Ephesians 5:21-33, Submission & Relationships, pt1:

  • Two weeks ago, we looked at walking the talk. We saw that Ephesians 5:18 urges us to “be filled with the Spirit.” There were four participles explaining the activities that this filling generates: speaking to each other worshipfully, singing and making music to the Lord, and giving thanks to God.
  • Yet there is a fifth participle in this string, namely, submitting to one another (5:21). Most English translations begin a new sentence with verse 21, opting for the imperative “submit.” But in the Greek text, it is a participle (“submitting”) that depends grammatically on the imperative (“be filled”). Thus, verse 21 completes the exhortation that began in verse 18.
  • Yet 5:21 is also a bridge that connects the previous three verses with a new, lengthy section of Ephesians, an extended discussion of household relationships (5:21–6:9).
  • Therefore, Ephesians 5:21–33 begins with a summons to all Christians: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). And the next 12 verses explore one kind of relationship in which submission occurs: marriage.
  • 1) the address to wives, v22–24
  • 2) the instruction to husbands, v25–32
  • 3) the summary on marriage, v33
  1. The Address to Wives: (22-24)
  • Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord (5:22). Following the instruction for all Christians to submit to one other, wives receive an added injunction to submit to their husbands. To be sure, if a woman was married to a Christian husband, she should already be practicing submission to him as her brother in Christ according to verse 21.
  • Wives are to submit “to your own husbands” (5:22). This verse does not call for women to submit to men in general. But verse 22 points to a kind of submission that ought to happen within marriage.
  • Wives are to submit to their husbands “as [they] do to the Lord” (5:22). Wives should submit willingly to their husbands as an expression of their reverence for Christ.
  • Now submitting involves more than just obedience. The church submits to Christ when she serves him, responding mutually to his own servanthood. Therefore, wives, like the church, should submit to Christ “in everything” or better, “in every way” (5:24).
  • Does this really mean that a wife must submit to her husband in every instance, no matter what? Should a wife submit even if he wants her to do something sinful? Of course not. A wife’s submission to her husband should always be limited by her ultimate and unqualified submission to Christ.
  • A paraphrase of 5:22–23 might read: “Wives, submit to your own husbands as you submit to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, and therefore they are unified as one body, just like Christ and the church. When the wife submits to her husband, it’s as if she is submitting to herself.
  1. The Instruction to Husbands: (25-32)
  • Husbands are to love their wives. Husbands are to imitate Christ by loving their wives as Christ loved the church, a love shown most of all in his giving up of his life for the church. Thus, this kind of love is an expression of the mutual submission to which all believers are called in 5:21.
  • Husbands are called to love in a self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-denying way, the way of Christ. Through his loving sacrifice, Christ became the Savior of the church, the source of its life, and the “head” of the church. The husband acts as the head of his wife when he loves her with Christlike love, thus giving life to her through his love.
  • How? To make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (5:26–27). In the next two verses, Paul leaves his teaching on marriage to reflect further on the relationship of Christ to the church.
  • So Ephesians 5:26–27 reveals that Christ’s love for the church leads him to prepare the church to be fully holy and radiant. Are husbands to love their wives so that they also might be glorious, like the church? The placement of 5:26–27 suggests that husbands should see their love as a means of their wives becoming more Christlike.
  • The beginning of verse 28 underscores this connection: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives …” Husbands imitate Christ by loving their wives sacrificially so that their wives might become all that God intends them to be.
  • In addition, Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies (5:28). This sounds like the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, but it makes an even weightier claim. A wife is so united to her husband that when he loves his wife, it is as if he were loving himself.
  • Here’s a few motivations that help emphasize this reality:
  • After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does for the church (5:29). The wife’s being like the husband’s body suggests a bit of commonsense wisdom: we do not hate our bodies but rather care for them.
  • Secondly, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (5:31). The unity between Christ and the church, illustrated in the unity between husband and wife, can be seen in Genesis 2:24, where the man “is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The husband and wife are the same “stuff,” not just united as connected head and body but also as one common flesh.
  • Paul says, This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church (5:32). Once more, Paul is not satisfied merely to highlight the unity between husband and wife. Again, he turns the spotlight to the relationship of Christ and church. To be sure, the one-flesh unity of husband and wife is also a mystery. But this is not Paul’s primary interest. Rather, he sees in the Genesis account a foreshadowing of the “profound mystery,” namely, the oneness of Christ and the church.
  • The main point this passage makes about marriage is not the distinct roles of husband and wife but rather the unity between them, unity as seen in the one-flesh-ness of the creation story, unity as between a head and a body, unity as between Christ and the church.


  • So having said this, turn to verse 32 as we summarize. This sums up the instructions for husbands and wives. The Greek meaning might be more accurately captured as “each and every one of you must love …” Every husband must love his wife as he loves himself.
  • A wife should “respect” her husband (5:33). The point of verse 33 is not that the wife should be afraid of her husband; if he lives out his calling to love her as Christ loves the church, he will be anything but scary.
  • Therefore, the husband and wife are united, as a head is united to a body. Yet this unity is not just an ideal representation of marriage but also an image of the unity between Christ and the church. Christ is united with the church as its head, even as the man is united to his wife as her head.
  • Christ’s headship in this passage is revealed as closely associated with his being the Savior of the church. Moreover, his headship is expressed in action as he loves the church, making her holy, feeding her, and caring for her.