Biblical Roles in Marriage

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Ephesians 5:22-33

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called Christian Home Fixer Upper and together we are looking at what the Bible teaches us about marriage and family, couples and singles, mothers and fathers, children and parents. Last week we looked at the Biblical foundations of marriage. Today we are going to look at the Biblical roles in marriage. God addresses these roles in several places in Scripture, but the most detailed passage by far is found right here in Ephesians 5:22-33. [Read and pray.]

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The Readers’ Digest often has some cute comments on marriage in its Quotable Quotes section. Here’s one by Brian Kiley: “I love being married. I was single for a long time, and I just got so tired of finishing my own sentences.” Barbara Streisand asks the question: “Why does a woman work ten years to change a man’s habits and then complain that he’s not the man she married?” And then I like this quote from Jay Leno: “The key to a long and healthy marriage is that, honestly, there’s nothing worth fighting about.”

The marriage relationship is one of the most important relationships God has given to us as human beings. On a practical level, the marriage relationship is the basis of the family, which in turn is the foundational unit for all of society. On a spiritual level, the marriage relationship is also a picture of God and his relationships. We looked at this last week when we talked about the Biblical foundations of marriage. We saw that marriage is an ordered, covenant relationship that reflects God’s ordered relationships within the trinity and that also reflects God’s covenant relationship with his people. We looked in depth at the second of these – that marriage is a covenant relationship of lifetime faithfulness – and we saw how this reflects God’s unfailing commitment to his people. But we only spoke briefly about marriage as an ordered relationship that reflects God’s relationships within the trinity.

God is one God, and yet he is three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When God created man, he said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-28) In some way God creating man as male and female reflected this plurality of persons within the one true God. We see this most clearly demonstrated in marriage, when a man and woman come together as “one flesh.” (“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24) They are two separate persons, and yet in marriage they are joined together as one.

We saw last week that God is not only a trinity, but that God has order in his own relationships within the trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all co-equal, and yet the Son voluntarily submits to the Father, and the Holy Spirit voluntarily glorifies Christ. And so in the trinity there is perfect love and submission among the three persons who are equally God. In the same way, marriage as a picture of God is also an ordered relationship. Husband and wife are equal partners in the marriage, and yet God has established an order within that relationship. And so marriage is not only a picture of God’s faithfulness to his people. It is also a picture of God’s ordered relationships within the trinity. And that brings us to the Biblical roles in marriage. Like the trinity, marriage is an ordered relationship where the man and woman have equal value but different roles.

One of the first truths of Scripture is that man and woman are created together in God’s image, and therefore have equal value, dignity and worth. Secular feminists today often misunderstand this. They think the Bible discriminates against women, when the reality is that from the beginning the Bible has taught the high value of woman created together with man in God’s image. The Bible has consistently promoted a higher value for women than that found in the surrounding culture. The Bible does not teach that men and women have different value or worth in marriage, but rather that they have different roles. God designed marriage, and he designed the roles in marriage. And most, if not all, of the problems that we experience in marriage are due to one or both of the marriage partners not fulfilling their God-designed roles. In order for any marriage to function as God intended, we must first understand these roles, and then we must apply them in our own marriage.

Ephesians 5 maps out these roles for us, and once again we find that marriage is a picture of God in his relationships – in this case a picture of Christ and the church. We will be looking at both the man’s and the woman’s roles in marriage, but Paul starts with the woman’s role first, and so that is where we will begin also.

I. Wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord. (22-24)

Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” This has got to be one of the least popular verses in the Bible among women! I remember when I was teaching on this passage in Sunday School one time, and one woman actually covered her ears when I got to this verse. She took her fingers, stuck them in her ears, and said, “I’m not listening!” Now I know none of you women here today would even think of doing that, right? Come on, now, get your fingers out of your ears! Don’t worry, the guys will start covering up their ears when we get to verse 25. What is it that women don’t like about this verse? I am guessing it has something to do with that word “submit.” We do not like the idea of submission because submission implies authority and order in the relationship, and we rebel against that idea.

Well what does it mean to submit? We will get to that in a moment, but first let me tell you a few things that “submit” does not mean in this verse. First of all, submission does not mean putting up with abuse, whether physical or verbal abuse. I have read tragic accounts of well-meaning pastors counseling women in abusive situations simply to submit to their husband’s abuse. That is not what Paul is saying here. No one ever has the right to damage you or your children physically or emotionally. An abusive situation is an unacceptable situation, and the Biblical solution is not to submit to abuse, but to hold the abuser accountable for his actions. God does not call you to submit yourself to abuse – ever!

Secondly, submission is not the same thing as obedience. Notice the Scripture does not say, “Wives, obey your husbands,” but rather, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” That is significant because the text goes on to say “Children, obey your parents,” and “Slaves, obey your . . . masters.” In other words, the wife is not supposed to obey her husband the way a child obeys his parents or a slave obeys his master. The relationship between husband and wife is not the same as the relationship between parent and child or between master and slave.

So, what does it mean to submit? The word itself means “to willingly put yourself under another person’s authority.” Submission has to do with order. God is the one who established order in life, and he asks us to submit to the order that he has designed. Notice Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” When a wife submits to her husband, she is in reality submitting herself to the Lord because she is following God’s order.

Paul further describes this role of submission by drawing the analogy between Christ and the church. And he says two things in particular concerning the wife’s submission. First of all, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. Secondly, as the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands.

   A. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. (22-23)

First of all, verse 23 says, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” Notice the Scripture does not say that the husband should be the head of the wife, or the husband should act like the head of the wife. Rather the husband is the head of the wife. This is not a matter of competence or ability, but rather a matter of assigned role. Just as Christ is the head of the church, so God has assigned the role of leadership in the home to the husband. It does not mean that the husband is more important or more spiritual than the wife. It simply means that God has given the husband the role of leadership in the family. He is the head, even as Christ is the head of the church.

Notice that verse 23 elaborates on Christ as head of the church by calling the church “his body, of which he is the Savior.” The church is the body of Christ, and Christ is the head of that body. Not only is he the head of the church, but he is also the Savior. In fact, the reason why Christ is the head of the church is because he is the Savior. When Jesus laid down his life at the cross, he became the Savior, and thus he became the head of the church, which is his body.

You will notice that Paul is using the word “head” in two different ways here, both in terms of leadership and as the head of the body. Both are true of Christ with respect to the church. Jesus is the head of the church in the sense that he is the leader of the church. And Jesus is the head of the church in the sense that the church is the body of Christ. Christ and the church are joined together as one, but there is still order in the relationship. He is the head, and we are the body. We will return to this “head-body” imagery in a few minutes when we look at the man’s role in marriage.

   B. As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands. (24)

So the first thing we learn about the woman’s role in marriage is that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. From this truth in verse 23, Paul then draws the application in verse 24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” How should the wife submit to her husband? In the same way that the church submits to Christ. How does the church submit to Christ? By loving him, respecting him, serving him, pleasing him, and following his lead. How then should the wife submit to her husband? By loving him, respecting him, serving him, pleasing him, and following his lead. Notice that just as the church does not get to pick and choose when to submit to Christ, so Paul tells wives, “Submit to your husbands in everything.” The wife is not to pick and choose when to submit and when not to submit. As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Now I realize that this is a challenging teaching in today’s culture. And I’m guessing that a number of you are doing all you can not to put your fingers in your ears while I’m up here preaching. That’s okay. I understand. If that was the whole message this morning, and that was all God had to say about roles in marriage, I agree, that would be a really tough message to follow. But let me encourage you to hang in here with me, because that is only half the message. When you look at Biblical roles in marriage, you have to look at both sides of the equation, or none of it makes sense. So, right after Paul presents the woman’s role in marriage, he immediately balances it out by presenting the man’s role. And that is what we will look at next.

II. Husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. (25-32)

Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.” Notice that we are still dealing with marriage as a picture of Christ and the church. But now Paul presents the man’s role in the marriage relationship. If the woman’s role is to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ, the husband’s role is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. And men, I do not know of any more challenging command in Scripture.

What does it mean to love your wife as Christ loved the church? Once again, just as Paul said two things about the wife’s submission in verses 22-24, he says two things about the husband’s love here in these verses. 1) The husband should sacrifice for his wife as Christ gave himself up for the church. 2) The husband should love his wife as he loves his own body.

   A. The husband should sacrifice for his wife as Christ gave himself up for the church. (25-27)

First of all, the husband should sacrifice for his wife as Christ gave himself up for the church. Look at verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” I think it is significant that the verbs describing Christ in verse 25 are in the past tense rather than the present tense. Notice it does not say, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church,” but rather, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The words point us back to Jesus’ ultimate act of love – his sacrifice for us on the cross. Husband, how are you called to love your wife? Just as Jesus gave himself up at the cross, so you are to sacrifice everything for your wife. Just as Christ gave himself away for the church, you are to give yourself away for your wife.

It was not an easy thing for Jesus to go to the cross for us. Everything in him screamed against it. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus pleaded with the Father: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) Three times Jesus prayed for the cross to be taken away, but as we read in Isaiah 53: “It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer . . . he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:10-12)

Jesus went to the cross at great cost to himself. He sacrificed himself for our benefit. He put our needs before himself. And husbands, God calls you to sacrifice for your wife at great cost to yourself. God calls you to put your wife’s needs before your own. In effect God calls you to die to yourself. He calls you to sacrifice your life for the benefit of your wife. I am guessing that by now the women have their fingers completely out of their ears, and us guys are frantically looking around for the earplugs. This is tough teaching.

Verses 26-27 say that Jesus did this for the church in order “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” We cannot cleanse our wives or make our wives holy in the same way that Jesus washed the church by his sacrifice on the cross. But I do believe that when we sacrifice ourselves for our wives, we make our wives radiant. When we honor our wives by putting their needs before our own, we let them shine with the value and dignity and worth that God invested them with as women. We free them to be all that they can and should be for Christ. And of course we should do all that we can to help them grow in holiness and commitment to the Lord, even as they help us grow in the Lord.

   B. The husband should love his wife as he loves his own body. (28-32)

Paul says something else about loving your wife as Christ loved the church. Not only should the husband sacrifice for his wife as Christ gave himself up for the church. The husband should also love his wife as he loves his own body. Look at verse 28: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Men, how many of you love your own bodies this morning? Let me give you a hint. Every time you order a pizza or steak, you are loving your own body. You are doing that which is pleasing to your body.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that, we just need to understand that God calls us to love our wives in the same way. Once again, Paul is drawing from the analogy of the man as the head of the woman just as Christ is the head of his body, the church. The leadership to which God calls you as husband in your marriage is not the leadership of a dictator over a country, a master over a slave, or even a parent over a child. It is the leadership of the head over the body, where the head and the body are vitally connected and share a common life. You should love your wife as you love your own body and seek only the best for your own body. He who loves his wife loves himself, because the two in fact are one. Whatever good you do for your wife, you do for yourself. When you sacrifice yourself to make your wife shine and be radiant, you are really benefiting yourself, for you are one with your wife.

Paul goes on to say in verses 29-30: “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:29-30) “No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it.” That makes sense. The head takes care of the body. The head never commands the body to do something damaging or destructive to itself, because they are vitally connected. The head belongs to the body and the body belongs to the head. In the same way, husbands, as you lead your family, you should make all your decisions based not on what works best for you, but according to what is best for your wife and your family as a whole. You are not given the role of leadership in the family to serve yourself, but rather to serve your wife and family. As the head of the family, you should love your wife as you love your own body, just as Christ loves and takes care of the church, which is his body.

Paul then goes on in verses 31-32 to quote from the passage in Genesis 2:24 about the man and the woman becoming one flesh in marriage. “‘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.” (Ephesians 5:31-32) Paul says that the man and woman coming together as one is a profound mystery, but that he is really talking about the church. The unity between Jesus Christ and the church is the real profound mystery here. Marriage is a picture of Christ and his church. Marriage is the picture. Jesus and the church are the ultimate reality. Once again, as important as marriage is just by itself, it points to something bigger than itself. Marriage is a picture of God and his relationships, which is why we need to follow God’s design for marriage.

III. The husband must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (33)

Then Paul sums it all up in verse 33 when he says: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Paul summarizes the husband’s role as that of loving his wife as himself, and the wife’s role as that of respecting her husband. Notice that each partner in the marriage relationship is responsible for his or her own role. Husbands, you are responsible for your role, not for your wife’s. Wives, you are responsible for your role, not for your husband’s. Anytime you focus on your spouse’s role in marriage instead of your own, you are headed for trouble.

But isn’t that what we usually do? I have had plenty of women come to me over the years complaining about their husband’s lack of spiritual leadership in the home, but rarely does a woman come and complain to me about her own lack of submission. And I have heard plenty of men go on and on about how their wives don’t respect them, but it is very rare when I hear a man talk about how he needs to learn to sacrifice more for his wife and family. We need to stop blaming our spouses for not fulfilling their role and start focusing on fulfilling our own role in the marriage. In other words, it’s okay if you want to cover your ears when I am talking about your spouse’s role. It’s okay because that is not your area of responsibility or concern. You need to focus on your own role.

When it comes right down to it, I really have no control over Rosi and whether she is going to practice submission in the home, and she has no control over me and whether I am going to practice sacrificial love in my leadership. Each of us can only fulfill our own responsibilities.

Unfortunately, what often happens in the home is because one partner is not fulfilling their role, the other partner chooses not to fulfill their role. That starts a negative cycle which is destructive to the relationship and to God’s design for the home. If your spouse is not fulfilling his or her role, what you need to do is focus on fulfilling your role in the home. More often than not, when one partner does the right thing, it will start a positive cycle in the right direction. In other words, wives, the best way to inspire sacrificial love from your husband is to treat him with respect. And husbands, the best way to gain your wife’s respect is to sacrifice for her in love.

Sometimes the question comes up, what if my husband or wife is not a believer, or what if they have no interest in fulfilling their biblical role in marriage? What then? We are going to talk about that later in this series when we look at the situation of spiritual mismatch in a marriage. How do we handle a spiritual mismatch, and what would God have us do in that situation? We will talk more about that later, but for now, please realize that a spiritual mismatch does not change Paul’s instructions to us here in Ephesians 5. “Each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:33)

CONCLUSION: So, what are the Biblical roles in marriage? The man’s role is to sacrifice for his wife out of love for her. And the woman’s role is to submit to her husband out of respect for him. Sacrifice motivated by love, submission motivated by respect. You know, you can’t force either one of those. Forced sacrifice is not motivated by love, and forced submission is not motivated by respect. But if every husband and every wife took their own assigned roles seriously, we would go a long way to restoring the peace, love and harmony that God intended for our marriages.

So why do we have so much trouble with all this? I think one reason is because this teaching has been distorted so much over the years. Too often people think these verses are saying that men have the right to boss their wives around the house. And guys, if that’s what you think leadership in the home is all about, you need to take a closer look at what it means to love your wife as Christ loved the church. Your role is not to boss your wife around but to sacrifice for her out of love.

And then a second reason we have trouble with this teaching is because we all struggle with sin. And as husbands and wives we each have specific root problems of sin. When it comes to sin in this area of marital relationships, I believe the root problem for women is one of rebellion, and the root problem for men is one of selfishness. When women have trouble with submission, the real problem is that they do not want to submit to God’s order. It’s a heart problem of rebellion against God and his design. And when men have trouble with sacrificial love, the real problem is that we are selfish, and we do not want to put our wives first.

And so women, I would encourage you to examine your hearts for rebellion this morning, and men, I would encourage you to examine your hearts for selfishness. And then let me encourage you to confess your sin to God, to leave it behind, and to ask God to help you fulfill your role in marriage as God intends.

© Ray Fowler

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