The Christian life is a life of worship. It’s a life focused on God and lived for the glory of God in Christ. Therefore, Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:18-21 not to be drunk with wine but rather to be filled with the Spirit who will teach us to speak in the words of Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, to sing and make melody to the Lord in our hearts, to give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of Jesus, and to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is the Christian life and it is a life of worship.
Further, the Lord has designed this general way of life to be expressed in specific ways in various contexts, the first of which is marriage. And while the Lord does call wives and husbands to specific things, it’s of paramount importance that we not miss the point: each of us is given a part play for the glory of Christ and the joy of our souls. Indeed, as Paul writes at the end of this section, “This mystery [of marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). In other words, ultimately marriage is not about itself but about the glory of what God has accomplished in Christ.
Wow! This truth ought to elevate our vision of marriage and it ought to give shape to everything we hear Paul say in Ephesians 5:22-33. So let’s keep this truth close to our hearts and begin where Paul begins.
Wives, Submit to Your Own Husbands
“Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife ever 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” (Ephesians 5:22-24). These are strong but important words, so wives, let me point out four things about them.
First, the Greek word here for “submit” means “to subordinate or subject one thing or person to another.” This word does not mean, or even imply, that the person who’s submitting is inferior in mind, spirit, talent, or capacities, or that they are inferior before Christ. However, it does mean that the person who’s submitting has a subordinate role to play for the glory of Christ. So the principle is this: wives and husbands are equal in being but distinct in roles. And the wife gets the privilege of playing the role of the church as the church relates to Christ.
Second, please notice that Paul commands wives to submit to their “own husbands.” This implies that the Bible is not calling all women to submit to all men but that it’s calling each particular married woman to submit to her own husband. Women, you should clothe yourselves with humility towards all men, even as men should clothe themselves with humility towards all women, but you are not called to submit to all men.
Third, the reason wives must submit to their own husbands is because the Lord has vested a great deal of authority into the husbands. This is why Paul uses such strong language in verse 22 when he that wives must submit to their own husbands “as to the Lord”—as to the Lord. It just doesn’t get any more serious than that. Now, that clause doesn’t mean “submit to your own husbands as if they are the Lord.” No man is the Lord, and no man should be looked to or followed as if he is the Lord. That’s how cults start. That’s how abusive relationships develop. But what that clause does mean is “submit to your own husbands in the same way you would submit to the Lord.” And how would you do that? Ideally speaking, you would do it with humility and respect, with a willing heart, with a positive attitude, with thankfulness, and without grumbling or complaining.
Paul continues in verse 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.” The Greek word here for “head” most often refers a literal head on a body but it can also be used metaphorically to mean “one superior in rank.” This is what it means in Ephesians 5:23. Even as Christ is superior in rank to the church, the husband is superior in rank to the wife. This doesn’t mean that he’s actually superior to his wife, rather, it means that he has a role to play within the marriage and so does she. Please remember the principle: equal in being, distinct in roles.
One more way we can see the extent of the authority God has vested in husbands is by the words “in everything” in verse 24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” The words “in everything” imply that wives are to submit to their husbands in every sphere and circumstance of life. The husband’s authority is not restricted only to spiritual matters but it extends to all matters of life. Such is the headship that God has granted to and requires of all husbands.
Fourth, when Paul says in verse 22 that wives are to submit to their own husbands, he writes the verb in such a way as to mean “willingly submit yourself,” and the reason he does so is because he longs for wives to imitate Christ as well as the church. He longs for wives to take the initiative and humble themselves before their husbands as Christ did before his Father.
One implication of this is that husbands are not allowed to force their wives into submission by any means. They’re not allowed to use physical force or demeaning language. They’re not allowed to use verses of the Bible in a manipulative or coercive way. Rather, they’re to love their wives as Christ does the church and pray for her and do whatever they can to help her submit out of reverence for Christ. The submission of the wife must come from her heart, and it must be offered out of reverence and love and trust for Jesus Christ. This is God’s vision of submission.
Wives, you are essentially being called to submit to Jesus and glorify him in your marriage. You’re being called to trust in his wisdom and purposes and then willingly obey him. You may not see all the reasons why he’s calling you to submit to your husband, and you may not like the fact that he’s calling you to do so. But just remember that Jesus knows better than you, he’s wiser than you, and he has a vision for why he’s calling you to do what he’s calling you to do. So trust him and learn to willingly submit yourself to your own husband.
Husbands, Love your Wives
With this, Paul now turns his attention to husbands. He has much to say but the heart of it all is this: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (5:25). Now, we need to make sure we understand the word here for “love” because there’s much confusion about it in our culture. In the Greek language, there are four words for “love”: stergo, eros, philos, and agape. Stergo simply means “love” in a general sense. It’s never used in the Bible but it was often used in everyday Greek. Eros means to have a passionate love for someone that’s often, though not always, expressed by physical intimacy. We get our word “erotic” from this word so that will give you some idea of its meaning.
Philos means to have a fond affection for someone or to like them. You’ve probably heard it said that philos refers to “friendship love,” and there’s some truth to that, but this word is used to refer to things like Jesus’ love for his disciples and the Father’s love for Jesus, so certainly it’s more than just friendship. The fourth Greek word for love, agape, sort of builds on phios, which is to say, it’s not essentially different from philos but it adds something to it. Agape means to be favorable toward a person, to sincerely appreciate a person, to highly regard a person, and to be loyal to a person. So what agape adds to philos is the explicit sense of loyalty and dedication, and therefore it is by all accounts the highest form of love in the Greek mind.
When Paul says that husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church, he uses the word agape in both instances. Husbands are being called to love their wives with the highest form of love, namely, with the same fond affection and unquestionable loyalty with which Christ loved the church. Please ponder that.
Key to the way Christ loved the church was by laying down his life for her (5:25). Out of love for his Father and for the nations of the world, Christ willingly and gladly took up his cross and made the once-for-all sacrifice for sin so that whoever believes would have life in him. Christ laid down his life that all who believe would be reconciled to God and holy in his sight. In other words, Jesus used his position and power for the glory of God and the ultimate good of others.
Husbands, this is the way you are called to love your wives. You are called to imitate your Savior by sacrificing yourselves for your wives even as he did for the church. When you get this right, when you put the Lord your God first above all things including your wife, fond affection for and intense loyalty to your wife will naturally and incrementally increase. And I promise you that when you love her in this way—when your love for her is fundamentally an act of worship to Jesus—your wife will submit to your leadership without objection and with much joy.
So, brothers, let us draw near to our Father and imitate him as beloved children (5:1). Let us “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:2). Our Father has issued a hard calling to our wives, but we can make it seem easy to them, by the way, we pursue God and give ourselves up for them.
Marriage is about the Glory of Christ
As you ponder the various details of Ephesians 5:22-33, please don’t lose sight of the point. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). In other words, ultimately marriage is not about itself but about the glory of what God has accomplished in Christ. Marriage is a visible display of the gospel for all the world to see, so let us fix our eyes on Christ, bow before him in worship, and play our respective roles in marriage for the glory of his name and the joy of our souls.