We are still in our series looking at the book of Ephesians. Last week we talked about how we have unity in Christ, but that doesn’t mean we have uniformity. Our oneness is based on our faith in Christ, not agreeing on everything. This week we are going into one of the most controversial parts of the Bible, because it has been used and misused so many times to justify a certain agenda. Hopefully together, though, we can set the record straight on this passage.
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
In photo journalism, reporters are taught that there are different ways to frame a story. Maybe they’ll zoom in on the conflict by capturing the damage being done. Or maybe they’ll capture a shot of enemies working together and try to highlight bridge-building.
Now framing is all about choosing what you’re looking at AND what you’re ignoring. When we read our Bibles, we inherit the framing of the translators who put whichever version we’re reading together. So if you were reading Ephesians 5 in the New King James Version, you’d see a heading the breaks verse 21 and verse 22 apart. The framing for our section starts with, “wives, be subject to your husbands.”
But if you’re in the New Revised Standard Version, the heading expands the frame to include verse 21, “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
These headings aren’t there in the ancient manuscripts and scrolls, and neither are the verse numbers – those were added later to help us literally get on the same page. But as with photography and journalism, how you frame what’s in and what’s out of your immediate focus matters. And as we just saw, different versions frame our text today differently – does it start with “be subject to one another” or does it start with “wives be subject to your husbands?”
I’ve heard it said that the best way to understand something in the Bible is to first understand what the hard words mean. And so when we look to the word “be subject to” in verse 22 it’s…not there. There is no verb. It’s actually a continuation of the same sentence from verse 21. It seems strange to me to split a sentence in half and put a new heading, a new framing, in between the two halves of that sentence. That’s why I agree that our framing, our focus, should start with, “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
OK, that’s where our frame starts, but where does it end? Now I’m going out on a limb here, and I’m going to guess that if you’ve heard this Bible passage quoted by someone, I bet they only quoted, “wives be subject to your husbands.” I bet they didn’t quote anything else in this section. And that’s strange for many reasons, not the least of which is that Paul gives us a summary of what he’s talking about. If you want to know the main point, Paul gives it to us in sound-bite form at the close of our chapter – “each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.” That’s his point. That’s what he means when talking about Christian marriages.
So our frame starts with, “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and we’ll unpack that in a second. And it ends with, “husbands love your wives as yourselves, and wives respect your husbands.” That’s our frame. That’s our context. Everything else is unpacking those two statements. If your interpretation of this section of Scripture doesn’t square with those two statements, you’re missing something.
OK now let’s back up and talk about this hard word – “be subject.” This is a military term that essentially means “get in formation.” The Roman Army had different formations depending on the need. The Tortoise was used when they were worried about archers – the front row kept their shields in front of their face while the second row of men placed their shields up high, covering the head of the man in front of them and themselves. If there was rough terrain, they couldn’t be tightly packed so they used the Orb, which allowed them more mobility. But the key was that each row was staggered in a checkerboard pattern, meaning the row behind you always had your back.
That’s the point of a formation – a good unit is one where you can trust the others to have your back, and they can trust you to have their back. If one person runs out ahead of the formation, everything breaks down.
If you remember the movie Top Gun, one of the pivotal scenes is where Ice Man (Val Kilmer) is out in front of Maverick’s plane (Tom Cruise). And Ice Man wants the points in their competition even though Maverick is in a better position. So he won’t split off and let Maverick get the points. The end result of the selfish flying rather than team flying is that Maverick and Goose wind up crashing, and Goose dies. Everyone loses when someone is looking out for themselves rather than the formation.
So the image here, “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” is that we are supposed to look out for the team, not ourselves. We are supposed to be part of the same formation, having each other’s backs. We are supposed to be pointing in the same direction, which is Christ. This passage is pointing out that one of the biggest problems in marriage is an alphabetical one: “big I, little u.”
And then when Paul goes on to say, “wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord,” he’s saying, “wives, go to battle for Christ with your husband, not against your husband.” Get on the same page. And so, in your own relationships, are you on the same page? Do you have each other’s backs? Or is there sniping at each other’s backs? Is there a good formation aligned with Christ, or is it individuals looking out for themselves?
Now there’s another hard word coming up in the next verse, “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” First off, a quick side note. That last part isn’t saying that the husband is the savior of the wife. It matches with Christ – Christ is the savior, not the husband. But what about that part about the head?
Well this continues the military analogy. The image is kind of like the tip of a spear. It’s the first part to enter the battle. If you’ve seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, one of the early scenes takes place on D-Day as the Allies storm the beaches of Normandy. And it’s pretty gruesome. The first troops in the battle – the “head” of the invasion – faced withering enemy fire. They literally took the bullets for the ones who came after them. Depending on where the units landed, some lost two-thirds of their men before even getting to the beach. And that’s what it means to be the head. You have to be willing to wade in first, in the hardest part of the battle. Being the head isn’t a privilege, it’s an obligation.
If you’re not convinced, let’s look at the instructions to husbands starting with verse 25: “husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The standard of behavior for husbands toward their wives is Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross. That’s how Christ was head of the church – sacrifice – and that’s how husbands are to act toward their wives.
And if you still aren’t convinced that this passage is largely about the obligations of husbands toward their wives, let’s just count the verses. Wives get two or three verses of instruction, depending on how you count, and husbands get seven or eight verses of instructions.
So why do people quote one of the few verses to wives and leave out all that stuff addressed to the husbands? Why do people quote that one part to wives and leave out the framing verses that talk about mutual submission and respect and love? It seems strange. In fact, rather than using that one verse out of context against my wife, I hope Becca doesn’t read this chapter of the Bible. She’ll see where I’m not living up to these lofty obligations as a Christian husband. Don’t tell her about this chapter!
But what are we supposed to DO about this?
If you aren’t married, I think the first verse still gives a pattern for all healthy human relationships: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Don’t fall into the trap of “Big I, little u,” but instead find people with whom you can be in formation pointed toward Christ.
If you are married or in a relationship that points in that direction, Paul gives us more specifics. Remember our last verse: “Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.”
For wives, respect means finding ways to have your husband’s back, to support rather than snipe. My mom once said that she could write a whole page filled with all the things my dad has done wrong. But she could write a hundred pages of all that he’s done right. Don’t get stuck on page one.
For husbands, loving your wife as yourself means taking the initiative. One of my friends was concerned because his wife was much further along in her spiritual growth than he was. So I told him that being “head” didn’t mean he was to suddenly instruct her in her faith. It meant that he was to take initiative – don’t wait for her to ask him to pray. Just pray. Don’t wait for her to talk about reading the Bible together, propose it yourself. Take some initiative in the spiritual growth of your family!
And showing love is another area to take initiative. I knew a guy who explained why he didn’t tell his wife he loved her, “I told my wife I loved her on our wedding day. I’ll let her know if that ever changes.” That’s not up to snuff, guys! We’ve gotta do better, myself included!
Sisters and brothers, we are encouraged to take our cues for our relationships from the self-sacrificial love of Christ toward us. Maybe Warren Barfield said it best in the chorus of his song – “Love is not a fight, but it’s something worth fighting for.”
Let’s get in the right formation – pointed toward Christ – and fight for the right things together. Amen.