Marriage at work (5) “husbands love”

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The instruction to husbands could be seen as the key, radical point within Paul’s instructions.[1]  Paul devotes more space to this instruction than to the other aspects of the Household Codes[2] and the command to love supplies a surprising twist.

“After the exhortation to wives to submit, with its depiction of husbands as heads, what might well have been expected by contemporary readers would be an exhortation to husbands to rule their wives.”[3]

It may seem ironic then that more attention is given in the debate to what wives should do.  This is perhaps to be expected, since whilst in Paul’s time “Husbands love” would have been the more controversial, in our time, the reverse is true.  However, whilst even in this study greater space has been given to verses 22-24, it is worth considering the level of attention that should be given to the second part of the instruction in preaching and teaching.

4.1. “Love…just as Christ…”

This parallels with houtos kai. in v25.  Christ’s love for the church functions as an example for the husband in a similar way to how The Church’s submission to Christ functions for wives.[4]  We may also note a parallel with “as Christ is head of the church” in v23.  The status and the responsibility of the husband are both set in comparison to Christ’s relationship to his Church.

This confirms two things.  Firstly, our caution about treating the wife’s responsibilities as a cultural requirement was wise.  Both husband and wife act in the light of Christ and the Church.  To diminish the transcultural nature of either is to upset the balance in the passage.[5]  Secondly, it confirms our argument that hos kai in v23 is restrictive in force.  Christ’s love and his headship are comprehensive in scope; so too the husband’s.

4.2. “And gave himself”

His love, then, is self giving, sacrificial and costly.[6]  As with slaves, in 1 Peter, we find that Christ’s substitutionary atonement provides a model for Christian behaviour.  Implicitly, this love is grace based, not contingent upon the wife’s response, just as Christ gave himself willingly and freely for his church.[7]  The husband’s imitation of Christ is a specific example of the love required of all believers to each other.[8]

Christ gave himself in order to sanctify and cleanse the church.  As we have already seen, the parallel between Christ and husband is not exact.  The husband is not the wife’s saviour.[9]  However, the husband is to be like Christ in two ways.  Firstly, he is to show costly, gracious love.[10]  Secondly, because his purpose is to see his wife presented in all her beauty and glory, he acts out of concern for her needs and reputation.[11]  This is not completely selfless.  We note that Christ presented the church to himself.  Also, the husband’s motivation here is not just Christ’s example, but his own benefit.[12]

4.3. “Whoever loves his own wife – loves himself”

The phrase echoes Lev 19:18.[13]  However, the image here is even stronger than that of Leviticus where God’s people are told to love their neighbours as themselves.  As O’Brien says,

“Husband and wife, then, are regarded as one person, a single entity.  Accordingly, the husband’s obligation to love his wife as his own body is not simply a matter of loving someone else just like he loves himself.  It is in fact to love himself.”[14]

Marital love is self love.  Just as the Church is Christ’s body, so too the husband and wife are united as one.  Here, we see how the kephale, imagery employed earlier serves a greater metaphorical purpose.  The body imagery here sets up the Genesis 2 quote in verse 30: the two are one flesh.[15]

This means that the husband’s role is defined in terms of responsibility.  He is to cherish and nourish her, to care for her.  She should find her emotional and physical needs met in him.[16]  This means that we are right to talk in terms of “mutual submission” because it is self giving, selfless service to the wife.  In the same way that Christ’s atonement involved him taking the form of a servant, so too the husband takes on the role of servant to his wife.[17]

However, the vocabulary shift – from “submit” to “love” – suggests asymmetry in the relationship.  The way in which he submits to her is different to the way that she submits to him.


[1] This is David Instone-Brewer’s view, as he argued in conversation and through email correspondence with myself.  (Email Correspondence 22/10/2009 and 23/10/2009).  See also the discussion published at http://ntbackground.blogspot.com/2009/10/re-fwd-husbands-and-wives-in-ephesians.html. (accessed 07/01/2010).  See also Marshall’s reference to “love-patriarchism” in I.H. Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 194.

[2] Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Leicester: Apollos: 1999), 418 – 419.

[3] Andrew T Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC42. Dallas, Texas: Word, 1990), 373.  “Exhortations to husbands to love their wives are found outside the NT, but they are fairly infrequent… It is noteworthy though that avgapan does not occur in Greco-Roman household codes in setting out the husband’s duties… In any case, he makes it distinctive by radicalizing the love for which he calls, as he models it on that of Christ for the Church.” Lincoln, Ephesians, 374.

[4] O’Brien, Ephesians, 418.

[5] Cf. O’Brien, Ephesians, 418.  cf. also Francis W Beare and Theodore O. Wedel.  “The Epistle to the Ephesians Introduction and Exegesis,” in The Interpreters’ Bible.  (Ed. George Arthur Buttrick. Vol X. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1953), 719.

[6] It is this phrase, rather than the use of avgaph, which emphasises this. Contra Wilson who draws a distinction between phileo and agape. Reforming Marriage, 26.

[7] Ephesians 2:8.

[8] See Eph 1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2.  O’Brien, Ephesians, 419.

[9] Lincoln, Ephesians, 378.

[10] Lincoln, Ephesians, 374.

[11] O’Brien, Ephesians, 424.

[12] Pace Barth who sees Christ’s love as unique in that, “He loves his beloved only for her own sake.  He seeks no other or higher reward than her alone.  His love incorporated in his bride is an end in itself.  The Messiah has set out and will not rest until she appears before him glorious and free of defect.  He says and wants to say forever, ‘How lovely you are!’”  Markus Barth,   Ephesians 4-6 (The Anchor Bible.  New York: Doubleday. 1979), 676. Whilst there is a sense in which Christ’s love for his Church is selfless, even his love rightly works to his own glory (Ephesians 1:10; 22).

[13] O’Brien, Ephesians, 427.

[14] O’Brien, Ephesians, 427.

[15] Verse 29a provides the transitional bridge from “body” to “flesh”.  O’Brien, Ephesians, 427.

[16] O’Brien, Ephesians, 424.

[17] Phil 2:5-8.