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The gospel and marriage part 1: Wives (Ephesians 5:22–24)

Reading Time: 15 minutes



Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

The Bible, marriage, love, and submission: most people have an opinion about it, but for many different reasons. Some see the idea of love and submission as key to happiness and fulfilment in marriage. Others regard any thought of gender-based differences in marriage—let alone the idea of submission—as unjust, oppressive, and harmful. Still others today are even questioning the basic assumptions behind the idea of “husband” and “wife”: why not marriage between two people of the same gender, or three people, and why even assume gender is fixed? Plenty of others just want to know the details of how to live out the Bible’s teaching in the practical realities of married life. Issues like these—and many besides—can easily be at the forefront of our minds when we approach a passage such as Ephesians 5:22–24.

In this short post, I can’t even begin to address all these issues. But I do want to say something here that’s fundamental to all the issues—something that is very often neglected in these discussions, but is vital to remember. This passage in Ephesians must be read in light of what Paul has already said in his letter about the gospel of Jesus Christ—and if it isn’t, it will be completely misunderstood.

Paul’s discussion about marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33 doesn’t appear as a self-contained piece of marriage advice. As he writes about marriage here, Paul is clearly, deliberately, and carefully referring back to things he has already said in previous parts of his letter. His key point is that the way a wife relates to her husband, and vice-versa, must be informed and transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel he has carefully laid out and applied in great detail in his letter so far. So when he talks about marriage here, Paul is not simply repeating or conceding or endorsing social norms from the first century. Nor, on the other hand, is Paul acting as some kind of modern-day hero of egalitarian identity politics, overturning social norms for the sake of social justice. Rather, we need to read what Paul is saying here in light of what Paul has said about the gospel. Paul here is consistently, deeply, and profoundly applying the extraordinary gospel of Jesus Christ to the real, human, on-the-ground circumstances of marriage between a man and a woman. I’ll say it again: we mustsee the profound gospel heart of this passage. If we don’t, we’ll end up with all sorts of misunderstandings—with serious consequences for our relationships and our lives.

In Ephesians 5:22–33, Paul addresses wives first, then husbands. In this post, we will look at what he says to wives (verses 22–24), though this is relevant to husbands as well. In the next post, we will look at what he says to husbands (verses 25–33).

Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, because a husband is head of his wife as also Christ is head of the church: he himself is saviour of the body. But as the church submits to Christ, in this way also wives are to submit to their husbands, in everything.

Ephesians 5:22–24
Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

Submission: What’s Paul actually talking about?

Part of the problem we have when we approach this passage is that we bring a lot of cultural baggage to it. Because of the world we live in, when we hear this word “submit”, we can easily assume Paul is talking in terms we’re familiar with, like corporate authority structures. That’s because in our world, we really care about power, authority, decision making, who has control, who gives the orders, and who calls the shots. So we can easily take Paul’s words here and jump quickly to the conclusion that Paul is talking about marriage in terms of falling into line with decisions from a corporate controller or following orders from on high. But if we think that way, it leads to real problems. Let me show you how that plays out a little.

On the one hand, for those in unhealthy and damaging marriages, this kind of thinking makes the damage even worse. That’s because if you think about your marriage primarily in terms of control and corporate decision-making authority, then the instruction “Wives, submit to your own husbands” sounds like a licence to turn the marriage into an unequal power arrangement rather than a loving partnership. It seems to give husbands a licence to control and dominate. This wrong thinking can lead husbands to ask the terribly sinful and unbiblical question: “How can I make my wife submit to me?” In reaction, wives can end up either suffering silently, or seeking subtly or unsubtly to subvert and undermine the control, and the marriage becomes an unhappy power struggle.

On the other hand, for those in good marriages, if you think about submission simply in terms of power and control and decision-making, this passage doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to your daily life. While married life does involve making decisions, decision-making authority is nowhere at the core of what marriage is really all about. Marriage isn’t a business. At the core of a good marriage is care and mutual respect between two people who profoundly love each other as equals, who want what’s best for the other, and who aim to make decisions by mutual consent. Perhaps, every so often, there’s an unresolvable disagreement where somebody has to make a final decision. But that’s very rare, and generally to be avoided. So if you’re in a good marriage like this, and you think the word “submit” is about corporate control and following orders from on high, you’ll probably just conclude that this passage is irrelevant to your situation most of the time, and move on.

But for Paul, this passage is far more significant than this—and Paul is talking here about good marriages. The problem isn’t what Paul is saying; the problem is our assumptions about what he’s saying. That’s why we need to go back to the gospel of Jesus Christ—the gospel that Paul has carefully set out in detail already in his letter, and which he specifically calls his readers to remember as he talks about the relationship between a husband and wife. The more clearly we understand the gospel, the more clearly we will see what Paul is saying here to wives (and in the following verses, to husbands).

The context: submitting to one another

Firstly, let’s go back one verse. What Paul says about submission in marriage here (Ephesians 5:22) is part of a wider teaching: “Submit to one another through respect for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). I’ve written about this in the previous post in this series. As members of the body of Christ, we will all find ourselves in various kinds of ordered relationships. Within those different ordered relationships, we should submit to one another. Because believers in Christ share a fundamental equality in Christ, submission is for all of us, in many different ways and circumstances.

One kind of ordered relationship we may find ourselves in is that of husband and wife. This relationship has one particular kind of order and one particular kind of submission—which are not exactly the same as other kinds of order and submission. So this passage in Ephesians 5:22–24 is about one particular way in which order and submission should play out in our lives as we live in the body of Christ. Nevertheless, the husband and wife relationship is a special example of order and submission. That’s because it reflects the relationship between Christ and the church in a special way. For that reason, Paul spends time talking about it specifically here. And whether we’re married or not, this passage is relevant to all of us, as we seek to honour marriages—ours or those of others—as relationships that reflect the relationship between Christ and the church.

Christ: The head of the body

So what kind of order and submission is Paul talking about when it comes to the special relationship between a husband and a wife? To answer this question, we need to look very carefully at the way Paul describes the nature of the marriage relationship:

because a husband is head of his wife as also Christ is head of the church: he himself is saviour of the body.

Ephesians 5:23

Here, Paul is clearly and deliberately referring back to what he has said previously about Christ and the church, particularly in Ephesians 1:22–23. So the only way to understand what Paul is talking about here is to come to grips with what Paul has said earlier:

And God subjected everything under Christ’s feet, and he gave him, the head over all things, to the church, which is his body, the fulfilment of the one who is being fulfilled in all things in every way.

Ephesians 1:22–23

There are several important things that Paul has already said in Ephesians 1. Firstly, Christ is head over “all things”. Secondly, Christ is given to the church. Thirdly, the church is the fulfilment of Christ. In other words, Christ is for the church, and the church is for Christ. This is clearly an ordered relationship: you can’t swap Christ and the church in this relationship. But at the same time, there is a real mutuality in this relationship—Christ and the church, like head and body, are for each other.

Notice that in Ephesians 1:22–23 there are two different ways in which Christ is described as being the “head”. Firstly, Christ is head “over” all things—this clearly has the idea of power and authority and rule (for more on this, see Ephesians 1:21). But secondly, Christ is also head “of” the body, the church. So while Christ has dominion over everything as “head” over the world, he has a different and special relationship as “head” of the church, his body, which God has given to Christ as his “fulfilment”. The image of “head”, when combined with “body”, is not primarily an image of domination and subservience, but an image of giving and fulfilling, grace and response, with an active, mutual but non-reversible role for each.

What exactly does it mean that Christ was “given” to the church, his body? Paul spells it out further: Christ is the “saviour of the body”. Paul has described Christ’s “salvation” in many places in Ephesians (for example, Ephesians 2:1–10). Christ died for our sins, for our sake, out of his great love, to “save” us from sin and God’s judgment and make us holy and alive. In other words, Christ is our “saviour”, because he was willing to be given up for us. In fact, he gave himself up for us (see Ephesians 5:1–2).

The same pattern appears again in Ephesians 4:11–16. Here again, the relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship of giving and fulfilling: Christ gives gifts to the church, and the church fulfils its purpose and so Christ’s purpose. Through his Spirit, Christ gave various people and ministries in order to build and strengthen the church, his body (Ephesians 4:11–12). In turn, Christ’s body, the church, is to respond actively by “speaking the truth in love” so that “we might grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). The body grows and matures in response to the head who gives unity and direction to the body (Ephesians 4:16). In turn, this growth and maturity is “the fulfilment of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). In this way, the church as Christ’s body plays a fundamental role in fulfilling God’s plans for Christ, as head over all things in heaven and earth (see Ephesians 1:10 for more).

This is what it means for Christ to be “head of the church”. And it matters that we get this right. That is, we need to understand how Paul himself uses the word “head” in Ephesians, so we don’t import our own ideas (or the ideas of others) and so get it wrong. When it comes to Christ and the church, Paul in Ephesians doesn’t talk about Christ as “head” as if he’s the CEO of a company or a military organisation; nor for that matter (as some people suggest) does Paul talk about Christ as “head” as if he’s the “source” of a river. Rather, Christ is “head” of a body. This image describes an intimate and inseparable relationship, in which the head gives direction and life to the body and provides what it needs for its own good, and the body fulfils its purpose for sake of the head. Of course, there is a real order here: the head can’t be swapped with the body. Yet the order is not an order of domination or power struggles: the head exists for the sake of the body, provides direction for the body, and is in turn fulfilled by the body. The head is “given” to the body for its own sake, to enable it to live and grow. And the key way Christ showed himself to be head of the body is that he did something deeply sacrificial for the sake of the body: he gave himself up for the body, the church, and so is the “saviour” of the body.

Of course, the relationship between husband and wife isn’t exactly the same as the relationship between Christ and the church in every possible way. A husband is not the saviour of his wife as Christ is the saviour of the church. But there is an analogy. The fact that Christ gave himself for the sake of the church, as saviour, tells us something significant about the nature of the ordered relationship between a husband and a wife.

Fulfilling and submitting

But as the church submits to Christ, in this way also wives are to submit to their husbands, in everything.

Ephesians 5:24

What does it mean for a wife to submit to her husband, according to Paul? Submitting means voluntarily placing yourself within an ordered relationship. The relationship between Christ and the church is an ordered relationship. But when Paul talks about husbands and wives, he doesn’t focus on ideas of ruling and decision-making—as many other people in the ancient world did.[1] Rather, as we’ve seen, Paul describes the order in terms of the husband giving himself in love for the sake of the marriage relationship, and the wife responding to his giving and so fulfilling the relationship. It’s an order of love, and giving, and responding. This is not an absolute demarcation of roles: Paul isn’t saying that a wife should never love and give to her husband, or that a husband should never respond to his wife’s love and grace. But there’s an important initiative and responsibility for loving and giving that lies with the husband (more of that in the following post); and for the wife there is a special responsibility to respond to her husband’s initiative in loving and giving.

So what does that actually mean for us? If you have never been impacted by the wonder of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, then it probably won’t mean much to you at all. But if you have been gripped by the gospel of Christ, if you have received and responded to the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, if you have been saved from your sin and God’s wrath by Christ, and if you have responded with love and joy to what he has given you in his rich and glorious grace—then you should be able to see how much this impacts Christian marriages.

To submit in marriage is to value and honour your husband within that marriage relationship, and to actively seek to build up and fulfil the relationship. It is to respect and honour your husband’s initiative in loving and giving. It is to seek to build him up, not tear him down, in his service for the sake of the marriage. It is to support and respond to his initiative to give and love for your sake and the sake of the marriage. And it’s to do this “in everything”—that is, in each area of your marriage, responding and respecting and supporting his initiative of giving and loving for your sake.

How does this play out in specific circumstances? Actually, much of it has to do with attitude rather than specific roles. If you’re a wife, it will mean things like having a soft heart and a warmth towards whatever initiative your husband takes to give and serve and love you. This can be hard, because no man apart from Christ is perfect, and often we husbands get it very wrong. But even when he does get it wrong, it will mean working to respect his efforts to love and give, and a willingness to respond. It will mean seeking to avoid having contempt for him, or putting him down, or always seeing the bad side, or failing to trust him to give, or always assuming he’ll do a terrible job. So submission as a wife is not a passive thing, but an active thing. It has to do with building up, supporting, and honouring him as a lover and giver, even as you seek to express your needs and wants, express who you are, express your disagreement if you need to and put your own point of view too. This submission can and often does have a powerful effect on deepening and strengthening a marriage relationship.

Paul doesn’t give specific rules here about submission for every possible situation in life. That’s because the submission Paul is talking about isn’t fundamentally about following certain rules and taking on certain set roles—it’s about honouring the person himself and the relationship itself. In a blog post like this with a wide audience, it’s impossible to give specific advice and tips that will work in every individual readers’ circumstance. That’s why being part of church is so important: if you live as part of a church family, you will be able to see real life examples of marriages of people whose circumstances are similar to your own, and you should seek to learn from marriages that work.

And to be clear: submission in Ephesians 5 does not mean simply following your husband’s “orders” in every possible circumstance or in everything he tells you to do. The idea of “following orders” is simply not the fundamental point of this passage. In fact, there may be things a husband will tell you to do that you shouldn’t follow. Abuse, for example, is wrong. If you are in danger, you are not simply to stay and receive his abuse: this is not what submission means here. If you are affected by domestic abuse, I urge you to seek help, for example at 1800respect.org.au. If you are seeking to help people affected by domestic abuse, my own theological college (Moore College) has created a set of resources which provide a starting point in supporting victims.

Summary

So to conclude: this passage in Ephesians about Christian wives and submission must be read in light of what Paul has already said in his letter about the gospel of Jesus Christ. If not, the passage will be completely misunderstood. In general, the word “submit” when used of human beings involves voluntarily placing yourself in an ordered relationship. And for Paul in Ephesians, the marriage relationship has a particular kind of order, which is patterned on the special relationship between Christ and the church. Paul describes this order in terms of the husband giving himself in love for the sake of his relationship with his wife, and the wife responding to and respecting his initiative in giving and loving, so fulfilling and deepening the marriage relationship. In other words, it’s an order of love and giving and responding and fulfilling. This is what submission means in the context of marriage, according to Paul.

Of course, none of this will be perfect, because no man (other than Jesus) is perfect. Many men fall far short. But provided you understand what Paul means by submission, you don’t need to wait for the perfect man before you can do it. Of course, the more a husband is actually acting like Christ, as one who gives himself to his wife, as his body, in love, the better. That’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

For reflection

Have you been operating with a wrong idea of “submission” in marriage? Is there anything you need to repent of or change in the way you relate?

How do Paul’s words here about submission in marriage help you to live in your own marriage (or possible future marriage), or encourage the marriages of others you know?


[1] E.g. Aristotle describes the husband’s relationship to the wife using the word “rule” (Politics 3.1278b.38–39); Plutarch describes the husband’s relationship to the wife using the words “rule”, “decision” and “lead” (Advice to Bride and Groom 6, 8, 11, 33).

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This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

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