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Family Life

Husbands and Wives

Ephesians 5:15-33

Lesson audio

I know of no other subject in Christianity in which the church has more deluded itself in our time than the relationship of husband and wife. My own church (as of this writing) has abandoned even the complementarian theory for radical feminist egalitarianism – and submission is taught only as a footnote of how incredibly stupid Christians were for the first 1,950 years of Christianity. Here is the text in question.

Ephesians 5:21-33 NASB and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (22) Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (23) For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. (24) But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, (26) so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, (27) that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (28) So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; (29) for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, (30) because we are members of His body. (31) FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. (32) This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. (33) Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.


We must begin by laying out some principle differences between the Christian world view and the common humanist world view, which is largely accepted by our society.

Responsibility and authority

Have you ever been in the situation where your boss – the man who had the authority – made it clear to you that he retained the authority (check everything with the boss) but that you now had the responsibility? And who gets the blame for failure? That’s the world’s way of doing things: authority comes first, and delegates responsibility. This is supposed to “maintain control” – and usually has the side effect that the man in authority moans about his subordinates being unwilling to take the initiative. That’s the world’s way.

In the kingdom of God things are different. All authority in heaven and earth belong to Jesus Christ.[1] When he delegates responsibility, he gives authority with it. Note the method: He does not delegate authority, but responsibility – and the authority goes with that responsibility. How can this work? Because the leader in the kingdom is always a servant leader.[2]

The nature of submission

Say the word “submission” to an American woman and you get an image of a mousy brown hair style saying, “Yes, dear” over and over again. No spine, no dignity, no spirit – no life. This is a lie; it is not the nature of Christian submission. But see why this view doesn’t work:

  • It is degrading to the woman – it states that she is intrinsically worth less than the man.[3]
  • As a practical effect, it produces anger in a woman, not affection.
  • Diabolically worse, it provokes a woman to pride, the deadliest of sins. (Note, please, that the world considers pride a virtue. Therefore, the world’s way to fix this is pride leading to divorce.)

See, however, Christ’s view of submission. He Himself is in submission to the Father – and He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. So submission is not what the world claims it to be, evidently.

  • As Galatians 3:28 tells us, we are all one in Christ Jesus – therefore, the woman is not intrinsically worth less, nor should she be treated that way.
  • Humility is seen as a virtue – in both husband and wife. If pride stands in the way, it should be dealt with as the sin it is, in husband or wife.
  • The emphasis given here is not on man versus woman – it is on the oneness of man and woman in marriage. To ask the question, “is the man superior?” makes no sense in the oneness of marriage.

As we see at the beginning of the passage, we are commanded to mutual submission. That implies that each of us submits to the authority/responsibility given the other.

Stimulus response vs. working model

Several years ago I was involved in some work in artificial intelligence. To further this I attended a class for repairmen working with a particular device. Being a technical person, I asked the instructor to provide me with an outline of how the machine worked – a mental model. He promptly informed me that I didn’t need such a model. He knew that I was nothing more than a stimulus-response mechanism, and all he needed to do was train the appropriate responses.

I explained that I (and every other techie I’ve ever known) work off that inner, mental model. He explained that I only think that; really it’s just stimulus-response. Very frustrating![4]

The world’s view is that there is really no sense to the universe; everything is just the product of random evolution. Therefore, all you really can know is what stimulus brings what response. We see this in modern preaching; sermons give us five easy rules to remedy marriage – “If your wife is mad (stimulus), then bring her flowers and candy (response).” Think about it; has your preacher ever really made use of the model Paul gives us here?

That model is simple: marriage is a local working model of the relationship between Christ and his church. It is logical to ask, “How does Christ treat the church?” as a way of determining how a husband should treat his wife. We are to love our wives as Christ loves the church; it is therefore fair to ask, “Just how does Christ love the church?”


As Christ loved the church

Let’s begin with a quotation from an old saint:

Do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care for her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even though you undergo all this, you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way, then, as He honored her by putting at His feet one who turned her back on Him, who hated, rejected and disdained Him, as he accomplished this not with threats, or violence, or terror, or anything else like that, but through his untiring love; so also you should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one's partner for life, the mother of one's children, the source of one's every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience. What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

St. John Chrysostom, ~AD 400

I would bring to your attention three points:

1.    You, the husband, are responsible for the providential care of your wife. Christ provided for the church at the Cross – well before the church actually came into existence. It is care which anticipates a wife’s needs. It is care which does not need to be told what is needed; your care should exceed that.

2.    Christ “gave himself up” for the church. That same spirit of self-sacrifice should be central in your relationship with your wife. That is the servant leadership modeled by Christ at the Last Supper. You, therefore, should be most willing to sacrifice for her.

3.    But what about your authority? What about “headship?” Such authority is shown in action; consider, therefore, the methods by which you exercise your God-given authority. Christ never threatened, bludgeoned or shamed the church; can you say the same with your wife?


God does not give out authority without responsibility; such responsibility is in response to a purpose of God. So just why is it that God gave you such authority? Consider the purpose of Christ’s authority over the church:

·         To make her holy. Is it not clear from this, then, that one reason for your authority over your wife is her holiness? You are the priest of the family, the spiritual leader of the household.[5] Use your authority then to bring her closer to Christ.

·         To present her to himself without stain, wrinkle or blemish. Is the church perfect? No. Whose responsibility is it to deal with this problem? Jesus Christ. Is your wife perfect? Perhaps you are not happy with her face or figure. God causes all women to age; he gives you the responsibility of dealing with it.[6] Is it just possible that it’s not her body but your attitude that is the problem?[7] And if this is so with something so obvious as the body, perhaps we now know whose problem it is to deal with other defects.

·         To love her as your own body. The church is the body of Christ; your wife is your body; you are one flesh. The two of you are one. That’s how close your relationship is to be – and it’s also how intense your love for her must be. Christ died for the church; you should be willing to die for your wife. And if willing to die, what other service is too great for the woman you love?


Just how important is all this? Think of it this way: you left mom and dad to be with your wife. Your parents, who of all others in this world love you most; to whom you owe life itself, not to mention two decades of care and feeding, who should be most precious to you – you left them for some sweet young thing in skirts.[8] How precious, then, must she be to you – and how important this thing called marriage must be.

We may see it in the pictures of the Bible. From Adam’s rib came woman – much has been made of that, but may I point out the word “rib”? When the Scripture says that Christ’s side was pierced[9] the word translated “side” actually is the Greek word for rib. Out of that rib, by the blood of sacrifice and the water of baptism came the church. Christ died for the church; that’s how important the church is.

God has, therefore, painted on the living canvas of your bodies the picture of his perfect love for the church. Having given you the model, having drawn you the picture, He expects you to follow it. You need no “six simple rules for a happy marriage” if you will follow the greatest example the world has ever known.


Why should I obey?

Mention “submission” to the average Christian wife and she will inform you, in no uncertain terms, that the Bible never requires any such thing. Read the passage again.

Bewildering, isn’t it, ladies? Why is it that women of the church have such a problem with this?

·         First, we (not just the women) now think that our own experience tells us which part of the Scriptures we will accept and which we will not. We are, in effect, constructing our own religion out of bits and pieces we think applicable. (It’s the Oprah method.)

·         Second, women are concerned now with their “dignity.” Submission, they think, inherently makes them second class. (See the first section on this). But the principle is clear: all are one in Christ Jesus. If the man has authority it is because he has responsibility. You are in submission to policemen; does that make you second class? No; their authority is for your benefit. So it is with your husband. (And if he thinks to the contrary, you might submissively point out that your body is his – and his is yours. It’s called mutual submission).

·         Finally, for many years now we have preached from the pulpit that submission is no longer required. A common point is to look at verse 31 and say, “See, submission only means respect.” The word in the Greek translated here as respect is the one from which we get our word, phobia. It means fear. The word translated “submit” means just that. We have accepted the radical feminist view so long that preachers now think we’ve always thought that way. Just plain wrong.

Other reasons to obey

Why would God command women to do this?

·         It is a response to sin. In Genesis God imposes a woman’s submission to man as a response to the original sin. Look at it this way: women today often use sex as a weapon in marriage. By so doing they allow temptation into their husbands’ lives – and incidentally are committing prostitution at the same time.[10] Rather, shouldn’t a woman see the temptations a man has – and give him good reason to want to stay home instead?

·         So that no one maligns the word of God. Ask your neighbors; just how should a Christian wife behave? Should the word of God encourage strife in her marriage? They don’t think so; if you misuse it, are you not bringing the church into disrepute?[11]

·         To win the husband to Christ. I will not claim this is easy, nor that it is always successful. But many a husband will hear no argument from his wife – but an example cannot be argued with. If your conduct is such that the only explanation must be the love of Christ – directed at him – then he may hear Christ through you.

Submission is simply the right response to righteous authority. Women, yield yourselves to your husbands, not grudgingly but cheerfully. Consider what Paul told us about submission to other authorities:

Hebrews 13:17 NASB Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

If you are to submit to your leaders so that their task would be a joy, how much more submissive should you be towards your own flesh, your husband?


I once exchanged a series of mail notes with a woman having marital difficulties – particularly with regard to submission. In the course of time I explained to her that authority is exercised by tyrants and princes. Tyrants have authority, and exercise it for their own benefit. Princes have authority – but exercise it for the benefit of those in submission to them. (Remember when our leaders were called “public servants?”) I ended by telling her that Christ is the Prince of Peace, who exercises his authority for the benefit of those who belong to him. Her husband, I said, should follow this example. He had at one time been very attentive to her, but later cooled. After I sent off my explanation of this to her, I received a one line reply:

“I want my prince back”

Gentlemen, take heed. The king of kings knows your ways – and has set you the example.

[1] Matthew 28:18

[2] John 13:3-15

[3] See Galatians 3:28 for the obvious counterexample.

[4] By the way, artificial intelligence works on that mental model as well.

[5] If you think not, I propose the following test: Count the number of women in your congregation who are “single on Sunday” – attending without their husbands. Then count the number of men like that – if you can find any.

[6] See Proverbs 5:18-19

[7] Sadly, the church proclaims a different view. A minister in our church once told me that if his wife ever lost her face or figure, she was “down on her knees begging for a divorce.”

[8] Me too.

[9] John 19:34

[10] Think not? “No sex unless you take out the garbage.” Sounds like an exchange of consideration to me.

[11] Titus 2:5

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