Q: When Paul in Ephesians 5:25 uses the picture of Christ’s love for the church to exemplify the kind of love a husband is to have for his wife, is this love to be viewed more as an emotion or as an activity?
A: The love that Jesus Christ has for His church is, of course, absolutely unique. When Christ laid down His life for the world; when His love brought us to faith through Holy Baptism (“the washing of water with the word”) made us members of His “body” (the church), and empowered us to serve Him daily in sanctified living, this was and is far more than any kind of love between fellow human beings. Eternal salvation resulted!
Now when Paul uses this illustration for the way in which the husband is to love his wife, he stresses the point where the comparison is to be made: Husbands are to love their wives “as their own bodies” (verse 28). Just as Christ’s love for His “body” moved Him to make the ultimate sacrifice, so husbands are to be ready and eager to make sacrifices for their wives, (even to the point of physical death). After all, using the analogy of anatomy, the head of the body thinks and acts out of concern for the best interests of the rest of the body.
Is this love then speaking of an emotion or an action? The answer is both. Both need to be emphasized. The word Paul uses here for love (AGAPE) denotes a focus upon affection and love-deeds because it is derived from a deep appreciation of and a high regard for the other. Using the archetype of Christ’s love for the church, one observes it was His own emotion of love that caused Him to carry out the action necessary for His “bride’s” salvation. “For God so loved the world, that (namely with the result that) he gave His only-begotten Son. . .” (John 3:16).
So, Paul is saying that husbands – although vastly imperfect before the divine example – will be just as equally concerned about their wives’ emotional needs as they will be about their wives’ physical and material needs. More importantly, Christian husbands will be concerned about their wives’ spiritual needs. This concern to meet spiritual needs is exactly the concern which Jesus has for His bride, the Church, a concern often overlooked in contemporary society.
One theologian rather appropriately characterized Paul’s thought this way: “Let us say that the love now described is of such a kind that makes it a delight for the wife to subject herself to such a loving husband.”