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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God's Good Order for Marriage
Text:Ephesians 5:22-33 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 71:1,3                                                                                            

Ps 101:1,2,3                                                                                                   

Reading – Ephesians 5:17 - 6:9; 1 Peter 3:1-7

Ps 128:1,2,3

Sermon – Ephesians 5:22-33

Ps 40:3,4

Hy 67:1,7

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved, probably we’ve all witnessed at least one wedding in our lifetime. Some of us have had a wedding of our own! One of the things that happens is the reading of the Marriage Form. It summarizes marriage’s institution and purpose, and it explains the duties of the husband and wife. Then vows are made, where the husband promises “to love and guide his wife, and to care for her.” And the wife promises to “love and obey her husband, and to assist him.”

Love and guide, love and obey—undergirding these promises are the teachings of Scripture, like 1 Peter 3 and Ephesians 5. For here we learn that God has set the husband “to be the head of his wife,” and God calls the wife “to be subject” to her husband. Today, of course, that’s considered repressive and old-fashioned. Even if we’re prepared to accept it, we have our questions. For instance: what does it really mean for a husband to be “the head,” or for a wife to submit? What does that look like? This morning we seek to understand these words.

When the Holy Spirit moved Paul to write our text, women had almost no status. And that was mostly because marriage was so devalued. Even among God’s covenant people, divorce was shamefully easy to acquire; a man could divorce his wife for almost any cause.

And it was even worse in the Roman world. In places like Ephesus or Corinth, a woman was viewed only in terms of what she could provide a man. If you had a wife, she was expected to bear you a handful of legitimate children and to run your home, but there was little idea of companionship. The husband would typically get good company and sexual pleasure elsewhere. So a man of any standing would have a wife, a mistress or two, and would probably know a few of the neighborhood prostitutes.

So when Paul writes about headship and submission and he exhorts an attitude of love and service, this was radical. This was something new, to say that marriage must be more than a relationship of convenience—to say that husbands must be completely devoted to the care and nurture of their wives, and that wives would join them closely in service of Christ.

As we learn about God’s will for marriage, let’s notice that Paul’s focus is not on our rights—what can I insist on? How can I benefit? But he teaches our duties: if you are married, what are you called to do? I preach God’s Word from Ephesians 5:22-33 on this theme,

God sets a good order and holy purpose for marriage:

  1. the calling of wives
  2. the task of husbands
  3. the foundation on Christ


1) the calling of wives: At the end of chapter 5 and in the first half of chapter 6, Paul is teaching how Christian households ought to function. He speaks not only to husbands and wives, but also to parents and children, and masters and slaves. A key idea here is that God has wisely established order in our relationships. Some have been given roles of authority by God—called to lead faithfully—and some are called to submit humbly.

So Paul will say to children, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph 6:1), and he’ll tell servants, “Be obedient to those who are your masters” (6:5). This is God’s design and order, so we know that it’s going to work better this way.

God has set an order and structure in marriage as well; that’s clear from his words, “Wives, submit to your own husbands” (5:22). But this submission is different from how children must submit to their parents, or from how servants must obey their masters. For instance, a parent doesn’t have to explain why they’re ordering their younger child to do something—unless it goes against God’s Word, a child must simply do it. In marriage, such an outright or silent submission can’t be expected. When no discussion is allowed, danger is surely looming.  

Even so, it’s a clear word: submit. God calls a wife to show a grateful acceptance of her husband’s care, and a willingness to follow his leadership. God calls a wife to respect the guidance of her husband. If he seeks to lead in a faithful way, then she must follow.

A wife is called to submit to her husband “as to the Lord.” Underline that phrase. Paul is never interested in promoting obedience for its own sake. Our faithfulness is first and foremost for God—in any situation and relationship, our willing service is “to the Lord,” for his honour. So for the godly wife. Submission to her husband is actually an act of obedience to God; it becomes an expression of how she serves Christ. Like most of the obedience that we have to give, this obedience isn’t easy, but because she loves Christ, she wants to do marriage Christ’s way. So she’ll give her husband space to lead.

We said already that this is a teaching which runs counter to our culture. More than that, it’s a teaching which runs counter to the attitude of our hearts. At bottom, we all crave our independence and freedom. We all—whether we’re men or women or children—resist being led.

God already pointed this out back in Genesis 3. One of the ugly consequences of sin is how it produces tensions in the relationship between husband and wife. This is what the LORD said to the woman after the fall into sin, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). God knows that she’ll desire to dominate, to insist on her way. And a marriage becomes strained when a wife resists the idea of submission, just as a marriage becomes strained when a husband fears the idea of leading and he fails to show the way.

This teaching runs against godless culture, and jars with our sinful character. But not if we understand the intent of God’s design. It doesn’t mean that women are inherently inferior, that they’re lesser in some important way. We tend to equate submission with inferiority, but think of Jesus, who submitted. He is equal in every respect to God the Father, yet He willingly submitted because as the Son of God, He had this role in salvation. Likewise, a woman can submit, understanding how she and her husband have received different roles within marriage.

It’s probably important to say again that there’s a complete spiritual equality among men and women. Consider Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Just because this text has been misused doesn’t mean we should ignore its key point: there is a total equality among the children of God, no matter our gender or position or status. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

We see this equality in the verse right before our text, which is a command for every believer: “[Submit] to one another in the fear of God” (v 21). In other words, wives aren’t the only ones submitting! If we share faith in Christ, then we’ll be willing to submit to one another in love. In any relationship with another person—with a friend, your child, an employee—we’ll seek their true interests. We’ll put their benefit ahead of our own.

Beloved, reflect on how verse 21 injects the right kind of spirit into any discussion of the roles in marriage: “Submit to one another.” Because you have a unity in Christ, because you are joined in him, marriage is about serving the other, doing what is good for your husband or wife.

Marriage books sometimes describe this as the 60/40 rule. We like to think of marriage as a 50/50 proposition—you expect to receive about as much as you give. But how much better it would be if both partners focused on giving 60% and only taking 40%! Giving our affection, sharing our time, expending our energy—and now underline the reason for humble submission: “in the fear of God” (v 21). We do it, because this is the way that will honour him.

So, one more time the command, “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” Then Paul gives the reason, “For the husband is head of the wife” (v 23), and then draws the parallel between a husband and Christ: “as also Christ is head of the church” (v 23). In this letter Paul speaks a few times about Christ as Head of the church. This means that Christ sustains our life in his power, and He directs our life in his goodness. His headship is constantly active.

Christ is the head of the church, “and He is the Saviour of the body.” See the subtle way that Paul teaches us—and especially husbands—about what kind of head Christ is. As our husband, Christ is in charge and his authority cannot be questioned, but He’s also “the Saviour of his body.” That challenges a husband to have a constant loving concern for the welfare of his wife. A husband will never be the saviour of his wife, but he will be—he must be—her protector and supporter and sustainer. Because he is the head, he must be her greatest earthly helper!

We’re starting to get into the task of husbands, so let’s return to the calling of wives with the next verse: “Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v 24). Because Jesus is our loving head and Saviour, the church should submit gladly to him and his gracious rule. And that’s the pattern for godly wives: be subject. A wife is called to be willingly guided by her husband’s leadership.

A text that’s already challenging becomes even more so when the Holy Spirit adds a phrase: “Let the wives be [subject]… in everything.” This is not selective submission, in a few particular areas, but submission in everything. Of course, the usual qualification applies. A wife shouldn’t submit if her husband orders something that goes against God’s revealed will; let’s assume that such cases will be very rare. Still, “be subject in everything.” No part of her life should be held at a distance from her husband, no part hidden away in a compartment where he’s not allowed to speak or direct.

And the Spirit is also not describing a conditional submission, where a wife submits when she happens to agree, or when her husband meets a certain standard. Certainly there is a huge obligation placed on a husband to lead wisely and faithfully and lovingly, but a wife must have this as her starting point. She wants to submit in everything not because it feels right, but because she knows it is right. This is God’s order of things for marriage, and we know that going in his way will lead to blessing.

Before moving on, let’s consider how verse 33 sums this up: “So a husband must love his wife, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” The Greek word that is translated “respect” means literally “fear.” That’s not in the sense of being frightened of one’s husband but holding a deep reverence for him. This is the person whom the Lord has set in your life for your good and protection and nurture. Esteem your husband for the position he holds. Acknowledge his hard work in providing. Allow him to lead, and then follow his lead.


2) the task of husbands: No question, this text speaks challenging words to wives. But how much more the Spirit has to say to husbands! This text puts men to work. It assigns them a difficult project that is going to last a lifetime, God willing. For sometimes people take the main point of this text to be the wife’s silent acquiescence, while the husband basically has free rein to do and direct as he pleases. But see how the Spirit alternates between talking about the task of husbands and the ministry of Christ—this indicates just how serious and important is the challenge being put to husbands.

“The husband is head of the wife” (v 23). This is the reason for the wife’s submission, that God has made the husband to be the head. And this is simply how it is, rooted in God’s order of things. A consequence is that a husband faces an unavoidable responsibility to lead. It’s not a job on which he can take a pass, because it’s too hard or it doesn’t suit his character or his wife is more assertive. He is the head, so he needs to fulfil this role.

Even so, let’s notice that the Holy Spirit doesn’t say to husbands: “You’re the head, so make sure that your wife submits.” No, He says, “You’re the head, so make sure that you love her!” This is the foundational task given in verse 25, “Husbands, love your wives.” The chief way in which headship will be exercised is through a husband’s devoted love.

In the Bible there are three different kinds of love, and the word chosen by the Spirit here is very revealing. It’s not the word for sexual passion, or erotic love. It’s also not the “love” of family affection, such as that shared between parents and children. Rather, what’s commanded here is the love of believers for one another, a love that is unselfish and giving love—1 Corinthians 13 kind of love. This style of love calls us to constantly seek the interests of others and to diligently work for their good.

Biblical love—also the love between a husband and wife—must be a love that is selfless. We don’t seek our own satisfaction, and we don’t even require affection to be returned, but we aim for the good of the other person.

This is the basic exhortation, we said, the starting point: “Husbands, love your wives.” There are moments and days when love feels almost natural, where it’s almost easy. But there are far more days when we have to choose love. A husband’s love for his wife is an act of his will, something under his control, something that we can decide to do. “In this testy moment, during this crisis, in the middle of this rough patch, I will not give up on being gracious, or stop leading, or stop supporting, but I will resolutely continue to love my wife.”

Showing this love is about far more than speaking politely over the dinner table or having a regular date night. This love is about providing a true sense of security for your wife, where she knows that as a husband you are fully devoted to her, that you are unfailingly committed to doing what is right for her (and your family) before God. Your wife must know that you’re not going anywhere, and that her best interests are your priority.

And just to make this more difficult for husbands, the Spirit begins to speak about Christ. Verses 25-27 drive home the point that husbands must be sacrificial and devoted to service: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (v 25). What a burden and assignment in those two words, “just as!”

Let’s make a few observations about Christ’s amazing love for the church, his bride: In loving her, he took the initiative. In loving her, he offered himself. In loving her, he thought of her interests above all. Christ is the Head, not so that the church might do things for him, but so that he might do things for the church.

And in loving her, Christ has a high and holy purpose: “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to himself a glorious church” (vv 26-27). Christ loves the church, not because she is beautiful, but to make her beautiful! Christ sees the church in all her weaknesses and failures, and He loves her still. He humbled himself so that she could be exalted.

This teaches husbands so much about our task as the head of our wife. Job #1 is to love her: to take the initiative in loving, even when things feel flat. To offer yourself in loving, even when you don’t have much more to give. To think of her interests in loving and leading. To love her in order to serve her, not so that you might obtain services or enjoy conveniences. To love her in such a way that she can thrive, using the gifts and abilities that God has given her.

And in loving his wife, a husband needs to have an aim, a purpose. No, your wife is not a project, someone to fix. But your wife does need tending and nurturing. She is beautiful, and you want to make her more beautiful—beautiful in what really counts, in spirit and love for God! In being a loving leader, a husband must aim for the spiritual growth and maturity of his wife. This requires a deep sensitivity toward her, and wisdom, and prayer, and open Scripture.

Isn’t it true that when a husband tries to love like this, submission becomes just a little easier? When husbands listen to Christ’s call to be sacrificial and selfless in loving and leading, their wives can be confident in this direction. It won’t be perfect. But it will be guided by the husband’s reverence for the Lord.

The Spirit has more to say, making a second comparison: “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies” (v 28). How often per day does a man think about his own body? Every time he thinks about eating or sleeping, or every time he contemplates his sore back or his tired feet. This is the intimate and constant concern we need to have, that we’re as focused on the care of our wives as we are focused our bodies. For in a real sense, your wife is your own body. Paul quotes from Genesis 2, “the two become one flesh” (v 31). Look at her well-being as your own well-being.

Paul continues, “For he who loves his wife loves himself” (v 28). Don’t read that in a selfish or self-seeking way, as if the only reason we’re loving our wife is because it’s to our own advantage. But because we are one flesh with our wife, we aim for her good. We look at our lives as inextricably united, unbreakably knit together. To think of separating from her, or to think of being unfaithful to her, would be like tearing apart his own body!

“For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (v 29). Husbands are called to show a nourishing and a cherishing love. Put negatively, any leadership which drags down and weakens, leadership which coarsens instead of refines, is not love. But Christ-like love is a great cleanser and purifier. Christ-like love improves those with whom it comes into contact.

Husbands, is this the style of love that we aim to show? Are we leading in love? Are we guiding our wives in a way that builds them up? Are they being sanctified by our wise leadership and loving nurture? This text humbles us, encourages us, and then puts us to work!


3) the foundation on Christ: The Spirit has been saying a lot about marriage, but in wrapping up he says this, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (v 32). In other words, the main point of all this—the point that is bigger than this teaching on marriage—is that we must consider and be amazed by the great saving love of Christ for his people. He gave himself for us, so that we could live forever. Consider it, and then be powerfully moved and shaped by this gospel!

Husbands must be shaped, realising that in our position as head, we present but an imperfect picture of Christ who sacrificed himself for his bride. At the same time, wives must be shaped, realising that in their submission, they present but an imperfect picture of how the church should live toward Christ. It’s radical. It’s counter-cultural. But this is what every marriage must do: reveal something of that mystery of the Bridegroom, loving his dear Bride.

He is our standard and example. And He’s also our sure foundation. For as Paul has been saying, the whole relationship between husband and wife is “in the Lord.” We have to see marriage as lived in the presence of the Lord Jesus, governed and led by the Lord Jesus. In marriage, He is the unseen but ever-present guest.

This is a great encouragement for us. Sometimes marriage feels like the best thing in the world, and other times it can feel like the heaviest burden. That’s the reality—those who marry will face trouble in this life. Yet we have a firm foundation in the flawless love of Christ. He forgives our failings. He strengthens our weaknesses. He guides us in our uncertainties. Christ binds us together in his truth.

And He promises perfection—not in this life, but on the day when our Bridegroom comes again.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2019, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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