Ephesians 5:21-33

God's Design for Marriage

   American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright 2011, J.W.  Carter.      Scripture quotes from KJV

Harbor Street Sign on Marble, Ephesus. 
(Courtesy focusmm.com)

The date of this study coincides with Mother's Day, 2002.  It is a time when we reflect on the years, the experiences, and the commitment that has held this marriage together.  It comes at a time when the sanctity of marriage and people's commitment to it has been challenged by a culture that is becoming progressively destructive to the stability of the family unit. We have fallen away from the ethical and moral bases that defined the family as the basic organizational unit of our society.  People use divorce as a solution to their problems, destroying existing families.  Ours is a population where 30% of all babies (over 50% minority babies) are born to teenage, unwed mothers.  The very principles necessary to create family relationships are no longer considered when families are started.  Often people who marry do so to meet their own needs, rather than those of their best friend, their mate.  The scripture reveals guidelines for successful marital and family relationships.  Some of these are found in Ephesians 5:21-6:4

1.  Relationships in the Home

Ephesians 5:21.

Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. 

Who is to be submissive to whom here?  Often the next few verses are taken out of context in order to project a man's power over the woman. This is clearly not what is stated here.  Submission is made to one another. Those who promote a the dominant male doctrine do so by ignoring this verse entirely.  They also apply a misunderstanding of the meaning of submission by using an autocratic definition of the English word, rather than basing their position on the original Greek.  The Greek word for submitting, hupotasso, is a military term that refers to an equal placing oneself in subjection to another for the benefit of all concerned, literally: placing by choice the needs of others higher than your own. 

What would be the motivation for such an unselfish viewpoint?  (Agape love, or hesed, in Hebrew.)  Up to this point Paul has been writing about being filled with the spirit, and expressing agape love is a normal result of that filling.  The second part of this verse identifies that we must be doing so under God's authority and in obedience to Him. Therefore, as we approach all of the verses to follow, we must remember that the sole motivation is agape.  Only when we see these verses in the context of an agape-based, or spirit-filled relationship, can we truly see what is being stated.

If the basis for a Godly marriage is agape love, what is the first prerequisite for the creation of a Godly family?  The parents must both be Christians, which means that Jesus must be the supreme authority in their marriage.  This is not a position that is given to either the husband or wife  They must be Christians who seek to be obedient to God's will.  Only then will the parents be able to understand and apply these truths to their lives.

Who is the one here who makes the decision to be in submission to another?  Each partner in the marriage must make this commitment.  Note that nobody is given an opportunity to lord it over another.  What motivates this latter, more arrogant and self-aggrandizing, attitude?  (Pride, need for power, lack of self-esteem, selfishness.)

Also, submission is only in obedience to God when it is agape-based, voluntary, and truthfully desires the best for the other person.  The model we have of submission that is based on God's plan is that illustrated by the relationship between the church and Christ.

2.  Reverence by the Wife.

Ephesians 5:22

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 

In the Greek text, these two verses, 21 and 22, are one sentence, literally, "Submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ, the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.  This is not a one-sided, advantageous arrangement for the husband, as we are going to see the husband will also be subject to the wife.  To that end, more instruction is later given to the husband than to the wife, instruction that is ignored by those men who choose to misapply this scripture passage in order to exercise power over their wives.

What God has done here has been to define stability and direction for the wife within the context of the home.  Prior to marriage, who is responsible for her welfare?  (Her father.) Something very special takes place in the marriage ceremony that many people may completely overlook.  The father's giving away of the bride is no trivial matter.  Tradition may have robbed us of the real meaning here.  When given away, the bride now is charged to place herself in a position where the husband now takes over the responsibility for her care that was up to this point reserved for her father.  One of the advantages of a wifes hupotasso to her husband, is that she is as safe and secure with him as she has been with her father.  Of course, this statement presupposes that the wifes home life was also Christ-centered.

If a woman's relationship to her husband is as to the Lord, look at what she gets in return.  That is, how does the Lord respond in return?

  • First, he loves us.  The husband is to have that same love for the wife, where her needs are paramount.
  • Second, he provides for us.  Not only does he see those needs as important, he strives to meet them.
  • Third, his Lordship is not a dictatorship.  It is one which allows freedom of the spirit, because being Lord, is being the servant, not the slave driver.

If we are in Christ, and understand that God has provided what is best for us, then we can agree with the spirit within us that this ordinance is good and true.  God has defined what He in his wisdom has determined as the proper form of relationships within the family.

Ephesians 5:23

For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 

How is the husband described here?  Head.  In what way is he the head?  As Christ is the head of the church.  What special responsibilities and obligations does Christ have to the church?  Note also that the scripture makes reference to Christ being the Saviour.  How does this relate to the husband?  The implication is that he is responsible for the spiritual welfare of his family.  How can he do this?  He must exhibit spirit-led, spiritual leadership.  Authority is given to the husband, but only within the context of a Christ-like spirit-led leadership role.  This is the ideal, and this is what Paul is trying to describe. 

Ephesians 5:24

Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 

This is a tall order, more so for the man than the woman.  He is to be in relationship to his wife what Christ is to the church.  When he is like that, the wife can be submissive to his leadership in all things.

Often the question is asked, "Should I obey my husband when his demands are clearly ungodly"?  Some would use these verses to demand her submission in this case, but this is not the context of these verses.  They pre-suppose Christ-like leadership.  The answer to the question is simple.  We as Christians are free from the law.  We do not treat the Bible as a book of law, because we do not communicate with it that well, but as a Christian, you can listen to the Spirit of Christ, (James calls the Spirit of Liberty), on a regular basis to find the answers.  This requires a Godly response on the part of the wife, where her actions are preceded by prayer and a regular desire to be obedient to Christ.  With that resource such decisions can be made.

3.  Responsibility from the Husband

Ephesians 5:25

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 

What is the command given to the husband in verse 25?  1.  Love your wives as Christ loves the church.  2.  as Christ gave himself up for it.

Let's consider the first part of that.  In what way does Christ love the church?  What would Christ's response be when he feels the church has not lived up to what it should be?  What would Christ's response be when the church betrays him?  Note that his love for the church is unconditional.  The husband's love for his wife must be totally unconditional.

Is there ever any conflict between the church and Christ?  How do you suppose Christ responds?

Is there ever any conflict between the wife and the husband?  How do you suppose the husband should respond?

The second part of this verse refers to the sacrifice that Christ made for the church.  The husband is directed to love his wife to the point of the same type of sacrifice.  He is to give himself up for her.  Marriage means to the man that he is no longer the sole consumer of his time, resources, or person.  It is now shared.  If he treats the needs of his wife (and children) greater than his own he will go without things that he might obtain for himself otherwise, but that is not only reasonable, it is scriptural.  What kind of sacrifices do we see the husband can be making to the benefit of his wife and children?  Is it not even reasonable, outside of the Holy-Spirit's direction that a wife can place herself under the leadership of a husband like this?  THAT IS SPIRITUAL SUBMISSION!

Ephesians 5:26-27

That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 

What additional responsibility is given to the husband in verse 26-27?  The husband is ultimately responsible to present his wife, (side-by-side ref. vs. 27), holy and clean before the lord.  If this is true, who is given responsibility for the spiritual welfare for the family?  How is the husband to make her holy?  By washing with the word.  What does this mean?  The word is God's word, God's truth and she is to be bathed in it through him.  How can the husband do this?

  • Be saved.  First, the husband must have taken the step to accept Jesus Christ as Lord.  He is the ultimate authority in the home, not the husband.
  • Be knowledgeable of God's word.  He must spend time with it.  Meditate on it.  Pray with it. God's word, applied through his Holy Spirit is the only true and perfect resource he has.
  • Pray for her.  The welfare of his wife, both spiritual and physical, should be of paramount importance to the husband.  How often do we husbands take time to pray for our wives?

What do you feel is the future of such a relationship? In view of these verses, let's look at the opposite situation.  Consider the husband who:

  • Is unsaved.  He has placed little or no priority in his life in being obedient to God.
  • He is not knowledgeable of God's word, and spends little or no time with it, is not concerned much for it, and has no interest in applying its authority over his own.
  • He doesn't feel a need to pray for his wife.  He sees his own needs as more important than hers.

What do you feel is the future of such a relationship?

Ephesians 5:28-30

So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: 30For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. 

According to these verses, how is the husband to view his relation to his wife?  Scripture states here that the husband and wife are "one body", and makes the parallel to the body of Christ.

Matt. 19:4-6.   And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female (Gen 1:27), 5And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?(Gen 2:24) 6Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 

As a man loves his wife he loves himself because they are one body.  What hurts the wife hurts the husband.  When the wife feels joy, so does the husband.  In this context, the husband is not going to maliciously inflict pain on his wife, he is not going to make demands of her.  Instead, what is he going to do?  Two words are used here:  nourisheth (feed, nourish) and cherisheth (cares for).  Just as Christ seeks to nourish and care for the church, so the husband is to nourish and care for his wife.

Ephesians 5:31

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 

We may be familiar with these words, as they are another part of the marriage ceremony.  As the wife leaves the security and protection of her father she comes under the security and protection of her husband.  However, there is much more.  As the two were previously separate, when married they become one individual entity in the sight of the Lord.  The word "joined" used here is the same word that refers to joining two pieces of wood in the production of a piece of furniture.  Someone describe what is meant by a joint when used in this context.  (Both parts contribute a part of themselves to the joint, a glue is applied to the joint, stress is applied to the joint as the glue cures.)  What are some of the things that each contributes to the joint?  (personal wants and desires)  There is application for the marriage experience in all of these.  A marriage requires sacrifice on the part of both members.  The glue that holds them together is their agape love for each other (not phileo or eros... they soon wither and die).  The stress applied can be the myriad of experiences that test and grow the partners.

If a wood joint is correctly made, and the wood parts come under stress, one or both of the wood pieces can be hurt, but the joint remains.  (Did you hear that?).  Often the joint is incorrectly fabricated.  One or both members may not be willing to sacrifice their own wants and desires as is necessary to contribute to the union.  The glue that holds them together can be weak.  Without that Agape, God-given love, there is only Eros and Phileo to depend on. 

Only a marriage based on agape will weather the storms in a way which will honor God, and can then be presented to him holy, without spot or blemish.

Ephesians 5:32

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 32This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 

Verse 32 refers to this as a profound mystery.  The word mystery here Paul uses often, and refers to something which was once hidden but is now an open secret.  Truths of God's word fall into this concept of mystery since they are only understood in the context of the revelation of the Holy Spirit.  Spiritual things are foolishness to a non-believer.  Paul makes a point in showing that the institution of marriage is in that same way an open secret.  When viewed in the light of God's word, the institution of marriage takes on a new light.  It is illuminated with meaning out of confusion.  It is illuminated with order out of chaos.

Singles, what do you have to do to become prepared to enter a marriage in this context? 

Husbands, what do you need to do to put your relationship with your wife in this context?  Do you need to pray that your love for your wife will be as full as shown here?  Do you need to become more spiritually sensitive, and ultimately spiritually mature?  Do you need to take the spiritual responsibility in your home?  Have you placed yourself in a position that makes it difficult or impossible for your wife to choose to be submissive in the manner discussed here?

Wives, what do you need to do to put your relationship with your husband within this context?  Can you accept from him his love and protection?  Can you accept from him the leadership in the home that God requires?  Do you need to help him in his quest to become the husband that he can be by loving him, supporting him, encouraging him?

Ephesians 5:33

Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.         

In a home where the husband loves the Lord and seeks to be obedient to him, loving his wife and seeking to care for her, nourish her, prays for her, to present her to the Lord as holy and pure;  In a home where the husband is loved by his wife, where she supports him, prays for him, and is submissive to the position of leadership God has required of him, in a home where they are indeed one flesh, there will be a strength and a purpose that will weather any storm.  It may hurt under stress, but it will not be destroyed.  It will be a marriage that will grow in love, and see ultimately more joys as the days go on until the final day when we meet Jesus and  we will again experience a new marriage as Jesus declares to God for us, "They are mine.  They are part of me."