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What Does the Bible Say About Love and Respect in Marriage?

PRESIDENT OF THE D. L. MOODY CENTER

After speaking with Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, President of Love and Respect Ministries and author of Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs, on Thinking Christian, I decided to take a closer look at one of the texts Dr. Eggerichs references in his book (i.e., Ephesians 5:22-33). Having gone through Love and Respect with my wife earlier in our marriage, I was familiar with the book’s concepts, but had not taken the time to really dig into the biblical text to understand what Paul was trying to do in the book of Ephesians. Before jumping into Ephesians 5, it seems good to lay out a broad framework to orient us as we approach Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives. 

A Framework

In many ways, the challenges Christians faced in the Greco-Roman world are similar to our own. These challenges may be broadly understood as involving the following basic assertions:

  1. Christ changes everything– Christians found that the cultural norms of broader society were no longer adequate to guide and structure one’s new life in Christ.
  2. Being too odd could create unnecessary problems- While the early Church and, in particular, the disciples were not shy about proclaiming Christ, they were also careful not to be so revolutionary that they would be viewed as a threat or disturbances to society (Acts 16:3Col 3:18-25) or to act in ways that would cause the gospel to be reviled (1 Cor 9:19-23; 1 Tim 6:1; Titus 2:5).
  3. Not being odd enough would blunt the message of the gospel and misrepresent God- Christians also had to take care not to be so similar to the culture around them that there was not a discernable difference between Christians and the culture. Even if Christians did many of the same things as others, they were to do them in a different way (Matt 6:1-18; Rom 12:2)

This sort of challenge was not limited to one aspect of a Christian’s life. Instead, it was all-encompassing. As such, Paul and the other New Testament authors provide wide-ranging instructions about how believers occupying a variety of social roles should conduct themselves (1 Cor 7:25-40; Eph 6:9; 1 Pet 2:18). In Ephesians 5, Paul offers guidance concerning Christian behavior in three major social realms: (1) the relationship between husbands and wives, (2) the relationship between children and parents, and (3) the relationship between slaves and masters.

Christ Changes Everything

Before considering Ephesians 5 specifically, it is important to highlight some of what Christ changes for Christians. For instance, in Revelation, Christ is often pictured as the Lamb. This lamb was slain (Rev 5:12; 13:8) and yet is worth “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (Rev 5:12). Those who oppose the Lamb will experience his wrath (6:16) and ultimately be conquered by the Lamb (17:14). The image of a conquering lamb presents an interesting juxtaposition: the sacrificial lamb becomes the conqueror and king.

Christ’s victory is not primarily over earthly powers. In a very real sense, Jesus does not “wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12). As such, his battle plan takes on a very different character than many of those looking for the coming messiah expect. Jesus demonstrates the sort of characteristics and tactics required to confront “the rulers…the authorities…the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).

In Philippians 2, Paul urges Christians to develop the mind of Christ (2:5) by offering a glimpse into Christ’s decision prior to His incarnation. Though Christ “was in the form of God,” he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6). To put it differently, Christ did not believe his position as God was to be held for his own advantage. Instead, he set it aside (“emptied himself”) to serve others by faithfully obeying the Father and, ultimately, being crucified (2:7-8). His self-giving act resulted in his exaltation above all things (2:9-11).

Christ is more than a paradigm for Christian living; he is at least a paradigm for Christian living. Christ looked beyond the temporal and visible to fight an unseen battle. While that battle often involved acts in the “seen” world, such as healing, caring for the poor, teaching, and, ultimately, a physical death on the cross, these physical actions were part of a spiritual battle Jesus was destined to win. We now approach life in the same manner because we imitate Christ. Christ changes the way we orient ourselves to the world by renewing our senses and revealing to us the spiritual struggle in which we are involved. As such, our physical activities in this world, like those of Jesus, are extensions of our spiritual battle.

Being Strange in the Right Way: Authority Redefined in Ephesians 5

While some today look at Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives as outdated and patriarchal, Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives are a reorientation of Greco-Roman roles within the marital relationship based on the example of Jesus Christ. He does the same for children and parents (6:1-4) and bondservants and masters (6:5-9). The basic point is that those in authority must exercise that authority in a manner similar to Christ. Their authority is not something they use to their own advantage or for their own gain. Instead, they exercise it for others. The “head” uses his authority self-sacrificially.

As such, when we consider Paul’s instruction concerning wives and husbands, we need to understand it in light of the shift Paul is seeking to make. We can’t read his instruction to wives, children, or bondservants apart from his instruction to husbands, fathers, and masters. For instance, Paul is not giving their husband a license to be domineering. Such domination was often associated with the quest for honor in the Greco-Roman world. As Michelle Lee-Barnewall notes, “Since honor for men was gained through domination of others, the husband would have been expected to dominate and be served by his wife. However, Paul states that he should instead do the opposite and exercise his headship through service and sacrifice.”

While conceptions of masculinity were not uniform in the ancient world, there is evidence to suggest that a man’s status in society was often correlated with his control over others. In this instance, Paul is calling for a different conception of masculinity within marriage, which necessitates the instruction given to wives. If the husband was to exercise his authority through service toward the family’s common good rather than asserting his authority in a coercive manner, the wife needed to acknowledge this new form of authority in a more voluntary fashion. The husband, when exercising his authority appropriately, would not force submission. As such, the wife would have to submit freely (perhaps in a way similar to Christ’s submission to Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:51).

Paul recognizes that the marital relationship is not one-sided. When the way the husband exercises authority changes, so must the way the wife submits. Paul does not see marriage as a dictatorial relationship where whatever the husband says goes. Though he retains a hierarchy within the relationship, his redefinition of the relationship gestures toward the sort of mutual submission referenced in Ephesians 5:21. For the Christian marriage to work, both husband and wife must reorient to new life in Christ.

Conclusion and Implications

Love and respect are important within Christian marriages. The interpersonal relationship between husband and wife, as Dr. Eggerichs suggests in Love and Respect, will almost certainly be helped as husbands and wives learn to love and respect one another. Beyond the marital relationship, love and respect have a broader, gospel-centered purpose. As husbands and wives follow the instructions Paul gives in Ephesians 5, they provide a picture of Christ and the Church.

Abusive, abrasive, and domineering husbands do not reflect the sort of love Christ demonstrated when he sacrificed himself for the Church. A wife who demeans and undermines her husband, particularly when he is exercising his authority in the way Paul describes, does not reflect the Church’s commitment to honor Christ as Lord and Savior.

More broadly, we see something similar play out in the relationship between children and parents (particularly fathers) and bondservants and masters. The “mutual submission” of Ephesians 5:21 presses into various social hierarchies so that those with authority do not use that authority for their own gain but for the good of the order. That “good” involves the imitation of Christ and his love (Eph 5:1) so that all of our relationships reflect our commitment to building the kingdom of God rather than pursuing our own interests.

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.
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