Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
If the Lord wills, both today and next week we will focus on what it means for a married man to be the head of his wife and of his home. We focus on this for two reasons. One is that the Bible says in Ephesians 5:23, “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” We need to know what the Bible means by this statement so that we can exult in it and obey.
The other reason is that few things are more broken in our day than manhood and headship in relation to women and families. And the price of this brokenness is enormous and touches almost every facet of life. So for the sake of faithful biblical exposition and exultation, and for the sake of recovering biblical manhood and Christ-exalting family structures, we will, Lord willing, spend two weeks on this important issue of headship.
First Things First
Our emphasis in these weeks so far has been that staying married is not mainly about staying in love, but about keeping covenant. We did eventually come around to saying that precisely by this unwavering covenant-keeping the possibility of being profoundly in love in forty years is much greater than if you think of the task of marriage is first staying in love. Keeping first things first makes second things better. Staying in love isn’t the first task of marriage. It is a happy overflow of covenant-keeping for Christ’s sake.
We have spent most of our effort in these five messages so far pondering the foundations of covenant-keeping in the way Christ keeps covenant with us. We have looked at marriage as a showcase of covenant-keeping grace and as a combination of forgiveness and forbearance. And the last time we were together we took up the question: Can you help each other change? And if so, how do you do that graciously?
Headship Seen in Light of the Gospel
Up till now we have spent little time on the distinct roles of husband and wife—headship and submission. This was intentional. Foundations in the gospel are needed before these things can shine with the beauty they really have. There is nothing ugly or undesirable in these distinctions of headship and submission when they’re seen in the light of the gospel of grace.
So now the question presses on us: What is headship? And what is submission? The plan is to deal with headship in the next two weeks and then after Easter deal with submission and other issues relating to marriage.
This week will be largely foundation for headship, and next week will be largely application. What does it actually look like in practice?
The Mystery Revealed
Let’s move into this text at verse 31. It’s a quote from Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In the next verse (v. 32), Paul looks back on this quote and says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Now why is the coming together of a man and woman to form one flesh in marriage called a mystery? Mystery in the New Testament does not mean something too complex or deep or obscure or distant for humans to understand. It refers to a hidden purpose of God that is now revealed for our understanding and enjoyment. Paul explains what the mystery is in verse 32. The marriage union is a mystery, he says, because its deepest meaning has been concealed by God during the Old Testament history, but is now being openly revealed by the apostle, namely, that marriage is an image of Christ and the church. Verse 32: “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
So marriage is like a metaphor or an image or a picture or a parable or a model that stands for something more than a man and a woman becoming one flesh. It stands for the relationship between Christ and the church. That’s the deepest meaning of marriage. It’s meant to be a living drama of how Christ and the church relate to each other.
The Parallel Between One Body and One Flesh
You can see how this is confirmed in verses 28-30. They describe the parallel between Christ and the church being one body andthe husband and wife being one flesh. Verses 28-29: “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 and cherishes it . . . .” In other words, the one-flesh union between man and wife means that in a sense they are now one body so that the care a husband has for his wife he, in that very act, has for himself. They are one. What he does for her he does for himself.
Then he compares this to Christ’s care for the church. Verses 29-30: “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Be sure to see the parallel: Christ nourishes and cherishes the church because we are members (that is, arms and legs and hands and feet) of his body. And husbands nourish and cherish their wives “as their own bodies.” No one ever hated his own flesh. Wives are our own flesh as the church is Christ’s own body. Just as the husband is one flesh with his wife so Christ is one body with the church. When the husband cherishes and nourishes his wife, he cherishes and nourishes himself; and when Christ cherishes and nourishes the church, he cherishes and nourishes himself.
All of this underlines what Paul calls a “profound mystery”—that marriage, in its deepest meaning, is a copy of Christ and the church. If you want to understand God’s meaning for marriage you have to grasp that we are dealing with a copy of a greater original, a metaphor of a greater reality and parable and a greater truth. And the original, the reality, the truth is God’s marriage to his people, or now in the New Testament, we see it as Christ’s marriage to the church. And the copy, the metaphor, the parable is human marriage between a husband and a wife. Geoffrey Bromiley says, “As God made man in His own image, so He made earthly marriage in the image of His own eternal marriage with His people” (God and Marriage, pg 43). I think that is exactly right. And it is one of the most profound things you can say about human life.
The Roles Are Distinct
One of the things to learn from this mystery is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are distinct. Consider the way Ephesians 5:22–25 unpacks the role of husband and the role of wife in the mystery of marriage as a copy of Christ and the church: “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. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Husbands are compared to Christ; wives are compared to the church. Husbands are compared to the head; wives are compared to the body. Husbands are commanded to love as Christ loved; wives are commanded to submit as the church is to submit to Christ.
It is astonishing how many people do not see this when they deal with this passage. Or, seeing it, neglect it. I have in mind those who would be called egalitarians—the ones who reject the idea that men are called to be leaders in the home. They put all the emphasis on verse 21 and the teaching of mutual submission. All agree that verse 21 is overflow from verse 18 where Paul commands us to be filled with the Spirit. Verses 18b-21: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
So submitting to one another is seen as an expression of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Husbands and wives who are filled with the Holy Spirit serve one another. They humble themselves and get down low to lift the other up. They find ways to submit their immediate preferences for comfort to the need of the other. Amen to that! May it happen more and more. I have no desire to minimize the mutuality of submission and servanthood.
Mutual Submission and Unique Roles
But the problem is that egalitarians seem to stop with mutual submission, as if that were all one needed to say about roles in marriage, or as if that is all that the text has to say. And when they stop there, most people today are left with great ambiguity and great confusion about the proper roles of husband and wife. Once you clarify for people that a husband and a wife should be mutually humble, and mutually ready to serve each other, and mutually eager to meet each other’s needs and build each other up—once you have said all that, there remains a great uncertainty as to what, if anything, distinguishes the role of husband and wife. Is it only the biological gift of childbearing that distinguishes the roles? Or is there something more pervasive?
What is so astonishing is that egalitarians don’t embrace what every ordinary reader can see in Ephesians 5. After declaring that there is mutual submission in verse 21, Paul devotes twelve verses to unfolding the difference in the way a husband and wife should serve each other. You don’t need to deny mutual submission to affirm the importance of the unique role of the husband as head and the unique calling of the wife to submit to that headship.
Jesus, the Bridegroom, Served His Bride
The simplest way to see this is to remember that Jesus himself bound himself with a towel and got down on the floor and washed this disciples’ feet (the bridegroom, serving the bride), but not for one minute did any of the apostles in that room doubt who the leader was in that moment. In other words, mutuality of submission and servanthood do not cancel out the reality of leadership or headship. Servanthood does not nullify leadership; it defines it. Jesus does not cease to be the Lion of Judah when he becomes the lamb-like servant of the church.
After calling attention to the mutuality of submission or servanthood in verse 21, Paul devotes the whole passage through verse 33 to making distinctions between the role of the husband and the role of the wife—between the loving headship of a husband who takes his cues from Christ, and the willing submission of a wife who takes her cues from how the church is to follow Christ.
What we need to hear from this text today is not just a call to mutual submission that leaves young men groping for what it means to be a husband and young women groping for what it means to be a wife. What we need to hear is what headship and submission mean. What are the positive, practical implications of being called head that give man his distinct role in marriage? It is not enough to say, “Serve one another.” That is true of Christ and his church—they serve each other. But they do not serve each other in all the same ways. Christ is Christ. We are the church. To confuse the distinctions would be doctrinally and spiritually devastating. So also the man is the Christ-portraying husband, and the woman is the church-portraying wife. And to confuse these God-intended distinctions, or to abandon them, results in more disillusionment and more divorce and more devastation.
The Roles Are Not Arbitrary or Reversible
One of the things that are crystal clear in Ephesians 5 is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not arbitrarily assigned and they are not reversible any more than the role of Christ and the church are reversible. The roles of husband and wife are rooted in the distinctive roles of Christ and his church. The revelation of this mystery is the recovery of the original intention of covenant marriage in the Garden of Eden.
You can see this most clearly when you ponder what sin did to headship and submission and how Paul’s teaching here in Ephesians 5 is so perfectly suited to remedy that corruption. When sin entered the world, it ruined the harmony of marriage not because it brought headship and submission into existence, but because it twisted man’s humble, loving headship into hostile domination in some men and lazy indifference in others. And it twisted woman’s intelligent, willing, happy, creative, articulate submission into manipulative obsequiousness or groveling in some women and brazen insubordination in others. Sin didn’t create headship and submission; it ruined them and distorted them and made them ugly and destructive.
Recovering Roles from the Ravages of Sin
Now if this is true, then the redemption we anticipate with the coming of Christ is not the dismantling of the original, created order of loving headship and willing submission, but a recovery of it from the ravages of sin. And that’s exactly what we find here in Ephesians 5:21-33. Wives, let your fallen submission be redeemed by modeling it after God’s intention for the church! Husbands, let your fallen headship be redeemed by modeling it after God’s intention for Christ!
Therefore, headship is not a right to control or to abuse or to neglect. (Christ’s sacrifice is the pattern.) Rather, it’s the responsibility to love like Christ in leading and protecting and providing for your wife and family. And submission is not slavish or coerced or cowering. That’s not the way Christ wants the church to respond to his leadership and protection and provision. He wants the submission of the church to be free and willing and glad and refining and strengthening.
In other words, what Ephesians 5:21-33 does is two things: It guards against the abuses of headship by telling husbands to love like Jesus, and it guards against the debasing of submission by telling wives to respond the way the church does to Christ.
Defining Headship and Submission
So let me close for now with brief definitions of headship and submission and then come back next week, Lord willing, with practical application of what this headship in particular looks like.
- Headship is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like, servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home. (See next week’s message for the biblical basis of the words “leadership, protection, and provision.”)
- Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.
A good deal is at stake here. I hope you take it seriously whether you are single or married, old or young. Not just the fabric of society hangs on this, but the revelation of the covenant-keeping Christ and his covenant-keeping church.