We are looking at a somewhat controversial topic today. I don’t normally enjoy talking about controversial topics. But that’s one of the beauties of working through sections of God’s Word: you don’t get to pick the topics you cover. We’re addressing this topic because, like Mount Everest, it’s there.
But the truth is: we also need to hear what God’s Word says on the topic of marriage. I am so glad that the Bible is so practical in how it applies to every area of life. We need to hear from God, because marriage is too important and too difficult without his help.
So we’re going to get very practical today. My goal is to say all that this passage says, and to say as little as possible outside of what this passage says, and to be very practical in how we apply this to our marriages today. I think you’re going to find that while we may struggle with what this passage says at first, it is written for our joy. This comes from the God who made us and who knows us, and it brings us in touch with who he made us to be. It will actually be something that frees us rather than something that binds us.
I want to look at three things today: that there is a difference between men and women, how this difference is to work itself out in our marriages, and finally, how we can get there.
But first we have to see that there is a difference.
Paul says in verse 22-24:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
We read this and say, “What in the world? That may have been fine back then, but why should wives submit today? And how are husbands the head?” It’s very easy to dismiss this out of hand as being outdated and oppressive, and to think that we’re more enlightened now.
But there is an underlying assumption that we need to examine. Paul is teaching here that men and women have overlapping but distinguishable ways of being human. In other words, men and women are equal, but not equivalent. We are both human, but vastly different. And our marriages are transformed as we rediscover the joy of being male and female together in our marriages in a way that completes us and that fulfills us.
Let me back up a little. When God created the world, he created Adam first. It’s fascinating that God evaluated everything that he had made, he saw that it was good. But even before sin entered the world, even when the world was perfect, God looked at the single male he had created and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Think about this for a minute. The world was perfect, but even in a perfect world, it was not good for male to be without female. And so we read in Genesis 2 that God said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”
A lot of people have misunderstood what this phrase “a helper suitable for him” means. What it means is that Eve has something that Adam lacks. She has a strength in an area that he lacks, and he needs her. Women were created because men lacked something that only females can provide. Eve is not a clone of Adam, but rather somebody like him but different. And when Adam saw this blend of “same as but different from” he was very happy and breaks into the first poem in the Bible, and therefore the first poem we know of in history:
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh…”
It’s interesting to note that the Bible often talks about humans being made in the image of God. Whenever it does so, it is clear that it refers to both males and females. For instance, Genesis 1:27 says:
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
What this means is that men and women are made equally in God’s image. It takes men and women together. If we lived in a society with only men or only women, we would not have as full a picture of what God is like than when we see men and women together reflecting the beauty of God’s character.
So we see this beautiful picture of the only perfect marriage that has ever existed before the Fall, and there were differences, and the differences were amazing. The differences were for their joy. We see the differences all over the first few chapters of Genesis, in the order of creation, the naming role of the man. God had Adam name all the creatures, and indeed he named Eve as well, not because God got tired and couldn’t come up with any names, but because he wanted Adam to take some sort of authority in naming. Naming something, even today, implies some kind of authority over what is named. There were no tensions between Adam and Eve. There was no oppression. This was the only perfect marriage that ever existed. But there were differences between them, even somewhat of a leadership role for Adam. And these differences were for their joy.
We read that one of the consequences of sin entering the world is that these differences became sources of tension as well as sources of joy. God said to Eve in Genesis 3:16:
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.
What this means is that as a result of sin, we no longer enjoy the differences as we were intended to. Men were supposed to exercise loving, humble, and considerate leadership, but are now prone to becoming harsh and emotionally distant. Eve was intended to intelligently and willingly complement Adam and his leadership, but now wants the leadership for herself. Both Adam and Eve fall into sinful patterns. Eve wants to reverse God’s plan and lead Adam; Adam stops lovingly leading and caring for his wife. Their desires were distorted, and we live with the results today.
But I’m so glad we get a picture of what marriage was supposed to be. We were designed to be incomplete as males and females, but together there is completion. We were designed to be different, but complementary. We are equal, but not equivalent. There is an irreversible and wonderful difference between men and women that was supposed to be for our joy, not for our conflict. There really is a difference between us, and before sin distorted us, this difference was all good.
By the way, it’s not just Christians who are noticing that men and women really are different. All kinds of research shows that men and women are both similar and vastly different in how they approach everything. Our brains and how we wire are very different. Whether as young children or in how we clean or as presidents of corporations, we approach everything differently. Even if we do the same thing, there is often a different thinking process that leads us there. Anthropologists have done studies and have found that the same patterns of male and female behaviors are found throughout all cultures and times that can’t be explained merely by socialization. God really has made us as male and female, equal, incomplete without the other, and different.
So let’s look at how Paul applies this.
Here is what I really want us to understand. Paul does not want to take us back to a traditional, patriarchal view of marriage. That’s what so many people think that he’s doing here in this passage, and that makes it easy to write it off as being outdated. But that’s not at all what Paul was doing. What Paul wrote here, and elsewhere, is actually against both traditional and modern forms of marriage. It corrects both our tendencies toward male domination and toward obliterating the differences between us. You don’t find what Paul wrote here anywhere else. It’s because the gospel sets us free both from traditional distortions of marriage as well as modern ones.
No, what Paul wants to take us back to is the only perfect marriage that ever existed. You see this in verse 31, which speaks of that perfect marriage, which is a pattern for all of our marriages today. We now have the power to follow this pattern because of the gospel.
Paul is saying here that our marriages can, because of Christ, start to look like what marriage was meant to be before sin entered the world. Men can start to learn how to lovingly lead without domination; women can start to enjoy – key word, enjoy! – lovingly affirming her husband’s leadership in a way that provides strength where he lacks it. There is no power struggle, no putting down of the other. There is a beautiful coming-together of two people who would be incomplete without the other, and an enjoyment of the differences.
So Paul doesn’t want to take us back to traditional marriages. It’s much better than that. He wants to take us back to who we were supposed to be in the first place. He wants us to enjoy something like the only perfect marriage in history. Not only that, but he wants our marriages to be parables of an even greater marriage that will take place one day: the marriage between Christ and his church.
So let’s get very practical here. The two commands to women are to submit in verse 22 and to respect her husband in verse 33. We have to be clear about what this does not mean. This does not mean to become a doormat or to agree with everything your husband says, or that you stop thinking or do all the cooking and cleaning. All of those are distortions that have nothing to do with what this text says.
The principle that it gets to is this: the gospel allows you to become a wife who overcomes the distortions of sin and willingly rejoices in your husband’s loving leadership in your marriage. You are still equal in every way to your husband. Your way of approaching the world is vastly different from your husband’s, and he needs your ways of thinking. He needs your input. It would not be good for him to be alone! But you will become like Eve before the Fall: different, providing what your husband lacks at his very core; equal; without a power struggle; honoring and affirming your husband’s loving leadership.
Notice that this doesn’t say who will do the dishes. It leaves many of the implications of how this works out in everyday life up to you. But what it does say is that the gospel makes it possible to overcome the sinful effects of the Fall that caused women to start to hate their husband’s loving leadership. It allows women to enjoy the differences.
But it doesn’t end there. Paul spends most of his time talking to men, and this is what he says. Men, love your wives. Don’t be emotionally distant or domineering. Love your wife and care for her so sacrificially that you start to remind people of how Jesus loves the church. Make your marriage a one-flesh partnership so that the two of you really become one, and so that you nourish and care for her as much as you care for yourself.
In other words, the gospel counteracts the effects of sin, which cause men to become domineering and emotionally distant, and women to not want their husbands to lovingly lead. We are different, and the gospel allows these differences to be sources of joy in our marriages rather than sources of tension.
I want to get very practical here about making decisions. Does this mean that the man always gets to make the decisions, and the woman has to follow whatever he says? Absolutely not. Almost every decision can be made together. But there are times when the two of you can’t agree, and to not agree is in itself a decision. Somebody’s got to break the logjam. It’s rare, but it happens.
So here’s how it could work. You want to buy a car, but you can’t agree. You talk about it for ages, but you don’t get anywhere. So eventually the husband says, “I’m sorry, dear, but someone’s got to make the decision. I’m afraid I’ve got to make the call.” He is exercising his loving leadership. And so he makes the decision, and they buy the car that his wife wanted. He leads, but in a radically selfless way that puts her well-being first.
Let me give you a real life example. Wayne Grudem is a theologian who is known for his beliefs that men and women are complementary but different. His views are sometimes controversial. They’re afraid that his views will lead to male domination. Grudem had a prestigious post at a major school in Chicago for twenty years. He was chair of a department.
There was one problem. As a result of a car accident, his wife was in chronic pain. That pain was aggravated by cold and humidity, which mean that Chicago was not the best place to live.
After a couple of trips to Phoenix, he realized that the climate there would be much better for his wife. So he phoned the dean of a smaller seminary there and asked if there might be a job possibility there. It was a much smaller school, a much less prestigious post, but he took it. He says:
I came to Ephesians 5:28 in my regular schedule of daily Bible reading, and the Lord used this verse strongly in my own decision process: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” After reading that, I thought it was important for me to move for the sake of Margaret’s physical body, her physical health.
This highlights a little of what marriage is supposed to be: a coming together of two different and complementary people who need each other, in which both are equal and both contribute. The wife willingly and joyfully respects her husband’s leadership, and the husband uses that leadership to love and sacrifice for his wife.
Paul doesn’t want us to have a traditional marriage, or a modern one. He wants us to have one that resembles the only perfect marriage in history, and one that reflects the upcoming marriage of Christ to his church.
Let me close this morning by asking how we can get there.
I realize we are all in different places this morning. I may have sparked a lot of questions, not least of which is “how do we get there from here?”
I want to close by asking you to do three things.
First, it’s tempting as we read this to wish that our spouse would listen to the part that applies to them. But the reality is that you can’t change your spouse. This passage is written for your benefit. Don’t focus on getting your spouse to obey this passage; focus on you applying this passage. Your spouse may never change, but you, with the help of God, can. I realize that this is incredibly difficult for some of you who are in difficult marriages, but please work on understanding what this passage means for you rather than worrying about how it applies to your spouse.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t have discussions about how this applies to both of you down the road. You may need to talk about this together, or even begin enlist the help of brothers and sisters. You may need marriage counseling. There is no shame in that. But don’t begin by applying it to your spouse. Begin by applying it to yourself.
Secondly, begin to rejoice in the differences. The Bible tells us that some of the things that cause tension in marriage are differences that were originally meant to give us joy. As you begin to think biblically about your marriage, you may begin to see the differences between you as gifts from God. Begin to rejoice in what it means to be men and women, and instead of letting those differences frustrate you, see them as gifts from God. We are incomplete without the other.
In music, two notes that are different from one another can clash. But there are notes that are quite different that, when brought together, create an amazing sound. There are chords and harmonies that we can only enjoy when our differences are sounded together, and these can bring us great joy.
Finally, don’t lose sight of where this comes in Ephesians. Chapters 1 to 3 of this book are about the gospel, what God has accomplished through Christ for us. Chapters 4 to 6 are about how this changes our lives. The type of marriage that Paul describes here is only possible because of the gospel, through the power of the Spirit.
I used to watch shows as a kid that would have this disclaimer: “Don’t try this at home.” This passage should come with a disclaimer: “Don’t try this without the gospel.” This passage is all about God restoring the male-female relationship to what it was supposed to be, which is only possible through the gospel. So experience this gospel. Learn what Christ has done for you. Turn to him and trust in him, and it will change every part of your lives.
My prayer for you is that you will begin to apply this to your lives and marriages; that you will learn to be fully male, fully female, and that you will enjoy the differences. My prayer is that your marriage will begin to overcome all the sinful distortions that entered the world as a result of sin, and that through the gospel it will start to look like the only perfect marriage in history – and even more importantly, like the upcoming marriage between Christ and his church.