For many of us today, the idea of marriage naturally includes love. Why else would a man and woman willingly give up the freedoms of single life, settle down, and spend the rest of their lives together if they don’t love each other? Even if it’s a marriage of convenience, a partnership, surely love will evolve over time, right?
Yet, in his letter to the early church in Ephesus, it contains a direct admonition to husbands: “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Why are husbands told to love their wives, something many of us think should be obvious? And what exactly does Paul mean by “love?”
It all comes down to the concept of submission and the importance of mimicking Christ in our effort to become more like Him.
The Importance of Submission
Paul’s letters to the early church are valuable for so many reasons, one of them being their practical insight into how, exactly, we should be living as Christians. After all, Jesus told His disciples the world will know they are His followers by the way they love each other (John 13:35).
For Paul, the dynamics of human relationships were an excellent place to showcase the movement and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Throughout his epistles, Paul addresses the ways we are supposed to live and work with others around us, and not only the generic “neighbor,” the community surrounding us.
Paul specifically talks about relationships between people: masters and their servants (or slaves), citizens and their governing authorities, children and their parents, and husbands and wives.
It is in this last relationship — marriage — that Paul’s message is both helpful and highly misunderstood.
As we read in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges wives to “submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), just as the church submits to Christ. In turn, Paul urges husbands to also submit by loving their wives, just as Christ loved the church.
We know Paul’s words aren’t meant to be a lesson in a hierarchy or a statement on gender roles, for he clearly states in his letter to the church in Galatia that the term “Christian” eclipses any other earthly role we might hold.
As he writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Rather, what Paul is talking about in this passage is the concept of submission with an analogy of what real surrender looks like in a Christian marital relationship.
In fact, before he offers his words to husbands and wives as to how they should relate to each other, he starts the whole section by telling the early church, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
Respect is submission. Love is submission. Anything that involves approaching one another in a humble manner of loving others as ourselves or putting their needs even before our own is a form of submission.
What Does it Mean That Husbands Should Love Their Wives?
There are three kinds of love typically mentioned in the Bible: eros (physical, sexual, romantic love), philos (friendship or warm affection), and agape (unconditional or sacrificial).
The word Paul used in the original Greek here for “love” is agapaō, or agape love. Agape love is the kind of encompassing, self-sacrificing, unconditional love, that God had for us when, in His great compassion and mercy, He sent His only son to become flesh and die upon the cross as a sacrifice for our sake.
It’s the same kind of love Christ showed when He chose to willingly allow Himself to endure torture, ridicule, and a painful public execution in our place to make a path for us to eternal life in heaven.
That is the kind of love Paul is telling husbands to have for their wives. Husbands might also have eros or philos love for their wives, but they are to emphasize the agape — the Christlike — above all.
Why Should Husbands Love Their Wives?
Paul offers a couple of important reasons why husbands should love their wives. Foremost is that a husband’s love makes his wife holy.
When he puts her needs and importance above or on par with his own, caring for her just as he would his own body, their love becomes transformative, a beautiful and radiant light in the world.
Paul also notes that when a husband loves his wife, he’s also showing he loves and values himself, for Scripture tells us a married couple is no longer two individual people but one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
Paul tells us Christ loves us this way, as we become members of His body when we believe and follow Him. When we do this in marriage, too, it’s a reflection of the ways things are with Christ.
Does This Love Apply to All Relationships?
Indeed, this love does apply to all relationships, not only in marriage. Marriage is an excellent example of the relationship between Christ and the church — because of that example of oneness.
As we know, the church is not a building but a people, and the people make up the body of Christ. The two become one through God’s great mystery, compassion, and mercy. It’s the same in a marriage, or at least it is designed to be.
Conflict and squabbling and imbalance and abuse have no place in one’s own body, just as they have no place in the Christ-church relationship or the husband-wife relationship.
We know Christ submitted to the cross and willingly offered himself as a sacrifice. He modeled submission. As Jesus said in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Out of love and respect, the church follows (that is, submits to) Christ. It should be the same between husband and wife. But this also applies to all relationships.
After all, the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 shows us that we are to go out of our way to help each other, even people we don’t know or who society might call our enemy because in reality, we are all one in the Lord.
As Jesus instructed in Matthew 7:20, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Why Is Submission in Marriage Important?
When Christianity first began to spread, Christians were often criticized for their focus on individual freedom to follow Christ rather than the Law or the old gods.
In society at this time, husbands were “in charge” of their wives, people were often expected to bow to their governing ruler as their “lord,” etc.
But Jesus called His followers to leave their old lives behind and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Paul echoed this in many of his writings, talking about how our old lives were “crucified” with Jesus (Romans 6:6) and we are a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Still, it was important to Paul that Christians show others the way to Christ in the way they live their lives, and he felt it important that Christians not offend other cultures or open themselves up to criticism.
So, rather than slaves and servants rising up against their masters, Paul taught slaves and servants that they should instead work for their employers as though working for Christ himself (Colossians 3:22-24).
Similarly, with marriage relationships, he wanted women and men to know they, too, had an example to set as to how they can live and work together in a healthy, happy marriage covenant, so the relationship reflects Christ to others rather than offends people.
Therefore, Paul calls upon both parties in a marriage to respect and submit to each other — the wife should submit to the husband as the church submits to Christ, and the husband should love the wife as Christ loves the church (this sort of love is also submission).
Paul is not saying the husband is Christ to his wife or that he is more important or “the boss” of her. Nor is Paul saying women are unimportant in the church.
We know he doesn’t feel this way, for women were respected members of the church in his time. He often mentions key female church leaders in his letters, including Phoebe, Priscilla, and Nympha.
Rather, he’s saying that we should try our best to mimic Christ in the dynamic of the relationship. Wives should respect and honor their husbands. Husbands should do the same to their wives. It’s a mutual, reciprocal relationship.
How Can We Incorporate This in Today’s Marriages?
Today, we can still show radical, submission love in our relationships — including in our marital relationships. One great example is the concept that when a couple fights, there’s no “winner.” Both lose.
But when a husband and wife submit to each other, both win. When they love sacrificially and unconditionally, both win.
And in turn, Christ wins.
Let’s all love with the agape, selfless, perfect love of Christ whether it’s in a marital relationship or any other kind.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.