Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg

with Tom Fuller

The Real Husband-wife Relationship

Ephesians 5:22-33

Ephesians 5:22-33 is among the most controversial passages in the Bible today. It?s not a theological controversy over the person of Jesus or of the gospel, but over the roles of husbands and wives in marriage. I have heard countless sermons, read many commentaries, attended a bunch of marriage seminars, and also consulted a ton of books on the subject.

The controversy seems to center around two words: submission and head. Should husbands rule the house and wives serve as underlings? To better understand marriage we need to follow Paul?s theme in Ephesians: a theme of being transformed on the inside so we can act differently on the outside. The way we act should be reflection of the character of Jesus in order to see God?s kingdom furthered.

I don?t believe Paul stopped his dictation of Ephesians and thought: ?Let?s give a primer on marriage now.? No, this section, along with the beginning of Chapter 6, must be taken in the context of us as believers being a witness and ambassador for Jesus in a world that is ruled by different values.

With that in mind, I would like you to put aside everything you?ve heard or believed about this passage. I think as we work through this passage, Paul?s message comes out loud and clear. If you disagree with how others and I interpret this, that?s fine. But the perspective I?m offering I think fits in better with the overall theme of Ephesians than anything else.

To set the stage, we?ve been talking about representing God?s agape love in the world. It is self-sacrificing, other-centered affection. Verses 1 and 2 of Chapter 5 tell us to ?imitate God? and ?walk in love.? So starting in verses 19 through 21 he talks about what that looks like in the church: Christians are to be filled with the Spirit that brings about right thinking, so that we can encourage each other about what Jesus has done, sing songs of worship to the Lord, and mutually submit to one another?looking out for the best in others, even if it means we don?t get our way.

So as we move to verses 22 through 33, I?m going to propose a different look at the marriage relationship based on three things:

  • The placement of verse 21 in the chapter
  • The pictures that Paul paints representing marriage
  • The purpose of Paul writing this section of Ephesians
    • Defer to one another?each one striving to please the other.
    • Rely on the spiritual gifts of each other
    • Compromise into the middle ground
    • Define the biblical principals involved (let the Word referee)
    • Pray for guidance together
    • The spouse who is more affected by the decision gets more say in it
    • Jointly research the problem
    • Defer to a trusted third party
    • Engage in parts reversal (Belizikian 1857)

In the process I want to clear up the misconceptions about those two words: ?submission?, and ?head?. First: the placement of verse 21. Verse 21 actually forms a ?hinge? in this chapter. It hinges, or refers back, to verses 18-20 and hinges, or refers forward, to verses 22 through 33. And the hinge word to keep in mind is the word ?submit?. Significantly, that word only occurs in verse 21, not in verse 22.


The word ?submit? means to place yourself under the authority of another, such as governing authorities (Romans 13:1,5) and to God (James 4:7). But in verse 21, ?submit? is modified to mean ?reciprocal submission to one another?. So in verses 18 through 20 we see Christians submitting to one another as they encourage each other, sing songs together, and give thanks?living out the example of a godly character, knowing that Jesus is watching.

This now refers forward in verse 22. The Greek actually would read: ?wives to their own husbands.? The submission is inferred. But if you look at where the verb comes from, it is that modified verb of mutual submission.

An example: two soldiers are told to help each other on a project. They must submit mutually to each other and are of equal rank, but are both subject to the officer. Authority over the project is shared between them. We can mutually submit to one another in the body of Christ because we are all submitted to the Lordship of Jesus (?fear of Christ?).

Quoting from Gilbert Belezikian, who wrote a book entitled: ?Beyond Sex Roles, what the Bible says about a woman?s place in the church and family?:

?We conclude that mutual subjection, as defined on the basis of Ephesians 5:18-21, refers to relationships of reciprocal servanthood under the sole lordship of Christ, and that the reciprocity of such relationships renders hierarchical distinctions irrelevant for person-to-person interaction within the Christian communities of church and family.? (Location 2274)

So mutual submission in marriage? Does this occur anywhere else? Yes. Let?s look at an example of this mutual submission found in Paul?s letter to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 7:4 ?A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. And in the same way a husband does not have the right over his own body but the wife does.?

1 Corinthians 7:1-5 says that the wife and husband both have equal rights over each other in marriage when it comes to their physical relationship. There is no male domination here.

Belezikian goes on further to explain the roles in a Christian marriage:

?A couple is not an army unit, so it does not need to be ordered by a commanding officer to run properly. It is not a business corporation, so it is not run by a boss. It is not a branch of government, so it conducts its affairs without the need of a ruler. Husband and wife together make up a body. They are a church community in microcosm ? The fact that the decisions of a Christian couple are made by mutual consent indicates a relationship without disparities of rank? Location 1821

So right here you might say: ?but someone has to be in charge. Someone has to make the final decisions, and that should be the husband.? Really? What happens in the traditional, and I think surface, interpretation of this passage is that we force the husband as de facto ?leader? to always makes the decisions in the home.

Belezikian goes on to say: ?[It] puts an unrealistic burden on the husband always to make the right decision. It also promotes a cop-out mentality for the wife, who then resigns herself to the status of permanent loser or of devious manipulator.? (Belizikian, Location 1828)

Well, you say, if we throw out the husband as the authority figure, then how do we make decisions? Glad you asked. Here are some great alternatives that allow for each person in the marriage to contribute to the decision making without denigrating either one:

So here is how I would like to propose submission works in this section, not as wife as the underling, but the wife submits to the care of a loving husband. And her submitting to this kind of love, which we?ll get to here in a minute, is really part of a mutual submission. Why do I say this? Look at what Paul says: this submission is ?as to the Lord.? But it?s not like to an authority, as much as it is a surrendering to his love and care like we submit to the love and care of our Lord.

Think about this way: Jesus submitted to the Father, yet they are equals in every way. Jesus was dependent on the Holy Spirit for everything while on earth, yet Jesus was never lesser than the Spirit or the Father. The trinity, in fact, is a great picture of mutual submission.

The first misunderstanding is the idea of submission, but the second is the idea of ?headship.?


In the New Testament, ?head? is defined as ?life giver? not ?authority? (Belizikian,1963). When the New Testament describes someone in a leadership or authority position, the word ?head? is absent from the description (Belizikian 2347).

Here are two examples of Jesus described as the ?head? in the New Testament: Earlier in Ephesians (1:22) Paul describes Christ as the head of the church by supplying it with its ?fullness?. He gives what is needed for completion.

Also in Ephesians 4:15-16 Jesus as the head is provider of growth as we ?grow up in every way into him who is the head.?

Christ is the head of the church as the Savior of the body. The suffering savior required self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity. This is further elaborated in verse 25. Paul did not say: ?Jesus is Lord of the body? but ?the Savior?. The submission of the church to Jesus is ?the appropriate response to the servanthood of another.? (Belizikian 2325) So too, the husband lays down his life for his wife, who then submits to that care.

I think the picture in John 13 helps us understand this:

John 13:6   ?He came to Simon Peter, who asked Him, ?Lord, are You going to wash my feet?? Jesus answered him, ?What I?m doing you don?t understand now, but afterward you will know.? ?You will never wash my feet?ever!? Peter said. Jesus replied, ?If I don?t wash you, you have no part with Me.?

Peter submitted to the care of Jesus, as the source of life and washing. It begins with Jesus approaching Peter, but equally important, Peter must respond and submit to that care.


Paul is looking at the church as Christ looks at it. It?s not about obedience to codes, or conforming to authority?but a life oriented towards service joyfully assumed in response to love. It?s giving your whole being to another. It is deliberate self-surrender. Wives are never told to submit to the authority of their husbands (except in 1 Corinthians 7:4, as we just saw, where Paul talks about ceding authority over your own body to your husband ? and the husband has the same command). The kind of submission envisioned here is so much greater than that, and so much more beautiful.

Now let?s turn to the husband?s role specifically:


If an authority/subject relationship had been in Paul?s mind, he most likely would have then instructed the husbands on how to exercise this authority. But he actually does the opposite. The husband is told to have such self-sacrificing, other centered affection for his wife that he would lay down his life in submission to her needs.

The model for husbands to love is the model of Jesus on the cross. It isn?t Jesus? power, lordship, or authority, but His humility and servant behavior.


How are husbands to love their wives? The allusion here is probably either to baptism or to the washing of feet that Jesus performed on His disciples in John 13 as I already mentioned. The idea is rehabilitation by serving. Are there wounds you can help heal? Are there difficulties you can bear? Are there problems you can assume, loads you can carry?time you can take to find out what makes your wife tick and then come alongside to help her? This isn?t ?I know what?s best for you and I?m going to make you a better person? type of activity. This takes time, listening, reflection, and a deep sense of care to see how you can lay down your life for your wife. By the way, this would have been a radical departure from the way things worked in Paul?s culture.


Husbands, do you make it your goal to help your wives to be the person God wants them to be?


Husbands should give wives the same consideration that they might expect for themselves?treating their wives like they treat themselves. This again speaks of the equality of the marriage partners. Does Jesus ever mistreat His body, which is us?

29 ? 30

Here?s where that nurturing and caring idea of mutual submission comes into play. The word ?nourishes? in the Greek means ?provide?. The husband is to provide for his wife, not in terms of being the breadwinner ? though that might be part of it ? but constantly looking for ways to give sacrificially to his wife for her benefit. You do it for yourself unconsciously all the time. Some of us are better than others at self-care. We take showers, go to the gym, we watch what we eat, we get regular checkups and brush our teeth. Do you just walk into walls or never eat or drink? That would be hateful to your own body. Jesus always has the best interests of His church in mind with everything he does. Do you have that same care in mind for your wife? Your wife is connected to you just as Christ is connected to His body?the church.

31 ? 32

This whole passage ends with Genesis 2:24 and shows the harmony of what Paul is saying:

Genesis 2:24 shows us the first wedding. Christ designed human marriage to be a picture of His marriage to the church. When people look at your marriage, what picture do they see? If it is self-sacrificing, and mutually submitting ? then it can actually help lead people to Christ.

Christ gave himself up to unite the church with himself (vs 25). The church reciprocates by submitting itself to him in everything (vs 24). In marriage, man gives up his father and mother and joins himself to his wife to become one body with her, as she does to him. The husband gives himself up for his wife as servant to her as Christ did for the church and the wife reciprocates by submitting to her husband as servant to him. (Belezikian 2400)

That?s why Paul says this is a ?mystery? ? something not revealed until now.

Paul appeals to creation as a model: Adam died a kind of death for Eve to create Eve, so the woman (or wife) in marriage dies to herself in order to live for her husband. (Belezikian 2443)


Paul sums it up simply by telling husbands to love their wives as themselves and for wives to respect their husbands. There is nothing worse than if a wife feels unloved, because connection and relationship and feeling the care of a loving husband is paramount to any woman. Likewise, if a husband is not respected, it cuts his legs off from under him.

Each of you has great power over the other for good or for harm. Which will you choose? Each way is self-sacrificing and not easy, but definitely worth it, especially if we can be a witness to the world of what it?s like to be married to the Savior of the universe!

I finish with this thought: What we see here is the ideal state. This is the way Christian marriage ought to be. You might not have a husband who loves sacrificially or a wife who submits to that love. But it is something we should pray into our marriages.