When working with couples in premarital counseling, we study a range of topics germane to wedding and marriage, such as finances, children, in-laws, chores in the home, expectations, and the like. Our first session appropriately addresses related spiritual topics. The three I normally stress are God’s design for marriage, raising children in a Christian home, and roles within marriage. When discussing roles within marriage, the couple and I explore Ephesians 5:22–33.
The Garden of Eden and the Issue of Submission
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (v. 22)
Practically speaking, I explain to couples that the issue of submission will come into play when the couple has a disagreement. This is assuming that the couple has discussed the matter civilly and thoroughly, bathed it in prayer, and sought Christian counsel. If husband and wife are still unable to come together on the decision, the husband shall have the casting vote. Drawing on my own experience and the experience of other couples, I observe that there are rarely irreconcilable disagreements. If husband and wife are in regular or constant disagreement on decisions, one wonders if there are larger sin issues at hand.
There are two primary reasons why couples (and people in general) struggle with the concept of submission experience in this sinful world. God designed marriage for two sinless human beings—Adam and Eve. In this righteousness, Adam and Eve did, and would have forever continued to, live in perfect, blissful harmony with Adam as the head and Eve in submission as her husband’s helper. Once the couple brought sin into themselves and their world, their union became the perverted, broken version of marriage the world has struggled with ever since. This boils down to husbands failing to serve as the head of their wives and wives failing to submit. This perversion is manifest in bickering, hurtful words, pettiness, grudge-holding, neglect, usurpation of authority, violence, abandonment, and adultery. The reason the world shuns the notion of godly submission is because it has seen the same used as a basis for tyranny, domination, and abuse within marriage. It cannot be overemphasized that God’s design for marriage is not the problem. Human beings, in their sinfulness, are the problem. Humanity fails in marriage because it has fallen from God’s perfect design.
Marriage as a Reflection of 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. (v. 33)
Try to imagine married life in the Garden of Eden. Before the fall, Adam committed himself fully to serving as Eve’s head—attending perfectly to her needs, never once being selfish, delighting in her completely, only after God. In this way, the first man never used his headship to dominate Eve. Eve also found her delight in Adam, supporting him in every endeavor and gladly submitting to her head. Keep in mind that fear of submission is a temptation from the devil. The world decided that submission is evil, to be avoided. God praises submission. Was it not Christ Himself who humbly submitted to the cross for the sake of sinners?
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (v. 25)
The issue of submission becomes minor when Christians follow God’s design for dating and marriage. Christians are to pursue and date only Christians. This means Christian not only in name but also in devotion. God’s children ought to be strongly devoted to the Lord and pursue others of the same devotion. This is being equally yoked. A successful Christian marriage is based on a Christian wedding and daily life together founded on God’s Word and Sacraments. A healthy Christian couple confesses and is absolved, studies the Bible, and receives Christ’s true body and blood. In this context, the Holy Spirit equips the husband to be his wife’s loving head and the wife to be her husband’s helper.
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. (vv. 26–27)
One could reasonably make the argument that the greater burden is placed upon husbands in a Christian marriage. For it is his responsibility to ensure that his wife’s (and children’s, God willing) spiritual needs are met. As his wife’s head, he is to care for and protect her, even to the point of laying down his life for her. This is not asked of the wife. If the husband is willing to give up his life for his wife, shouldn’t he also be willing to perform lesser sacrifices such as going to church, raising children, visiting the in-laws, and taking out the trash?
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (v. 32)
Paul says the role of a Christian husband is a reflection of what Christ has done for the church, His Bride. Christ loved the church so much that He left the comfort of His heavenly home to take on human flesh and live in our sinful world. He brought the kingdom of heaven into this world through His teaching and miracles. He shed His precious blood on the cross to wash our sins away and rose again, demonstrating that the ransom for sinners had been paid. Jesus was the perfect husband so that husbands and wives could be forgiven despite sinful failures in their marriages. What mirth we can derive from picturing Jesus, the divine husband, ushering His Bride, the church, up to His Father in heaven on Judgment Day!
Continue studying Paul’s letters to the Ephesians with this book from the Concordia Commentary series.