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. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
When I spoke about marriage in the past, one gentleman accused me of being harder on husbands than wives. I think he expected me to disagree with him and maybe defend myself, but I said, “You’re right. I am harder on husbands.” I’ll continue to be harder on husbands for two simple reasons. (1) I am a husband. I will always be harder on myself than others. (2) Husbands are leaders, so they are held to a higher level of accountability. If a marriage isn’t working, we should examine the husband first. If something needs to change, the husband should lead the way.
The same gentleman also asked me, “Why don’t you provide more practical examples in your sermons?” I don’t believe that’s the way preaching works. I don’t believe that’s how the Bible works. I could offer you a thousand examples or applications and still not address your specific situation. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13). Even the Bible doesn’t provide many specific applications of spiritual truth because the Spirit is here to show us how to apply the truth. We learn the principles of the Bible through reading as well as from pastors and teachers, but it’s God’s Spirit who guides us to understand their applications.
Before I address the role of husbands, let’s briefly review what we’ve covered so far. First, God specifically designed marriage for his glory by modeling it after the gospel. In turn, the goal of marriage is for a husband and his wife cover one another’s shame just as Christ covers our shame as sinners. The covenant is to be both permanent and grace-based. In other words, it is built on a foundation of forbearance and forgiveness.
Even so, we don’t stop at merely bearing with and forgiving one another; we also work to sanctify one another. When Christ gave himself for the church, he did 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” (Eph 5:27). If marriage truly models the gospel, a husband and wife will move one another to become better people according to God’s standard of holiness. We cover one another’s shame through forgiveness and work to remove that shame through sanctification.
Let’s jump back in the text for a moment because I want to keep this passage in its context. Before Paul launches into the roles of husband and wife, he says:
Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21)
A successful marriage where the husband does what he supposed to do and the wife does what she is supposed to do flows from the indwelling Spirit of God. When I’ve counseled someone who is unhappy in his or her marriage, I can almost always follow the problem back to that person’s own spiritual shortcomings. The problem isn’t the marriage itself; it’s the result of one or both of them lacking in their walk with God.
Let’s say you and your spouse are fighting a lot. You are getting on one another’s last nerve. Nothing in the home is running smoothly. Chances are, you blame one another. It’s always the other person’s fault. What’s really going on? Perhaps you should perform a spiritual evaluation of yourself. How much time are you spending each day in prayer, devotion, and reading the Bible? Have you given in to some of the temptations which Paul mentions in this chapter: filthiness, foolish talk, or crude joking? Are you harboring secret sins? Spiritually speaking, are you asleep?
Are you filled with the Spirit? Are you so joyful in Christ that you find yourself wanting to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? The Christian’s life should be a musical. When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, they didn’t start blaming one. They sang God’s praises. Are you sincerely thankful to God always for everything?
Step inside Paul’s mind here. He believes being filled with the Spirit leads to joy and thanksgiving. Then, joy and thanksgiving lead to humility. He says, “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). That’s the basis for what he says next about marriage. He follows a similar pattern in his letter to the Colossians where he writes:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:16-19)
Paul understands there is a natural progression of the Christian’s life. If you are walking by the Spirit, yielding to the Spirit, and filled with the Spirit, you’ll fulfill your role as husband or wife with much less friction. It will come naturally to you because the Spirit will lead you to become a humble servant, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).
To be clear, marriage is mutual submission. While a husband and wife have distinct roles—we have twelve verses here to prove it—the marriage covenant is also one of mutual submission. “The two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31). We humble ourselves before one another. We serve another. We meet one another’s needs. We build up one another. We submit to one another. We submit in different ways, but we submit nonetheless.
“But I’m the husband,” someone says. “I’m the head of my wife. I don’t submit to her; she submits to me.” Yes, but you are commanded to “love your [wife], as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25). You should carefully examine the life of Christ to understand what it means to be your wife’s head.
Do you remember the last night Jesus spent with his disciples, his bride? According to Luke, “A dispute … arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Lk 22:24). Jesus has only one more night with them before he’ll sacrifice himself for their sake, and they’re proudly fighting about who among them is the greatest. But Jesus doesn’t scold or berate them. He doesn’t get frustrated or storm out of the room. According to John’s account of the evening, he drops to his knees and washes their feet.
Christ as Lord and God had the authority to punish them for their arrogance and disrespect, but he chose instead to show them what humility looks like by quietly making himself an example. Apparently, he believes one can attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Husbands, look to Christ. Follow his example. Lead your wife not with an iron fist, but through humble, gracious submission.
Having spent the last several weeks studying this subject, I’ve discovered Paul’s teachings about marriage were unique. His Jewish contemporaries had many things to say about marriage, but they always focused on the ways a husband should rule his wife. Not only does Paul address wives—Jewish teachers rarely talked about the role of a wife—but he also teaches men to sacrifice themselves. He turns the culture on its head. He doesn’t tell men how to assert their dominance; he teaches them to love through self-sacrifice. That’s not to say his teaching wasn’t entirely new, but it did challenge much the conventional wisdom of the day.
In modern times, we may struggle to understand the role of husbands because our constant temptation is to go to extremes. One man wants to rule his house like a tyrant, but we increasingly face the problem of men who aren’t leading the family at all. It’s as though they stop reading Ephesians 5 at verse 21: “[Submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Yes, submit to one another, but keep reading. Within the covenant of marriage, this submission is different from husband to wife. Again, it is mutual submission with undeniably distinct roles. Furthermore, “the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph 5:23).
What does it mean to be the head of the wife? Let me first ask another question. If the husband is the head, what does that make the wife? She’s the body. The husband is the head, and the wife is the body just as Christ is the head, and the church is his body. Without any precise definitions, you can see by the analogy alone that a husband and wife are dependent on one another. Whatever role the head plays, it is nothing without the body. Whatever role the body plays, it is nothing without the head. Again, there must be mutual submission. They are co-dependent.
What does it mean to be the head? I’m going to borrow three terms from another pastor I once heard, then I’ll show you what these terms mean. To be the head of your wife means you lead her by protecting and providing. You will lead your wife by protecting and providing for her.
To give wives a sneak preview of what’s to come, I’ll define submission while I’m at it. Submission means you honor and respect your husband’s leadership. You become his support system. You use your gifts to support your husband so he can lead your family. There’s nothing chauvinistic or derogatory about it. It is simply a different role than your husband. It’s also the role which God ordained for a successful marriage. The question each one of us must ask ourselves is, do we trust the wisdom of God? Better yet, are we willing to obey the word of God?
Husbands, our role in marriage is somewhat paradoxical. After all, Jesus is our example, and he is paradoxical. Consider the description of him in Revelation 5. In verse 5, he is described as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5). Then, the very next verse calls him “a Lamb” (Rev 5:6). He is both a lion and a lamb. In other words, he is strong as well as meek. He is tough and tender. He is aggressive yet gentle. He is also the model for every husband.
Some men always want to be a lion. They seem to mistake meekness or tenderness for weakness. Others are overly timid. They can’t bring themselves to be a lion when it’s needed. Again, the extremes always pose a temptation. We struggle to find the right balance which is why wisdom and discernment are so crucial. We need the Spirit to guide us because we may find ourselves in a million different situations where one calls for a lion while another needs a lamb.
While you’re thinking through the implications of being a lion and lamb simultaneously, I’ll talk more about what it means to lead your wife. Paul uses the word “head” (Eph 5:23). To be the head of someone or something, you become the leader. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul used the same word this way: “[God] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things” (Eph 1:22). That verse emphasizes Christ’s rule and authority.
The tyrannical husband shouldn’t get carried away, though. While head does suggest authority, Jesus, our example, shows us just how unconventional biblical leadership can be. If we imagine the tough guy barking orders at his subordinates, we have the wrong idea about leadership. True leadership is not merely telling people where to go or what to do. Godly leadership means you go first. You show people what to do by doing it yourself.
In Matthew 16, Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). He is asserting himself as their leader. In effect, he says, “I’m your head, so do what I tell you, deny your own will, submit to my will, and follow me.”
“Ah ha,” says the domineering husband. “Jesus proves my point. The husband is the head. He is the authority over his wife. He tells her what to do. She must obey his will.”
First of all, let me remind you that a husband is like Christ; he is not Christ. We do not possess his infallible authority. Even Paul, the apostle, said, “Be imitators [or followers] of me, as I am of Christ” (1Co 11:1). Paul’s leadership as an apostle was meaningless unless he was following the example of Christ.
Second, think carefully about what Jesus told his disciples. He said, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Mt 16:24). Consider that statement in light of what Scripture tells us about Christ. For instance, Philippians 2 says:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Jesus did not merely bark the command, “Deny yourself and take up your cross.” He paved the way by denying himself and taking up his own cross. He took the initiative. He showed us how it’s done. He led the way. He was hanging on the cross long before his disciples understood why or how one denies himself.
Husbands, we have to take the lead through what may be best described as servant leadership. We lead our wife by example. We lead by suffering for her sake. We show her what it means to take up her cross by taking up our own cross. If you think being the head of your wife means you are entitled to exalt yourself above her, then you completely misunderstand what Paul means. Christ is the head of his bride, yet we find him kneeling at her feet to wash them. He is the head, yet he voluntarily suffered on a cross to save her. That’s the kind of leadership we need to emulate.
Let’s break down this concept further because I said you will lead your wife by protecting and providing for her. These two things are the particular responsibilities of the husband-leader.
First, you must protect your wife. Paul says:
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. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
We all know what the word protection means. The question is, how does Jesus protect his bride? He “gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1Pe 2:24). Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Again, I’ll leave the Spirit of God to help you make application of this point, but I will summarize it. The servant leadership of a husband means he protects his wife spiritually, emotionally, and physically at all costs.
Examples of physical protection are the easiest to imagine. A few years ago, Danae and I took a trip to Atlanta and found ourselves walking down a very shady part of town. There were some questionable people all around us, and we worried that we might be in danger. I told Danae, “If someone should attack us”—I had an umbrella in my hand—“I’m going to swing this umbrella at him with everything I’ve got. I want to you run as fast as you can. Run away. Call the cops. I’ll buy you time.” The attacker would have likely killed me. I don’t carry a gun. I have no fighting skills. But as long as Danae got away, I was okay with that.
Physical sacrifice, though, is relatively easy. The so-called man’s man is usually willing to lay his life on the line for his wife. What about emotional or spiritual sacrifice? The same man’s man will step into the bedroom, see his wife crying, and back out slowly. I’ll just come back later when she’s in a better mood. What if his wife is backsliding? What if she’s spiritually unstable or struggling with her faith? Where is he in those moments?
That leads us to the second part of what it means to be the head: provision. In my experience, this point is where a lot of husbands begin to feel uneasy. We are forced out of our comfort zone. Tell us to take a bullet for our wife, and we say, “Sure, I can do that.” Tell us to work hard, put food on the table, or mow the lawn, and we say, “Okay. I can be a lion for my wife.” Good, but can you also be a lamb?
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. (Ephesians 5:28-30)
The words nourish and cherish are significant. Nourish is most often used to describe the ways which parents provide for their children. Some translations use the word feed in place of nourish. Paul is encouraging men to think about what they do for their own body. You give yourself whatever you need to grow and mature.
You might say, “Yes, of course, I have to put food on the table.” That’s not what Paul says. He doesn’t limit this word to physical provisions. Perhaps its most literal meaning refers to physical needs, but it’s an analogy. There is more to nourishing your wife than merely putting food on the table. You must also provide for her emotional and spiritual needs. The Bible teaches there are more important things than our physical well being.
Notice the second word, cherish. It’s very similar to a word meaning “to warm.” Paul uses this word only one other time. In 1 Thessalonians, he writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care [that’s the word] of her own children” (1Th 2:7). He compares himself to a mother caring for her infant child. The analogy signifies tender affection. The lion must also be a lamb for his wife.
Men, take these words to heart. Nourish and cherish your wife. You will lead her by protecting and providing for her in both physical and spiritual ways.
She needs physical protection. Protect her from physical dangers, bad people, natural disasters, and so on. She also needs spiritual protection. Pray for her. Take the initiative to remove evil influences from your home. Your wife needs physical provision as well. Give her food and shelter. Don’t forget about those spiritual provisions she needs. She needs the word of God. She needs spiritual guidance and encouragement. These things are your responsibility.
I tend to pick on the man’s man a lot. You know the type. I’m talking about the tough guy who takes pride in his ability to physically protect and provide for his wife. At the time, however, the world and even the church is suffering from a shortage of lionhearted men who have the same zeal for spiritually protecting and providing for their wife.
I’ll give you a simple example. Think of the husband who arrives home from a long day at work. He falls on the couch, turns on the TV, and neglects his wife and kids while exposing them to less-than-godly content on whatever he’s watching. Husband, if that describes you, you are not nourishing and cherishing your wife. You should be asking, “How was your day? How are you feeling? What can I help you with? Can we pray together? Can we read God’s word together?”
So many husbands feel entitled to their wife’s respect while doing the bare minimum to deserve respect. We act as though she’s lucky to sleep in the same house as us. I’m here in case of emergency. What more do you want? Your wife should not have to drag you to worship on Sunday. She shouldn’t have to remind you to pray, read the Bible, spend time with your children, or spend quality time with her. She shouldn’t have to force you to mute the TV so you can listen to her. You’re the man. You’re her head. Act like it.
I’ll summarize things this way. Men, we need the strength and courage of a lion but the tenderness of a lamb. Our family’s welfare falls on us. God holds us responsible for leading, protecting, and providing for our wife and children, physically and spiritually. If you ever struggle to know what to do, I implore you to look to Christ. Study his life. Read his every move. Through his Spirit, he’ll show you the way.