A Hard, Rewarding Job
Imagine this scene: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together in the sight of God and these witnesses, to unite this man and this woman in holy matrimony, and to see how much pain they can cause each other, their families, their church, and the world around them in the years ahead . . .” We smile because we know that no one enters a marriage thinking, “How can I ruin this and hurt all the people who matter most to me?” We long for every wedding day to be the beginning of a lifelong romance with a happy ending. But marriage is so complicated! From the moment you say “I do” at the altar until the minute you let go of your husband’s hand at life’s end, marriage complicates your life.
Trying to fit together two sinful, selfish people for 60 or more years is one of the hardest, most exasperating—and yet most rewarding—jobs in life. Only God can help us here. And he does. In Ephesians chapter 5, God gives every wife his strategy for how marriage works. In this well-known passage on marriage, God gives Christian wives a twofold calling, representing to the world what it means for the church to respond to Christ, her loving Husband.
The Call to Submission
First, God calls the godly wife to submit to her husband:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. . . . Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.—Ephesians 5:22, 24
Biblical submission is a feared, and often distorted, concept in our day. We recoil from submission as if we were being forced to swallow some antiquated brew formulated to subdue women. We fear losing ourselves if we embrace submission as a loving mandate from our kind King.
The ESV Women’s Study Bible features study and devotional content along with elegant artwork from artist Dana Tanamachi to help women in all seasons of life pursue a transformational understanding of Scripture.
But isn’t that what marriage is all about? In a very real sense, when you marry a man, you do lose yourself. The Bible teaches that woman was made for man (1 Cor. 11:9). This is God’s divine design. When God thought up your husband way back in eternity past, he knew that man would need you, and he specifically created you to be his channel of blessing for your husband (Prov. 18:22; 31:11–12).
To embrace submission means letting God call the shots, letting God rule his universe in the way he knows is best. This isn’t always easy to hear because we like to reign in our own individualized universe—developing our own lines of authority, fearing we might be victimized in weak, marital passivity if we embrace God’s calling in Ephesians 5. That fear clouds the loveliness of true, biblical submission that can be seen throughout Scripture. All believers are called upon to submit to God (James 4:7). Titus 3:1 instructs everyone to be submissive to the rulers and authorities God places over them. Jesus was submissive to his parents (Luke 2:51).
In fact, submission began in heaven. The Bible teaches that God is one in three persons, eternally equal in being, but the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to God the Father in their roles (1 Cor. 15:28). Your obedience to God’s call to submission is no more a sign of weakness or inferiority in you than it was in Jesus when he submitted to his Father’s will and way, saying, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). You are much like Jesus when you
Seek to live above your feelings so that your changing emotions won’t dictate your level of commitment to your marriage. Submission requires strength and dignity. It says, “I will trust God more than I will trust my own opinions and feelings.” Learn to yield in love. Be flexible. The right kind of submission is always a voluntary thing. True, biblical submission can never be demanded by a husband, because biblical submission is more than an action—it is the giving over of your heart to your husband’s will.
The Bible encourages wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” because authentic submission is an act of Christian worship, a ministry to your husband. God dignifies your submissive spirit as an offering to himself, which he surely accepts with sweet approval. To choose deference over defiance, meekness instead of arrogance, flexibility rather than stubbornness, a gracious adaptability in the way we relate to our husbands—this is kingdom work!
The Call to Respect
God also calls Christian wives to respect our husbands:
And let the wife see that she respects her husband.—Ephesians 5:33
God made a man’s ego unique. When you married your man, God placed that precious ego into your care. And the best way—God’s way—to care for your husband is to respect him.
God has given your man a task to complete in life, just as he gave Adam a task in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Your husband needs you as he strives to fulfill that God-given call on his life. You can either help him or hurt him, you can break his joy or enrich it, you can destroy his dreams or validate them—all by freely offering him respect as a man. As a new bride, I knew this principle, but I didn’t understand how to put it to use in our marriage. One evening, after a particularly emotional discussion, Ray gently asked me to offer him more respect. I remember, with shame, my caustic response: “I would, if you were more respectable!” I didn’t realize that respect is a gift I offer my husband. He shouldn’t have to earn it any more than I should have to earn his love. Do I want Ray to love me only when I’m lovely? I need him to be even more tender and compassionate when I am at my worst.
Christian marriage puts on display the happy news of the gospel here on earth—the love of the Savior for his Bride.
Your husband needs to know you think he is really wonderful. Speak well of him to friends and family. Praise him in front of your kids. Is he late for dinner? You have a choice in how you will respond. It can be either, “Poor Daddy. He must be so tired and hungry. Let’s fix a plate to keep warm for him. Who can pray for him right now?” Or, “Poor us. He’s late again. Why can’t he get home on time for a change?” You do own a part in how your life plays out, how peaceful your marriage will be. A man cannot cherish a strong woman who continually expresses her disapproval of him. Be his wife, not his conscience. Notice him, admire him, appreciate him—respect him.
Christian marriage puts on display the happy news of the gospel here on earth—the love of the Savior for his Bride, and the Bride’s honor for him. If we really understand the gospel, it will have a profound impact on our marriages.
Marriage and the Gospel
The gospel tells us that God doesn’t just tolerate us— he embraces us (Rom. 15:7). Justification changes my relationship to Christ from law to grace, and that should change my marriage from one of judgment to mercy. If we don’t love and accept our husbands, we probably don’t understand God’s love and acceptance of us. Why not treat my spouse as God treats me in my sins?
Marriage is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person. The paradox in marriage is that to build a truly great marriage, you must endure difficult adversity and pain as a married couple. But who God is makes all the difference. Our only hope is the grace of God. God’s grace is the only power that can tear down walls and heal deep wounds and build up great marriages. Grace says, “Since God treats me with grace, I am going to treat you with grace. I am going to set you free by welcoming you into my heart with a glad-hearted acceptance. I’m going to encourage you, not try to fix you. I want our marriage to flourish within a culture of grace.”
Human marriage is not the ultimate human experience. Our relationship with God is. But under Christ, marriage is the most profound human relationship we have. Press by faith toward a sweeter marriage, a grace-filled, more biblical marriage, as you seek to fulfill God’s design for you as a godly wife.
This article is adapted from the ESV Women’s Study Bible.
What does it mean that husbands are the head of their wives and that they should love them as Christ loved the church?
Wives bend toward the nourishment and the leadership of their husbands—they are turning themselves toward what is for their good.
Marriage was created to evidence Christ’s love for his bride, the church. Our earthly relationships, though marred by our sin, can point us toward this true and ultimate reality.
The most rebellious, countercultural thing you can do in our culture is to be happily married until death do you part.