In the last blog post we discussed some major interpretive pitfalls in interpreting Eph 5:22-33. If you have not already read that post, I highly recommend doing so before beginning this one, as I will assume a lot of the information given there. In this, the last blog post in this series, I will provide a thorough exegetical analysis of this passage. While there are many important passages related to biblical marriage, I think a strong argument can be made that this is the most crucial one to understand. True to the title, this post will deal with some technical data, but I will do my best to explain it in an understandable way. Those who work in Greek, and would like an even more technical treatment, may email me and I will provide this for them.
As we saw in the previous blog, the passage is introduced by Eph 5:21. In the previous blog we laid out how this section fits into the broader epistle. Ephesians 5:22-33 is the first set of human relationships Paul addresses. Our task at hand is to understand precisely what he says about husbands and wives. He begins by addressing wives:
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything (5:22-24).”
The command here is pretty straightforward. Wives are commanded to submit (or “be subject” in the NASB) to their own husbands. The word “own” explicit in the Greek text (τοῖς ἰδίοις). Paul is making clear that this does not mean that all women are to be submissive to all men, or that (as some would have it) every woman needs to be under male authority. He is, however, saying that, in the case of married women, they are to submit to their own husbands. The verb “submit” is not stated in the Greek text, but it is very common in New Testament Greek (as in many languages) to have to supply a verb from the immediate context. In this case, all translators and interpreters agree that the verb to be supplied is “submit,” or whatever synonym is preferred for smooth translation.
How far should such submission extend? Paul adds the phrase “as to the Lord.” Then explains the reason, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church.” Here he shows the beautiful reason why biblical marriage roles are such a precious thing: they give us a picture of Christ and his church. Women are not commanded to submit because they are inferior in any way, but because this is a picture God have given us the love relationship between Jesus Christ and his redeemed people. Captivated by Christ and his church, Paul cannot resist an opportunity to remind the readers that “He himself is the savior of the body.” But the inclusion of himself (αὐτός) shows us that he is not suggesting that the husband is the savior of his wife. As we saw in the last blog, there is an interchange throughout the section between parallels between the husband and wife and Christ and his church, and sections elaborating only on Christ and the church with no direct parallel in marriage.
Verse 24 begins with the contrastive conjunction “but” (Greek = ἀλλά, strong contrast). What is the contrast here? Paul is showing that the parallels between Christ/church and husband/wife are not exact, but while the husband is not the savior of his wife, the wife is to submit to her husband in everything just as the church submits to Christ?
Does this mean unqualified submission? Reading this test in isolation from the Bible could lead one to believe so, but a broader biblical understanding shows us that this is not the case. God (as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the only unqualified authority in the universe. Believers are commanded to submit to national leaders as to the Lord (Rom 13:1-7, 2 Pet 2:13-14). The Apostle Peter is one of those who gives us this command, but it was he who gave us the principle “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, cf., 4:19-20). Here we have a fundamental principle that applies with any human authority. All authority is subject to God’s, so if obeying a human authority means disobeying God, we must always obey God. Thus, Ephesians is telling us that a wife must submit to her husband if doing so does not mean disobeying God, but the principle we just outlined tells us that a woman must never submit to her husband if it means disobeying God.
We now move to God’s commandments for husbands. The section commanding husbands to “love their wives” is roughly three times as long as that directed to wives. I have found myself under criticism for having more to say about how husbands are supposed to treat their wives than vice versa, but my response is that the Bible has a lot more to say about this. As observed in the previous blog, there is an interchange here. Some points are parallels between Christ/church and husband/wife, and some points are specific to Christ and the church. These differences will be explained in more detail here as we work through exactly what Paul is talking about.
Paul begins “Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Biblical love is self-sacrificial love. How self-sacrificial? A husband must be prepared to give his own life for his wife, just as Christ gave his own life for the church. Paul is not saying that a husband must be self-sacrificial in the same way as Christ, for a man cannot take the eternal punishment for his wife’s sins (I hope against hope that this states the obvious), and every husband is not commanded to die for his wife (most of us will not actually have to), but this is the level of self-sacrifice God required of a husband. Now, if you ask most husbands whether they would be willing to die for their wives, they would readily say they would. But if we truly have that level of self-sacrificial love, how much less is being asked of us if she needs help with the dishes or kids when she is worn out? As we have discussed throughout this blog series, most men will have ample opportunity to show sacrificial love, though their lives might never be threatened.
Verse 26 explains the reason Christ gave himself for the church. On the one hand, Paul is so captivated with Christ’s saving work he cannot help following this train of thought. This is something he does commonly in his letters, especially Ephesians (cf. the use of “For this Reason” in 3:1, 14). On the other hand, the work of Christ is what makes harmony possible in all human relationships. He says that Christ gave himself for the church “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” The sanctification he is speaking of here is what, theologically, we would refer to as “positional sanctification,” which is a synonym for justification. To view this as progressive sanctification, wherein God gradually causes the believer to grow in holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit, would be to take the word “sanctify” out of context. Of course, Paul is speaking in corporate terms. As Harold Hoehner explains: “In this context the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice was to set apart the church to God.” But to argue for the corporate over and against the individual is a false dichotomy. The precise way God set apart the church was by sanctifying the individuals who make her up through cleansing from sin and the imputed righteousness of Christ.
In the Greek text, the verb sanctify (ἁγιάσῃ) is further explained by a participle “cleansing” (καθαρίσας). This participle explains how Christ sanctified the church, namely, by cleansing her through the washing of water by the word. The cleansing here, in context, is talking about the cleansing from sin brought about by the death of Christ. This is the once for all cleansing that takes place at salvation. The mention of “water” must not be pressed too literally, as those who want to make this a refer to baptism would have it, but rather as a metaphor for salvation through cleansing from sin (cf. 1 Cor 6:11). In Titus 3:5, Paul states that God saved us “through the washing of regeneration.” Regeneration refers to the new life the believer receives at salvation, thus washing is seen as a metaphor for regeneration.
This brings us to our next phrase, “by the word.” In this context, the word refers to the gospel message which believers heard and believed, and thus were saved (Eph 1:13). Evangelicals have practically been trained to assume that anytime they see the term “word” they should assume it means the scriptures, but this is actually a fairly uncommon way to describe them. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the Bible is the Word of God, and it is called this in the Bible itself (e.g., Psalm 119, 2 Tim 4:2), but the most common meaning of “word” is the gospel message.
Verse 27 explains the reason for Christ sanctifying and cleansing the church. It was “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” This refers to the return of Christ when the work of salvation will be brought to its final conclusion through the resurrection and glorification of the church. Again, Paul speaks in corporate terms, but it would be a false dichotomy to distinguish between the glorification of the church and the glorification of individual believers. The church is glorified corporately precisely because each individual member is glorified. At this time, sin will be totally removed from the church and she will truly be perfect! Those who have experienced salvation by grace through faith (Eph 2:8) have been made part of the church (Eph 2:11-22), and their future glorification has been made sure (Eph 5:27).
Before moving on let me explain why we must be precise in the correct understanding of verses 26-27. In the last blog we saw that some Bible teachers claim that a husband is his wife’s “prophet, priest and king.” This is not stated anywhere in the New Testament, so they must focus on statements that they claim describe prophetic, priestly or kingly activity. The focus is usually on Eph 5:22-33, and especially verses 26-27. The claim is that the sanctification of the church is talking about progressive sanctification (growing in holiness in the Christian life) and the washing of water by the word is talking about learning the Bible in order to draw closer to the Lord. Using this supposed parallel, it is claimed that the husband is supposed to help sanctify his wife by teaching her the Bible in family devotions. To be clear; I believe a man is called to be the spiritual leader in his home, and I am in favor of family devotions, but this is not what Ephesians 5 is talking about. This interpretation is not in left field, it is in a different ballpark altogether!
The biblical parallel between Christ and the husband is that the husband is to love his wife sacrificially, just as Christ loved the church sacrificially. But if we press for parallels between Christ and the husband in Eph 5:26-27, we must say that, somehow, through a sacrificial atoning death, a husband can cleanse his wife from her sins and make her holy before God the Father. Only Christ does that. To suggest anything else is blasphemous, so we must realize that Paul, captivated by God’s salvation, moved into a parenthetical meditation (or “rabbit trail”) about the wonderful work of Christ for his church.
In verses 28-29, Paul returns to the husband and wife parallels. The word “so” (NASB) means “in this way.” One might be tempted to think that Paul is drawing the exact parallels that we have been warning against, but he is careful to clarify the precise point he is making, namely, that a husband ought to love his wife as his own body. Men naturally take especial care of their own bodies, and because a man has become one with is wife in marriage, “He who loves his wife loves himself.” Paul observes that men naturally nourish and cherish their bodies, and this is the way Christ cares for the church. Thus, a husband must treat his wife in the way he would want to be treated, always putting her needs above his own.
Verses 30-33 explain to us why marital roles are so important to God. From the very beginning, marriage was intended to be a picture of Christ and his church. Verse 29 ended with a return to the comparison of Christ and the church – A man nourishes and cherishes his own flesh “just as the Lord does the church.” Verse 30 explains why: “For we are members of his body.” Then in verse 31, Paul connects this truth with Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Christ is joined to the church as a husband is joined to his wife in marriage. This shows us that God established marriage in the Garden of Eden as an object lesson of the love relationship between Christ and His church.
Verse 32 tells us, in keeping with Paul’s theology of the church, that it is a great mystery. He clarifies that the great mystery to which he refers is that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. It was known from the beginning that Genesis 2:24 referred to marriage, but Paul adds a new dimension that provides a deeper understanding of the significance of marriage.
Verse 33 ends with a summary statement: “Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.” The point of the term “nevertheless” (πλὴν) is that we cannot use the deeper meaning of Christ and the church to avoid the literal reality of marital responsibility. Knowing all of this information should cause husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands. Of course, this does not mean that women should not love their husbands or that men should not respect their wives. Both of these corollaries are commanded in other scriptures (Tit 2:4, 1 Pet 3:7). Rather, Paul is saying that husbands and wives must take seriously the commands he has given in this section of Ephesians. For a wife, respecting her husband in the immediate context means submitting to him as to the Lord, and a husband loving his wife means an attitude of total self-sacrifice.
In this blog post we have taken a very close look at
exactly what Ephesians 5:22-33 is saying, because doing so protects us from
dangers. One danger is that of trying to deny the clear and explicit statements
of the text in order to accommodate biblical teaching to fit a particular
political agenda. Another danger is to formulate our own theological constructs
and say they are in the biblical text when a simple read shows them to be
totally absent. Let us seek to conform our lives to God’s Word rather than
trying to tweak God’s Word to tell us what we want to hear. And for you
husbands out there, for whom this blog was primarily written, let us love our
wives as Christ loved the church. Let us stop trying to find a way of reading
the Bible that seeks to set the biblical teaching to our own advantage. If you
feel your wife is not being submissive, it is not a time to whine and complain.
It is a time to love. Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost offered the following advice many
years ago, and it has helped me more than I can ever say: “Love her into
submission.” In response to Dr. Pentecost’s advice, I think Jesus might say “Go
ye and learn what this meaneth” (Cf., Matt 9:13). So I close by saying “go ye
an learn what this meaneth: Husbands, love your wives!
 Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapide: Baker Academic, 2002), 751.
 The imputed righteousness of Christ means that the righteousness of Christ was given to believers as a free gift because we had no righteousness of our own. God has declared us righteous because the righteousness of Christ has been considered as ours (some say “credited to our account before God”), and now God now treats us a perfectly righteous because he views us through the righteousness of Christ.
 For an extended discussion, defending the view of “water” presented here, see Hoehner, Ephesians, 753-754.
 While the term used here is ῥῆμα and λόγος is used in Eph 1:13, there is a great deal of semantic overlap in the meaning of these words, and the distinctions are often overblown. While the Gospel message is certainly spoken, statements like ῥῆμα means “spoken word” become irrelevant when we recognize that λόγος quite often refers to a spoken word as well. For a defense of the view that Paul is using “word” to refer to the Gospel of Salvation, see John Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 420. Other commentators who take this view include Alford, Ellicott, Hendriksen and Hoehner, among others.
 The adverb οὕτως is clarified by the comparative phrase ὡς τὰ ἑαυτῶν σώματα.