The Scriptures reveal to us the importance of the marriage relationship by holding up Christ’s relationship to the Church as the model for our marriages. No other model could be given to express a higher value for an intimate marriage relationship. We all naturally tend to adopt models for our lives. It is important to have a good role model, as examples often teach better than instruction alone. In this article we will examine this model for marriage as described in the second half of Ephesians 5.
1. Christ is the example
This may not strike us at first as a particularly significant point. But let us note carefully the significance of this example for the marriage relationship.
a. If I accept Christ as my example, it means that I will not allow any other model, influence, statistical study, friend, or marriage expert to lead me to embrace any action with my spouse that is contrary to the example of Christ’s relationship to the Church. I will willingly evaluate my attitudes and actions toward my spouse in relation to this model, and willingly make changes where my relationship patterns are different from Christ’s model.
b. It also means that I will not be absorbed in making comparisons between my marriage and other marriages. Comparing ourselves among ourselves is not wise according to the Scriptures (2 Corinthians 10:12). Here are some practical reasons why making marital comparisons is harmful.
First, comparing our marriage with that of others takes our focus off the perfect model and allows us to play mind games based on how we perceive other marriages. A woman tends to notice when another husband does something for his wife that her own husband does not do for her, and will tend to remind her husband of this. He may defend himself by trying to diminish the model of the other husband or couple. In this scenario, the marriage relationship, which is already suffering, is starting to spill over into jealousy and put-downs, or into eulogies of other marriages, which can also affect relationships the couple might have with the identified married couples.
Second, we all can benefit from following others as they follow Christ, but we need to always keep our main focus on the perfect model. Studying perfection cannot make us perfect, of course, but it is the only way for us to be all that we can be for our spouse and for Christ. This is also the only way we can be certain that we are not following error. By diligently making Christ our model, we will bring Christ into our marriage relationships, our homes, and our lives.
c. It is in living out the Christ-like model that the married couple becomes one. This literally means “sharing the same one life together.” Spouses can become frustrated by their differences and think there is no way that they ever became one because they seemingly disagree about everything. The husband may say, “If you would learn to see things my way or accept my leadership, then we might become one.” The wife may respond by saying, “Your idea of being one is my giving in to your opinions, and your using me to satisfy your sexual desires. I will never become one with you until you are sympathetic to my needs and understand me. I don’t know why God ever came up with the idea of two being one, because it certainly does not apply to us!”
Please consider this: can there possibly be any greater difference between a holy and sinless Christ and a people that were conceived in sin and shaped by iniquity? Can we imagine Christ saying to His Father, “You want Me, the altogether lovely One, to become one with the unlovely? You are separated from them because of their sinful rebellion, but you want Me to become ‘one’ with them?” Yet it is the Son Who pleads to the Father on behalf of our union; not because of our similarities, but because we share the same life. “I give unto them eternal life . . . I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one . . . that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (taken from John 10:28, 17:23, 17:26). We are one, not because of our similarities or differences, but because we have committed our lives to one another, to live in love together regardless of our differences. Only in the Christ-like model are two different people able to become one in life and love. The admonition in this passage provides a way for two to become one.
2. The Christ-like model for the husband
The husband is the head and savior of the relationship (Ephesians 5:23), which means he:
- bears the primary responsibility for its success,
- is the spiritual leader in the home,
- is the primary provider for the home, and
- is savior of the body in that he takes responsibility for the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of his wife.
These principles are demonstrated to the wife through “gracious giving” over and over again—at times above and beyond what would seem reasonable. A self-centered man will always fail in the role of savior to the wife. His wife will not feel close to him. Like the Church responds to God’s grace in faith, so the wife should be able to reach out in faith to her husband and trust him, having seen the pattern of gracious giving. When the wife refuses to trust the leadership of her husband, and becomes assertive and demanding, she is saying, “I do not believe that God’s plan for headship is right for my marriage.” She doubts both God and her husband. She also shuts off the flow of gracious giving into her life through God and her husband. She in turn becomes “ungracious” to her husband’s provisions.
In that case, should the husband respond by sternly demanding obedience? How does Christ provide headship to the Church? Christ provides headship by graciously, faithfully, and firmly continuing to be the Head and Savior of the body. Men, do not back away from being leaders because your wife may not want to accept your leadership. You will be shutting off God’s ordained means of grace into your relationship. Backing away from leadership because your wife resists it is in effect saying, “God, your plan for the home may work for others, but not for us.”
The idea of headship conveys leadership, and the idea of savior conveys that of a “giving servant” and “intercessor.” The two ideas combined signify sacrificial, servant leadership. These elements are all essential in a husband’s role. You cannot decide that you will be the servant provider and let the rest of the family provide the leadership. Nor can you be authoritarian and demand that the rest of the family serve you. It is somewhat like managing your own restaurant. You can be the owner and have the ultimate control in how you run your business, but unless you provide service to the folks who come, you will eventually be out of business.
Love your wife; set your affections on her. A wife quickly learns her husband’s priorities, and knows that those priorities reflect that which he loves. It is very difficult to convince a wife that she is loved unless she sees her husband prioritizing her. In 1 Peter 3:7, the husband is instructed to dwell with his wife “according to knowledge, giving honor” to her. When we look at the life of Christ, we see Him giving everything up for His Church. Because He gave us His all, we know that His love for us is perfect and unfailing.
“I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” (Jeremiah 31:3)
“I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” (Hebrews 13:5)
The husband, like Christ, is to speak the Word of cleansing to his wife (Ephesians 5:26-27). “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3). Christ cleanses the Church through the Word. The idea is that the spouse does have imperfections that are improved over time, and only in eternity becomes perfect. Cleansing in the Church takes place primarily through the ministry of the “spoken” Word.
The parallel is that the husband is to speak life into the soul of his wife. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue . . .” (Proverbs 18:21). Just as the Church/bride is purified by the spoken Word, so also God has granted the husband the position and power to use his tongue as a life-giving means to speak encouragement, hope, and comfort into the heart of his wife. Our wives need our verbal affirmation, and through the power of this vehicle their wrinkles smooth out and they grow in grace and become more beautiful in our eyes.
God has designed that as wives face the struggle of their earthly beauty fading away, their hearts are strengthened and made secure through a deeper love relationship with their husbands. Have you not seen the beauty of an elderly man presenting his lovely, though aged, wife to others? As her earthly beauty fades he sees more vividly the lasting beauty of the close love relationship and tells her so. This is the promise held out to the husband: follow the Christ-like model for your role that you might reap the harvest of love in the golden years.
3. The Christ-like model for the wife
a. The wife is to submit to the husband (Ephesians 5:22).
The idea of submission implies that there will be times when the wife has a differing opinion. It implies that her will is given up in deference to the authority of the husband. It also implies that there may be strong internal resistance to the will of the husband, and that it may take time to work through and accept some of his decisions.
The Christ-like model of submission is based on the headship of the Father over the Son. The Son laid down His will in order to be obedient to the will of the Father. He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death—a picture of the wife willingly giving her life for her husband and family. The submission of the Son did not lower His value in the eyes of the Father; rather, as a result of His submission, the Father elevated Him to a position above all others. The submission of the wife is essential to the husband lifting her up above all other women in his life. When the wife learns to submit, she will be praised by her husband—“a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).
b. She is to submit to her own husband (Ephesians 5:22).
Women sometimes choose to accept other male authorities in their lives outside or above their husbands, and try to use those men to circumvent the authority of their own husbands. Women do not owe submission to their husbands outside of the will of God; otherwise the model of Christ is broken. For this reason the qualifier of submission is added, “as unto the Lord.” Neither can a woman hide behind the desires of her husband for disobedience to Scripture. But the husband will be able to sense if the wife has a submissive spirit and is willing to submit in all matters where submission to God is not compromised. He senses her submission just as easily and naturally as she senses his love. It is the submissive spirit which marks the woman as truly submitting to her own husband. She is to be adorned with “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Peter 3:4). This means that each morning, as part of her daily dressing, she consciously decides to put on this ornament of grace as she relates to her husband.
c. She is to reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:33).
The thought here is that she has respect for his role in the marriage and family. The same idea is expressed in the Scripture where Sarah calls Abraham “lord” (see 1 Peter 3:6). Submission speaks more of a resigned attitude towards leadership while reverence carries with it a respect for leadership. The idea of reverence is important because it means that the woman does not submit to her husband in a fearful or grudging way. When reverence does not accompany submission, the wife takes on the countenance of a resentful or bitter spirit, or simply someone who is oppressed. The spirit of reverence frees her from the spirit of resentment. The spirit of resentment is not merely against her husband, but also against the Lord who ordained this order. She is to submit to her husband as unto the Lord—cheerfully.
Reverence is essential for the wife, because the expression of reverence leads the husband to trust his wife. “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil” (Proverbs 31:11). Genuine reverence keeps the wife from disrespecting her husband to others. He knows that she will not slander him before others even when the relationship is struggling. “She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:12). Why is reverence or deep respect so essential for the husband? It helps him to become a respectable person. If you want your husband to be respected by others, then respect him. Your respect for him will help him become well-respected. “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23).
d. She is to learn to love her husband.
The comment is sometimes made that women are not commanded to love their husbands. Please notice though in Titus 2:4 that young women are to learn to love their husbands from older women who are temperate and good examples. Husbands need to be loved in ways that are meaningful to them, just as men are expected to dwell with their wives according to knowledge (see 1 Peter 3:7). Women must learn to love their husbands, because they do not naturally express their love in ways that men prefer.
Men and women have different ways of feeling loved. Men typically feel loved when their wives prepare their favorite food, allow them time alone to pursue their interests, express interest or participate in their hobbies, and when they offer physical intimacy. Wives, if you want to learn more, just ask your husband!
Wives, you will need to learn to love him, because you won’t understand how men can feel loved by things that don’t mean as much to you. Women who learn to love their husbands will find the relationship deepening as the men will likely respond with love in ways that are meaningful to their wives.
4. The Christ-like love relationship
The love of Jesus is a model for love in a marriage relationship. Husbands and wives can reflect the following Christlike characteristics in their love for each other:
a. It is a special love which is reserved for this relationship. There is a picture of this in Christ’s love for the whole world and His special love for His bride. This special love includes a degree of godly jealousy which does not allow other relationships to take priority over this one—be it the children, the extended family, friends, the work of the church, or helping other people.
b. It is a love which delights in being together. Spouses who model Christ’s love relationship with the Church enjoy being together. Christ’s desire for being together is expressed in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered . . . there am I.” We should look for and plan for opportunities to spend time together.
c. It is an empathizing love. The spouses learn to share and feel each other’s joys and sorrows. Their emotions become intertwined. The wife teaches the husband to be more sensitive to the feelings of others, and the husband helps the wife to be more objective in reasoning. Together they help each other become people they would not be on their own.
d. It is a love of communion. This principle is certainly a part of the previous three, yet it bears mentioning specifically, in that communication is essential to getting to know one another. The equivalent is the daily devotional in prayer and the Word to learn to know Christ. In both cases time must be set apart for communication.
e. It is a love that is based on forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Many times we must forgive our spouses for the insensitive words and deeds they commit. Sometimes they do not know how deeply it hurts. Forgiveness is essential in order for the relationship to be honest. With honesty must come forgiveness, so that love is not destroyed when facing the facts of our transgressions against our spouses.
f. It is a love of unity. Everything we have written about is designed by God to bring us into a one flesh and one spirit relationship. If we see the big picture as the oneness of a shared love relationship, then headship and submission are properly understood and held in the right balance. It was the prayer of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane that the Church might know the same eternal oneness with Christ as He knows with the Father: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). In Ephesians 5 this circle of oneness is extended into the marriage relationship: “For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones [referring to the Church]. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh [referring to the marriage]” (Ephesians 5:30-31).
These love-relationship principles are laid out in Scripture to work together in harmony with the model for marriage that we see in Christ’s relationship with the Church. In the commands laid down for the husband and wife, Christ is to be the role model for both. The marriage in turn is to be a picture of the eternal love relationship Christian believers have with Christ.