21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul had been telling the Ephesians about God’s amazing cosmic masterplan of salvation. How God in his amazing grace has rescued us from judgment and from the grip of evil. How God the Holy Spirit lives in every believer as the seal of our salvation giving us a guarantee and a foretaste of heaven bringing the power of God which raised Jesus from the dead into our lives. Now Christians form God’s new community, God’s new Temple, the church.
In response to all the blessings God has lavished upon us, Christians have obligations. God expects us to turn our backs on our old sinful way of life and live a new life, like throwing off old shabby filthy clothes and putting on a brand new spotless suit. As children of light we should live lives filled with love. Now Paul goes on to explain what this new life should look like in our everyday lives in a series of what some have called “household rules”. He lays down a vital principle which applies in all kinds of relationships as he then goes on to talk about marriage.
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Before we spell out what submitting means, we need to be clear that this is an equal and reciprocal relationship. Submit to one another. The requirement applies to both husband and wife in the same way and to the same extent. Submit to one another. In those times submitting would be the attitude expected of every member of the household towards the head of the household. It was completely unheard of to expect everybody to submit to one other. But this is what Paul expects Christians to do out of reverence for Christ, in order to please God.
“Submit to one another” can equally be translated as “obey one another.” The Message Translation reads “be courteously reverent to one another.” Submission simply means giving way. Changing your mind. Letting the other person have their way. Letting them win – because if you do, your marriage is strengthened and you both win! Submission does NOT mean being a doormat. It does NOT mean subjugation. Submission simply means making each other happy because that will build a stronger family.
What isn’t obvious in any translation is that all of verses 18-24 all make up just one sentence. So everything Paul goes on to say about wives and husbands is just explaining and expanding on the central theme of what it means to submit to one another.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
At that time this idea of a wife submitting to her husband was totally universal in every culture. What Paul is saying is that for Christians the pattern for submission or obedience in marriage comes from the example of the church’s relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. God only tells us to do the things which are good and beneficial for us. We all joyfully submit to God’s will in our lives because doing so brings God’s blessings. In the same way wives submit to their husbands. And God expects this just as much from husbands as from wives. If not more.
The equivalent and reciprocal obligation placed on husbands is this.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.
The standard set for a husband’s love for his wife is incredible high. It is no less than the sacrificial love of Christ who gave up his own life for the church. God’s plan of salvation shows us the extent of his love for us, and gives us the pattern for love in marriage, again just as much for wives as for husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
So husbands and wives should love each other with God’s kind of love. Love which is not about receiving but about giving. The kind of love described in the passage in 1 Corinthians 13 which is so often read at weddings.
1 Corinthians 13 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
So husbands should love their wives, and equally wives should love their husbands, with God’s kind of love. It is only common sense, for our own good.
28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – 30 for we are members of his body.
It is not only common sense but also right and good that husbands and wives love each other and submit to one another in the family. But here is this further reason why this is important. Because marriage is God’s visual aid to the world of his love for us all.
31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
Paul quotes Genesis chapter 2 to remind us that God invented marriage. And God’s pattern for marriage is permanent and lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. Complete faithfulness within marriage and complete chastity outside it. I have to remind us of this because God’s pattern for marriage is under increasing attack. Attacks from the appalling examples of politicians and personalities, attacks from the media, and from TV soap operas which dramatize the unusual until is ceases to be recognised as unusual and becomes accepted as normal. I know very well that in this broken world marriages (like many other things in life) do not always work out as we would wish. But God’s ideal remains the same – permanent, lifelong commitment. Because God’s purpose is that marriage is his visual aid for the love Christ has for the church. A love which never lets us go and never fails. Jesus is the husband – and his bride is the church. For that reason,
33 … each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Submitting to one another. Loving and respecting and honouring. But how should this all work out in the nitty-gritty of everyday life? A few remarks.
Marriage is about sharing life together. There needs to be a balance between spending enough quality time together and living in each other’s pockets too much. There also needs to be a balance between doing what the husband would choose to do and to meet his needs, and doing what the wife would choose to do and to meet her needs, and doing what the rest of the family would choose to do and meeting their needs. Sharing fairly the responsibilities and duties and the chores. There also inevitably needs to be a balance between doing mundane things and doing exciting things. Matrimony should not mean monotony.
Marriage is about Communicating – talking about anything and everything, large and small. Remember that deeply sad song by Cliff Richard “It’s so funny how we don’t talk any more”. There is a lively debate on the internet right now about whether it is acceptable for parents to take the family to a restaurant and then leave their little children playing on their iPads instead of actually talking to them. What you talk about can be less important than the fact that you care enough just to say something. Many couples can enjoy each other’s presence without needing to say anything, but long cold stony silences can damage a marriage as much as too many rows. It should go without saying that communication between husband and wife should be based on complete honesty, openness and trust. Marriage should be the one place where we can be completely ourselves without fear of rejection.
Marriage is about building each other up. In marriage a couple should be stronger together than they would be apart. Husband and wife should encourage each other and make each other feel good about themselves, rather than put each other down all the time. Compliments are always more appropriate than criticism. A couple should stand together against the world, not take sides with outsiders against their partner.
Marriage is about sharing each other’s burdens. A vital part of marriage is supporting each other through life, not just in big crises but starting in the everyday pressures of job and family. This means talking through things and also practical help where necessary. One partner cannot sit back and watch the other being weighed down. You share all the loads together as a family.
Marriage is about dealing with disagreements. In marriage it is so important to learn to deal with grievances and not just ignore them. Too often partners resort to substitute procedures like nagging, or arguing over trivia, or deliberate petty annoyances, instead of getting down to talking about the real problem. It is important to learn how to disagree agreeably. True love does not insist on getting its own way. Family life is not built on total agreement about everything. The strength of any marriage lies in being able to resolve differences positively in love, by learning to communicate, negotiating, sorting things out, thinking of your partner before yourself, and adapting to their needs, moods and attitudes. The bottom line is a total commitment to each other. Not backing out or running out. Love never gives up!
Marriage is about coping with life TOGETHER. A strong marriage helps a couple cope in the stressful times which hit us all: moving home, changing job, problems at work, problems with neighbours, new baby, illness, accident, bereavement. If disagreements or crises are putting a strain on a marriage it is vitally important that the couple are prepared to look beyond themselves for help. There are secular counselling agencies but for Christians the logical first place to look for help would be within the church and a completely confidential chat with your Minister.
You may ask WHERE DOES GOD FIT IN? It’s often said that “a couple who pray together, stay together.” But we must beware of over-spiritualising marriage. Prayer helps. But God also expects us to work hard at our marriages. To share our lives and work hard at communicating openly and honestly. To share each other’s burdens and build each other up as well as enjoying each other. To deal with disagreements and not just sweep them under the carpet. To cope with pressures and face crises together, and to be prepared to seek help if ever we need it.
That is God’s ideal for marriage. I wrote a leaflet to help couples grow together called “Building a Marriage”. I have posted that online on Facebook and on my Thoughts blog.
So Christ’s sacrificial love for the church is the example and the standard for love in marriage. May God help us to live up to his expectations. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.