Ephesians 5:28–30, “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.”
For many people, the idea that wives should submit to their husbands is strange because we tend to conceptualize and practice authority and submission wrongly. Conceptually, we often associate authority and submission with superiority and inferiority, respectively. Our warped view of creation, colored by our fallenness and the world’s lies, often sees authority figures as inherently superior to those who submit to authority. Fallen culture demands that we view those who submit at the core of one’s being as inferior to others.
Wifely submission is also hard for many to bear because too many husbands mistreat their wives. How many of us know husbands who demand that their wives bow to their every whim and bark orders as if their wives were animals? Such behavior is evil and does not encourage true wifely submission. Paul does not tell husbands to order their wives to submit; instead, he exhorts wives directly, calling them to follow their husband’s lead (Eph. 5:22–24). Moreover, the apostle commands husbands to treat their wives as well as they treat themselves (Ephesians 5:28–30).
At least two applications follow necessarily from these truths. First, husbands who order their wives around like slaves completely miss what Scripture says about authority (Mark 10:42–44); they are serving themselves, not their families. Second, there is no need for husbands to ask godly wives to submit if they love them properly. What holy woman would not put herself under the authority of her husband if he loved her to the degree Christ loves His church?
Dr. John MacArthur writes, “A Christian husband is to care for his wife with the same devotion that he naturally manifests as he cares for himself (v. 29) — even more so, since his self-sacrificing love causes him to put her first” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,702). Christian husbands should not even think about why their wives might hesitate to submit until they love their wives in this way.
The exercise of biblical headship should enable a wife to know the fullness of God’s grace in her life. This redemptive purpose should be apparent in Paul’s description of Christ’s care for his bride, which the apostle calls Christian men to make the model of their husbanding.“As Christ [the authoritative Lord of the universe] loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, … in this same way, husbands ought to love their wives” (Eph. 5:25–28). I do not have the space to deal extensively with every word of this instruction. Still, Paul’s central point is clear: husbands should follow the example of Christ who gave of himself to glorify the church. The radiant beauty that God desired for his spiritual spouse, he purchased with the price of his own blood. Our Lord submitted his life to glorifying his bride.
In light of these words, we must not excuse that type of marital headship which, with the most selective and self-serving of biblical proof texts, ignores its biblical purposes and makes wives feel worthless, degraded, and incapable. The reason I know this is wrong is that Christ’s love, on which the husband’s love is supposed to be modeled, never makes me feel devalued or insignificant. Headship modeled on Christ’s redeeming work should instill in another the sense of divine value that God purposes for all his people. Headship that does not confirm this value is actually a form of robbery because it takes from a person some measure of the knowledge of grace that God intends for one to possess.
Robbing another of one’s sense of value sounds awful, yet it is extremely common. Whether such robbery is deliberate or not, it is almost always the result of an insecurity that compels us to establish our own sense of worth by exerting power or control over another. Some evil kind of math in us seems to reason that if we have managed to reduce another’s sense of worth, then our own value increases.
Ephesians 5:25–31 gives various hints of how husbands should build up their wives’ esteem and faith:
First, Paul says Jesus cleansed his bride by the washing with water through the Word. Though this is an obvious reference to baptism, the core idea—of communicating the cleansing forgiveness available in Christ Jesus through the Word—is that the Word of God is to be a present voice in our homes that consistently speaks of the reality of God’s provision for his people. Drawing on the Old Testament sacrificial vocabulary, Paul speaks of this provision in terms of sanctification (hagiazō, “make her holy”) that requires cleansing (Ex. 29:36–37; Lev. 8:15; 16:19; Heb. 9:13; 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:21). Sanctification is the act that renders those in the church holy (Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11), so that they can be called saints. There is a positional component to this vocabulary in Paul, and also the expectation that church members will grow progressively in sanctification as they live Christian lives (1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Tim. 2:21). Paul now indicates that it is the husband’s responsibility to aid his wife in sanctification by making sure that the Word of God is present in the home. Living and reading Scripture in the home, as well as making sure the family regularly worships where Scripture is honored, are ways that this expectation is fulfilled.
The mention of the “word” (rhēma) here is analogous to Ephesians 6:17 which refers to the “word of God” that is power against evil that threatens both the individual and the home (cf. the saving word of faith/Christ in Rom. 10:8, 17–18). Paul here uses rhēma as he might more often use logos (Eph. 1:13; Rom. 9:6; 13:9; 15:18; 1 Cor. 1:18; 14:36; 15:2, 54; etc.). Again the point is that using various means to ensure that wives and families have a regular diet of Scripture is a responsibility of men, the heads of households, and a key way we reassure our families of God’s goodness. Husbands who are aware of the importance the apostle places on Scripture for the blessing and protection of the home will take steps to ensure its witness without pressure from their spouses.
Secondly, Paul also says that husbands are to follow the example of Christ who made his bride (the church) “radiant to himself” (Eph. 5:27). The adjective endoxos here indicates “glorious, radiant” (Isa. 60:9); it is the opposite of being dishonored (1 Cor. 4:10). In biblical narratives this word can indicate both clothing and miracles (Luke 7:25 and 13:17 respectively) by which one’s glory is made apparent. Here in Ephesians 5:27 the physical metaphor is first extended (“without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” [the last literally “or some of such things”]), and it is then followed by the sacred analogy (“holy and blameless”). Earlier the church was chosen before the creation of the world to be “holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph. 1:4; cf. Col. 1:22). The ultimate “presenting” of the church in this glorious state refers to an eschatological act, as indicated in this context by the church’s perfection (“holy and blameless”;1 Cor. 11:2 and Col. 1:22, 28), and by the eschatological associations with the verb “to present” (see also 2 Cor. 4:14).
In all of this, Paul communicates Christ’s appreciation for the beauty of his bride. The obvious application is that husbands are to express their appreciation for the beauty (internally and externally) of their spouses. We must recognize that making wives question their beauty or encouraging them to be dowdy is one way that some husbands exercise control in their marriages. But this is contrary to Christ’s example. God intended us to be attractive to one another, and one way that we affirm his blessing, as well as build up one another, is by affirming our spouse. We diminish our wives and our marriages when we do not tell our wives of their beauty (external and internal) as part of our rejoicing in what God has provided.
Thirdly, verse 31 speaks of a husband’s willingness to make his union with his wife take precedence over other family relationships, even that of his own parents. Because counselors tell us that relationships with in-laws are one of the chief sources of tension in marriage, husbands should make it very clear that the concerns of a wife are valued over the concerns of the man’s parents. This does not mean that the man need not honor his parents, but it does mean his wife’s needs take a higher priority.
Fourthly, verse 29 speaks of feeding and caring for one’s wife as one does for one’s own body. The word “feed” can be translated as “nourish” (KJV) or “bring to maturity.” “Care for” can be translated as “cherish” (KJV) and means to nurture with tender care. These terms remind us that in order to love one’s spouse biblically, one’s physical resources should not be used selfishly. Money and goods are to be used for the nurture of others.
But none of these hints is more critical than the first words of verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives.” Nothing more communicates the grace of God to our spouses than our love of them. When a husband communicates Christlike, unconditional appreciation of his spouse, the nature of the grace of God informs and builds up the wife’s understanding of her preciousness.
I recognize that some reading these words about a husband’s headship having the purpose of glorifying his wife will feel that what I have just said is demeaning. Indeed, much of what is written in popular Christian literature about men “discipling their weak wives” and “tolerating their hormones” is demeaning and wrong. The notion that women are hopelessly needy creatures who will wilt without a man to build them up can perpetuate stereotypes destructive to our marriages. According to Scripture, neither men nor women (except those gifted for celibacy) will be all that God intends without their spouses. What this means is that biblical headship not only is designed for glorifying the wife, but it also has the redemptive purpose of sanctifying the husband.