In our time together today we’ll encounter some very practical marriage advice. This isn’t all that might be said about how to make a marriage work, but, if we follow it, it will take us a long way toward reaching the goal of a happy marriage relationship. Ideally, both partners will be committed to taking Paul’s advice here. This is one of the reasons why it is important for Christians to only marry other believers. Unbelievers will not share the goals for marriage that believers do, because they don’t see it the same way.
Perhaps the best way to start is with the passage itself, then we can talk about it intelligently. As we read it together, remember that in the preceding paragraph, Paul talked of the importance of every Christian being constantly filled with the Holy Spirit. In this paragraph, Paul makes a specific application of the general principal of living the Spirit-filled life to Christian marriage. Let’s read
Ephesians 5:21 “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their 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 Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
The first thing to note is the opening concept in which Paul declares that all Christians should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This sets the stage for the specific things he mentions in the verses that follow. As we think about this, we should understand what submission is. It is simply yielding to the authority of another person. In his writings, Paul makes it clear that all Christians should yield to authority, whether citizens to the government, children to parents, employees to employers, or whatever the case may be.
Particularly, Christians should submit to each other. In Philippians 2:3-4 he wrote: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” He then goes on to challenge us to follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ who submitted to God the Father even though He was fully equal with God. Jesus’ greatest desire is to exalt the Father. God the Father’s greatest pleasure is to exalt the Son. This is the example we Christians should follow, not the one offered by the world with its envy, jealousy, competitiveness, and striving for power.
When we turn to marriage in particular, Paul reminds us that all Christians have the obligation of submitting to each other, putting the needs and interests of the other before their own. Then, in verse 22, he applies this specifically to wives. He does not say that all women are to submit to all men. He says wives should submit to their own husbands. That is an important distinction. Failing to make it can lead to all kinds of dishonourable behaviour: physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, the sex trade, human slavery, and so on. Obviously, when Paul says wives should submit to their own husbands, he is not opening the door to these things. What concerns him is that a wife should yield to the authority of her husband, reflecting the kind of submission that the Church shows to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Next, Paul turns his attentions to the attitude of a husband to his wife. This, says Paul in verse 25, should be characterized by the same kind of love that Christ had for the church when He died on the cross to redeem her. Husbands should not just be prepared to die for their wives, they should actually, daily and in reality lay down their lives for them. This means a husband will care for, nurture, nourish, and look out for the needs and interests of his wife before he tends to his own care, nurture, nourishment, needs and interests.
Sometimes people are concerned because Paul uses different words to describe the attitudes marriage partners should have for each other. Think about this with me. I’ve made a lot of music over the years and I think musicians working together serve as a great practical example. When I submit to another musician, what do I do? I yield to his or her concept of the performance. I play at a volume and in a style that suits that person’s vision of the music. I’ve done this in the context of musicians who are very much better than I am, but I’ve also intentionally, consciously submitted to musicians who are clearly not as proficient as I am. It’s not about who’s better or smarter or who’s more powerful. It’s about a decision on my part to let the other person call the shots. Is this hard for me? No. I knew the terms before I joined the group. I decided ahead of time that I would submit to the leader’s authority. I might not be happy with everything that happens, but I didn’t join to make myself happy. I joined to make music with my friends.
Now, let’s say, I happen to be the one leading the group. Among the musicians in the group some will be better than I am, others not as good (musically speaking). They are all submitting to me – doing things my way. However, I love the members of my group. I genuinely care for them and want to make them look as good as possible. How do I treat them? I take their preferences into account. I listen to their ideas. I notice their weaknesses and accommodate to them. In other words, I put them first. I give them the best solos. I make arrangements which allow them to really shine. Is this hard for me? No. I didn’t agree to lead this group to improve my social position. I joined it to help my friends make the best, most powerful music they could and to improve their skills in the process.
These are the attitudes we should display in our relationships with other Christians in the Church and with the other partner in our marriage. There is no doubt that these attitudes are counter-cultural. The idea that people would make a conscious choice to submit to and love one another is generally foreign in the world around us. There, everyone is putting him or herself first. They all worry about their position, their power, their pleasure and how to get the most of these for the smallest investment. The idea that they should lay down their lives for others is ridiculous. The thought of choosing to submit to others without a fight is absurd.
Within the body of Christ, all of us are called to love each other and all of us are to submit to each other. A wise pastor will listen to, learn from and respond to his flock just as a wise congregation will listen to, learn from and respond to its pastor. All growing Christians listen to, learn from and respond to the admonitions and encouragement of their peers. Godly husbands and wives do the same: they listen, they learn, they respond
Mutuality/cooperation are important keys to applying the principal of Spirit-filled living to the Christian marriage. Note that Paul does not command wives to ensure that their husbands lay down their lives for them. Loving his wife is a husband’s responsibility, not the wife’s. He does not command husbands to enforce submission and respect from their wives. Submitting to her husband is a wife’s responsibility, not the husband’s. The fact is you cannot force anyone to love you or to submit to you, anyway. Both are gifts which are given freely or they are not worthy of the label we put on them.
99% of marriage conflicts arise from power (decision-making), money, sex, or some combination thereof. So here’s a test, be sure you take only the one which applies to you:
? If you as a husband find yourself making unilateral decisions which affect your wife, routinely handle joint resources as if they were your own, control the quantity and quality of sex in your relationship and block attempts by your wife to discuss these areas, you are not hitting God’s standard for your part in your marriage.
? If you as a wife find yourself making unilateral decisions which affect your husband, routinely handle joint resources as if they were your own, and control the quantity and quality of sex in your relationship, and block attempts by your husband to discuss these areas, you are not hitting God’s standard for your part in your marriage.
Keep in mind that as soon as we point to the other partner in the marriage as being the whole problem in the relationship, we have betrayed our desire for control – which is neither loving nor submissive. Do not fall into the trap of making the other person responsible for the quality of your relationship with him or her and your relationship with God. You take the first step. You fulfil your part in your marriage, then you can be sure that you are glorifying God in your marriage, whether or not your spouse is.