First Mennonite Church
May 17, 2015
Paul On Husband/Wife Relationships
Text: Ephesians 5: 21-33
Just two weeks ago I read a news article about a pastor seeking help. The pastor called a family counselor because he was desperate about his daughter’s situation with her husband. At first the husband controlled the time she was to visit her parents, but at the time this pastor sought counsel, the husband has had her cut all communication with her family. The pastor knew she had been suffering from domestic violence even shortly after the wedding. The husband made her quit her job, started hitting her, forbade her from leaving the house and then would not allow her to use the phone.
The counselor asked this pastor about his biblical views of marriage and family. The pastor’s reply was, “I preach the biblical teaching about marriage. Every person, men and women, must have a healthy self-esteem, but wives must be submissive and be subservient to their husbands.”
It is not uncommon for us preachers to take Ephesians 5, verses 22 to 33 when we address the topic of husband/wife relationship. All too often the call to “submission” on the part of wives to their husbands becomes the touchy issue in this passage. There are those who would want to emphasize this aspect of the relationship and in doing so push the meaning of this command to an almost slave-master relationship between the wife and husband. On the other hand, some have attempted to “ease” the implication of this command on the basis of legal rights or social or cultural development.
We must take notice, however, that when Paul speaks about husband-wife relationship, he does not speak about their rights. He speaks about their duties towards each other. And these duties and responsibilities are not drawn from cultural practices or human sciences of his times, but from Christ and his work of salvation, and particularly in regards to the church.
It is important for us to understand that marriage relationship in Paul’s time put wives in total disadvantage. This was true not only among the Jews, but even worse among the Gentiles. Women could be divorced for the most common kitchen mishap: burning the food while cooking it. Just imagine how much more at a disadvantage wives were in the Gentile world. So therefore, Paul’s teaching on husband/wife relationship was derived from a radically new model of relationship: that of Jesus and the church, which represented a completely new model for husband-wife relationship.
It was Paul’s understanding that the Christian perspective of husband/wife relationship could not and cannot be grasped or achieved unless both husband and wife have a personal experience with the living Christ. Therefore, everything Paul says about husband/wife relationship in Ephesians 5 must be understood in the larger context of his teaching. Christian married couples derive their relationship first and foremost from their relationship with Christ, their Lord and Savior. With this in mind we can see that Paul does not begin to teach about husband/wife relationship until chapter 5, but from chapter 4, verse 17, where he says, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” And he continues with a whole list of other commands:
- put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;
- put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
- you must put off falsehood and
- speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
- “In your anger do not sin”
- Do [Why capitalize here, but not in the first four items above? Perhaps you would want to capitalize each item for consistency.] not let the sun go down while you are still angry,
- do not give the devil a foothold.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Each of these commands applies not only to our Christian life, but also to our marriage relationship. We cannot say, “Oh, these commands are for matters of faith, but for marriage the rules are different.”
On this same note, chapter 5 begins.
1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Paul first gives this whole set of instructions about the new life in Christ before he directly addresses the topic of husband/wife relationship. His teaching on spousal relationship would be incomprehensible if life in Christ were not yet a reality in the husband and wife.
Before Paul gives the command to wives to submit to their husbands, he also gives a general instruction for mutual submission. Therefore, we should not miss to see that Paul makes a general exhortation to all in verse 21: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”. This exhortation of Paul points to the voluntary submission we must have for each other in Christian love.
In the context of marriage, the submission called on wives is made in the comparison of the church toward Christ. Christ is Lord. Christ is Head of the body, but Christ is also Savior, Redeemer, who sacrificed himself to give the church all she needs to stand in beauty, joy and gratitude towards her Head and Lord. Christ gave himself “to make her holy…, to present [her] to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle…–yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.”
The church submits to Christ as Head and Lord not in fear or by force, but in love and gratitude for all that Christ has done to give her beauty, holiness, and eternal life.
In Paul’s view, wives take their cue from the church as to how they should regard their husbands.
This call for wives to be subject to their husbands has lots of people talking. Some argue that this text is “biased against women” and that it shows the patriarchal character of the Bible. Liberals would argue this text is grounds “to exonerate abuse against women and children”. And conservatives would argue that there would be divorces should this text be taken at face value.
The truth is that neither of those affirmations is what Paul intended to communicate. Paul was not advocating for men to exercise dominance and rule over their wives nor was he calling for unconditional subordination of women to whims and abuse of men.
The comparison Paul makes is that in the manner the church responds to Christ, his love and provision (for by grace you have been saved and this is not of your own works), so wives should respond to their husbands. In Paul’s traditional household codes, husbands were sole breadwinners in the family, thus he takes the sacrificial act of Christ on the cross as a model for husbands on their duties towards their wives. Therefore, what Paul is calling for here is that wives should respond with gratitude, love, and submission for the care and provision of their husbands, within that context.
What is highlighted here is not the outright demand for submission, but Christ’s free disposition in giving himself up for the wellbeing of the church. Submission comes as a result of what has been done or provided.
Paul’s call for submission does not mean a wife can’t have independent thoughts, feelings or desires, or that she must follow her husband’s command if he’s sinning.
It doesn’t mean she’s less intelligent than her husband or that she shouldn’t take part in family decisions.
A husband and a wife are equals with complementary roles within their marriage commitment, and just as wives are called to submit to their husbands as head of the family, husbands are called to love their wives the way Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25).
Paul calls marriage “a great mystery,” which he applies to Christ and the church. This relationship of submission and love is patterned after Christ and the church. Christian marriage is patterned after the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and the church, which came as a result of such unconditional and sacrificial love. Therefore, when we husbands love our wives we reveal the mystery of Christ and the church to the world. When wives submit and respect their husbands again the mystery of Christ and the church is understood.
Men, let us not forget what led us to the woman who is our wife. Remember everything our girlfriend was inspired us to do. How we sent her cards and chocolates; recited love poems to her and so forth. Everything we did and said intended to reflect what we thought was our love for her. We told our girlfriend a million times we loved her. However, after getting married and after some time of living together we seem to have forgotten the things we did for her. You see, that kind of love was based on self-interest. We wanted to gain her heart. And so, many married couples unprepared for the changes that come as the years pass by cannot survive on that kind of love. As men get busier, they get “used” to the person they first admired and could not keep their eyes away from. Now they write more checks to pay the bills than cards and little notes for their wives.
The love Paul calls husbands to have for their wives is not a love based on self-interest. It is a sacrificial love. Paul calls for a sacrificial love that seeks her joy, which gives her peace of mind. It is love that supports her through the difficult changes that come along the years.
Paul calls on wives to respect their husbands.
In the book For Women Only, Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn write regarding men’s need to be respected. “There appears to be an epidemic of public disrespect for men, and the biggest culprit is not television, movies, or other media but the women who are supposed to love their men most.” These authors say that a general lament of men is public humiliation by their wives. “My wife says things about me in public that she considers teasing. I consider it torture.”
When men come together they subtly engage in teasing each other. Men have to keep their guards up at all times when among other men. Home is the only place where they can lower their guard but if their wives do not respect them even there, a sense of inadequacy invades them. And anger and frustration become their constant companions, which affect their abilities to relate healthily and lovingly to their wives.
Once more, let us listen to what Paul says,
“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord . . . .
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. Amen
 Pheme Perkins, New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI, Ephesians: Abington Press (2000) [Cite the page(s) where the argument is put forth.]
 Shaunti Feldhahn & Jeff Feldhahn For Women Only Multnomah Publisher Inc. 2004, p. 40
 Ibid p.41