How does a Christian marriage work? It is a question the early followers of Christ would have had to ask. Christianity was a major departure from the dominant cultures of the time. It is a question we modern followers need to ask as well. In Ephesians 5:21-32 we see St. Paul’s response to the question. It is a beautiful passage regarding the self-giving relationship of spouses, but too often the message of the whole passage is missed and instead the focus is put squarely on verses twenty-two through twenty-four.
"Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything."
Boy, oh boy, do those verses make the modern reader squirm. Take them out of context and read them out loud at your next Thanksgiving dinner and watch what happens. Want to start a fight with your feminist sister-in-law or agnostic brother? These verses, taken out of context, are just the thing.
That is the problem. These verses are almost always taken out of context, and they just don’t make sense that way. To understand verses twenty-two through twenty-four we have to look at the whole passage.
The section begins in verse twenty-one, “Be subordinate to one another.” This sets up the context for the rest of the passage. The verse tells us, quite clearly, that both the husband and the wife need to put their own interests behind that of their spouse. It is not so unlike Christ’s instruction to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The author then goes on to describe how this “subordinate” relationship is supposed to work. He uses the relationship of Christ and the Church as a means of instructing his reader.
Putting Ephesians 5 into Context
Saint Paul begins with the wife. This is the aforementioned verses twenty-two through twenty-four. The section is not the tyrannical dictate of a patriarchal system. Saying “wives be subordinate to your husbands as to Christ” does not give husbands ultimate permission to rule as totalitarian dictators. If the wife is to be subordinate to her husband as to Christ then we must remember that a healthy relationship with God is not one of tyrannical control. God is love. He wants the best for our life, but He never forces that will on us. He is patient. He allows us to wrestle with His will and even to ask for another way. Do you believe that God is always working for your good? Hopefully, in choosing a spouse you sought out, or will seek out, someone that you can say the same of.
Saint Paul then turns his attention to the husband. Read verses twenty-five through thirty. The husband is not given a divine right to decree that his own will is perfect. He is called to be a reflection of Christ. Remember, Christ describes himself as “meek and humble of heart.” Saint Paul instructs husbands to “love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her.” That is important! How did Christ love the Church? He sacrificed himself totally for it.
Husbands are called to total self-sacrifice for their wive’s happiness, well being and sanctity
Ephesians 5:21-32 is a beautiful instruction to Christian spouses. Husbands are called to be like Jesus, totally giving themselves to their wives, as Christ totally gives himself to the Church. Wives are supposed to totally give themselves to their husbands, as the Church is called to totally give itself to Christ. Remember verse twenty-one, “be subordinate to one another.” Neither spouse puts their interests above the other. The only way there is tyranny here is if either one of the spouses refuses to live out their call. A wife in this scenario could easily be a tyrant, acting as a type of Sanhedrin over her Christian husband, convicting, and condemning him as he seeks to give himself for her. So too, a selfish husband could easily be a Herod over his Christian wife, seeking to rule over her as a false king. When both live out their call, as described in Ephesians, spouses are protected from this tyranny and marriage becomes an insight into the mystery of Christ’s love.
What Are Your Thoughts?
For married readers: Can you think of a time you have been a type Sanhedrin or a Herod, putting your own concerns or desires above the needs of your spouse? Take a moment to invite God to lead you to how you can more fully live out Ephesians 5:21-32 in your relationship.
For single readers: If you are discerning marriage are you looking for a vocation in which you can totally give yourself for the sake of another or are you looking for a relationship that will meet your needs, fulfilling your desires? Take a moment and invite the Lord to give you a heart to love like him in your future marriage.