Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:21-33

This passage has often been used as a blueprint for gender roles in Christian marriage. It has also been used to reinforce preexisting cultural norms, rather than subjecting those norms to biblical scrutiny. In my opinion, these approaches do not capture just how revolutionary this passage is meant to be for Christian marriage. If we can get some distance from how this passage applies to us and just take the time to think about what Paul is saying, we may be more receptive to its message. I believe one way we can get a fresh start is to think about how different Paul’s view of marriage was for an audience in the Ancient World.

In both Ancient Roman and Jewish marriages, husbands ruled over their homes. In Roman marriage, men controlled the property. Men had absolute control over children and, to a lesser extent, their wives. Households were “under” the husband’s “hand. In Jewish marriages men controlled the family and were “lord” and “master” of the house. The wife was expected to “help” him by providing children. The will of the husband was binding on the whole family.

Marriage based on Mutual Submission: Marriage in the Ancient world was based on fixed gender roles that wives and husbands played, Paul begins this passage on a very different note — a call to mutual submission. Submission is an attitude rather than a formula or set of rules to follow. Submission is such a loaded word — to me, anyway, it connotes: setting aside one’s free will and good judgment. I wonder if this passage would make more sense if “submit to one another” was replaced with “serve one another”.

Marriage based on love:  Paul then goes on to zoom in on what “submission” means for a husband, and that is to love his wife. I wonder if this is Paul’s instruction for men in the Ancient world as a correction for the cultural view that a man was to “rule” his household. Rather than being something like the CEO of his home, a Christian husband was being told to act with love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV

Marriage based on respect:  I once attended a seminar called “Love and Respect”. The premise was that Paul commanded men to love their wives because love is what wives need. Similarly, he commanded that wives respect their husbands. That didn’t make sense to me because men and women both need love and respect. I have an alternative idea. What if Paul commands wives to respect their husbands because that was not a trait that Ancient marriage cultivated? If men had the absolute right to rule their homes, I can imagine that wives had very little incentive to be respectful — except as they were forced to be.

Marriage that’s “All In”:  Ancient Roman and Jewish marriages involved conforming to traditional norms. Christian marriage involved a spiritual dimension that required action based on thought and inward reflection. Paul is not creating a checklist of duties for marriage partners; this passage requires much more.

Application: Compare your view of marriage to the Roman, Jewish, and Christian standards. What can you learn about yourself?