Ephesians 5:21-33, Part One

By Garnett Reid

I watched it happen. Their marriage disintegrated before my eyes. As the young couple’s pastor, I felt helpless. I offered every resource I could think of to save their relationship. An irresistible force seemed to pull them apart, though. They had survived their child’s health problems and unemployment; in fact, these trials seemed to strengthen the bond between them – for awhile. Finally they succumbed. Their marriage was over.

Stories like this one are all too common among Christians today. In fact, Barna Research indicates that one-third of all professing “born again” married people have gone through a divorce.

The other side of the coin tells a different tale, however. Most Christian marriages do survive! We need to sound this note more than we do. Believers must not give way to the world’s thinking, as if divorce is no big deal, or even desirable or chic.

Yet the husband and wife relationship does not last without a commitment from both to make it last. In Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul offers inspired help from God to fuel such a commitment. These verses sound so familiar to Christians that we dare to assume we have mastered their counsel. Believe me, we have not. We need to hear and read them over and over until we live them, until they work their way into our kitchens and dens and bedrooms and stay there every day.

In the immediate context, Paul has dealt with the problem of sexual immorality (5:3, 8). He has challenged us to wise living, now extending to how we live in those most intimate relationships of our lives. He pulls all the strands of the fabric together into a directed, divine pattern for the home in this the lengthiest passage in the New Testament on the husband-wife dynamic. As we listen to his wisdom, may we commit our minds, our hearts, and our wills to growing “energizer” homes – the kind that keep going, and going, and going!

My plan in this study is not to develop a detailed exegesis of these verses, but to offer from them seven principles that apply to our roles in marriage today.

1. Paul here speaks to believers, not to the world at large.

Remember he has addressed his readers as “dear children” (5:1), “saints” (5:3), and “light in the Lord” (5:8). Of all people Christians must understand that marriage is actually a three-fold union: Christ, the husband, and the wife. Certainly non-Christians can and should cultivate successful marriages. The fact is that if they do so, however, they will be building on Biblical principles though they may not even acknowledge them.

Believers should also realize that though both partners may know and serve the Lord, we are still fallible, sin-prone human beings. No home, not even a Christian one, is perfect. Yet our marriages can grow in the Lord if we are willing to commit ourselves first to His absolute Lordship and, second, to one another in mutual submission.

2. These lessons about the home illustrate the ultimate relationship between Christ and His bride, the church.

Paul reminds us that he speaks “concerning Christ and the church” (v. 32). Their Christian marriage is an essential feature of both partners’ relationship with Christ. It is therefore a spiritual trust and in turn demands accountability.

No wonder the apostle exhorts mutual submission “in the fear of God” (v. 21). The Lord Himself thus stands as the supreme head of the home. Our responsibility to submit to each other, then, assumes its rightful place as a spiritual discipline. We testify to Christ’s Lordship when husband and wife give themselves to one another in shared joy.

3. The baseline principle Paul commends is mutual submission.

Verse 21 marks the transition from the first part of chapter 5 to the present section focusing on the home as a reflection of Christ and the church. Despite Peter O’Brien’s comments to the contrary, this theme of mutual submission informs the entire unit. Wives submit to their own husbands as husbands “submit” to their wives in loving devotion (verses 22-25, 28, 33).

In fact, as hard as it is for me to admit it, as a man I need this directive more than my wife because I tend to be more selfish, independent, beset by egotism – you know, the “macho” guy thing.

So what does it mean to “submit” to another person? The Greek word translated “submit” means to place one thing in order under another, to subordinate. One yields to the other. John Piper describes it as a “disposition to yield or an inclination to follow.” The wife recognizes and yields to her husband’s responsible leadership. As the husband loves his wife, he submits to her in meeting her needs. They become helpers together for each other’s joy.

This privileged duty of mutual submission points up the roles of husband and wife as complements to each other. They find what they need in each other. This feature of God’s great wisdom in designing “male and female” clearly reveals the perversion inherent in the attempt to legalize homosexual relationships as “marriages.” Marriage involves partners who complement each other. As J. Budziszewski notes, “a man and a man (or a woman and a woman) are not complements, but sames . . . . Rather than balancing each other they drive each other to extremes.” God’s loving design for humans is nowhere more evident than when He made them “male and female.”

H. W. Webb Peploe, vicar of St. Paul’s Church in London a century ago, would fret over the poor selections he made of gifts for his wife, “But she accepts them graciously,” he obliged, “because a long time ago I gave her my heart.” Such a love surely brings this life’s highest joy.

About the Writer: Garnett Reid is a member of the Bible faculty at Free Will Baptist Bible College, Nashville, TN.