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Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph. 5:22-33).
The Roles of Husbands and Wives
Husbands and wives are equal (Gal. 3:28; 1 Peter 3:7) but different. God has given husbands and wives unique roles within marriage.
1. A wife is to humbly allow her husband to lead.
To wives, Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v. 22; cf. Col. 3:18). John Piper defines biblical submission for the wife as “the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts” (What's the Difference?, p. 66).
“Instead of telling wives to ‘obey’ (Gk. hypakouo), as was typical in Roman households, Paul appeals to [wives] to ‘submit’ (Gk. hypotasso), based on his conviction that men have a God-given leadership role in the family.” Paul writes in Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (ESV Study Bible, p. 2299). It’s important to see that much of what Paul says to husbands and wives went against the culture of his day.
In verses 22-24, Paul gives several instructions concerning a wife’s submission. First, wives are to submit voluntarily. The NIV says, “Wives, submit yourselves.” Second, wives are to “submit to [their] own husbands” (v. 22), not to every man. Third, wives are to submit “as to the Lord” (v. 22). This means that “as [a wife] submits to her husband she also submits to her Lord” (Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 738). It does not mean that a wife’s submission to her husband is the same as her submission to Christ. Unlike Christ, husbands are fallible. A husband should welcome his wife’s point of view. Fourth, wives are to “submit in everything to their husbands” (v. 24). “In everything” probably means “in every area of life.” It does not mean that a wife should allow her husband to cause her spiritual or physical harm.
2. A husband is to lovingly lead his wife as a servant.
To husbands, Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25; cf. Col. 3:19). Piper defines biblical headship for the husband as “the divine calling to take primary responsibility for Christlike, servant-leadership, protection and provision in the home” (What's the Difference?, p. 66). In the area of headship, husbands can make one of two kinds of errors: errors of aggressiveness and errors of passivity (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 467).
On many occasions, Jesus taught that leaders are to be servants. He said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Phil. 2:5-8). A husband is to be a leader who loves and serves his wife. A husband is to love his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25; cf. John 10:11). The love of Christ is a love that is not dependant on merit. A husband is to love his wife whether or not he feels she is deserving. The love of Christ is also sacrificial. His love was demonstrated by his death on the cross. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one that this, that somebody lay down is life for his friends” (John 15:13). A husband is to demonstrate his love for his wife by his actions—even laying down his life if necessary.
A husband is also to love his wife “as himself” (v. 33). Paul writes “that husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (vv. 28-29). A husband and wife are “one flesh” (v. 31; cf. Gen. 2:24). A husband not only hurts his wife but also himself when he does not love his wife.
Objections to Headship and Submission
There are many objections to the teaching of headship and submission within marriage.
Objection #1: The mutual submission of 5:21 rules out a husband’s headship.
The context defines what Paul means by “submitting to one another.” “The apostle is not speaking of mutual submission in the sense of a reciprocal subordination, but submission to those who are in authority over them” (Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, p. 404). Also, the expression “to one another” does not always indicate a fully reciprocal relationship in the NT (cf. Rev. 6:4; Gal. 6:2).
Objection #2: The Greek word kephale (v. 23) should be translated “source,” not “head.”
Kephale is also used by Paul in 1:22 and 4:15. The word “clearly refers to a husband’s authority over his wife and cannot mean ‘source,’ as some have argued. In fact, there is no sense in which husbands are the source of their wives either physically or spiritually. In addition, in over 50 examples of kephale in ancient Greek literature, with the idea ‘person A is the head of person(s) B,’ person A has authority over person(s) B in every case” (ESV Study Bible, p. 2271-72).
A Joyful Struggle
Because of sin, husbands and wives naturally struggle for control. Scripture can even be used as a weapon. Husbands, don’t say, “The Bible says I’m the head, so do what I say.” Wives, don’t say, “The Bible says you’re supposed to love me, so do what I want.” Don’t twist Scripture to get your own way.
A Spirit-filled husband and wife will seek to put each other first.