The Church in America has had some interesting ideas about what roles within the marriage ought to look like. Some good. Some bad. Some … are just weird. We looked at the wife’s responsibilities in the last article. Now, we turn to the husbands.
What the Apostle Paul actually says about this topic is not nearly as complicated as we’ve made it. Like so many things in the eternal struggle between Christianity, culture and tradition, Paul’s remarks here aren’t complicated at all – but they’ve become complicated by the baggage we each bring to the table.
Let’s see what Paul says. Again, the translation here is my own.
Eph 5:25-27: You husbands, always love1 [your] wives—just as even2 the Messiah loved the Church and gave Himself up for her so that He would purify the Church, cleansing [her] with3 the washing of4 water by5 the message of the Gospel.6 He did this so7 to8 render the church pure and holy9 for10 Himself—not having stain or imperfection or anything like that—but, to be holy and blameless.
For husbands, “love” means you must have the same depth of love for your wives that Christ has for the church. Paul isn’t saying husbands make their wives holy; he’s describing what Christ’s kind of love looks like—a love that values the other more Himself, and personifies selflessness.
How does Jesus love the Church? Enough to do what He did.
What should my love for my wife look like? It should look like that.
Paul’s analogy vaporizes crude stereotypes from outsiders about the Church’s teaching on marriage, and it should put a bullet in the head of the bad teaching about marriage from within the Church.
Eph 5:28: So, you husbands11 must love your own wives like you love yourselves. The one who loves his own wife loves himself.
Paul draws this parallel with Christ because husbands and wife are supposed to be one unit, one team, one union. Husbands and wives are literally one person—in a similar way to the Divine Persons being one God. There is no figurative “space” between husband and wife—you and your wife together are one constellation, one union.
Paul keeps hammering away at this because … Genesis 3:16 is real.
It explains our fights in marriage.
It explains our disagreements.
It explains our tensions.
It explains the confusion about gender roles in our society and in the Church.
It explains why men fail at their role. Why some are cruel tyrants to their wives, and why others psychologically manipulate and brutalize their wives. It explains why the only skills some other men seem to possess are smoking marijuana, playing video games, and producing children.
Paul says, for Christian men, this must not happen! He says:
- you’ll always nourish and take care of yourself,
- so don’t you dare do less for your wife
- because she’s part of you, and you’re part of her!
This means that, just as Christ has no self-interest when it comes to His relationship with Father and Spirit, neither is there any self-interest in your relationship with your wife—your wife is yourself!
To make his point again, Paul turns to Genesis:
Eph 5:31: “Because of this, a man will leave father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two will become one person.” This is the great mystery!14 But, I’m [really] speaking about Christ and about the Church.
This “mystery” is the metaphysical bond of a husband and a wife. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, and you can’t take a photo of it. But, it’s there. It’s real. It’s marrow deep. It’s not an illusion. It’s a picture of the union Christ has with His church.
And that picture itself is nothing but a dim reflection of Father, Son and Spirit and their union with one another, and their desire to reach out beyond themselves to draw men, women, boys and girls into their love and into their family.15
This is me boldly going where no English translations dare to go. I believe Paul says husbands must love their wives so that wives would, in turn, reverence their husbands. This is not a command (“let the wife see that she respects her husband”). It is an explanation. We love God because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). So, wives will reverence their husbands when they know their husbands, in turn, love them too.
It’s a picture of an eternal cycle:
- The husband loves the wife like Christ loves the Church
- So, the wife therefore reverences her husband because she knows he loves her and cares for her.
- This leads the husband to love his wife more.
- Which leads the wife to reverence her husband
- So, their bond as a couple and their joint union with Christ grows ever stronger.
- The cycle repeats.
Ephesians 5:21-33 does not paint a picture of a crude hierarchy. Instead, it shows us a complementary relationship based on mutual love and mutual submission—different roles working together.
Men and women, husbands and wives are not interchangeable, sexually androgenous beings—we’re not generic USB charging cords! We’re a complementary, harmonious pair that only works when both parties are submitting to and loving one other.
If your inkjet printer is missing the blue cartridge, the printer is dead. It doesn’t matter that the black, the cyan and yellow cartridges are full. If you’re missing the key, then your car is dead, too. In our passage, Paul is saying that, if both parties aren’t submitting to one another, then the marriage will not and cannot work as He intended.
There is no call for men to pretend to be John Wayne; to mimic the worst impulses of a particular cultural stereotype of “manhood.” Tim and Kathy Keller go so far as to suggest that, beyond the general guidelines such as those Paul explained here:
the Bible gives almost no details about how that is expressed in concrete behavior. Should wives never work outside the home? Should wives never create culture or be scientists? Should husbands never wash clothes or clean the house? Should women take primary responsibility for daily child care while men oversee the finances? Traditionally minded people are tempted to nod yes to these questions until it is pointed out that nowhere does the Bible say such things. The Scripture does not give us a list of things men and women must and must not do. It gives no specific directions at all.18
As Yosemite Sam would say, “them’s fightin’ words!” But, are they really? I leave you to decide. Perhaps, like the Grinch before us, we should puzzle and think on this one ‘till our puzzlers are sore. Then maybe we’ll think of something we haven’t before.
I will say the most subversive, most counter-cultural, most revolutionary thing you can do as a Christian in this culture is to actually believe and practice what Paul says here:
- You wives, [submit yourselves] to your own husbands, like you do to the Lord.
- You husbands must love your own wives like you love yourselves. The one who loves his own wife loves himself.
- … submitting to one another because of reverence for Christ.
As for the practical details of what that looks like in your marriage … I leave that to you.
1 I’m translating ἀγαπᾶτε as an iterative present.
2] This is ascensive (“even”), not adjunctive (“also”).
3 καθαρίσας is an adverbial participle of means.
4 This is a genitive of means.
6 This is my interpretive gloss for ῥήματι, which doesn’t have to mean a literal “word.” It can also mean “message” (Jn 3:34, 5:47). What message cleanses the Church? The Gospel, of course.
7 The infinitive clause expresses purpose.
8 I interpret the pronoun αὐτὸς as redundant, here. It could signify emphasis, but the translation result (“so that He Himself would present the Church to Himself …”) is awkward and unsatisfactory.
9 ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν are double accusatives, with “glorious” acting as a predicate. I took the word to refer to a quality that isn’t ordinary (BDAG, s.v. “ἔνδοξον,” 2; p. 332). In this context, especially with the reference to cleansing and purifying by the Spirit by the Gospel, that quality is purity and holiness.
10 This is a dative of indirect object, expressing benefaction.
11 This is a nominative of address.
12 ἐκτρέφει καὶ θάλπει seem to be near synonyms, here.
13 The accusative τὴν ἐκκλησίαν is a predicate.
14 τὸ μυστήριον is the subject, and μέγα the predicate. The article in τὸ μυστήριον is diectic.
15 Jurgen Moltmann writes, “When we say `God is love’, then we mean that he is in eternity this process of self-differentiation differentiation and self-identification; a process which contains the whole pain of the negative in itself. God loves the world with the very same love which he himself is in eternity. God affirms the world with the energy of his self-affirmation. Because he not only loves but is himself love, he has to be understood as the triune God. Love cannot be consummated by a solitary subject. An individuality cannot communicate itself: individuality is ineffable, unutterable. If God is love he is at once the lover, the beloved and the love itself. Love is the goodness that communicates itself from all eternity,” (The Trinity and the Kingdom [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993; Kindle ed.], KL 924-928). See also all of ch. 2, §8.
16 This is a crazy sentence. I can only assume an implied plural male subject in ὑμεῖς οἱ καθʼ ἕνα (the husbands), which then changes to singular (husband) in ἀγαπάτω, with τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα as the direct object.
17 I think the best way to take ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα is as indicating purpose, rather than an implied imperative. However, BDAG notes the conjunction does occur with the subjunctive and can carry an imperatival flavor (BDAG, s.v. “ἵνα,” 2.g.; p. 476). However, I still disagree. The mutuality implied with the Christ analogy (Christ loves us = we therefore love him) argues in favor of purpose; the husband loves his wife so she will, in turn, reverence him. This is a cycle.
This interpretation means δὲ could indicate explanation, and so disappear in translation as redundant. Or, it could be a simple conjunction that’s left untranslated.
18 Tim and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2011), pp. 209-210.