Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:25-33
Paul begins with this directive to husbands: “love your wives”. Love is such a broad term in English. It can mean so many things, and it can range from “I love my God”, to “I love my new boots”, or “I love fish and chips”! All might be true! And yet, we instinctively understand that there are very different meanings behind those statements. When Paul says “Husbands love your wives”, our instinctive reading before his later elaboration is probably along the lines of some romantic poetry – something perhaps like a sonnet by Shakespeare.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach.
(Victorian Poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnet 43”)
While Paul’s world is not the one of 17th or 19th centuries romantic poets, we do have evidence that affection between couples was alive and well in the time of Paul. Pliny the Younger writes to his wife, “It is incredible how much I miss you, first of all because I love you, but then because we are not used to being apart.”
Reading in this way “husbands love your wives” was not a particularly revolutionary imperative. If anything, Paul’s commands fit in perfectly with the cultural pattern of his day. Husbands would provide food and housing and security as their demonstration of love and wives would respond by submitting to their husbands in gratitude for their care. Together the two would provide each other with children, an important part of life.
However, there is more in Paul’s mind than just emphasizing normal societal expectations. Lurking under the surface of our English Bibles is Paul’s Greek word choice. He chooses to use the word Agape for love. The Greek language had at least four words for love, so if Paul wanted to ask for romantic love, he could easily use the word Eros. But he intends to ask for more – Agape is such a rare word that for many years scholars believed Christians like Paul created it. It appeared in so few other places. It was used to describe the highest form of love – sacrificial love – and certainly not used for something like “I love my new boots”! The New Testament is the only place in literature where this word is used in a household code.
In what remains of chapter 5, Paul describes the relationship between a husband and wife as being reflective of Jesus’ love for us, his church. In the same way that Jesus surrendered for our sakes, husbands are called to surrender themselves for their wives. This is revolutionary in any century, but particularly so in the first century AD. If Paul were to be consistent with his day, he would ask the wife to sacrifice for her husband, “her head”. But he turns social convention upside down by asking those with privilege “to surrender” it. In doing so, he changes the definition of what “masculinity” really was and is. In the Roman world, authority and masculinity were almost synonymous. A freeman would exercise authority over slaves, women and children, and by doing that, show his masculinity. The “way of Jesus” invites every believer to lay aside privilege, to pick up their cross and look for an eternal reward.
- Paul tells us that Jesus modeled this love on the cross. Where else do you see Jesus model surrender of his authority? (Chapter and verse?)
- How do you wrestle with a need to receive honor in this world? How does it affect your ability to appear as a servant?
- In what ways do you long for authority? How do you want people to recognise your authority?
- How can you choose to serve those whose status might place beneath you on social scales? Some examples might be: Children, employees, volunteers.