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Wives and Husbands (5:21-33)

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While instructing the followers of Christ how to live, the Apostle Paul writes in his inspired letter to the Ephesians that they should be filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Among the characteristics of a Spirit-filled life are speaking to one another in song, singing to God from the heart and being thankful for everything. He gives a fourth characteristic when he writes in chapter 5, verse 21, “subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ.”

Before considering some specific examples of how to apply this command, it is necessary to first clear up a misunderstanding. This translation uses the words “the fear of Christ.” This is, indeed, the literal meaning of what Paul wrote. But this raises a problem. Throughout this letter Paul has emphasized God and Christ’s love and the love which Christ’s followers ought to have for God and one another. For example, in verses 1 and 2 of this same chapter he wrote, “Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children. Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you...” In light of this, how can Paul now say that we should fear Christ? As the Apostle John tells us, “...He who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) The solution to this difficulty comes when we realize that the word which Paul uses has more than one meaning. In addition to fear it also carries the connotation of reverence and respect. This is the sense in which Paul uses it in this passage.

With that in mind, let’s consider the first practical example Paul gives when he instructs the followers of Christ to submit to one another. In verses 22 through 24 he writes, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the assembly [that is, the Church], being himself the savior of the body. But as the assembly is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their own husbands in everything.”

It is unfortunate that some have used these verses as a club in order to compel obedience from their wives. To do so, however, is a total mis-use of Scripture and is against the spirit of Christianity. Notice that these verses are written to wives, not to husbands. Wives are to submit voluntarily. Nowhere does Scripture permit or sanction coercion on the part of a husband.

The reason wives should submit or yield to their husbands is that the husband is the head of the wife. As an analogy of this relationship Paul mentions the authority of Christ over the church. Just as the church should always be in submission to Christ, so too, wives should always defer to their husbands ‘in everything.’ Does this mean that a wife should submit even when her husband wants her to do something which is against God’s will? It is important to remember that Paul is writing to believers. The assumption in this passage is that both husband and wife are followers of Christ. One who is submitted to Christ will never desire another to do anything which is contrary to God’s will. As we shall see, Paul also writes that husbands should love their wives in the same way that Christ loves the church. Where there is perfect submission to perfect love nothing will ever violate God’s will.

In verses 25 through 33 Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the assembly [that is, the Church], and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the assembly to himself gloriously, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord also does the assembly; because we are members of his body, of his flesh and bones. “For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will be joined to his wife. The two will become one flesh.” This mystery is great, but I speak concerning Christ and of the assembly. Nevertheless each of you must also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Much could be said about this passage but we will only take time to mention a few of the highlights. The first thing to notice is that husbands are instructed to love their wives in the same way as Christ loves the church. This love gives of itself. There is no selfishness in it. People often claim to have love yet, instead of giving of themselves, demand that their own desires be met. Love, if it involves the gratification of self, is not the kind of love a husband is to have for his wife. Instead, a husband must be willing to give himself up for his wife just as Christ died on behalf of the church. Can we honestly say that we love our wives like that?

What is the goal of love? Christ died in order to make the church glorious, holy, and without blemish. Christ-like love always looks out for the welfare of its object. A husband should always have in mind what is best for his wife. In this way he honors and elevates her.

Why should a husband love his wife in this way? If for no other reason, Paul has emphasized the need for all followers of Christ to become like their Lord. If we are to become like Christ, then we must also love as He did. But there is another reason as well. Paul quotes Genesis chapter 2, verse 24 to establish the fact that husband and wife are, in reality, one. They are not adversaries, but one organism. Jesus said, “...A house divided against itself falls.” (Luke 11:17) When a husband loves his wife as he should, the marriage as a whole benefits.

In this passage Paul has used marriage as a metaphor for Christ and the church. It is worth noting that Christ has cleansed the church, that is His followers, and made them holy “by the washing of water with the word.” (verse 26) There can be no question that this refers to baptism. There are many who contradict Paul’s inspired words and say that baptism is not necessary in order to be made holy. But in another place Scripture says, “Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4) There are many who profess to be followers of Christ yet still are burdened and oppressed by sin. Is it possible that they have never died with Christ in baptism so that they may rise from that watery grave into a new life?