Text: Ephesians 5:22-33
My father was a career sailor in the United States Navy, spending the majority of his career as a Chief Petty Officer. CPOs make up the lion’s share of the management ranks in our nation’s fleet. They know how to give orders and how to take orders. They know how to lead and how to be led. After all, militaries have ever been among the best examples of ordered human societies.
The Church also is an ordered society. Sometimes, as we’ll see at the end of Ephesians, military metaphors have been used to describe the Church. More often, however, we find family metaphors to be what Scripture uses. That said, the family is also an ordered society, as we’ll discover over the next couple of weeks in our Trinitytide sermon series from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians.
As we do so, I want to remind you of two key elements of last week’s passage. First, remember how we began Ephesians 5: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Remember that when living out the Summary of the Law, we do so as imitators of God. We are to love God absolutely because God first loved us absolutely. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves because God loves our neighbors as he loves us. Second, remember the way we ended the passage in verse 21, with St. Paul’s command to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Christian life is one of mutual submission. We each submit to God as well as to each other, even when that submission to each other takes place within the realm of an ordered society. Speaking about verse 21, St. Jerome writes:
Let bishops hear this, let priests hear, let every rank of learning get this clear: In the Church, leaders are servants. Let them imitate the apostle. … The difference between secular rulers and Christian leaders is that the former love to boss their subordinates whereas the latter serve them. We are that much greater if we are considered least of all.
Christian leadership is servant-leadership. Christians are not to lord their authority over each other. In the Church, might does not make right. Rather, we are to imitate our Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve. With that in mind, please turn in your bibles to Ephesians 5, beginning at the 22nd verse:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the Church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
From the start, we need to acknowledge right away is that these verses are very hard to hear. They have been abused by wicked men over the centuries and used as an excuse to treat women shamefully. They’re also very much opposed to our cultural norms and assumptions and are thus offensive to many modern ears. Nevertheless, these verses are the Word of God, and we need to take them seriously. However, when understood rightly, without so much of the historical and cultural baggage that we bring to them, we can see truth, goodness, and beauty in these verses, even while they remain a difficult calling.
Notice who is being addressed here: wives. Not all women. Wives. Notice to whom they are to submit: their own husbands. Not all men. Their own husbands. That means that this is indeed a family matter, not a statement of hierarchy within the world at large. Wives are to submit to their own husbands as unto the Lord.
Notice also the reasoning of this Scripture: there is an analogy between the husband/wife relationship and the Christ/Church relationship. The family is meant to be a picture of the Kingdom of God. We’ll see in a moment that this lays a tremendous responsibility on the husbands as well when we unpack the next verses. The analogy does not mean, of course, that husbands are exactly like Christ. We husbands are far from perfect. We husbands are often selfish. We husbands certainly cannot be the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of our wives! But there is an important picture intended by God from the creation of our First Parents.
In particular, wives are to submit to their husbands, “as unto the Lord.” There are two senses that this phrase takes. First, the submission given to husbands is as if it were to the Lord. Because you are submitting to Christ, you are to submit to your husband. Second, the submission is in the same way that you submit to the Lord: out of love and respect for him rather than as if in terror of a tyrant. This also means that Christian submission is always something that must line up with what is moral and lawful according to the Holy Scripture. Sinning is never a characteristic of proper Christian submission. After all, both husbands and wives are subject to the authority of Christ. Both husband and wife must submit to Christ.
Sometimes otherwise well-meaning Christians have said that these verses mean that wives have a duty to stay with an abusive or cheating husband. Let me be clear: the Scripture does not say this. Indeed, our Lord himself said that such unlawfulness and unfaithfulness to the sacred vows of matrimony are grounds for separation or even divorce in the moral Law of God. Especially if there is abuse, get out and get help. But if the issues are the more common difficulties that come when two people live together, remember your duty to Christ. Certainly, get some pastoral care or even marriage counseling, but remember that you are ultimately serving the Lord.
Now that we’ve poked all the wives in the eye, let’s move on to the husbands. Verse 25:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy an without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
If the wife’s duty is to submit to her husband as to the Lord, the husband’s duty is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. How does Christ love the Church? He loves her sacrificially, both living and dying for her. Christ gave up everything for the sake of the Church, suffered all things for her, all for her redemption and glory. We husbands are called to do the same for our wives. This is a supremely high calling. The wives get two verses in their command; the husbands get six. Indeed, if we are loving our wives the way the we are called to, their call to submit to the husband is not a burden!
Remember that when Christ became incarnate to live and die for the Church, she was not at all beautiful. Indeed, St. Paul says that he died for us when we were still rebels and enemies. Our wives, on the other hand, are those whom we came to love because their many attractive qualities, both inside and out. By the time she becomes our wife, you already have come to love her! This should make growing in love, learning to love her in a Christ-like manner all the easier.
Our job as a husband is not to police our wife’s submission. We should not lord our role as the head of the family over her. We should include her in decisions (after all most of our wives are in many ways much smarter than us), even if the buck ultimately stops with us. In our verses, St. Paul quotes Genesis 2 regarding the husband and wife becoming “one flesh,” and noted that no one ever hated his own flesh. Indeed, most of us love our own flesh a bit too much! Love your wives with that same instinctive indulgence. Love her with the same respect that you would want to receive. Love her with the realization that the Lord will hold you to account for how you treated her. As St. Paul said, you are to nourish her, and cherish her, both physically and spiritually.
But what if you’ve grown apart? What if you have forgotten how to love her? What if you find your wife to be difficult to live with? Husband, the Scripture tells you to love her anyway, to love her as Christ loved the Church. Remember, Christian, that your new birth came because Christ loved you into his Church. Love your wife with that same love, even if she doesn’t come around for a long time or ever. If she should leave you, despite you loving her, St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7, that you are to let her go. You have done your duty. Nevertheless, keep praying for her and pray for the grace to fully forgive her. Again, remember that Christ loves even the rebel and the wayward.
In general, we men tend to be more selfish than women, especially once they’ve become mothers. Mothers quite literally know what it means to sacrifice their selves and their bodies for another person. When that instinctive selfishness comes on you, remember how blessed you are to have your wife. Your job, hobbies, and friends, as valuable as they are, are nothing in comparison to a Christian wife. Even your children, as important a treasure as they are, are not as important a treasure as your wife. After all, jobs, hobbies, friends, and even children, will not always be with you. But your wife is with you till death. And if you are both Christians, even death will not ultimately separate you, though it will change you.
Let’s pick up with verse 31:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
A very interesting exercise in biblical interpretation is to turn to the Song of Songs and read it as an allegory between Christ and the Church. Indeed, this is the primary way that the Church Fathers interpreted the book, even as they did not dismiss a literal reading as having secondary importance. After all, Christ told the disciples on the road to Emmaus that all Scripture was about him, and Ephesians 5:33 just told us that human marriage is a mystery, a sacrament, if you will, signifying the mystical marriage between Christ and the Church. St. Augustine notes that sometimes marriage doesn’t seem to be quite up to such a call! He writes:
The apostle speaks of a great mystery in the relation of Christ and the Church. That which is great in respect of Christ and the Church may seem less auspicious in the relation between husbands and wives. But in marriage it still represents the mystery of an inseparable bond.
As we know all-too-well in our society, marriages often fall apart, despite the Bible’s strong words against divorce. Indeed, some of you have gone through the pains of divorce. And even when they don’t fall apart, marriages can often be difficult and unsatisfying on a human level. On the other hand, there are many in the congregation who are not married, whether due to never having been married, or due to becoming widows and widowers, or are divorcees who have not remarried. Looking at a passage like this, you may wonder how this Scripture can apply to you. The “great mystery in the relation of Christ and the Church” is how it applies. As a baptized Christian, you are part of the bride of Christ. And his love is not fickle. His love does not end. His servant-leadership for you is absolute. As such, we can submit to him, for we know that he always has our best in mind.
Last week I mentioned that only those who are loved can love. Christ’s love for his bride, his love for the Church is such that it is an “inseparable bond.” Christ is always faithful. Christ is not an abusive husband or a petty tyrant. No, Christ loved his bride, purchasing her with his own blood, even when she had been his enemy. This speaks not only to Christ’s goodness, but also to your value in his eyes. As his bride, you were and are worth dying for.
Our traditional Anglican marriage services is one of the most well-known pieces of English liturgy, even among those who have never heard the name Anglican. We all know the vows: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” These beautiful words between a husband and wife, these glorious vows to love each other no matter what, are just a hint of what Christ has promised you. After all, the marriage vows are only binding “till death do us part.” Christ’s love continues beyond death, is stronger than death, and even transforms death to become mere sleep for those who are called to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, adorned in fine linen, white and clean. Whether we are married or not, may all of us hold Christian marriage up to be a picture, a hint, of that greater marriage to come.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Part 1: Ephesians 1:1-14 – “The Family Secret”
Part 2: Ephesians 1:15-23 – “Remembering you in my Prayers”
Part 3: Ephesians 2:1-10 – “From Death Valley to the Highest Peak”
Part 4: Ephesians 2:11-21 – “One New Man”
Part 6: Ephesians 3:14-22 – “A Glimpse Behind the Curtain”
Part 7: Ephesians 4:1-16 – “Gifts for the Body”
Part 8: Ephesians 4:17-32 – “Not According to the Gentiles”
Part 9: Ephesians 5:1-21 – “Beloved Children, Imitating our Father”