“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:22 & 25).
Like most congregations, mine requires that couples who wish to get married go through a course of pre-marital counseling. During this time, we talk about mundane topics, like how a couple’s lives will change as they begin living with each other and how to resolve issues, and of course we talk about spiritual topics, like what God has to say about marriage. The above passage from Ephesians always shows up in our conversations, and yet when it does, it is not as controversial or provocative as you might think. After all, the couple sitting across from me is a couple very much in the emotional glow of love. The bride-to-be finds it easy to say she will be happy to see her husband as the head of the home and submit herself to his decisions, and the husband-to-be cannot think he will do anything but love his wife more than anyone else and put her needs and desires above his own.
Invariably, the emotional glow ebbs. Each wife finds that her husband is not always worthy of her respect, and each husband finds his wife is not always worthy of his love. Invariably each husband and wife begin to wonder if this marriage is worth the energy they are putting into it. Because, after all, what am I getting out of it?
Questions like this are one of the reasons St. Paul wrote this section of Ephesians, reminding us that marriage is not about me feeling the tingly glow of romance or how much this other person can do for me, but about me serving my spouse. When I condition my love for my wife on how lovable she is, or the respect for my husband on how kind he is to me, then my view of marriage is no better than that of the world, which looks upon marriage as a contract that one is free to break when it no longer benefits them.
God created marriage as a place where, having fallen in love with someone, we then promise always “to love and to cherish until death parts us.” In this way, we mirror the love that Jesus shows to us, who, even though we are undeserving, willingly submitted Himself to His Father’s will and gave His life as sacrifice for our sins. This includes the times when we do not love and honor our spouse. Not even death parts us from Jesus, who shows His love and faithfulness now and in eternity.
In his Genesis commentary, Luther wrote that when God says, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:16), we hear the prohibition, but Adam heard an opportunity. He did not hear a restrictive command or God infringing on his liberty, but the opportunity to demonstrate his love for God by doing (or not doing) this thing God had asked of him.
This tends to be our difficulty with Ephesians 5:22-33. Because of our sin, we hear restrictions and accusations. Every wife struggles at times with the command to submit to her husband’s authority, and every husband struggles at times to show love to his wife. Our sin makes these behaviors unnatural to us, and so it is natural that when it comes to marriage, we would rather hear a nice reading of 1 Corinthians 13 and be allowed to meditate upon love as a feeling or concept rather than hear how it actually gets put into practice and thereby hear how we fall short. But St. Paul would remind us that what you have here is more than the mirror of God’s Law. You have a proclamation of His love. Ephesians 5 tells us how the joining of husband and wife is a demonstration of God’s providence, giving us someone to be our partner and supporter in life. It is our opportunity to show our love for God by serving and loving the spouse He has given us. And most importantly, we hear God declare to us how He has loved us as His Bride, cleansing us of our sins even against our spouse.
Reverend Alex Ring
Parkland Lutheran Church