The last thing we want to do

Ephesians 5 is difficult because it goes right against our culture and our hearts. Our culture encourages independence. This is reflected in our attitude to truth and morality. There’s no objective truth and no right and wrong, truth is relative, it’s what I want it to be. However, its roots go further back. In Genesis 3, the big temptation for Adam and Eve was “Why should you let someone else be in charge? You should be God.”

We want to be independent. We don’t want to be told what to do. I’ve often heard people say “I don’t submit to anyone.” Sometimes in Christian life, this is even presented as a sign of godliness “I don’t have anyone in the hierarchy, I just follow God.” The problem is that this so often leads to a lack of accountability. We pursue our own dreams and ambitions.

Then Paul says:

“submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”[1]

Woah. That goes against the grain. We don’t want to submit. That sounds like servitude. Doesn’t Paul know that we aren’t slaves, we are free, we have the status of sons. To make matters worse he tells wives:

“This means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.”[2]

That seems to cut across the image of marriage as romantic, does it even go against the sense of a partnership together. Will it make for lazy husbands who expect their wives to do serve them? “In everything?” What about when they get things wrong, what about when they are less well informed than their wives? What about when they are pursuing their own selfish priorities?

The idea of the husband being “the head of his wife” also seems a bit heavy duty doesn’t it. In fact, some people have tried to downplay its meaning suggesting it has nothing to do with authority but simply refers to men as the source of women because Adam was made from Eve. The problem is that we are also told that “Christ is the head of the church” and in chapter 1:22 Christ’s headship is clearly presented in terms of his authority and power.

But what about husbands? At this point we are sitting back saying “Yes, we are the heads, our wives are to submit to us.”  It all sounds great. Historically women have been treated as second class, for long periods of history not being allowed to own property or vote. Men love power.  However, Paul doesn’t say “Husbands take charge” instead he says:

“ For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word.  He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.  In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself.  No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church.  And we are members of his body.”[3]

What are husbands to do? They are to love their wives as themselves just as we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. They are to love them as Christ loved the church. How did Christ love the church, well he loved it sacrificially, dying for it. This is not me-centredness but putting the others needs first. This is the love we see in one taking off his cloak, wrapping a towel around himself and washing his disciples feet. Christ is the one who took on the nature of a servant. That’s how husbands are to love their wives. We might say that we are to submit to them.

Submission is a heart attitude that puts the others’ needs first. Submission is about sacrificial love.  It’s a call away from selfishness. Marriage is a reminder both of our tendency to pride and selfishness but also of the renewing work of the Spirit that helps us to submit and serve. Every day we are reminded through marriage not just that the Fall happened but that Christ has come and saved us.

[1] Ephesians 5:21,

[2] Ephesians 5:22.

[3] Ephesians 5:25-30.