In pre-marital counseling, you can almost see couples wince 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.” That phrase has bothered many modern Christians. Those are words that denominations have divided over. And they are words that have been misunderstood by most.
Recently we were studying Ephesians 5 in our connection group. We had a rich conversation about the passage that hinged on the two most important truths in the passage. Each of those truths is grossly neglected in contemporary conversations around Ephesians 5 and each deserves to be re-examined.
First: Paul argues in Ephesians 5 that marriage is a God-ordained drama that points to something bigger than us. Again and again 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.
By my count, Paul draws the line between wives and the church or the husband and Christ seven times in the passage. Before we get tied up in the details of how we are supposed to 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!
Yes, yes, if you have been a Christian for a while you already know that. But has it really sunk in? Before we bury ourselves in the actual 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.
Second: let’s not forget that this drama as it is lived out ought to remind us of one thing: how much God loves us and the intimate relationship he is calling us into. 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 the great love that Christ has for us and the intimate relationship he desires to have with us.
If you stand back from the passage and read it afresh it’s almost laughable that these two simple truths that are at the very heart of Paul’s admonition are missed. When we see the text afresh it ought to challenge us profoundly and encourage us greatly. In our marriages we live out a divine drama that points to the most profound truth ever told: God loves you and gave his Son that you could be in a relationship with him.