Wives and Husbands (Eph. 5:21-23)

Text: Ephesians 5:21-23
Proper 16, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Our epistle reading from Ephesians draws our attention to husbands and wives: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands as the church is to Christ.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” Now, that is undoubtedly an unpopular passage today. Many Christians are trying to make their way through a world where God’s creation of marriage  between one man and one woman faces an all-out assault. There is an entire movement founded around the phrase, “Smash the Patriarchy.” But, don’t we live in the age of progress and liberation? Talk about wives being subject sounds oppressive, toxic, and misogynistic. That’s why many would say that passages like this are wicked and shouldn’t even be read out aloud. These words might sound oppressive and toxic in our ears, but no pastor should skip over these words just to please popular opinion. Who could better define the roles of husband and wife than he who created them in the first place? So, this morning we are going to take some time and try to unpack this text and see if we have correctly understood the passage or not.

Wives: Follow Your Husbands’ Lead

Frist, when Paul talks to wives about submission, he is not talking about inferiority. Being subordinate does not mean a wife is inferior. The Son is subordinate to the Father, after all. Paul is also not talking about tyranny. Your husband is not your lord and master. ‘Partnership’ is an excellent word to describe a husband and wife. Each brings something to contribute, something that’s not identical but distinctive. So, a man finds himself by being a man, and a woman finds herself by being a woman. 

Marriage is covered in the first article of the Creed in  your Catechism. It’s part of the “house, home, spouse, and children,” all gifts that God gives us to support this body and life. It’s a celebration of our creation as “male and female” by our Creator. Of course, men and women are equal before God, but this does not mean they’re identical. God has made and makes men and women different. They both have the same worth, but they do not have the same roles. Their roles are different because there are significant differences between men and women, psychological and physiological differences. So both equally bear God’s image, but they also complement each other. There is no superiority or inferiority—simply differing roles. 

Those biblical roles are that God has called the husband to take the lead, and his wife follows. The idea is all about taking your place in God’s order. That’s what we call “vocation.” This is not about power. The husband is not the boss; he’s the head. The wife is not a slave; she’s the body. Husband and wife are to work together. It’s kind of like a dance: he leads, she follows. Two people cannot lead, or they will stumble. If no one leads, they’re not dancing. She follows his lead, trusting him to lead her across the dance floor. There is an order to things and by taking your place in God’s order you open yourself to receive the blessings God has intended.

Of course, sin brought disorder and chaos into the creation and every aspect of our humanity, including our sexuality. Of course, old Adam and old Eve are still at work in us. Sin doesn’t want it God’s way. We want things “our way.” It’s all about “my needs, my wants, my satisfaction.” Many people have gone into marriage for self-centered reasons. Marriage is seen more as an alliance to promote self-fulfillment. It’s rarely seen as a lifelong commitment to mutual love and service. We  often want to control or subdue the will of the other. That’s certainly not the way to dance and certainly not the way of “two become one flesh.” Marriage is an ordering.  There’s an order to things, and marriage puts male and female back into right order.  

Husbands: Lead With Self-Sacrificial Love

Secondly, what kind of husbands must men be? What role model do we find for husbands here? Is the husband supposed to take as his role model of a demanding and abusive male? Is the husband supposed to be the couch potato who orders his wife around like Jabba the Hutt? NO! The role model for husbands is Jesus! Did you notice that our text spends more time talking to husbands? Biblical leadership is not a right to command and control. Husbands, it’s your responsibility to love like Christ. The church is the bride of the Messiah, the wife of the king. So you must care for your wife like Jesus with servant-leadership. 

This means that wives are not any less valuable or inferior to their husbands. They are the more valuable ones. They are the precious ones. The welfare and care of his wife is what being a husband is all about. God places this burden on husbands: you must love and care for your dear wife even at the expense of your own life. Christian leaders do not exercise power or authority. No, they serve. Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Again he said that “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).  That’s the kind of leadership husbands ought to display.

Husbands are to love their wives sacrificially. Just like Christ gave himself up for the church, husbands should also be willing to serve their wives, sacrificing their own rights and interests. Christ is the saviour of the church, and husbands must be servants, and their leadership will be a self-sacrificial style of leadership. In self-denying service, there is no room for tyranny or sloth. A Christian husband is to lead in humility and self-sacrificing service. 

Husbands are to love their wives unconditionally. Just like Christ nourishes and cherishes the church, so also a husband should provide for his wife. Just like Christ loved the church when she was not worthy, a husband should also love his wife whether or not she is deserving of his love. The church became the Messiah’s bride, not by being dragged off unwillingly by force, but because he gave himself totally and utterly for her. There was nothing that love could do for Christ’s people that Jesus did not do. Think about how the crucifixion shows Christ’s love for us. His love was an act of complete, self-abandoning love. The husband is to take the lead—but he is to do so following the model of unconditional love provided by Jesus. There are to be no conditions on a husband’s self-sacrifice love for his wife. If husbands even attempted to live up to this beautiful ideal, there would be a lot less grumbling in the world today. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes domineering or overbearing, the whole thing collapses.

Marriage: A Picture of Christ and the Church

Third, did you notice that Paul quotes Genesis 2, “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one.” Paul looks back on this quote and says, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Why is the marriage of a man and a woman a mystery? The marriage union is a mystery.  Marriage is like a metaphor or an image or a picture or parable. It stands for something more profound. When the Bible says that the “two become one,” the deeper mystery is the marriage of Christ and the church. The marriage of a man and a woman is supposed to be a living drama, a visible sign, of how Jesus and the church relate to each other. 

The pattern for marriage is Jesus’ self-giving and the church’s subordinate receiving. Jesus leaves His Father in heaven and His mother at the foot of the cross. He is joined as one flesh to His bride, the church. The church was created from his pierced side, where blood and water poured out. Christ is the head, the church is his body, and they are “one flesh.” Just like the husband is one flesh with his wife, so the church is one body with Christ. When the husband cherishes and nourishes his wife, he loves and nourishes himself. When Christ cherishes and nourishes the church, he cherishes and feeds himself.

He is the Head, and the Church is His Body. He gave up His life for her. He sanctifies the Church, cleanses her, washes her, speaks well of her, justifies her, presents her to Himself and His Father spotless, blameless, sinless, holy. That’s what Christ has done and does for you in your Baptism. He loved you to death on a cross that He might cleanse you, forgive you, raise you, glorify you, join you to Himself and all believers. If you deny what this text says about husbands and wives, you could be denying what Jesus has done for you. But, if our hearts are fixed on the love which Christ showed for us, by dying for us, it seems almost trivial to say, “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” That should be easy, because that reflects what Jesus did for you.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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