Marriage. 5:21-33

Paul continues to describe the pattern of behavior that should be exhibited in a believer who has "put on the new man". This behavior reflects the renewal of the Holy Spirit which progresses in a believer's life by grace through faith. In our passage for study Paul deals with mutual subordination in marriage.

The passage

v21. This verse properly belongs to the preceding passage, but none-the-less establishes a principle that applies to Paul's teaching on relationships within the church. Paul encourages his readers to practice mutual subordination. We cannot be self-assertive, demanding our own way, insisting on our own rights, without reference to Christ's other-person-centered life. Christ "emptied himself", placing the needs of others before his own and this is the way we must travel, Phil.2:3-8.

v22-24. First, Paul looks at the role of wives and encourages loving respect. The Biblical view is that wives should place themselves under the authority of their husbands in the same way as "the church submits to Christ" Our relationship with Jesus is one of great individual freedom and expression and is certainly not oppressive and destructive of personality. We must therefore be careful not to argue in favor of a pagan form of male dominance as though it were from the Lord. This is a submission to loving care and not a submission to male dominance. Paul encourages a submission to a Christ-like self-giving. Christ gave himself in love for the welfare of his body the church and it is this form of headship that a husband should exercise over his wife. The wife, therefore, submits to the loving care of her husband rather than to male dominance. This structure is especially important for children who learn of the fatherhood of God imaged in their own family unit.

v25-27. Paul now turns to the role of husbands and encourages loving service. It's always interesting how we males continually talk about our responsibility to rule our homes. At times we feel very put down when we fail to do this well, particularly if our wives tend to do it better than we do. We need to be reminded that the scriptures direct us to "love" our wives. That's the job we need to be concerned about. Love, in the terms of self-sacrificial care for the well-being of our marriage partner. Many of us would do well to view our role in these terms rather than promoting a headship role.

v28-32. After defining love in the example of the person and work of Jesus, Paul explains that loving one's wife is of itself a very natural act. Marriage produces a psychological bond whereby the well-being of a partner is emphatically experienced by the other partner, and vice versa. To love one's wife is to love oneself.

v33. Paul now sums up his teaching on the proper relationship of a husband and a wife; "I say no more, except that each one of you husbands must love his wife as he loves himself, and that every wife must respect her husband", Barclay.

Authority in marriage

With the influence of Marxist Leninist ideology on Western societies, egalitarianism is now firmly part of our psyche. The prevailing Christian world-view has lost substantial ground. In particular, the institution of the Biblical family has been targeted and has faced ideological ridicule. It is often claimed that the Biblical shape of family is an evil institution, a degrading and oppressive experience, especially for women and children. To this end, the egalitarian ethos of our age now shapes legislation and government bureaucracy.

The Christian church promotes a Biblical view of marriage. On the one hand we have adopted many conventions of the past. Often, they have little to do with Biblical principles, but rather reflect the injustice of a former male dominated society. On the other hand, the secularizing influences of our age have pushed many to adopt a more egalitarian stance. On the radical fringe, Liberation Theology, sometimes called Revolutionary Theology, has tended to fully adopted a Marxist stance and so be critical of the Biblical family of husband and wife. Many radical believers have rejected the conservative Biblical shape of a family where a man and a woman have "left" their mother and father and have established a new fundamental unit of association where there are sex roles.

It is very difficult in our age to define a Biblical view of marriage and family. We certainly can't allow a "liberal" view of theology to prevail. Such a view advances on the notion that Biblical Theology itself is enculturated and therefore must be deculturated in the face of "enlightened" thinking. In simple terms, it is argued that Paul's theology of marriage and family, as it stands, reflects the ethos of his age and must be reinterpreted. Yet, we also cannot defend a pattern of family life which is a product of another age. The typical nuclear family unit in Western societies is a product of the industrial revolution. As we move into the post industrial age, the family unit may need to take on a different shape to suit a changed environment. There is no point being reactive to change, nor should we fail to be critical of the nuclear family's less than healthy aspects.

In our passage for study the apostle develops a number of principles on marriage and it is worth noting one in particular: a husband is to love his wife. Notice, Paul doesn't say rule his wife. A husband is to exercise authority over his wife in much the same way as Christ exercises authority over the church. Christ rules us by serving us, by giving himself for us, washing our feet, dying on the cross. A husband's authority is exercised in love, in self-giving compassion, and a wife is to respond by accepting that loving service. Even for the 21st century, this remains a radical idea.


1. In what way should a wife "submit" to her husband?

2. In what way should a husband "love" his wife?

3. Discuss how the egalitarian ethos of our age has influenced Christian theology, particularly as it relates to roles in marriage.

5. Discuss how "chauvinist myths" have contributed to the subjugation of women.