The gospel is good news … if it works. We announce Jesus as the Saviour who ends our hostilities and unifies humanity (Ephesians 2:11-17). How is this working out at your place?
Life is different in the kingdom where we treat each other the way our king treats us. Having Jesus in charge reunifies and reshapes our humanity (Ephesians 4:1-16). The good news reframes how we relate (4:17 – 5:20), how we live at home (5:21 – 6:9), and how we interact with those who don’t yet recognize Jesus’ authority (6:10-23).
In short, Ephesians 4–6 is applied gospel. When you make it about being a better self or getting a better life, we’ve lost sight of the core. There are myriads of books and courses on how to get a better marriage based on 5:21-31. The worst titles like Have a New Husband by Friday are selling selfishness. No wonder divorce rates among Christians aren’t much different to the wider community. That’s a different gospel to the one about the cross.
Ephesians 5 is not marital advice. It’s not household code or moral rules. It’s a call to live the gospel at home.
That’s counter-cultural. My Facebook feed tried to sell me a coffee mug today. I’m supposed to buy it for the wife, but it’s not about her. It proclaims my ego: “I’m not perfect. I’ll annoy you … but you’ll never find anyone who loves you as much as I do.” How many of our love songs are like that? The lyrics are all about me, how I feel, and how you make me feel. I don’t think you could write a Country and Western song where the crucified Jesus complains, “You don’t treat me right.”
The gospel calls me to give my life to my wife as fully as Jesus gave his life for me. It calls her to give her life to me with the same Christocentric cruciform love. The gospel expects mutual submission as our response to Christ (5:21).
Verse 22 is interesting because there’s no verb. The Greek text says simply, “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.” Since the previous verse calls for mutual submission, the notion of a wife submitting to her husband is an application of a gospel lifestyle. A husband submitting to his wife is also an expression of gospel lifestyle: it’s what Christ did for us.
It’s a mistake to make these verses about the differences between the sexes, as if men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It’s not contrasting males and females; it’s contrasting the me-focused culture of the broken world with the sacrificial culture of the redeemed world in Christ.
Please don’t follow those who treat the examples in 5:21-33 as biological differences. Wives are told to respect their husbands, and husbands to love their wives, but that doesn’t imply that men have more fragile egos (needing respect) while women are more emotionally needy (needing love). We could discuss the honour/shame paradigm of the first century when males did receive greater respect, but that has nothing to do with the message of this text (gospel lifestyle). The examples are interchangeable: they’re about mutual submission. Men and women both need love and respect. A man who treats his wife disrespectfully is not reflecting Christ, in the same way that the woman who treats her husband unlovingly is not reflecting the gospel lifestyle.
This passage is not about male/female differences; it’s about unity. The profound mystery of marriage is its oneness — two people with one life (5:31). Gender wars are an expression of human brokenness. The good news is that God has ended the hostility and put us back together. That’s as true of the gender divide as the ethic divide: “He himself is our peace, making from the two one” (2:14).
Many people feel stuck in Humpty Dumpty’s world where no one can put us back together. Make sure Christ has the last word at your place.
Ephesians 5:21-33 (a rather literal translation)
21 Place yourselves under each other, in fear of Christ. 22 Wives, do this for your own husbands as you do for the Lord, 23 since a husband is head of his wife as also the Christ is head of the assembly, himself the Saviour of the body; 24 but as the assembly places itself under the Christ, in the same way also the wives to their husbands in all things.
25 Husbands, love your wives in the same way also that Christ loved the assembly and gave himself over for her, 26 so as to make her holy, bathed and purified by his declaration, 27 so as to make the royal presentation to himself of his magnificent/splendid assembly — unmarred, unwrinkled, nothing to detract from her, so she could be holy and flawless.
28 In the same way, the men are obliged to love their own wives as they do their own bodies. Anyone who loves his own wife is loving himself. 29 For no one is hateful of his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it the way the Christ loves the assembly, 30 because we are parts of his body.
31 “For this reason, a person will leave father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery, but I am saying this in relation to Christ and the assembly. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife in this way the way he loves himself, and a wife that she might fear her husband.