Ephesians 5:33, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
Today, government officials and even the general populace want to make marriage flexible enough to incorporate nearly any kind of relationship. Christians must maintain firmly that marriage has a divinely, determined purpose. It is called holy matrimony for a reason: the Lord has set apart the one man-one woman marital bond as a one-flesh relationship to communicate spiritual realities. These realities include God’s deep love for His people, the exclusivity of the Christ, the church as the ordinary arena of salvation, and the faithful devotion that the covenant community owes its covenant Lord (Gen. 2:24; Hos. 2:14–23; Eph. 5:31–32). Far from being a changeable cultural phenomenon, marriage is the means by which the created order depicts the relationship between Jesus and His church.
Unlawful divorce, adultery, spousal abuse, and neglect are so evil because of marriage’s revelatory purpose. Each of these violations, in their own way, convey untruths about God’s relation to His people, especially when they occur in Christian marriages. Adultery or abuse on the part of a husband who is a professing Christian conveys that Christ is unfaithful to His own and has so little regard for His bride that He is willing to injure her. Wives who profess faith in Jesus and commit adultery, disrespect their husbands or abuse them tell creation that Christ can be spat upon with impunity. Unlawful divorces between those who claim the name of the Savior depict the Christ-church relationship as frivolous and inconsequential. God forbid that any of us should tell such lies to the world through any of these actions.
God’s call for husbands to love their wives and for wives to respect their husbands is not an exhortation to naivete, to put up with impenitent abusers, or to pretend that no marital problems will ever arise between two sinners who, by the Lord’s grace, endeavor to fulfill His will for matrimony. Instead, it is a call for two people to set aside their own preferences in the interest of living before the face of God in such a way that shows the world why the Christ-church bond is the most beautiful relationship in all creation. And it is a call for churches to do everything in their power to teach us how to fulfill our respective marital roles as well as to intervene when gross violations of the marriage covenant occur among us.
Dr. R.C. Sproul offers some thoughtful comments in considering Paul’s teaching on the roles of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22–33: “If I exercise my headship over my wife in a tyrannical way, I am not respecting my wife. If my wife gives slavish obedience to me without any love, she is not respecting me. The whole basis of the relationship is built upon love, cherishing and respecting one another.”
Paul’s careful choice of words indicates that he knows the importance of a wife’s regard for her husband. The translators of the New International Version tiptoed gently past our modern sensibilities when they used the phrase “the wife must respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33). The word translated “respect” is actually of the same origin as the word Paul uses to say we must “reverence” Christ in the verse that opened this discussion of Christian submission (Eph. 5:21). In both places, the word communicates the idea of holy awe.
We readily understand how and why we are to “reverence” Christ, but why would Paul say that a wife should “reverence” her husband? One likely reason is that the husband, as the spiritual head of the home, is the one who must give account to God for the spiritual nurture of the family. Much as an Olympian’s parents can be almost awestruck by their own child who will perform before millions under the scrutiny of human judges, so wives who see with spiritual eyes may perceive the glory of the responsibility the Judge of the universe assigns to husbands who must stand before the hosts of heaven to give an account for their families.
Still, a more certain reason that Paul uses this term is that it points a wife back to the source of her esteem for her husband. The word “reverence” in these final words of instruction must have been intended to echo the apostle’s opening words that root all aspects of submission in Christ’s purposes (Eph. 5:21). The effect is to encourage wives in this way: “Your relationship for your husband finds its source not in who he is, or what he does, or how deserving he is. The relationship to which God calls you has its source in your relationship with the Savior. The desire for fulfilling your responsibility must be rooted in the desire you have to please God.”
This divine-source motivation is more evident when we consider the structure of this entire chapter. This startling imperative for “holy awe” addressed to wives at the end of this passage is actually the bloom of thoughts planted at its beginning: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1–2). The confidence and joy we take from the Lord’s love is the strength and motive for our own. Wives are to reverence their husbands (and husbands are to give themselves for their wives) out of reverence for what Christ has done for us. Ultimately each of us is to be continuing Christ’s sacrificial work in each other out of love for him. Just as Jesus’ sacrifice was a fragrance of love that pleased God, so our ultimate desire to fulfill our marital responsibility comes from the knowledge that it, too, brings pleasure to the God of grace.