Ephesians 5:22-33 is familiar to many Christians as “that passage that explains how the church is related to Christ.” It is easy for us to note the parallels Paul draws between marriage and the church’s relationship to Jesus, and then conclude that “the church is supposed to relate to Jesus like a wife does to her husband.” This is easy, BUT WRONG: Viewing these verses from this perspective puts the relationships in reverse! Paul is not trying to show the church’s relationship to Christ by comparing it to a marriage – what he is show is that a marriage should be modeled on the relationship between Christ and His church! Take note of a couple of very significant facts in this context:
First, no bible verse ever instructs a husband to “make your wife submit to you,” even though some Christian men mistakenly read verse 22 this way. It seems they want to jump ahead to the statement in verse 23 about the husband being the “head” of the wife, and read that as “I’m her BOSS, and she has to do what I say.” In fact, it is the wife who is instructed to submit to her husband (that is, to voluntarily and willingly follow his leadership) – the model here is the church’s submission to the Christ! A husband who claims this verse gives him a right to total control or domination over his wife ignores the fact that everything in which the church is to submit to Christ is righteous. Our Lord never asks anything of His “bride” that would shame her or cause her to sin. Likewise, God never “forces” anyone into salvation, and no person can be saved against their will. (The choice always belongs to the would-be disciple in passages such as Mark 8:34 and Revelation 22:17 – “Whosoever will…”). A wife’s submission to her husband is a willing, voluntary “gift” from her to him – NEVER a matter of force by her husband.
Second, Paul specifically instructs husbands to love their wives as the Lord has loved the church (vs. 25). This agrees exactly with Jesus’ own instruction to His disciples in John 13:34, that we should love one another as He has loved us. To mirror the Lord, a husband’s love for his wife must be selfless, seeking her wellbeing above his own, having as its goal her presentation in heaven as a faithful part of the church. Notice as well the reference back to Genesis 2:25 (vs. 31) which emphasizes the husband’s singleminded dedication to his wife (and by implication, that of the wife to her husband).
In a natural and logical segue from the (ideal) relationship that should exist between husbands and wives, in Ephesians 6:1-4 Paul turns next to children’s responsibilities toward their parents, and then to paternal obligations to children. The instruction to children (vv. 1-3) is qualified by the phrase “in the Lord,” which carries the meaning of “according to the Lord’s will.” Some have misinterpreted Paul as saying that children are only to obey Christian parents: His subsequent reference to Exodus 20:12 shows the fault in this view, as this foundational principle was first given to ancient Israel, long before the church came into being.
In verse 4 Paul cautions fathers against exasperating or provoking anger in their children (as by inconsistent, hyper-critical or hypocritical instruction). Fathers are instead commanded to “nourish” their children with the instruction and encouragement (“chastening and admonition”) the Lord provides. (Colossians 3:21 parallels this instruction, and points out the danger of children becoming discouraged as another reason fathers should avoid provoking their children). This particular instruction should “stand out” (for us) because it is expressly addressed to fathers. In most modern homes the mother “takes charge” of children’s spiritual instruction and wellbeing, while fathers mostly concentrate on “worldly” skills and instructions (i.e., football and business)!