This article is about the relationship between man and woman in marriage. From Ephesians 5:21-32 the author shows what is means that marriage is a relationship of love, and what the headship and submission of man and wife entails.

Source: Una Sancta, 1997. 3 pages.

Ephesians 5:21-32 – Headship and Submission

21…submitting to one another in the fear of God. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. 28 So husbands ought to love their own 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 the Lord does the church. 30 For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. 31 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:21-32

The relation there is to exist between husband and wife in the Christian marriage is a topic of ongoing interest for every couple eager to submit to the will of the Lord. The contemporary Christian is grateful that in today's society the wife is no longer seen to be virtually the property of her husband, the silent partner of marriage who does what she's told.

The contemporary Christian is thankful too that the husband is no longer touted as the family monarch; he has learned to listen to the thoughts and desires of the rest of the family. But what ought the relation between husband and wife really to be? What do Scriptures mean by describing the husband as "head" of his wife? And what concretely is expected of the wife in the instruction to "be subject"? Are these terms not impossible throw-backs to a long outmoded view of marriage? A closer look at what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 5 may provide for us some answers.

Marriage is a mystery, writes Paul, and a profound one at that. What's so mysterious about marriage is that "the two shall become, one flesh" (vs. 31). That concept – two becomes one – prompts us to think of the sexual relations between husband and wife. But that is not the meaning. Rather, "two shall become one flesh" implies that both the husband and the wife gain a new and deeper richness. Recall that God in the beginning said of His creation that it was very good, but it could be better yet if man were not alone. And for that reason the Lord created woman. She is there to complete, to compliment, the man. Adam could be totally himself only with Eve at his side; and Eve found her purpose, her meaning in life at the side of Adam. "The two shall become one flesh."

The marriage of Adam and Eve was one of sublime happiness. There was no friction as Eve was subject to Adam, as Adam exercised his role as head. As they lived in Paradise, they understood their mutual tasks perfectly. Yet their's is not an example that we are to follow. We know that they loved, perfectly; after all, they did live in Paradise. But how Adam loved his wife we do not know. And how he functioned as head, how Eve was submissive, is not told to us in Genesis. The apostle reminds us in Ephesians 5 of that first marriage, but he does not go so far as to tell us to copy it. Rather, on command of the exalted Christ, his instruction to the church of all ages is to "be followers of God" (vs. 1). Yes, even in marriage does this command hold true, for Jesus Christ is true God, and it is to this second Adam that married children of God are to look for their example.

Marriage, says Paul, is a mystery. Why? Because it refers to "Christ and the church.” That statement begs the question: what is the relationship between Christ and the church? It turns out to be a relationship of unity. Vs 30: "we are members of His body." Says Paul: the church is the body of Christ, and we belong to that body. And we all know that you cannot take a body apart. To separate the head from the body is to kill both the head and the body. In the same way, one cannot separate the church from Christ, nor Christ from the church. Between Christ and His Church there is an inseparable unity; they are "one flesh", "one body.”

That unity, says the apostle, that oneness between Christ and the church is to be there also between husband and wife. Stronger: the relation which there is between Christ and His church is the model which the husband and the wife are to reflect, to copy. That relationship is the whole basis on which the Creator of Marriage forges His instruction in our chapter. Notice how often the word "as" is used in this paragraph:

  • Vs 22: "Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord."

  • Vs 23: "the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the Church."

  • Vs 24: "just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be [subject] to their own husbands."

  • Vs 25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church."

  • Vs 29: "No man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church."

You see, the apostle would have us know that Christian marriage on earth is to be a reflection, a picture, of the relation between the heavenly bridegroom and His bride. We are not told to reach back to the paradise of old to discover how a marriage today is to be; we are to look instead to the second Adam who triumphed over sin – Christ is our example. In marriage we don't reach back for a left over flower from a paradise lost; in marriage today we receive an early bloom on earth from the Paradise Christ is preparing for us. In marriage we are to imitate God.

If the example we are to follow is then from heaven, is in fact Christ Himself and the relation He has with His bride, what does this reality concretely mean for our marriages?

We know very well that in the relation between Christ and the church, Jesus is the head. Christ's headship implies that the church is controlled by Christ, just as the body is controlled by its head. That thought of headship finds its echo in the marriage relation in this way that the husband is set as head over the wife. Vs 23: "For the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is head of the church." The reality of the Husband's role as head is the reason why the wife has the duty to "be subject" to her husband. Just "as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be [subject] to their own husbands in everything" (vs. 24).

I grant: if there is any word that gets one's back up today, it is the thought of submission. It's argued that a woman is not less than a man; she is his equal and so it's beneath her dignity to have to submit. It's also said: in Christ, there is no distinction; there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). So a woman ought not to have to be subject to her husband.

I would reply, though, that equality in status before God does not at all mean that both husband and wife have the same task As one author put it: "Equality of worth is not identity of role."1 It pleased the Lord God to give different functions to husband and wife. So it is for us simply to recognise this distinction and embrace it.

As the church is subject to Christ, so the wife is to be subject to her husband. What does this 'being subject' imply? No, it does not mean that the wife is something of a servant who is to fulfil each whim of a dictatorial husband. Notice that the husband has the same command as his wife has received; vs. 21: he also is to submit. How is he to serve his wife? By functioning as her head. How is he to function as her head? In the same way as Christ is head of the church. And what does the headship of Christ over the church mean? Certainly not an iron-fisted rule that demands slavish obedience to selfish desires. Rather, the headship of Christ over His church implies that He is the "Saviour" (vs. 23). And we know the meaning of that term 'Saviour'. It implies a serving, it implies a giving. Saviour: that means that Christ, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and become obedient unto death (Philippians 2). That's what being "head" implies. The dominant characteristic of headship which Paul accents in Ephesians 5 is not the thought of lordship; Paul stresses here that headship implies Saviourhood.

The husband is the head of his wife. That is to say that he denies himself for her, gives himself for the advantage, the benefit, of his dear wife.  

And if the husband so reflects Christ, surely the Godly wife will entrust herself quite readily to such a husband, and so submit also. Where there is such love, self-denying, giving love, on the part of the husband as Christ Himself once showed, there is no place for unthinking obedience on the part of the wife to his rule. There is on her part instead grateful acceptance of his care. Just as the church thankfully accepts Christ's redemption.

That the apostle thinks in terms of self-denying love on the part of husbands to their wives is further evidenced by the command which he addresses to the husbands. Vs 25: "Husbands, love your wives;" That this loving meant a reflecting of what the Lord Jesus Christ did in becoming the Saviour of His people is dear from the rest of the verse: "love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for it." That, says Paul, is what love from the husband to his wife means: denying oneself as Christ did for the advantage of the bride.

What should be the purpose of this self denying, this giving love? We are told in vss. 26 and 27 why Jesus Christ gave Himself up for the Church:

that He might sanctify and cleanse, her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.

Christ's purpose was: to perfect the church, to perfect His bride. Here it's not the bride who makes herself presentable; it is the bridegroom who labours to beautify her in order to present her to Himself. His love and self-sacrifice for her, His cleansing and sanctifying of her, are all designed for her liberation and her perfection; she should come to her full glory.

"So husbands ought to love their own wives" (vs. 28). Christ gave Himself for His church, not to crush His bride, but rather to make her everything that He longs her to be, viz, herself in the fullness of her glory. Even so the husband is not to use his headship to crush or to stifle his wife, to frustrate her from being herself. No, love means the opposite: give himself to her, so that she may develop her full potential under God and so become a still more complete help for her husband.

Does it still seem strong, dear reader, that you as husband should give yourself so thoroughly to your wife? Does it still unrealistic that you as wife should submit so fully to your husband? The apostle would not have us think that it's too strong, that it's unrealistic. For he insists that husband and wife are one. "No one ever hated his own flesh," the apostle adds (vs. 29), and the wife is the husband's own flesh – the two shall be one! In as much as one seeks one's own good, so also must one seek the good of the spouse. And the Godly husband knows how to seek what is good for his spouse; after all, he has the example of what Jesus Christ did for the benefit of the church.


  1. ^ J H Yoder, quoted by John Stott in God's New Society (Downers Grove, IVP, 1979), pg 216.

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