What Marriage Says About the Gospel (Eph. 5:22-24)


When I began to preach almost 30 years ago, I was still a teenager and single. I remember being afraid to touch texts like Ephesians 5:22-33 for the simple reason that I had no experience with marriage, except as an observer. I am grateful to have two parents who I believe have modeled this passage better than most, and yet I knew it would be hard for me to preach on the subject with any authority unless I came at it from a position within, as someone who had personal experience as a married man. And yet, even now I find myself apprehensive when it comes to teaching on the Biblical portrait of marriage. Probably more than ever before the Biblical view of marriage and the relationship that exists between husband and wife are under attack. However, not only is it under attack from without, it is also under attack from within. That is, we not only have to worry about the pressures from society against the Biblical witness to marriage but also the pressures that are essentially arguing against faithfulness to Scripture from within the community of the faithful. 

I think one of the big reasons why the church has fallen in its witness with respect to marriage is due to the seeker-sensitive approach that many churches in our day have taken. Though I respect the motivation behind seeker-sensitive churches – the desire to see the lost come to Christ – one of the many problems with this is that it causes church leaders to become overly sensitive to movements in the culture and, therefore, susceptible to absorbing those movements into the church for the sake of gaining the ear of the culture. But, as someone has so aptly put it, often those in the church who go in for street cred end up getting street crud instead. The sad result is a church which no longer witnesses to the truth of all of Scripture and the further result that such churches are filled with stunted Christians, immature Christians, and non-Christians (who unfortunately get inoculated with just enough religion to keep them from getting the real thing). I don’t think there is any real doubt that this is exactly what has happened to the evangelical church in our day, at least in the West. 

Another problem with the seeker-sensitive approach is that it inevitably undermines the gospel and, therefore, the salvation of those the church is purportedly trying to reach. You cannot separate the Biblical witness to sin and salvation from its witness about everything else. I realize that there are strata of importance when it comes to the various doctrines, but they are intrinsically connected under the Lordship of Christ. The same Lord that teaches us about his salvation and sovereignty is the same Lord that teaches us about marriage and the mutual roles that husband and wife play in that relationship. It might be possible for a man to be saved and yet relate wrongly to his wife; but it is not possible to reject the Lordship of Christ and be saved. Those who self-consciously reject the Biblical teaching of marriage (or any other area) are rejecting the Lordship of Christ in that area. 

Additionally, it also seems that there is today in many places in the church almost a gnostic approach to the gospel and its connection (or rather, its disconnect) to life. This is equally destructive, for how can you take the gospel seriously when you disconnect it from life? Is it really possible to embrace Christ as the one who gives you eternal life and yet has nothing to say about life in the here and now, about marriage and child-rearing and work? We are not disembodied souls, and yet this is precisely the picture that many people present in the way they hold the gospel. This is not the Christ of the gospel that has been handed down to us by the apostles. He is Lord of our souls, yes, but also of our bodies. “You are bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body,” says the apostle (1 Cor. 6:20). He is Lord over every aspect of our life, not only in the age to come but also in the present age, as well. In the words of Abraham Kuyper’s oft-quoted words: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” This being so, it should not surprise us that our Lord has something to say to husbands and wives, to parent and child, and to employers and employees, as he does in the book of Ephesians. 

At the same time, we have to be careful that we do not go in the opposite direction. The way the gospel has sometimes been presented is as if the gospel is all about the here and now with little to say about the age to come. In this way man’s broken relationship with God gets minimized, and economics and social justice issues (man’s broken relationship with man) get maximized. The gospel becomes eclipsed by issues of social and economic inequalities. Now, it’s not that the gospel is not concerned with matters of justice; the issue of justice is at the heart of the doctrine of the atonement. The church ought to do everything it can to alleviate the injustices of our time. The problem with some of the social justice warriors in the church is that they are confused about the solution and tie it to politics instead of the lifestyle changes that result from gospel influence. People who are truly changed by the gospel are not going to be racist; they are not going to cheat and hate their neighbor, and so on. At the same time, the church’s message should reflect that the primary issue at hand is the issue of our alienation from a holy God and the need for acceptance with God through his Son and a new birth by the Holy Spirit. 

In fact, everything the church says and does ought to tell the story of the gospel in some way. The way we keep from selling out to the culture via the seeker-sensitive movement or from ignoring the universal sovereignty of Christ over every aspect of our lives or from temporalizing and politicizing the gospel is to understand what the gospel is and that every aspect of our lives and the life of the church is to tell the story of the gospel. The gospel is the good news that the Sovereign of the universe became incarnate as a man to deal with the ultimate matter of justice, and thus to make a way for traitors against the King of heaven and earth to be saved. He came to be our Savior and our Lord and he is both for all who embrace him as such by faith. He is our Savior because he did what we could not do – in our place he kept God’s law perfectly by his holy life and absorbed God’s wrath completely by his substitutionary death. He saves us from every aspect of sin: not just its guilt but also its power. He saves us so that we willingly and joyfully embrace his lordship over our lives and no longer give ourselves to the joy-sucking and life-killing sins of our past. Salvation like this is so complete that it embraces every aspect of our lives and every aspect of our lives increasingly reflects the power of the gospel (or at least ought to). 

It should not surprise us that as we move through the outworking of the gospel in the second half of this epistle we should come to the gospel’s impact upon the relationship of husband and wife. Here we see that the gospel not only says something about marriage, but that marriage says something about the gospel. According to the apostle, Christian marriage preaches the gospel. Thus marriage is a gospel issue. Those who trifle with the institution of marriage not only get marriage wrong, they inevitably warp the message of the gospel as well, which is why we have to be very careful that we hear what Scripture has to say about it and avoid being sucked into the culture’s attempt to define it. 

How Marriage Preaches the Gospel 

This morning we are going to look at verses 22-24. These are very controversial because they instruct wives to submit to their husbands: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” Furthermore, we are told that the husband is the head of the wife: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.” These twin ideas of the headship of the husband and the submission of the wife are extremely volatile topics, even in the evangelical wing of the church. I read a news headline the other day, which was obviously meant to be negative, but which simply said that a certain politician had advised wives to submit to their husbands. Just to say you agree with the apostle is no longer culturally tenable! Everything has been done to deny the obvious meaning of these verses in favor of a position more favorable to the feminism of our times. Clearly, the obvious meaning here is that Christian husbands ought to be leaders in their homes and that their wives ought to follow this God-ordained leadership. 

Does verse 21 completely define verses 22-33? 

As we have been saying, this is often denied. One way people have tried to get around this is by interpreting verses 22-33 in light of verse 21. There the apostle exhorts his readers to mutual submission: “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ.” This submission is universal, and so this means that husbands are to submit to their wives just as wives are to submit to their husbands. Of course, this is right on one level: there is an aspect of mutual submission that is advocated, not only for husband and wife, but also for everyone else in the church. Recall how the apostle Peter put it: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility” (1 Pet. 5:5). This mutual submission is simply an outworking of the humility which is to characterize all believers in all relationships. 

However, that does not mean that there are not particular ways we are to submit or that these particular ways are transferable to others. There are lines of authority that God has established, and these lines only go one way. The way to look at this is to consider the other two ways Paul works out this principle of submission: children are to submit to their parents and servants are to submit to their masters (although in both cases Paul uses the stronger word “obey” instead of “submit”). Eph. 5:21 does not mean that parents are to submit to their children in the way children are to submit to their parents or that masters are to obey their employees in the same way that employees are to submit to their employers. Yes, we are to deal with everyone with humility. The obedience rendered in the cases of children to parents and servants to masters doesn’t go the other direction. The same is true with Paul’s words to wives and husbands. Husbands are to relate to their wives with the humility that is consistent with the gospel. They are also to take the lead in the marital relationship and this leadership is a one-way, God-ordained authority. 

Does the word head really carry the connotation of “authority over”? 

Another way that people try to avoid the clear implication of the text here is by saying that “head” here refers to the idea of “source” rather than to the idea of “authority.” However, this still does not lead to an egalitarian reading of the text. Moreover, it seems to me incontrovertible that the context here demands the idea of authority, even if in other contexts head can denote source. When you add the idea of headship to submission, which the apostle does here, what else can it mean? “As the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (24). Furthermore, it is hard for me to understand what it would mean for husbands to be the source of their wives. And yet, even if we grant this, the apostle argues in 1 Cor. 11 that, since the man is the source of the woman, therefore the woman is to have a symbol of authority upon her head; in this context, the symbol of authority is a symbol of the husband’s authority in the marriage (1 Cor. 11:7-10). So it seems to me that, either way, headship refers to the husband’s position of leadership in the marriage relationship and the authority that goes along with it. 

The fact of the matter is that in any relationship, someone is always going to take the lead. Even in so-called egalitarian marriages, the buck is going to have to stop somewhere. Unless husband and wife agree on everything (not probable in any relationship, no matter how sanctified they are!), someone is going to have to give way to the wishes of the other. Someone is going to lead; it is inevitable. All the Bible adds to this reality is that the husband is to take the lead, especially when there are differences, and the wife is to submit to the leadership of her husband. 

One may ask what difference does this make? Why cannot the wife lead? Why must it be the husband? Answers have been given to this question from history, psychology, and sociology. The fact of the matter is that if we accept the Scriptures at face-value; there is no need to appeal elsewhere, for the text itself answers this question. God intended it this way, and as our Creator he knows what is best for us. 

Is this tied to a particular culture? 

Now some have claimed that, as the head-covering of 1 Cor. 11 was a culturally relative application, it is no longer applicable to the church today, even as Paul’s instructions to women here are also culturally relative. It is argued that just as slavery, to which Paul addresses himself in chapter 6, is no longer a part of the dynamic of relationships in the church, even so the submission of wives is no longer applicable to Christians today. What do we say to this? 

Let us take the 1 Corinthians 11 passage first. The important thing to note there is the distinction between the principle of male leader- ship in the home and the application of that principle in wearing of head coverings. The principle is stated in verse 3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (ESV). That principle is clearly not rooted to a particular culture. Rather, Paul is talking about lines of authority that ow from God to Christ, from Christ to the husband, and from husband to wife. These lines of authority are not created by man, but by God. The particular application of this unchanging principle may vary from culture to culture, but the principle itself remains the same, and the principle is that husbands are to lovingly lead in the home. 

What about slavery? First of all, I want to note that the comparison between the submission of wives and the institution of slavery is not apt. The true comparison would be between the institution of slavery and the institution of marriage. If you want to argue that Paul’s words in Eph. 5:22-24 aren’t applicable by comparison to slavery, the logic being used in this case demands that marriage itself is no longer applicable to Christians. Few in the church would want to do that. 

However, some might still press the issue by arguing that Paul got slavery wrong and so we don’t need to heed his instructions on other issues, like marriage. Of course, if you make that argument, you have demonstrated that you have no faith in the authority of Scripture. That is simply not a place we want to go. What would you say to someone who brought up the issue of slavery in the epistles? 

We will go into this in more detail when we look at Eph. 6:5-9, but at this point, the important thing to remember is that slavery in the NT was not the same thing as slavery that existed in the Antebellum South. That institution was fundamentally immoral, and I have no doubt the apostle himself would say that, since it was based on kidnapping people from their homes and selling them into slavery, a practice that was a capital offense by OT standards (cf. Exod. 21:16). This is what people think of when they think of slavery. It is not the same thing as the institution that existed in the NT Roman world and so to criticize it on the basis of comparison to something it was not, is not a legitimate argument. 

Marriage is not only God-ordained, but so are the ways that men and women relate in marriage. Nowhere do Paul’s words indicate that these commands are culturally relative. If you want to ignore them, fine; you just need to be honest and admit that you are self-consciously disobeying a clear command of Scripture in favor of your own will and way. 

God’s intention in marriage 

Why did God intend it this way? What is behind God’s intention is the fact that marriage says something about the gospel, and both the husband and the wife have a role to play in this display of the gospel through marriage. For the wife, she puts the gospel on display when, in her willing submission to her husband, she exhibits the beautiful relationship the church has with Christ. In marriage, the woman represents the church and the husband the Lord: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.” 

In particular, the woman exhibits the willing obedience that the church offers to her Lord: “Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” There is nothing demeaning in the church’s submission to Christ. It is, in fact, the church’s blessing and beauty. This is so important to put on display because we live in a world that is ordered toward radical individualism and toward the breakdown of authority structures. Of course, when this is allowed to progress to its logical endpoint, the result is chaos and chaos always brings with it destruction. Harmony, on the other hand, can only persist and flourish where order and authority are acknowledged. True freedom is never the freedom to do whatever you want, especially when our wants are so often defined by selfish and sinful impulses. True freedom is the freedom to do what we ought, and salvation is partly about restoring sinful humanity so that men and women can do what they ought. 

Where does marriage come into this? Christian marriage provides a unique opportunity to show the world what the blessing and beauty of submission to Christ looks like. In any case, the wife’s submission to her husband is ultimately submission to Christ. The husband’s authority is derived from Christ, who stands over him. In an age when the breakdown of the home is accelerating, it is all the more important for Christian homes to put this on display. 

At this point I want to point out that this picture undercuts the claim that submission implies inferiority. Many people, especially in our day, have rejected the Biblical role assigned to the woman in marriage because they believe it humiliates and degrades them. If that were the case, then it would be humiliating and degrading for the church to submit to Christ. But it is not. The holiness and righteousness of the church, which comes through obedience and submission to Christ’s commands, is the beauty of the Church: “And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in white: for the ne linen is the righteousness [righteous deeds - ESV] of the saints” (Rev. 19:6-8). 

We must make clear that difference in role does not mean difference in worth. As the apostle put it to the Galatians, in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one ins Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Before God, there is complete equality. Men, in virtue of their role of leadership in the home, do not exercise any kind of superiority over the women. They are to exercise their role of leadership under Christ – they are not the Lord in the relationship, Christ is. Neither should men think that their role as leaders in the home makes them more important in any sense than their wife. John Newton once said that if two angels were sent from heaven, one to rule an empire and the other to sweep the streets, neither of them would have preference for one job over the other. If we, men and women, were as we ought to be, we would all be like these angels. Men wouldn’t prefer their role as leader because it makes them feel important, and women wouldn’t chafe in their role as their husband’s supporter because it makes them feel unimportant. We would all accept our roles as given to us by Christ because in them we are really serving Christ and putting the gospel on display. 

It is incredibly sad that so many Christian homes do not put the gospel on display. Either the husband neglects his loving leadership or abuses it, or the wife ignores her husband’s leadership or rejects it altogether. I think one of the reasons this is such an epidemic in the Christian church is partly because many so-called Christians do not take seriously the call to holiness. In other words, one of the reasons why so many women who call themselves Christian don’t submit to their husbands is because they don’t take seriously the reality that the church submits to Christ in all things. You can’t put on display in your marriage what is not already true in your life. Holiness and obedience to Christ is the fundamental prerequisite to all of this. These things go hand in hand. The same is true for the men. 

So let me just remind you what the apostle mentions here in passing. The church is subject to Christ. The church is the community of the redeemed, those for whom Christ gave his life: “and he is the savior of the body” (24). If you are not subject to Christ, that is, if your life is not characterized by obedience to his commands, then you cannot legitimately call yourself a member of the body of Christ. Those who live in sin are simply not saved. In other words, the problem with this text going unheeded is just a part of the much larger problem of holiness going unpursued. 

I understand that for this to work out as the apostle intended, the husband must approximate the character of Christ. Thus, verses 25-33. Furthermore, submission “in everything” (24) does not mean that the wife is to submit to her husband’s wishes when, as John Stott put it, they command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. It does not mean that a wife must put up with or follow and support an abusive or an adulterous husband. Nevertheless, neither does the apostle expect the wife to follow her husband only if he is perfect, which is impossible. Men are imperfect and the best husbands are going to mess up, and say stupid things and do stupid things. That does not mean that the wife is no longer required to submit. Though we don’t want to abuse the phrase “in everything,” neither do we want to so qualify it that it has no meaning. Clearly, it at least means that the wife is to lovingly follow and support her husband in all aspects of their life together, as long as the husband has not forfeited his right to lead through grievous sin, and that this paints a picture of the wonderful relationship the church has with Christ. 

Paul will have much more to say to the husbands, which we will look at next time. Husbands lead their wives with love and by being to their wives what Christ is to the church. There is no jockeying for first place in the marriage if the apostle’s words are obeyed, either by the husband or the wife. The wife will loving support her husband and the husband will lead, all the while denying his own desires in order to bless and protect and cherish his wife. In doing so, they preach the gospel to the world. May it be so in our homes. 


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