve at the same instant by speaking the word, but He did not. He created Eve out of Adam. From that fact, Paul concludes (1 Cor. 11:9), "for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake." She was to be a helper suitable for him, to assist him in his God-given tasks. So the roles in marriage are not culturally determined, but rather ordained by God at creation. Specific duties in a household are flexible and can be worked out in a marriage for the mutual good of the couple. But the role of the husband as head and the wife as subject to him are fixed.

B. Just as Christ's headship over the church means that He is in authority over the church for her good, so the husband has authority over his wife for her good.

Headship here means "authority" (see 1:22). In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul writes, "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ." He is talking about an order of authority.

As we saw last week, biblical authority is never given for the advantage of the one in authority or so that he can suppress those under authority. Rather, God delegates authority for the blessing and protection of those under authority, so that they will become all that God wants them to be. Also, the one in authority is accountable to God for those under his authority. This does not mean that a husband must make every decision, but he is responsible for every decision made. If he is negligent with that responsibility or he abuses it for his own advantages, he will answer to God!

After explaining the analogy, "as Christ also is the head of the church," Paul adds (5:23), "He Himself being the Savior of the body." Commentators puzzle over why he says this here, but it seems to me that he is both assuring the wives and exhorting the husbands. Christ's headship over the church meant that He gave Himself on the cross to save His people from their sins. While Christ's role as Savior is unique, there is yet an analogy: husbands must sacrificially give themselves in love for their wives (5:25). They must use their headship to protect and help their wives, not to abuse them. Wives can be assured that they will not be harmed, but rather cared for and loved, when they submit to such godly husbands. Husbands who abdicate their God-given authority in the home leave their wives spiritually unprotected.

Thus to submit biblically to your husband, you must be in submission to the Lord. And, you must recognize that your husband is in fact your head, or authority.

3. To submit biblically to your husband, you must understand what biblical submission is (and is not).

First I will offer a definition and then I will list seven positive and negative characteristics of biblical submission.  Definition: Biblical submission is the attitude and action of willingly and wholeheartedly respecting, yielding to, and obeying the authority of another.

That definition applies to all of the spheres of authority: to God Himself; human government; church government; wives to husbands; children to parents; and workers to employers. It includes our attitude, because it is not to be forced, but willing and wholehearted. Applied to wives, it includes the following:

(1). Submission involves respecting your husband.

When Paul sums up his counsel (5:33), he repeats that the husband is to love his wife (from verse 25). But rather than saying that the wife must submit to her husband, he says that she must respect him. I conclude that a large part of submission involves respect. While books have been written on this (e.g., Love and Respect, by Emerson Eggerichs [Integrity Publishers]), at the very least it means that a wife not attack her husband or put him down. Rather, she should get on her husband's team and cheer him on. If he makes a mistake, she should assure him of her loyalty and love.

(2). Submission includes the desire to please the one over you.

When I counsel couples whose marriages are in trouble, invariably they are competing with one another. Rather than seeking to please her husband, the wife is trying to get him, to make him pay for what he has done to hurt her. But submission means that you want him to be happy. You want to please him. If he likes a particular meal, you fix it often. If he likes the house to be neat, you try to keep it that way. You don't punish him by making him unhappy. You please him in every way possible.

(3). Submission means not subverting your husband's will and desires through deception, manipulation, or whining.

I've seen wives who put on a veneer of submission to their husband's face, but then they go behind his back and use subversive tactics to get what they wanted. Or, they whine or nag him until to get some peace, he capitulates. That is not submission!

(4). Submission means responding to your husband as leader and lover.

Many husbands feel threatened and incompetent when it comes to leading their wives. If their feeble attempts to lead meet with criticism or apathy, they probably won't try again. If your husband takes a stab at giving leadership in your marriage, even if it's inept, fan the flame! If he makes a suggestion for a romantic evening together, don't criticize his idea! If he dares to share something on his heart with you or a fear that is nagging him, listen sensitively and thank him for it. Be responsive, not resistant!

(5). Submission does not imply the inferiority of the wife to her husband.

As I said, this would be heretical, because it would imply the inferiority of the Son to the Father because the Son submits to the Father (even in eternity, 1 Cor. 15:28). A godly husband is to be a good manager of his household (1 Tim. 3:4, 12). A good manager utilizes and praises the strengths of those he manages. If a wife is better at something than the husband is, a smart husband will recognize that gift and let her use it for their common good.

(6). Submission does not imply passivity.

A submissive wife may actively try to influence her husband for God (as 1 Peter 3:1-6 implies). The wife whose husband is disobedient to the Lord is not told to be passive and not influence him. Rather, she is told how to influence him by her quiet and gentle spirit. The Proverbs 31 wife is hardly a model of passivity! A submissive wife needs lovingly and humbly to confront her husband if he is in sin. She needs to communicate her dissatisfaction with her husband's insensitivity or aloofness. She may need forcefully to express her opinions, so that her husband knows exactly what she thinks. Without honest communication, a marriage cannot grow in intimacy.

Submission means that after a thorough, honest sharing of opinions and feelings, if there is still disagreement, the wife must go along with the husband's decision, as long as it is not sinful. But, I must add, he will answer to God for that decision, and so he should only override his wife's objections after much prayer and with fear and trembling! In our now 34 years of marriage, Marla and I cannot come up with a single example of where I have had to overrule her. We've always come to mutual agreement as we've talked and prayed through decisions.

(7). Submission does not require a wife to bury her spiritual gifts.

There are many gifted women in the Bible and in church history who have been greatly used of God. Priscilla is often mentioned before her husband, Aquila. She was probably the prominent one in helping Apollos straighten out his theology (Acts 18:24-26). Lois and Eunice, Timothy's grandmother and mother, played key roles in training him in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:15). Paul refers to the mother of Rufus as "his mother and mine" (Rom. 16:13). Apparently she had ministered to Paul as a mother. In our day, women like Elisabeth Elliot and Edith Schaeffer have used their gifts to influence many men and women in the faith.

So Paul is saying that as the church is subject to Christ, so wives should be to their husbands. But, there is one more thing:

4. Since genuine submission to Christ must be total, genuine submission to your husband must be total.

Paul adds two little words at the end of verse 24, "in everything." Why did he add those words? What does he mean?

(1). "In everything" means that you cannot create loopholes to dodge the commandment.

Paul knew that we're all prone to try to dodge the difficult commands of the Bible. Many wives will say, "I would submit to my husband if he would just love me as you've described. But how can I submit when he is so selfish and insensitive?" In marriage counseling, this is always the biggest hurdle that I have to try to get couples over. When they stop focusing on the faults of their mate and start focusing on their own responsibilities, it's a breakthrough.

(2). "In everything" includes submission in thoughts, words, and deeds.

Submission and respect begin in your thought life. Are you running your husband down and complaining about his shortcomings or are you thankfully focusing on his strengths? Are your words encouraging and affirming? Are your deeds supportive and responsive?

(3). "In everything" does not include commandments to sin.

If your husband asks you to do something that Scripture forbids, you must respectfully decline. If he asks you to view pornography, you must say no. If he asks you to lie for him or cheat on your taxes or stop going to church, you would sin against God to go along with your husband's request. There is a respectful way to resist such ungodly demands, but you must resist.

(4). "In everything" does not mean that you say yes to every demand, if in so doing you are fostering your husband's laziness and irresponsibility.

If your husband is dumping his responsibilities on you or using you as his slave to cater to his laziness, you need to talk to him. He needs to be confronted with his faults in a gracious, but firm manner. To allow him to go on in his sin is not to love him as Christ commands you to do.

(5). "In everything" does not mean yielding to criminal behavior, including physical abuse.

If a husband is doing drugs in the home or is abusing the children or his wife, he is violating both God's law and the law of the state. Submission does not mean passively tolerating such sin. A wife should call the police and the husband should go to jail.

A godly wife may need to tolerate some verbal abuse, such as put-downs or name-calling or cursing, if her husband is not a Christian. But she should talk with him and explain that she would like to be close to him, but his abusive language is damaging their marriage. But if he is threatening her with physical abuse or death, she needs to move to a place of safety and get some godly counsel.

I realize that this is not an easy subject to apply and obey, but I would encourage each of you to grapple with it especially in areas where you may be resisting the Lord. If you're having trouble in your marriage, don't blame your husband or wait for him to start loving you as he should. Instead, do something radical: Submit to your husband in every area, even as the church is to submit to Christ. If you're fighting this portion of Scripture, you're not submitting. And if you're not submitting, the world won't see Christ in your marriage.


If you were to ask most Christian men, "What is your primary responsibility in the family?" they would reply, "To be the head of the home." If that's what you think, I say, "You're wrong!"

"But," you protest, "I'm the boss, aren't I?" No, Christ is the boss. Jesus alone is Lord of the family. I'm not minimizing the staggering responsibility given to the husband. Scripture is clear that he is in fact the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church. For reasons I don't completely understand, American men are especially passive when it comes to leading their families. The erroneous egalitarian view of the feminists has further eroded the responsibility God gives to the man, but not to the wife, to function as head of that relationship. So I do not in any way minimize or disparage the need for godly, Christ-like leadership on the part of Christian husbands.

What I'm getting at is, when the apostle Paul turns to the husband, he does not say, "Husbands, be the head of your wives, even as Christ is the head of the church." Rather, he says, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her." Thus, a husband's primary responsibility is not to be the head of his wife, but to love her.

A husband's primary responsibility toward his wife is to love her as Christ loved the church.

I believe that the main reason the apostle states the fact of the husband's headship when giving instruction to wives, but when he turns to husbands he commands them with regard to love, is that the primary way a husband exercises his headship is through sacrificial love toward his wife. As I pointed out last week, verse 21 applies to all Christians, that we are to be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. This requires developing a humble, servant-attitude toward one another, where we lay aside our rights and selfish interests and seek the good of one another because we fear the Lord and are subject to Him. That principle governs all the specific relationships which Paul goes on to discuss in Ephesians 5:22-6:4: wives and husbands; children and parents; slaves and masters.

But, as I also pointed out, the principle of mutual submission does not negate the principle of authority which Paul goes on to stipulate. Wives express mutual submission by submitting to and reverencing their husbands (5:22-24, 33). Children express mutual submission by obeying their parents (6:1-3). Slaves express mutual submission by obeying their earthly masters (6:5-8). Husbands express mutual submission to their wives in the fear of Christ by loving their wives even as Christ loved the church.

That's the governing principle. As with the principle of the wife's submission to her husband, this principle for husbands runs counter to the world's wisdom. So we must deliberately reject the world's portrayal of macho manhood and carefully consider what Paul means and then work at applying it as Christian husbands.

1. Love is commanded and thus is possible for all husbands.

You may protest that this is an impossible command, because no human husband can ever love his wife as Christ loved the church. I agree that it is an ideal that will never be realized in this lifetime. But it is God's commandment to us as Christian husbands. As with all of God's commands, it will take a lifetime of effort and there will always be room for growth. But as we are filled with the Spirit (5:18) and diligently work at understanding and obeying the command, we can do it!

The fact that God commands us to love our wives means that this sort of love is not primarily a feeling. The feelings of romantic love are wonderful and should not be lacking from any marriage, even with couples who have been married for 50 years. But the basis of biblical love and of Christian marriage is not feelings of romantic love, but rather a commitment of the will. If a man says, "I just don't love my wife anymore; I'm in love with another woman," God's Word to him is, "If you want My blessing, you will cut it off instantly with any other woman and learn to love your wife."

As with all Scripture, to understand and apply it properly, you must know something of the historical and cultural situation to which it was written. The Ephesians were not a bunch of Sunday School boys when the gospel came to them. The city was steeped in the occult and in pagan worship of the goddess Diana (or Artemis). Statues of this goddess show a woman with multiple breasts. "Worship" included sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes (see Paul's instructions in Eph. 5:3-12).

Furthermore, many of these men were married to women whom they did not choose, since marriages were often arranged by the parents. The Greek writer, Demosthenes, describes the common mentality of pagan men in those days: "We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for the day-to-day needs of the body, but we have wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our homes" (quoted by William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit [Baker], p. 24; he documents the widespread immorality of pagan Rome on pp. 24-27).

Against that pagan backdrop, you can see how utterly radical the Christian perspective was regarding the sanctity of marriage and the responsibility of the husband to be singularly devoted to his wife in lifelong, sacrificial love! It is no less radical in our corrupt culture. But my point is, even in a marriage where the husband has fallen into the sinful ways of the world, where he has been unfaithful to his wife (or her to him), where romantic love has gone cold, it is possible through obedience to God's Word to turn that marriage relationship around so that it not only honors God, but also is fulfilling to the couple.

2. To love your wife as Christ loved the church, you must understand and practice biblical love.

Definitions of biblical words are important. We say, "I love pizza!" "I love baseball!" "I love my wife!" Great! But what does that mean? If you operate with a definition of love that you picked up from watching movies or listening to popular songs or reading romance novels, you will have the notion that love is some mysterious feeling that comes over you kind of like the flu, and when it goes away, there's not much you can do about it. But, you will not obey God by loving your wife as you should. I've hammered out the following definition of "agape":

Love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved.

This is what God requires of us in all our relationships, both toward Him and toward others (the two great commandments, Matt. 22:37-39). But it is particularly the primary job description for Christian husbands toward their wives. Let's explore it:

A. Love is self-sacrificing.

"Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (5:25). He is both our standard and model. He didn't sit on His throne in heaven and bark commands to us on earth. He didn't even come to this earth and sit on a kingly throne and give orders to us. At a personal cost that we can never fully fathom, He laid aside His rights as God, took on human flesh and became obedient to death on the cross, where He actually was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21)! "Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me!" (Charles Wesley). Jesus' love is seen most graphically in His self-sacrifice for us on the cross.

A husband may say, "I'd die for my wife if it ever came down to it. I'd fight to the death in order to protect her." That's marvelous, and I hope you would! But the real question is, "Are you crucifying self on a daily basis on behalf of your wife?" Jesus said, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). At the heart of Christian living is not using other people to meet your needs, but setting aside your needs and selfish desires in order to meet others' needs for Jesus' sake.

I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his excellent exposition of this text (he spends over 100 pages on these verses!), who says, "The real cause of failure, ultimately, in marriage is always self, and the various manifestations of self." He goes on to say that self is at the root of all problems in this world, not only individually, but on a national and international level: "--all these troubles ultimately come back to self, to 'my rights', to 'what I want', and to 'who is he'? or 'who is she'? Self, with its horrid manifestations, always leads to trouble, because if two 'selfs' come into opposition there is bound to be a clash.... Therefore," he states, "any tendency to assert self at once conflicts with the fundamental conception of marriage." (Life in the Spirit [Baker], pp. 211, 212.)

Yes, the wife must also practice self-sacrificing love toward her husband, since all Christians must love one another. But, the apostle's special command to husbands is that we love our wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church. The marriage relationship is supposed to be an earthly portrait of the believer's relationship with his Lord (which is a major reason why egalitarianism is dead wrong). But many husbands know nothing in daily practice about laying aside their rights, their comfort, their pleasures, their pursuits, their time, for the sake of their wives. If you are using your wife simply to meet your needs, if you don't regard her needs above your own, if you are demanding your own way in the home, you aren't loving her sacrificially.

Let me put it in even more concrete terms: If when you come home from work, your attitude is, "I've worked hard all day; I deserve some time off. Don't bug me, family!" you don't love your wife and children as God calls you to do. Instead, as you drive home, you should be thanking God for the wonderful wife and children He has entrusted to you, and be praying for them and thinking about how God wants you to minister to them. If your wife brings you your slippers and the paper and says, "Enjoy yourself," that's fine. But if the kids are going berserk, the phone is ringing, the dishes are piled up in the sink, and the trash needs taking out, you may need to set aside your right to some relaxation and serve your wife out of love.

B. Love is caring.

Paul says that just as a man nourishes and cherishes his own body, so he should treat his wife (5:29), because that's how Christ treats the church and because the wife in fact is a part of the husband's body. Again, our relationship with Christ is the great model for Christian marriage. Just as Christ gave Himself to meet our need for salvation, and just as He constantly supplies our every need (Phil. 4:19), so the husband must seek to meet his wife's needs.

"Nourish" means to feed. Every man feeds his own body (some feed it too much!). Just as we all think about and take action to feed ourselves when we're hungry, so every husband should think about and take action to feed his wife on every level--physically, through adequate (not excessive) material provision; emotionally, through being sensitive to her feelings; and, spiritually, through his own walk with God and by taking the lead spiritually in the home.

"Cherish" has the nuance of warmth. It is used of a mother tenderly holding her baby close to her body (1 Thess. 2:7). It connotes the utmost in tender loving care. The callous words, "I couldn't care less" should never cross a husband's lips. When part of your body gets hurt, you don't ignore it or cut it off. You tenderly nurse it back to health. Even so, when your wife, who is part of you, is hurt or needy, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, you should tenderly care for her. "Nourish" and "cherish" are the opposite of self-centered indifference.

C. Love is a commitment.

This is implied in the fact that it can be commanded--it is an act of the will, not just the emotions. It's also implied in the fact that it involves the definite action of leaving father and mother and permanently cleaving to his wife, so that the two become one flesh. We need to understand several things about this commitment:

(1) It is a realistic commitment. That is, a man should not enter marriage thinking that this perfect person is going to meet all his needs. Just as Christ knew us, including all our imperfections and sin, and yet gave Himself so that we might become His bride, so a husband should realize that his wife is not perfect, but he's committed to love her anyway. True love is not conditioned on your wife's always being sweet and kind, or always looking like a magazine model. In fact, the time love is most needed and tested is when your wife isn't altogether lovely!

(2) It is a growing commitment. That is, you must work at it and nurture it as the years go by. It doesn't run on auto-pilot. It requires thought and attention. It often must be done when you don't feel like doing it.

(3) It is a total commitment. You don't hold anything back. This commitment ends independence and creates a new single one-flesh entity. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out (p. 212), a husband will not feel this one-flesh reality instinctively; he must be taught it, and then he must learn to practice it. It means that the husband is no longer to think only of himself. He must include his wife in all his thinking and plans. He doesn't just come home and announce that he and his buddies are going to do something, without talking it over with her. By being joined with a wife, a husband is committing himself to spend time with her, not because he is obligated to, but because he wants to. It means sharing yourself totally, your thoughts, your dreams, your fears, your struggles, your victories.

Of course, such a total, one-flesh commitment can't be practiced if a couple never spends time talking, not just about deep things, but also about the little things that make up each day. Someone observed, "Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years." Christian marriage is both the "chain" of permanent commitment, made at the wedding and constantly reaffirmed; and the little threads of much time together over the years. Husbands, if you just do your own thing, and don't spend time with your wife, you're not loving her as you should.

D. Love shows itself.

By this I mean, love isn't just an attitude or talk; love takes action. Jesus didn't just say, "I love you"; He took the basin and towel and showed love by washing the disciples' dirty feet. And then He went to the cross to demonstrate it. Jesus took the initiative in loving us. He didn't wait for our response nor did He limit His love because we don't respond as fully as we should. He proved His love in that while we were yet sinners, He died for us.

Even so, husbands are to be the initiators of love toward their wives. I'm not referring to the physical aspect of love only, but to the total kind of loving I've been describing. Even when your wife isn't acting in a lovely way, take the initiative to act in self-sacrificing love toward her. It will drive her crazy! Seriously, it will cause her to have fewer times like that.

E. Love seeks the highest good of the one loved.

This means that it is not effortless ecstasy. It is deliberate, purposeful, and requires constant effort. Just as Christ's goal for His bride is to sanctify her, to purify her, to present her without spot or wrinkle, holy and blameless, even so a husband should be committed to helping his wife become all that God wants her to be. Occasionally this kind of love requires loving confrontation. But the overall flavor of it should be upbuilding, encouraging, positive, purifying words and actions.

Seeking your wife's highest good means that there is no place for verbal or physical abuse in marriage. No verbal abuse means no name-calling, no sarcasm, no jokes that put her down, no angry threats. She is a part of you, and any hurt you inflict on her you are really doing to yourself. Verse 29, by the way, isn't encouraging self-love, but rather using the fact that we all do love ourselves to say, "That's how we should love our wives."

Conclusion:  Husbands, your job description, your main responsibility that you ought constantly to be measuring yourself against, is to love your wife just as Christ loved the church. Such love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself by seeking your wife's highest good. While you'll never fulfill that command completely, you must exert constant effort to do it, not just so that you and your wife will be happy, but because your marriage has much to do with Christ and the church (5:32). The world needs desperately to see Christ's sacrificial love for the church through your love for your wife. The head of the home should be the leader in love.
EPH. 5:22-33 Commentary - JW

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) - Preface to vv. 22ff

"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

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.

Headship (kephalē)

"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:

  1. 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.
  2. Source, Creator (Colossians 1:16). We derive our idea of "headwaters" from this concept.
  3. Sustainer (Ephesians 4:16; 1:23; Colossians 1:17; 2:19).
  4. Source of Growth (Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 2:19)
  5. First in Rank (Colossians 1:18)
  6. Ruler (Ephesians 1:20-22; Colossians 1:10). Our "headmaster" carries this idea.4

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? 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.