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The gospel and marriage part 2: Husbands (Ephesians 5:25–33)

Reading Time: 13 minutes

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

Men, we have a problem. It’s a serious problem that we can’t ignore. It’s a problem in our world, and also a problem in our lives. In countless ways, great and small, intentional and unintentional, men dominate women.

But the problem can’t be isolated to one particular group of men, or one particular time in history. Recently, for example, the extent of the problem in the socially “progressive” US entertainment industry has been raised through the rise of the #metoo movement. The movement started by shining a spotlight on sexual assault and harassment in that one industry. But of course, as has become obvious, the problem is not new, nor is it isolated to American social progressives. It’s not just a problem for progressives: it’s a problem for conservatives, and it’s a problem for everyone in between, in every nation on the earth. It’s a problem for atheists and it’s a problem for religious types. And if you think you’re somehow immune from it—because you’ve got the right kind of ideology or the right kind of belief or belong to the right group of people—you’re deluded. It’s a problem for all of us.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from this problem. In fact, the existence of this problem is one of the fundamental teachings of the Bible. According to the Bible, we live in a sinful and broken world, in rebellion against God and subject to his judgment. The sin of this world affects all of us, including God’s people, and one significant way it affects us is in our relationships as men and women. As far back as Genesis 3, in the context of God’s judgment and curse on humanity, we read about the problem of men “ruling” women (Genesis 3:16). This is an old and universal problem, it continues down through history, and it affects us today as much as it always has.

What should we do about this problem? After all, just because we’ve identified a problem doesn’t mean we automatically know how to solve the problem, does it? Various solutions have been tried. Some believe the solution will happen through reforming structures and institutions. They say that if we can just ensure that the structures of society—business, politics, and indeed marriage itself—are revolutionised and then enforced so that men never have any more authority than women in any area, then we have the answer: men and women will get on, and men won’t dominate. So we try it. Sometimes it helps. But so often, tragically, it doesn’t work in the long term. In our world, men keep dominating women, no matter what rules we make or how desperately we tweak our ideology. So the collective anxiety levels increase, and we just tell each other we have to try harder. And on it goes.

Of course, it’s right to ask questions and pay attention to the social structures we live in. It’s right to ask if our institutions are somehow contributing to the problem. And there are serious cases of criminal abuse that need to be dealt with by the justice system. But we’re naïve if we think that revolutionising the structures is the ultimate solution that will fix all of us. The problem is, in fact, far more deeply rooted than that. Like all sin, the root of the problem is deep in our hearts (see Ephesians 2:1–2). And so we need something far more radical to fix it. The solution that Paul spells out in depth in his letter to the Ephesians all stems from the loving, sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sin. It involves God making us new people and giving us his Holy Spirit to transform us to live lives in and for Jesus Christ. It’s a transformation that will never be complete this side of Jesus’ return. But it’s real, and it does make a real difference. In this part of Ephesians (Ephesians 5:25–33) Paul shows how Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins works to transform that most intimate of human relationships: husbands and wives.

In this passage, men are never told to dominate their wives. In fact, Paul never even tells men to “rule” their wives. Rather, the key instructions Paul gives to men are this: to love their wives and to give themselves for their wives. Paul here describes a particular kind of loving and giving that is a special responsibility for the husband towards his wife. It’s what being a husband is all about. This loving and giving is all grounded in Christ’s own activity of loving and giving for the church. In fact, as we saw when we looked at Paul’s word to wives, what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians can’t be understood without the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. So here, on the basis of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul tells men that we must take the initiative to love and give ourselves for our wives. This is radical commitment and responsibility. It involves not just our actions, but our attitudes as well.

Christ’s love for the church

What is the first thing Paul does as he turns to address husbands? He reminds them of the gospel! More specifically, he goes into detail about the reason Christ loved and gave himself for the sake of the church:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her, to sanctify her by cleansing her, by the washing of water, through the word, to present the church to himself in splendour, having no stain or wrinkle or anything of the kind, but so that she might be holy and unblemished.

Ephesians 5:25–27

Here Paul is deliberately summarising the gospel he has already spelled out in detail. The various things Paul says here refer back to what he has already said in his letter about Christ’s actions for us, his church. For example, God has shown his incredible grace to us in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). God’s grace has a purpose: that we would be holy and blameless before him (Ephesians 1:4). God’s grace has come to us through his “word”: the word of the gospel which brings us salvation (Ephesians 1:13). As we come to believe in that word and receive salvation through Christ, we look forward in hope to that great day when we will see Christ in glory and be presented to him (Ephesians 1:14). Here in Ephesians 5:25–27, Paul echoes all these ideas from earlier in his letter. But he doesn’t just repeat himself. Rather, he takes the gospel and re-describes it in terms of marriage. He talks about the church like a bride being prepared for her wedding day, being washed and made splendid for the day she marries her bridegroom. Why does Paul talk about the gospel in this way? He does it to show that the truth of the gospel—especially what Christ has done for the church—is not just something that saves us from judgment (which, of course, it is). It’s also a pattern for how husbands are to treat their wives.

How, exactly, does Christ’s action for the church act as a pattern for husbands? What are the particular connections between what Christ did for the church and how a husband should treat his wife? There are two key words that Paul uses here to connect Christ’s actions with husbands: love and give. Firstly, husbands must “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church”. The word “love” doesn’t just mean feeling strong desires for someone, or affirming everything they do. Paul has already described God’s love (Ephesians 2:4–5) as a gracious, active, transforming love. This love is seen most clearly in Jesus’ act of “giving”: Christ “gave himself for” the church. Here, Paul is deliberately pointing his readers back to what he said a little earlier: “Christ also loved us and gave himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). While all believers should imitate Christ’s sacrificial love as we relate to one another—because we’re all members of Christ’s body (Ephesians 4:16) and so we’re all members of one another (Ephesians 4:25)— Paul’s point here is that this loving imitation of Christ applies in a particular way to the way a husband is to relate to his wife. The husband, in other words, has a special responsibility and initiative in loving and giving himself for his wife.

It’s very important to realise that Paul is not saying here that husbands must act like Christ towards their wives in every possible way. Husbands can’t die for the sins of their wives. Husbands can’t save their wives from God’s wrath. Husbands can’t sanctify their wives or make them holy. That is Jesus’ job, through his word and Spirit. Of course, it’s right for us to encourage our wives in all those things. But we can’t—and we mustn’t try to—take on God’s role in saving our wives. We’re not the Messiah in our marriage. That would be pushing the analogy much further than Paul takes it. Rather, we need to listen to the points that Paul actually brings out from the gospel here: just as Christ loved the church by giving himself purposefully for the sake of the church and to fulfil her purpose for him, so husbands are to love their wives by giving themselves purposefully for the good of their wives and the good of the marriage relationship.

So husbands, Paul is saying here that your ongoing, daily responsibility is to give yourself for your wife, to enable her to grow and flourish. This is for her good, and ultimately it is for your good as well. Furthermore, this responsibility to love and give isn’t simply about a one-off sacrificial act. It’s about seeing your whole life given over for her good, and acting that way each day. It’s about taking responsibility in loving and giving. But it’s not just about giving her things: gifts, or time, or kind words. Of course it’s right to give her things, but the giving Paul is talking about here is much more than that. It’s giving her yourself. That’s because you belong to her, and your task is to give yourself to her, day by day. That doesn’t mean smothering her or never leaving her alone. Rather, it means considering your life to be lived for her good rather than simply for yourself. So it will involve taking initiative to do things for the good of your relationship with her. And this is for your good too. I can testify that the more a marriage grows, and the more you give yourself to her, the more beautiful she becomes in your eyes, and the deeper and more intimate the marriage is.

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

Against misogyny

Paul then moves on to talk about the key challenge to husbands living this life of loving and giving. The challenge can, in fact, be summarised in one word: misogyny.

In this way husbands too must love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it—just as Christ also did for the church, because we are members of his body.

Ephesians 5:28–30

Paul is here, literally, ruling out misogyny in marriage. When I say this, I’m not saying that Paul is trying to address every issue associated with the modern word “misogyny”. Rather, Paul is ruling out what misogyny literally means: “hating the woman/wife”. Paul was originally writing in Greek, and he is using the actual Greek words that make up the modern word misogyny: miseō (“hate”) and gynē (“woman”/“wife”). He’s saying we must not “hate” our “wives”, but rather “love” them. And so we husbands have an obligation—we must—act against misogyny in our marriages. This involves two areas: our attitudes, and our actions.

Firstly, let’s think about our attitudes. The antidote to misogyny is an attitude involving positive and tender cherishing of our wives. This comes from thinking of our wife rightly—not as our property, not as our competitor, not as our convenient cohabiter, but as so intimately related to us that we treat her like our own body. It’s not that the husband’s and wife’s personalities merge into one—she is a distinct and valuable and equal human being in her own right. But if you are a husband, you are to have an attitude of cherishing her, in the same way you would rightly cherish your own self and your own body. You are to cherish her, not despise her. So you are to give yourself to her, because she must matter to you, profoundly. Marriage should never become a competition, where if she wins you lose, and vice-versa. Rather, marriage should be win-win. When you give yourself for her sake, then it is good for your relationship, and you both grow and flourish.

Of course, this attitude of loving and cherishing must also involve concrete actions of love. As you give yourself to your wife, you should listen to her and seek to understand what kinds of loving actions help her to feel loved and cherished (rather than just assuming). A helpful tool for you to work this out might be Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages. It’s a simple idea: love is communicated in different ways by different people. Chapman identifies five key ways people express and receive love in a “language” that speaks to them: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical (not just sexual) touch. Seeking to listen to and love your wife in her “language”, rather than just in your own language, is a powerful step towards rightly giving yourself to your wife for her good. Ask her, what makes her feel cherished by you?

Of course, all husbands will fail every day in our love and service of our wives. I can certainly testify to that. Only Christ shows perfect love, and we need to keep coming back to him for forgiveness. Sometimes we also need to ask our wives to forgive us too! But still, the love of Christ can and should make a real difference in our marriages. Christ’s love for his church does really teach us to love, cherish, respect and truly give ourselves for the sake of our wives.

Christ and creation

In the final few verses of this section, Paul quotes a verse from the Old Testament which lies behind a lot of his discussion here: Genesis 2:24. The verse appears in the account of God’s creation of man and woman:

“For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”.

Ephesians 5:31, quoting Genesis 2:24

Paul then goes on:

This secret is profound, and I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:32

By quoting the Old Testament, Paul is showing his readers that the idea of a husband giving himself to his wife and becoming “one flesh” is not entirely new. It’s rooted in creation, and in God’s word about creation. The prophets in the Old Testament also compare God’s love for Israel to a husband’s love for his wife, even when Israel is unfaithful (e.g. Isaiah 54:5–8). So this idea of husbands loving their wives and giving themselves for their wives isn’t just a “Christian” thing: it’s a creation thing, and it’s seen in the Old Testament. But in one important sense, this teaching about husbands and wives is new. There is a “secret” that was hidden in the Old Testament before Christ came, a secret which has been revealed and brought out into the open through the gospel of Christ (as in Ephesians 3:4–6). When Christ gave himself for us, dying for our sins, and making the church his “body”, he demonstrated what self-giving love looks like in the profoundest possible way. So marriage can only be understood fully by understanding the gospel of Christ. While marriage is something that you can see in creation, what Christ has done for us shows us far more clearly and deeply what the marriage relationship should look like.

In fact, even the idea of the husband “giving himself” for his wife is there in the Old Testament, which is why Paul quotes it. Genesis says: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife”. In weddings today, the bride is often “given” by her parents (traditionally, by her father) to the groom. Or sometimes these days, both sets of parents “give” the bride and groom to each other. But who does the giving in Genesis 2:24? It’s the husband who does the giving—of himself. The husband actively leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife! This helps us to see that the idea of the husband loving and giving himself isn’t just something Paul made up: it’s deeply rooted in the Bible’s teaching about marriage (Jesus also quotes these words from Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7).

Summing it up

But you also—each husband among you—should in this way love his own wife as himself, that the wife should respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:33

In the final verse, Paul completes and summarises what he has to say about the relationship between husband and wife in Ephesians. Each husband is to love his wife, and to consider her as he would consider his own body, and this leads to the wife “respecting” her husband as her lover and giver. This helps us again to see the intimate relationship between a husband’s love and a wife’s “submission”. As we saw in the previous post, these two concepts go hand-in-hand. The more we see the marriage relationship in light of Christ’s love for his church, the more deeply and intimately we will see this dynamic of loving and submitting which is the pattern for our own marriages. It is never perfect. It will ultimately be perfect only for Christ and the church in the new creation. Yet it is profound, and it is powerful, and it must make a difference in our lives.

For reflection

(Because Paul is addressing men in this passage, these questions are designed for men).

In what ways might you be tempted towards misogyny—either in your marriage, or if you’re not married, in another area of life?

If you are married, how do Christ’s actions for the church help you to live rightly in relation to your wife?

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, 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.