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Selfless Marriage: Ephesians 5:21–33

by Chris Loewen | July 31, 2021

Here is a question for you: What difference does Jesus make in your marriage? Have you ever noticed that many Christian marriages don’t look significantly different from those of unbelievers? Of course, some Christian marriages stand out as exceptions. But why are they only exceptions to the rule? Why does one marriage have obvious quality to it, while another doesn’t, when both marriages are between Christians? I’ve often pondered this and wondered how my marriage looks different from others.

Today we will learn from the Apostle Paul’s words about marriage in Eph 5:21–33. But first, I want to be very clear with those of you who have not married, or are divorced, or have lost a spouse: you do not reflect Christ any less than anyone else. Do not misunderstand me: we all equally reflect Christ as his image bearers. In fact, Paul describes both singleness and marriage as gifts. In some places he even considers singleness a higher calling!1 But here in Eph 5:21–33, Paul is talking specifically about marriage relationships, so that will be my focus this morning.

I will say right at the outset that there are different approaches to this text, and there are understandable reasons for most of those approaches. Embedded in this passage are several questions that deserve our attention. For example: What is submission? What about the head and the body? What is a savior? What is love? Each of these questions will be addressed as we work through the passage.

Usually, we read this passage as a closed unit, as though Paul is switching to a brand-new and isolated idea, but that is a mistake. In fact, Paul is continuing what he began discussing back in v. 18. Starting in v. 18 (“Be filled with the Spirit . . .), we encounter a long run-on sentence that goes all the way to the end of v. 22. It is one continuous thought for Paul. In this long sentence, Paul is showing the Ephesian believers what it looks like for a community of believers to be filled with the Spirit. Paul lists four manifestations of what a Spirit-filled community looks like (vv. 19–21): first, speaking to each other with songs; next, singing to the Lord from your heart; third, always thanking God for everything. And the last one is the first verse in our passage:

5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

What does it mean for us to submit to one another? That word “submission” is interesting; we don’t usually use it today—it’s somewhat archaic. We have to remember that, in Paul’s day, the Greeks and Romans had a strict hierarchy between men and women.2 The household was governed by the basic dichotomy of ruler vs. the ruled; husbands ruled over their wives and the wives submitted. Husbands often “held absolute and unquestioned authority,” and we can see the rhetoric in the ancient literature that the “household code” was focused “on the patriarch controlling his wife, children and slaves.”3 In these relationships, submission went in one direction, from wife to husband, and never the other way around.

Paul’s call for all of us to submit to one another would have struck any of the first hearers as strange. It was countercultural.4 Really?! We all, men and women, have to submit to each other? The submission goes both ways? This idea goes against the very fabric of their society. This call for mutual submission is a scandalous statement—but it is grounded in what was accomplished in Christ. This is so important because everything we see in this passage is tightly bound to Christ and his love for the church.

But what does it mean to submit? It simply means to place yourself underneath another person—it is considering the needs of other people before you consider your own. It is when you say, “No, you go first,” and are willing to take second place. Really, it isn’t any different from what the rest of Scripture has already said. Let us be clear, submission is not the same as obedience. Submissiveness is the same as selflessness. The opposite of submissiveness is selfishness.5 We all know selfishness is like poison to any relationship, especially in marriage. I think it is safe to say that most, perhaps all, marriage problems stem from selfishness of some kind. This is crucial to keep in mind.

5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”

Because Paul has been writing this long run-on sentence, it is clear that v. 21 cannot be separated from v. 22; they are part of one continuous thought. Whatever submission means in this verse must be intimately tied together with the mutual submission in v. 21.6 Paul is connecting the actions that illustrate life in the Spirit among the community of believers to more specific instructions for the marriage relationship. One flows into the other. Life in the community cannot be separated from life in marriage. Paul is saying, in light of the mutual submission we are called to embody in the body of Christ, here is how it looks in your marriages and homes. We are moving from the general to the specific. This is such an important point! Marriage is a microcosm, a reflection of the bigger picture, it is a place where mutual submission can be manifested at a deep level.

What Paul does from this point is present a wife’s submission as the first example of what mutual submission looks like in the marriage—and later he will present a husband’s example of submission. The wife’s submission might look a certain way in a marriage, but it is the same responsibility she has to every other member in the community.7 Wives are not called to submit to husbands “any more than only some Christians should sing psalms and hymns or give thanks to God the Father.”8In other words, the wife is not asked to do any more or less than what all believers are asked to do!

In the same way, the love that husbands are called to show their wives in 5:25 is not any different from what all believers are asked to do in 5:1–2. There Paul says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, 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.” A mistake we sometimes make is reading this text as though it is teaching gender-specific roles in which wives have the sole responsibility to submit and husbands have the sole responsibility to love. One reason people make this mistake is that nowhere in the text are husbands explicitly called to submit to their wives. However, we should be careful with that assumption because the passage also does not explicitly call wives to love their husbands. Paul does not excuse wives from love any more than he excuses husbands from submission. Husbands and wives are both equally called “to act out in marriage the same type of self-sacrificing, respectful, submissive love they would in any and all relationships within the believing community.”9

So, here in v. 22 Paul tells the wife to submit to her husband “as to the Lord.” The submission she shows her husband is as valuable as if her submission is to the Lord. Her submission is an extension of her submission to Christ. You cannot submit to your spouse without submitting to Christ.

5:23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

Here is where things get interesting. “For the husband is the head of the wife. . . .” What is Paul saying? In our society and culture, the word “head” might make us think of a leader, a head coach or the head of a large company, someone who is in charge or in authority. We talk about one spouse “wearing the pants” in the home. But is that what “head” means? If we would read it with that kind of meaning, it would sound something like this: The husband is the head of the wife as Jeff Bezos is the head of Amazon—the company which he founded. He gets to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to bark orders at anyone in his company.10 That might be the right meaning for “head” in our modern English language, but that is not what Paul meant and that is not the kind of “headship” he is thinking of. Our culture reads more into the word “head” than Scripture intends us to. That is, we tend to read more into it than we read out of it.

There is so much we could say about this four-lettered-word “head,” but we don’t have the time to unpack everything about it this morning. It is a loaded word and the source of many debates. Here’s a quick summary: Paul is thinking of the head, the part that sits on top of the body between the shoulders—literally the head. But he is treating it as a metaphor, and what he says right after is crucial for us to understand. He says that the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. Paul is tying this headship to the relationship between Christ and the church. It might appear to us that this is the proof that head means “authority over,” but that is not the point that Paul is making here. Paul’s point in this passage is not to define for us who is or who is not the leader in the marriage. Rather, he is illustrating unity and relationship.11

Paul goes on and explains how Christ is the head of the church in the next phrase: husbands are the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church, “his body, of which he is the Savior.” This last phrase explains and defines what Paul means by headship.12 Headship is defined as saviorship—where Christ is the “one who saves,” a deliverer or redeemer.13 The Caesars of Rome were frequently exalted as “the savior.” We see this especially in the stories surrounding Caesar Augustus returning home from battle as victor and being celebrated as the “son of god—the savior of the world” who ended all wars and ushered in a new era of peace. Now what about Jesus? How did Christ come and function as the savior? It was not through military conquest, but by dying a shameful and agonizing death on a Roman cross. Jesus is the true Son of God (4:13), the true savior of the world, and he ushered in true peace (2:14) by ultimately laying down his life in love for us.14 The role of a savior as Paul defines it, and as Jesus shows us, is not one of leadership or authority over, but of redemption and deliverance.15 Paul, in the earlier parts of Ephesians, describes Christ as the head of the body which he sustains and causes to grow (1:22–23, 4:15–16, see also Col 2:19). Paul wants us to think of ourselves, the church, as being one with Christ just as the husband and wife are one.

Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church, laid down his life in extravagant love for the beloved church, which is his body. He came not to be served but to serve (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:43–45, Luke 22:27, John 13:13–17). Jesus did not come to condemn but to forgive—to save us. That is the beautiful gospel. What Paul is doing is redefining the head/body metaphor in light of Jesus. This becomes much clearer in the next section of the passage! If Paul wanted to communicate Jesus as one in authority over the church, as a parallel to the marriage relationship, he would have used different language. He might have used language like Jesus as “Lord or master of the body” instead of “savior of the body.”

On this note, the only passage we have in the NT that talks about authority in the marriage—and there is only one—is 1 Cor 7:2–4. There Paul says something very different from what we might expect:

But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.

In other words: in the act of giving oneself in marriage, each partner “comes under the authority of the other.”16 Paul could not be more clear—he redefines what leadership looks like in marriage. His vision for marriage is a revolutionary one where each partner is bonded to the other in mutual love, submission, and authority—complete equality.17

5:24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

Paul makes the summary claim that just as the church submits to Christ, wives are to submit to their husbands. What is interesting is that in these first four verses, vv. 21–24, Paul tells wives to “submit,” but he does not describe with much particularity what her submission looks like. He just says it and leaves it. Why is that? The reason is that she knows full well what her submission looks like—it’s nothing new.18 Her submission was a given, and she has been doing that her whole married life. However, when we look at how Paul speaks to the husbands, we will find that he does, in fact, call the husbands to submit to their wives. Husbandly submission was not a given in Paul’s context, so he has to explain what this looks like, and he does it in a practical and creative way.19

5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

So, now in v. 25, Paul shifts his attention to the husbands. Essentially the question behind this part of the text is: Alright men, now it’s your turn. What does this mutual submission look like for you as the husband?

Again, let’s keep in mind that Paul is still working under the assumption in v. 21 that submission is something that “every believer is obligated to extend to the other, out of reverence for Christ, as part of being filled with the Holy Spirit.”20

What is beautiful here is that Paul uses a word for love that would not have normally been used in such a way. The word he uses is agapē love, which is never used in any household codes outside the NT—to do so is exclusive to Paul. We might ask, why did Paul use this word and what was so significant about this choice of word? You know, Paul could have used eros love which would communicate sexual or romantic love, or he could have used philia love which is seen in friendships like brotherly or sisterly love, but he doesn’t use either of these. Instead, he uses agapē love, which is a very difficult kind of love. So what is agapē love?

Agapē love is Paul’s main word for selfless love—unconditional love. It can’t be earned, nor is it deserved. It is a love that is self-sacrificial and other-oriented: it turns the focus away from the self and onto the other. It is a love that seeks the other person’s good—it is a submissive love!21 This love is patterned after Jesus who selflessly laid down his life for us all. When we read in 1 John 4:7–8 that “God is love,” it really is saying “God is agapē.” It is who God is in his very nature.

But more specifically, Paul uses the image of crucifixion as the portrait of agapē love (e.g., Gal 2:19, Eph 5:2). This is important to recognize because Paul is challenging the cultural stereotypes of masculinity in his day. Stereotypes that say what defines you as a man is your ability to be in control, to lead with authority, and to be the embodiment of strength and power. The inability to do this was to be seen as shamefully less than male in the eyes of the community. So as Paul draws our attention to Jesus, we see him crucified and hanging naked on the cross. “Crucifixion . . . was one of the most shameful [ways to die] in Paul’s day” (see Heb 12:2); it “took away a man’s control of his situation, emasculating him.”22 On the cross, Jesus had no rights. He had no control over his situation. He died a criminal’s death. Jesus showed his agapē love by ultimately laying down all his rights in service to us as the church, and he calls husbands to embody the same kind of selfless love. Is that not amazing!

As I was pondering this it struck me how Jesus laid down his rights, and I had to wonder if Paul is also calling us men to lay down our intense desire to be in charge, to be in authority, to have the last word. How does the image of Jesus on the cross challenge our presuppositions and ideas of what it means to be a godly husband? What needs to change in order to reflect the same selfless love that Jesus showed to us on the cross? As we will be able to see in the following five verses, the husband is shown exactly what this looks like in the marriage relationship.

5:26–27: “He did this: to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

In his selfless love for the church, he saved her, redeemed her, purified her, forgave her, and set her free. Did you notice anything unique about the list of activities that Paul mentions? Let me highlight the words for you: cleansing, washing, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. Later, in v. 29, he uses the words feeding and nourishing. What do these words remind you of? They might bring to mind “women’s work” in the household. Jesus is the model for the husband, and we get the image of Jesus giving “his bride a bath and [taking] responsibility for providing bridal clothes that are treated for stains, laundered, and ironed” all of which are metaphors for sanctification.23 Isn’t that a wonderful image!

Why does Paul do this? Scholars have pointed out that in Paul’s culture there were explicit ideas and stereotypes about how men worked in the public sphere and women in the domestic sphere—far more so than we see in today’s culture.24 The wife’s responsibilities were “making clothing, washing and ironing, bathing children and men, providing and serving food, and last but not least, bearing and nurturing children. Most of [these roles] were comparable to slave’s work.25 It’s no accident that Paul used these words. To be sure, the actions that Paul was calling men to would have come across as demeaning and condescending to the superior male in the relationship, but they are grounded in the example we see in Christ and what he does for his church which is his body.26

If doing “women’s work” is part of what it means to serve the other, then in a profound way, women lead the way in this by doing it routinely for their husbands. They are the shining example of what Paul is calling husbands to do. It is not that Paul is calling for a reversal of roles and responsibilities, but rather he is calling men to imitate Christ in his low status and servanthood—to lay down their male privilege in the home and meet their wives where they are and serve them. Essentially, Paul has told the husbands to get down on their knees and wash their wives’ feet, and much more.27 The vision Paul has for marriage is not one where the wife is now in control, but instead, it is one where the husband and wife “are servants of each other.”28

5:28–30: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.”

In this same way. . . .” In the same way that we have witnessed the selfless love of Christ, husbands are called to embody that same selfless love towards their wives. Furthermore, they are to selflessly love their wives as their own bodies. Paul is saying to the husband: the two of you are one body—she is not an object, she is you! If you love and cherish your wife, you are loving your own body. Essentially, Paul is saying, “the more you love and submit to your wife, the happier you and your marriage will be—she is a part of who you are!”29My friends, this is the Golden Rule in marriage relationships. Matthew 7:12 says, “For in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . . .”

To hate one’s own body is the opposite of loving it and is not typically how we as human beings treat ourselves—it’s quite anti-human. Part of being human is taking care of ourselves. Paul then shows us what it looks like to love your own body, “which includes nourishing and cherishing it.”30 Just like the rest of the metaphors in our passage, this image is grounded in Christ and his relationship to the church. Jesus nourishes and cherishes his body—for we are one with him. We are all members of Christ’s body and we experience the fullness of him (1:22–23 & 4:15–16) as he cares for us as his own body.

5:31–32: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ [Gen 2:24]. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

What Paul does here is reach back to early in Genesis (2:24) in order to show yet another layer to the oneness and unity between the husband and wife. Both the husband and wife leave their families of origin to join to each other to form a new family unit. And here is where this passage reaches its climax.

Paul says, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” The mystery Paul speaks of is in the unity of Christ and his church, which finds its meaning in the Genesis quotation. This quotation, through the lens of Jesus, echoes what God intended for his creation. Jesus left his place where he was at home and went searching for his bride.31 Here we might ask the question: Did Jesus submit to us as the church? If we believe that submission is placing oneself under another in service, then yes of course he submitted to us! Even in his life on earth, he came not to be served but to serve (Matt 20:24–28). He even put aside his authority as he knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13). But the greatest act of selfless submission he displayed toward the church is in how he laid down his life in love for us all.

Philippians 2:6–8 showcases this profound mystery:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Paul is pointing to this and saying, “THAT is what marriage is all about!” The responsibility for the husband echoes the selfless action of Jesus Christ, but much more than that, marriage is meant to be redemptive—it is meant to be a tangible image of Christ to the world. “Your love story exists to point people to the greatest love story ever told.”32 We need photographs and images to help us remember who Jesus is and what he did for us—and marriage is one of those profound images! Our marriages are portraits of God to the world. When people see the mutual selfless submission and love in our marriages, they can see Jesus and his scandalous love for them. Then Paul concludes the passage with this summary verse:

5:33: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

Here Paul concludes this section and brings it full circle. It is interesting that Paul does not repeat his call for wives to submit, nor does he speak of the husband as the head. He repeats the command for the husband to selflessly love his wife as he loves himself and he speaks of the wife’s respect for her husband, which is drawn from the call for all believers to submit to one another out of respect, out of reverence, for Christ. Is there something to be said about husbands needing to be respected and wives needing to be loved? Some might say it is hard for a husband to love and a wife to respect. In any case, both are extensions of the submissiveness that we are all called to live out. Both actions are two sides of the same coin—there is very little difference between the two.

Conclusion

The application is very basic, and its message is so practical. When we look at the marriage between Christ and the church, the secret ingredient is selflessnessit is selfless love. In the same way, the key to healthy marriages is selfless submission. On the contrary, the poison that will kill our marriages is selfishness. Remember, the opposite of selfless submission is selfishness. It really is that simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Selfishness is something married couples have to deal with continually. It is not always easy to put the other person first, and neither do we always want to. I would think that, for any marriage struggle, whether that be a misunderstanding, an argument, or disagreement, a time of unfaithfulness or rejection, we can find selfishness of some kind lying at the root, beneath the surface. A question I would have for all of us is, is there a selfishness within me that I need to repent of? Do I need to go down on my knees today and wash the feet of my beloved?

Jesus wants to meet us where we are and use our marriages to reflect himself to the world. That, my friends, is the difference Jesus makes in our marriages. May our marriages shine the light of Jesus in our communities. Amen.


Editor's note: This sermon was first preached in Blumenort Community Church in the spring of 2021.
 

This article appears in “Challenges of Marriage and Singleness,” the Summer 2021 issue of CBE’s academic journal, Priscilla Papers.Read the full issue here.
 

Notes

1. See, for example, 1 Cor 7:7–8: “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. ¶ 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.” Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are from the NIV.

2. Lynn H. Cohick, The Letter to the Ephesians, NICNT (Eerdmans, 2020) 344.

3. Katia Adams, Equal: What the Bible Says about Women, Men, and Authority (David C Cook, 2019) 168.

4. Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Zondervan, 2009) 279.

5. Adapted from a sermon by Bill Whitt, “No, You First!: The Difference Jesus Makes in Your Marriage,” preached Oct 14, 2018, at Sunlight Community Church in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

6. Nicholas Rudolph Quient, The Perfection of our Faithful Wills (Wipf & Stock, 2019) 76. This is also true because in the earliest manuscripts and in the most widely used editions of the Greek NT (NA28, UBS5, SBLGNT), there is no verb “submit” in v. 22; it must be inferred from “submitting to one another” in v. 21.

7. William G. Witt, Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Baylor University Press, 2020) 109.

8. Witt, Icons of Christ, 109.

9. Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans 2001) 265. Each of the verbs used to describe these responsibilities—“submit” (vv. 22, 24), “respect” (v. 33) and “love” (vv. 25, 28, 33)—is drawn from the general responsibilities expected of all believers stated in 5:2 and 5:21.

10. Whitt, “No, You First!”

11. See Christy Hemphill, Kephalē is a Body Part: Unified Interdependence in Relationship in Ephesians 5,” Priscilla Papers 35/2 (Spring 2021) 3–9.

12. Payne, Man and Woman, 283–90. The clause “of which he is the Savior” is appositional (epexegetical), explaining what Paul meant by “head.”

13. L&N 1:21.22 & 21.31; BDAG 800–801.

14. NIDNTTE 4:432.

15. Cohick, Letter to the Ephesians, 355.

16. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 2014) 311.

17. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, IBC (WJK, 1997) 131. See also, Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (InterVarsity, 2019) 17–30.

18. Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (InterVarsity, 2019) 93.

19. Quient, Perfection of Our Faithful Wills, 77. Paul spends far more time talking about the husband’s responsibility than he does the wife’s (9 to 3 ratio).

20. Cohick, Letter to the Ephesians, 359.

21. Whitt, “No, You First!”

22. Cohick, Letter to the Ephesians, 361.

23. Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Baker Academic, 2016) 165.

24. Westfall, Paul and Gender, 22–23.

25. Westfall, Paul and Gender, 22–23.

26. Cohick, Letter to the Ephesians, 363.

27. Westfall, Paul and Gender, 166.

28. Westfall, Paul and Gender, 166.

29. Whitt, “No, You First!”

30. Cohick, Letter to the Ephesians, 368.

31. N. T. Wright, Paul: The Prison Letters for Everyone: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (WJK, 2004) 68.

32. Whitt, “No, You First!”