Our text this evening is Paul to the Ephesians 5:22-33. I realize that this text is beset with all manner of interesting detail that is worthy of comment, but I am going to simply read it through as I want this evening to deal not with the specifics of Paul’s argument but with its most general assertion. Famously, and nowadays controversially, the Apostle Paul wrote in this section of his letter, a section in which he is dividing up the congregation in Ephesus into its constituent parts, one thing to wives and another thing to husbands.
We have spent seven Lord’s Day evenings on the Bible’s theology of marriage. We have sought to answer the question: what is marriage? And we found that the Bible furnishes us with a definition of marriage that is not only precise, informative, comprehensive, and illuminating but one that explains both the universality of marriage in human life and the longing for an ideal marriage that is found in the human heart.
But, as always in the Bible, the indicative — what is — leads to the imperative — what we must do. Theology is always the foundation of ethics, the reason we are to live in a certain way. And that is as true in regard to marriage as it is in regard to any other aspect of life. For what is perfectly clear to any reader of the Bible, Christian husbands and wives are not exempt from the obligations of marriage and, unlike their non-Christian counterparts, have unique motivations, resources, and capabilities to enable them to be what all husbands and wives ought to be. In other words, Christian husbands and wives ought to be the best husbands and wives! None of that has ever been particularly controversial for Christians. But, as we know, the specific responsibilities of husbands and of wives have become very controversial over this past generation. Indeed, the feminist revolution has called into question virtually every one of the convictions that historically and until very recently used to shape the world’s understanding of the responsibilities of men and women in marriage.
I fear that this is beginning to sound like a broken record, but again I say to you young adults that it is imperative that you realize that your contemporaries and your culture now take for granted a way of thinking about men and women, and so about marriage, that is utterly revolutionary; a way of thinking that no human society has ever embraced before. The facts that the modern western family is collapsing, that our practice of marriage is now the laughing stock of the world, that our society is fracturing, and that plunging birthrates portend the coming death of this culture, all should give you pause before you accept the conventional wisdom of your peers as the self-evident truth they take it to be. It may seem obvious to them, indeed biblical views may seem preposterous to them, but in revolutionary ages so have many ideas that turned out to be deeply and perversely untrue. Let me give you an example. Many people not long ago thought that that communism was the hope of the world. Not long ago a huge number of people, including vast numbers of American college professors, believed that to be true as surely as the sun rises in the east; they believed it, that is, until everyone suddenly realized that it wasn’t true (except for a few American college professors!). I suspect the same will be the fate of feminism sooner than anyone thinks: from revolutionary idea to universal assumption to “what in the world were we thinking?” in two generations.
Now, before anyone gets his or her dander up, let me first remind you that it is a conceit of feminism that no one respected the abilities and accomplishments of women or cared about their mistreatment or worked for their betterment until the arrival of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. But, of course, this is untrue. Just as much more real good was done for workers in capitalist Great Britain in the 19th century than was ever done for them in communist Russia in the 20th, so women did not first begin receiving respect and their gifts did not first receive notice in the late 1950s! It is typical of revolutionary movements to rewrite the past and feminism is typical of revolutionary movements in that respect and many others. What is more, the damage done by feminism to women, to men, to children has been as catastrophic as it has been obvious. But revolutionaries rarely admit their mistakes!
To be sure, we Christians should be the very first to admit that women have suffered a long history of mistreatment in this world and, alas, in the church as well, just as they nowadays, in the feminist world, are suffering in many of the same ways they always have and in some ways people never thought of before. The world is a sinful place and can be brutally hard and unfair. We will never excuse the mistreatment or the disrespect or the marginalization of anyone. Human beings made in the image of God, their natures, the creative act of God himself, are to be revered, not simply respected, and treated accordingly. We will have to answer for every failure to do so. But is a long established principle, identified as most principles are by a Latin adage: abusus non tollit usum (the misuse of something — in this case true womanhood — does not nullify its proper use). The fact that women have been mistreated in the past does not mean that they should stop being women or attempt to be men instead.
Both Holy Scripture and the observation of human life present us everywhere with the fact that male and female are two different orders of human being and that the difference between them has implications for the lives they lead. In many respects, of course, the Bible does not distinguish between men and women, and in a great many respects, therefore, we needn’t distinguish between them either. Most of the Bible’s teaching about faith and godliness is addressed to people irrespective of their sex. The Ten Commandments apply to us all; so does John 3:16; so does the exhortation at the beginning of Romans 12 to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, and so on. In most respects men and women are to live equally and alike as human beings and Christians. What applies to the one, applies to the other. We should be the first and the most willing to acknowledge this. We are taught it in the Word of God.
That being so, it should be obvious in any Christian congregation that the men and women think and behave as if they are all in this together, partners in the church of Jesus Christ, and depending upon one another as fellow Christians should. There should be no question for anyone who reveres the Word of God that men and women are, in most fundamental respects, the same.
But, just as obviously, they are not the same in all respects and they are different in some ways that matter immensely for marriage and family. Paul, for example, in Ephesians 5:22 famously teaches that the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of his church. Do you young people realize that just a generation ago that statement was uncontroversial in both church and society? A Miss America candidate was as likely to say it in her interview as a politician on his soapbox or a preacher in his pulpit. Blacks, whites, and even homosexuals all accepted it as a self-evident truth. Indeed, in much of the world still today Paul’s statement is read not as a controversial statement but as a truism, so obvious it hardly needs to be mentioned.
Now I am aware that in recent years gallons of ink have been spilt in an effort to prove that Paul didn’t mean the husband was the head of his wife in the sense in which that statement has always been understood. Some have argued, for example, that the word translated “head” (the Greek kephelē) should instead be translated “source,” and that Paul means nothing more than that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. Translated that way Paul’s statement would say nothing about the husband’s authority. But that proposal has been discredited in virtually every way it conceivably could be: grammatically, contextually, historically, and theologically. The word should be translated as it has always been translated, “head,” with its typical implications of authority, implications which are impossible to deny when used in virtually the same breath of Christians’ submission to Christ as the head of the church. Christ’s headship certainly implies authority and, as Paul says, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. Paul, as you know, in both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 makes a point of the fact that the man was created first. He might have added that in Genesis 2 we read that the husband named his wife, in the ancient world and still today an act that presupposes authority.
Now the fact of the matter is that none of this teaching, categorically rejected nowadays and caricatured as absurd as it may be in the western world, should be so controversial. There is something quite obvious about it. Male headship and authority, though a fact rarely mentioned, is a fact of life in this world and continues to be even in western societies where all manner of attempts have been made to stamp it out by law and custom.
There are 1,426 names mentioned in the Old Testament. 111 of them are of women (9%). A somewhat similar result would be achieved were the names mentioned in the New Testament to be counted up. I don’t mention those numbers to diminish women; but I’m not going to lie about them either. The fact is, in no other ancient work would you find anything like the number of women who are mentioned in the Bible, anything like the celebration of their gifts and graces you find in the Bible, anything like the careful reporting of their experiences that you find in the Bible, and anything like the place of importance they are given in the history of redemption. We are approaching Easter and you will remember that it was a woman who was the first witness of the resurrection. But the fact is you could write the history of the world, giving fair notice of all its most influential figures (at least as historians think of influence: political, military, intellectual, scientific, literary, and so on), and among those figures there would not be 9% who were women. Nor would there be if you did what magazines endlessly do nowadays, fashioned a list of the fifty or hundred or two hundred most influential people in the world today. In this respect it is still and very obviously a man’s world and, given the fact that feminism is literally killing the western world as we speak, the world is very likely to remain a man’s world forever.
What the Bible teaches us about the nature of men and women is what we invariably find in our observation of human life. There is an authority in manhood that there is not in womanhood. Don’t mistake me. I’m definitely not saying that men characteristically use that natural authority rightly. They very often, they mostly do not. Every characteristic of human life has been corrupted by sin. We’re not denying that. But that men have a native authority over against women it is a fact of life, like it or not. You can deny it as feminists have tried to do, but as the communists discovered before them, ideology eventually succumbs to nature. I remember being arrested by an observation in Harvey Mansfield’s book on masculinity, Manliness (Mansfield is the Harvard professor of government). He said that he had met many people who had at one time or another been intimidated by words spoken by a man, but he had never met any adult who had ever been intimidated by words spoken by a woman. If true — and I suspect it is almost universally true — that is a fact to reflect on! I suspect you will find that your experience is the same. Manliness may be spoken against in our western world, ruled as it is by a gender-neutral ideology, but it exists in forms both good and bad and continues to exercise a massive influence in the world, just as femininity does in its own, but very different way.
I also remember being arrested by an observation of Maggie Gallagher that America today is one of the most sexually repressed societies in history. [Enemies of Eros, 3] She wasn’t, of course, referring to the pervasive sexual exhibitionism of American life, or its promiscuity, or to pornography. She meant rather the wholesale cutting off of huge and hugely significant chunks of our sexual nature so that we might fit into the profile of humanity favored by the gender- neutral and feminist movers and shakers. It is a different form of repression, of the subjection of sexuality to social norms, but repression nonetheless. And it is a form of repression more dangerous to the society as a whole. Victorian Britain wasn’t unraveling the way feminist America is. Women today are being compelled by an ideology to conform to a new archetype of femininity, of womanhood, no matter how difficult they find this life to be or how unrewarding. As Simone de Beauvoir admitted, more honestly than most:
“No women should be authorized to stay home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.” [Cited in Gallagher, 58, 71]
But such a revolution in outlook can only be sustained by unrelenting propaganda. No major high school textbook could be found in a recent survey that included even one story or article or statement that celebrated motherhood. A textbook publisher warned writers that women were not to be characterized as “peace-loving” or “compassionate” or “nurturers.”  But if women are not encouraged to have and to nurture children where will children come from, especially happy, well-adjusted children? We now know the answer: they won’t come from anywhere.
But if it is in the nature of women as God made them to nurture children, to love them fiercely and to spend themselves, making one sacrifice after another for their welfare, then women are being robbed of their nature in our modern western world as surely as were the property owners in Soviet Russia when their holdings were confiscated for the good of the state! Of course the family-centered woman is not extinct; but she is well-nigh invisible in the western world, just when western states are becoming desperate to encourage women to be more family centered! You can’t for a generation have told women that children strangle their career prospects, that nurturing children is a demeaning occupation, and then expect them to change their plans and their philosophy of life because the state is running out of citizens. But even if the women suddenly wished to be mothers again, there is a problem.
With all the changes to womanhood, manhood has also changed in the modern western world; perhaps “collapsed” would be a better world. What feminism has done to the American male is perhaps its most frightening result. The modern American man is a load; a materialistic self-centered man-child, who loves to play but is increasingly incapable — not simply unwilling but incapable — of meeting the responsibilities of his life: for his wife, if he has one and for his children. If women have been encouraged to give less of themselves to their families, with little encouragement there has been a mass exodus of men from the American family life. We have an epidemic of single parent families in our country and they are almost all headed by women. We also have an epidemic of men failing to provide court-ordered child support.
What we are finding out, no; what we have found out is that the denial of sexual difference is dangerous for a society and for the members of that society. Study after study reports that women are unhappier than they were before and our children are certainly doing less well by every measurement. And American men are, alas, happy for all the wrong reasons, happy to be allowed to be irresponsible because no one will say or would get away with saying in public that women need men and or that men need women and that each sex needs the other to be itself. America needs women to be women again and men to be men or, to be what God created men and women to be.
As I said earlier, all biblical ethics rest on a theological foundation. Men are to act in a certain way and women in a certain way because of the nature that God gave to each of them. In certain respects men and women have different responsibilities and different callings because God gave them different natures, made them, indeed, different things.
But that leaves us having to answer the question: what did Paul mean when he told women in the church in Ephesus, “Wives submit to your own husband, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.”
When I am talking to a young couple in anticipation of their marriage, in what, alas, is nowadays called pre-marital counseling, we come in due time to Ephesians 5:21-33 and the question of “roles.” That’s what we call this nowadays: “roles.” And I ask them at the outset what they think Paul means. I ask the young woman, “What exactly does it mean for a woman to submit to her husband? I mean, what does it mean, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; what does it mean in ordinary life? What will this look life in your married life?”
Ordinarily, she purses her lips, thinks for a while, and then says something along these lines: “Well, I suppose it means that if there is an important matter about which you do not agree although you have talked it over, and a decision must be made, the husband must make the decision and the wife must submit to it. The buck stops with him.” And, I typically reply this way: “Well, I suppose that might be one meaning of Paul’s words, but I can’t remember that ever happening in my marriage. I can’t believe that Paul, in this great text that speaks about such fundamental things — indeed in a text that used to be thought the most beautiful text about marriage not only in the Bible but in all of human literature — I say, I can’t believe that Paul is talking about something that may never apply to your marriage. Clearly he is talking about what is always to be true in your marriage!” So, try again: what do you think he means? And more often than not I get silence. Fact is, we argue about this text a great deal in the church nowadays, we’ve been arguing about it for a generation, but we understood it a lot better in those days when it was not controversial and everyone took it for granted he or she knew what Paul was talking about.
For the fact is no devout Christian husband or wife, feminists’ assumptions notwithstanding, ever thought that Paul meant that a husband was to give his wife a list of duties as he left for work in the morning and then check her work when he returned. The godly and gracious, from the very beginning, knew that male headship never made the husband in a Christian marriage his wife’s boss! Nor did it mean that she was never to open her mouth or voice her opinion; certainly not, if as Peter says, husbands and wives are to live as heirs together of the gracious gift of life. If Christians are to do anything, they’re to be talking all the time with one another about spiritual things. From time immemorial godly men knew that woman was taken not from the head of a man to be his master, nor from his foot to be his servant, but from his side, to be his partner. [Peter Lombard, Sent., Lib. II, Dis. xviii] Upon the creation of the woman, Adam greeted his wife with the extravagant speech of love, gratitude, celebration, and personal fulfillment. And, as we saw in an earlier study, throughout the Bible, this is always the picture of true marriage: an ardent love, the happy companionship of a husband a wife who share not only a passionate love for one another but a mutual interest in life and in the service of Jesus Christ. When the Bible says at the very beginning that a husband would “stick to” his wife and that they would become one flesh, it is describing a relationship of passion, affection, mutuality, respect, and of the mutual fulfillment of sexual desire. There is nothing in the Bible’s picture of marriage anywhere that resembles the relationship of a boss and his worker. The young woman in the Song of Songs who describes herself as she anticipates her marriage as being “faint with love” did not anticipate that she would get a husband who ordered her around as if she were his servant. She got a husband who treasured her and who found her partnership with him in life God’s second greatest gift to him and one of the supreme joys of his life.
Again, I do not mean to say that all marriages are like this. Sad to say they are not, as the Bible reminds us. But Paul is teaching us what a marriage ought to be and what, by God’s grace, any Christian marriage can be. He is teaching Christians what their marriages ought to be! People nowadays are quick to remind us that men have often been abusive and dismissive toward their wives that many women have suffered in unhappy marriages because their husbands did not love and respect them. True enough, sad to say. Shame on those miserable excuses for men! But, no one can read Paul here in Ephesians 5 and suppose that he, of all people, would approve of such a man or such a marriage. It is not hard for us to imagine how the great Apostle to the Gentiles would thunder against an unloving and harsh and disrespectful husband! “Shame on you! What kind of Christian do you suppose you are?”
But, then, what is Paul saying here? How should the young couple sitting in my office answer my question? Well, I tell them, “You know, Christians in previous generations had little problem with this text because they did not doubt the fundamental assertion of v. 23 that the husband is the head of his wife.” That is not the point that Paul is attempting to prove here. He asserts it as an unchallenged fact, it is his presupposition, and, to be sure, it was not a particularly daring presupposition. It hasn’t been challenged in almost all human history up to the present time, and even now, in our feminist society, there are a hundred ways in which men and women artlessly admit every single day that the husband is the head of his wife. The man is the head of his wife. He is not commanded to be the Head, he is not urged to be the Head, he is not scolded for failing to be the Head of his wife. He is her Head. God has made him so and nature – the nature of men and women – reproduces the divine intention. This is also Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 11. The man is the Head of the woman. But a man can exercise his headship sinfully or righteously.
Once you accept that fundamental reality, which is, of course, taught directly many places in the Word of God and writ large over the history and experience of human life, you are free to see that Paul is not concerned to defend the distinction between men and women in marriage, but to sanctify and purify that distinction in married life. The man is the head of his wife. He simply is; God made him so. It is his nature and hers and no man or woman can change it. The woman may chafe under that order – we are told that by God when he cursed the woman in Genesis 3 that one of woman’s problems was going to be that she would desire a measure of control that is not hers by nature. “Your desire will be to control your husband, but he will rule over you,” is what he said there to the woman. But the order itself, the relationship between man and woman as God made it and ordered it, masculinity and femininity as two created orders of being, these are all very good. God made them and all that he made is very good. Just stop and think for a moment of what this world would be like if everyone was a male or if everyone was a female and the race was reproduced, in Milton’s famous phrase, by some other harmless mode of vegetation.
So what Paul is saying here, all that Paul is saying here in these verses is that he expects these men in their marriages to be distinctly and thoroughly Christian men and for women, in their marriages, to be distinctly and thoroughly Christian women. The masculinity and femininity will take care of themselves. You concentrate on godliness! The purification and sanctification of those genders to fulfill the will of God is what Paul is after. “Be a Christ-like man; be a Christ-like woman,” that is what Paul is saying. And that is why Christian folk, even non-Christian folk were never troubled by this passage in previous generations. They knew very well that God had made men and women different and that those differences prepared them for different places, different roles, and different callings in life.
The best illustration I have come across to illustrate this biblical reality and the ethics based upon it is that of the ballet. You have heard it from me before. And it strikes me as still more useful as an illustration since Florence and I and the Prices attended the ballet in St. Petersburg when we were in Russia last year. It was magnificent and, in this respect, it was as any ballet must be. It is a remarkable thing, I think, if you think about it, that even if you are something of an amateur expert in ballet you cannot really tell who is the better dancer when comparing an accomplished ballerina and a great male dancer. Who was the better dancer: the male lead who seemed to suspend himself in the air when he leaps and who can effortlessly spin in perfect rhythm all the while holding the ballerina over his head, or the ballerina who seems impossibly light on her feet, who holds herself so still when balanced on her toes or on the man’s shoulder? Who is the better dancer: Dame Margot Fonteyn, regarded as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, or Rudolph Nureyev, one of the greatest of the male dancers of the 20th century? No one can say. For they danced completely different roles and their roles required of them completely different things. All you know for sure is that, beautiful as Swan Lake was when they danced it together, it would have been grotesque had they attempted to switch parts, and Fonteyn attempted to lift Nureyev over her head. They might have attempted that for a joke at a cast party, but it would have been a joke because so absurdly impossible. Each role is suited to a particular sex. Well, as in the ballet, so in life! The Bible teaches this in many places, assumes it everywhere else, and builds its ethics on that assumption, just as here in Eph. 5.
What Paul is after is a man, a real man, a man as God made man to be, a man who fulfills the masculine role of leadership entrusted to him by his Creator, but supremely a man who is committed to be toward his wife a Christ-like man. Christ’s headship over us is one of authority to be sure, but it is an authority defined by his love and self-sacrifice and has nothing of selfish domination in it. And, in the same way, what Paul is after in a woman, is a woman as God made women to be, who fulfills her womanhood, her femininity in a genuinely truly Christian way, living with her husband in the natural established for her by her God and Savior, not unwillingly, not grudgingly, but lovingly and cheerfully and gratefully. She doesn’t have to figure out what that means — hardly any women spent any time thinking about this in ages past — she has only to seek to be a Christian through and through. Her God-given femininity, her womanhood will do the rest.
Unlike the feminists, we neither resent God’s plan in creation nor need to seek to overcome our natures. We do not resent that he made men to be men and women to be women, that he made the differences between men and women – however much they are in so many other ways and profound ways the same – to be so significant and so important. We say, with the French, Vive la difference! But, as Christians we must also then say, “Lord, if you made me a man, then make me a Christian man; and if you made me a woman, make me a Christian woman.” When was the last time you heard any public figure in our society say, with respect to men and women, Vive la difference! Long life the difference! But that is to be the spirit of Christian men and women: a spirit of rejoicing in the goodness of God in making both man and woman. And so our prayer as husbands and wives is to be: “Make me like Christ in the self-sacrificial love with which I consecrate my manhood; make me like Christ in my loving acceptance of my role in life.” Let us be like Christ in the way he loved and ruled, and let us be like him in the way he so willingly subjected himself to the will of his Father. There was nothing forced in his obedience, nothing coerced, nothing unnatural. It came from his heart and was an offering of love and loyalty.
The feminist supposes that to require submission of the woman places her in a position of weakness and diminishes her personally. The Bible teaches, on the contrary, that such a submission, practiced as an act of faith, exalts her because it makes here more Christ-like. It makes of her life something decisively Christian. The feminist supposes that a woman, accepting her nature, surrenders to the man, allows him a position of advantage over the woman. Only someone who knows nothing of Christ’s self-sacrifice, nothing of the cross, nothing of Christ’s love for the church, could think such a thing. The Christian husband is fully embodied only in the man whose marriage, on his part, is most like a crucifixion! [Lewis, The Four Loves, 148] Gentlemen, you have your marching orders. The Lord has made us his bride and loves us with a passion beyond measure. We are to exemplify that same love toward our wives. You do the same to your wife. I love this from Charles Spurgeon:
“We frequently hear it emphasized that the husband is the head of the wife. But the wisest man who ever lived said that ‘a virtuous woman is a crown to her husband’ [Prov. 12:4] and everyone knows that a crown is worn on the top of the head.”
A real man doesn’t have to protect his status. He has only to adorn it!
Do you see the point? What Paul is after is the grace of marriage. You men don’t have to ask exactly how you are to exercise your authority in your marriage and your home. Your headship is natural in the truest sense of the word. All you have to concern yourself with is how to live in a truly Christ-like, self-sacrificing, and loving way toward your wife. Do that, you do all. And you women hardly need to spend time parsing the verb “to submit.” The place of the woman is a fact of life. Claims sometimes made to the contrary, there has never been identified a culture in the history of the world in which men have not occupied the dominant position in relationships with women. She is the weaker vessel, as Peter puts it. It is kicking against the goads to protest this fact. But then a million dollar Ming vase is weaker than a two dollar hammer. It doesn’t tell you anything about value or importance. Not less valuable, not less important or necessary for the flourishing and happiness of human life; just weaker in respect to men. But Christian women know that a woman’s gender, her nature, is not something she should resent, or chafe under, but something she should admire as her heavenly Father’s creation, receive it gratefully from her Maker, and practice in a genuinely humble and self-effacing way. You are a woman; you have only to ask how in your marriage you can live in as completely Christian a way as possible, as completely subject to the Lord and to the principle of his love as possible. There is the issue for both husbands and wives: do what you do in your marriage as to the Lord Jesus and, as the generations of the godly have found, you will slip into a way of relating to your husband or your wife that is natural, and satisfying, and the beginning of a very great deal of pure pleasure.
This is why Ephesians 5:21-33 was, until very recently, thought to be the most beautiful passage in the Bible on marriage, and the favorite text to read at a wedding. If one accepts the reality of gender as God-created orders of being, as it is assumed and stated here by the Apostle Paul, and as Christians have always accepted it through the ages, what is left is not controversial, but inspiring and elevating: a summons for both men and women to be unreservedly Christian in the conduct of their marriage: men as men and women as women. Until recently, and really still today, no Christian really wants anything else: a woman wants a man, but a Christian man; and a man wants a woman, but a Christian woman! Then what we will find in marriage is the best of each sex, made as each was “like opposite” the other, each designed to complement the other. In Paul’s day as in ours marriage as an institution was chaotic and to very many, women especially, deeply disappointing. But we have it in our hands to show the world what marriage should be and can be, if only we practice our faith in Jesus Christ.