Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. – Ephesians 5:21-30
I will have been married to the same wonderful woman for 34 years next month. This does not make me an expert on marriage by any means, but I would say I am experienced. This passage contains some tricky water as Paul shares his views on marriage and gender roles. I will not wade into whether these views were affected by the patriarchal context within which Paul lived and wrote, but I will say that Jesus had plenty of early followers from both genders. Some of the most faithful wondering souls were women. The key sentence for me in the entire passage is the first one “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The main subject of the passage is marital mechanics and how to make marriage work, probably one of the most written about topics ever. This is a subject that Paul, a bachelor, has no first-hand knowledge about. His understanding is no doubt informed by the Holy Spirit, but it may also be limited by experience. That said, what are the matrimonial mysteries being plumbed here?
How should husbands and wives relate to one another? What if there is a disagreement? What are the responsibilities of both husband and wife to each other and to God? These are all difficult questions fraught with potential pitfalls.
Paul dives right in with the statement that “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord”. This directive by itself is completely consistent with Jesus’ commands to love the Lord with all your heart mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. In this case Paul is defining “neighbor” as the husband.
Then comes a class IV rapid “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” This rapid leads right into a class V rapid with “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” I feel like if Paul were married he may have worded this differently. Paul’s husbandly hierarchy aside, I think the main point is mutual submission to one another and to faithfully following God together. Phew my arms are tired after that series of rapids…
Paul continues with the other side of the submission equation. Husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church”. This sentence contains some deep water that I skipped over as I was distracted by the rhetorical rapids we just ran. What does Paul mean by “church”? Presumably this means where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name but this statement is a bit of a time bender as when Jesus walked the earth there was not really a “church” per se. Home churches and other more formal gatherings came only after Jesus left this earth. Jesus did much of His teaching on the beach and by the lake so it was public and experiential. So I suppose one could argue that wherever He was that was “church”.
I think another way to state what Paul was getting at here is to say husband’s and wives are to love one another as Jesus loved all those he encountered. Jesus approached each person he encountered with great compassion and understanding. If every husband (and wife) were capable of doing this there would probably be a lot more healthy marriages.
The water reference here is “cleansing her by the washing with water through the word”. This has been interpreted to mean bathing your wife in the bible, which is certainly one way to understand this sentence. Another possible way to read it is to take the meaning of “the Word” from the Gospel of John “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. So another way to understand what Paul is saying is that we are to bathe our wives in God.
The washing with water through the “word” is an interesting detail in that Jesus, the Word, called Himself the Well of Living Water. Jesus also provided an amazing example of submission and servant leadership by washing the feet of His followers and ultimately sacrificing His life for us.
So what are the take home lessons for me from this raucous rapids? Submit to God and one another. Love God and one another. If we do this God and the Holy Spirit will help us with the messy matrimonial details we are bound to experience.
Prayer: God help us to love and submit to You, and love and submit to one another.