Calvin on marriage

I’ve been sharing Calvin’s thoughts on the relationships between slaves and masters, parents and children and, wives and husbands with a little bit of commentary. I’ve been doing this because despite presumptions that the concept of mutual submission is a modern egalitarian idea, we find that Calvin writing 500 years early understood Ephesians 5:21 to point towards mutuality. Notice that no-one, no matter how exalted their role was exempt from mutual submission and service. Even kings and rulers lie first to offer humble service. The purpose for which they

“Submit yourselves. God has bound us so strongly to each other, that no man ought to endeavor to avoid subjection; and where love reigns, mutual services will be rendered. I do not except even kings and governors, whose very authority is held for the service of the community. It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn.”[1]

Calvin recognises that this call to humility goes against human pride and so is not an easy thing to asks of us. As we saw with his comments on obedient children, he believes that God has given us the necessary grace to keep this command. Whilst for children, it was the promise attached to the command that provided motivation and help, here it is our knowledge of and reverence for Christ.

“But as nothing is more irksome to the mind of man than this mutual subjection, he directs us to the fear of Christ, who alone can subdue our fierceness, that we may not refuse the yoke, and can humble our pride, that we may not be ashamed of serving our neighbors.” [2]

Notice that Calvin’s concern here is that submission is central to our sanctification. It is the mena sby which we learn to keep the command to love our neighbour. It is the means by which our stubborn rebel hearts are softened and pride turns to humility.

Calvin continues.

“He begins with wives, whom he enjoins to be subject to their husbands, in the same manner as to Christ, — as to the Lord. Not that the authority is equal, but wives cannot obey Christ without yielding obedience to their husbands.” [3]

Notice then that submission to a fellow human is a means by which we demonstrate our obedience to Jesus. Just as we show our love for him by loving each other, so how we honour each other with respect and service demonstrates our honour and service for the one we cannot see. It is not that the husband carries the same authority and power as Christ. However, God has set an order so that the husband does have a form of authority.  The relationship between husband and wife is intended to represent and replicate Christ’s relationship to the church. Marriage then is the place where we learn more about that relationship.

“For the husband is the head of the wife. This is the reason assigned why wives should be obedient. Christ has appointed the same relation to exist between a husband and a wife, as between himself and his church. This comparison ought to produce a stronger impression on their minds, than the mere declaration that such is the appointment of God. Two things are here stated. God has given to the husband authority over the wife; and a resemblance of this authority is found in Christ, who is the head of the church, as the husband is of the wife.” [4]

Calvin now turns to Paul’s instruction to husbands.  It has often been observed that in calling on husbands to “love” Paul departs from the model of Greek household codes.  Calvin observes that he goes even further than that for the nature of the love is costly and significant beyond our expectations.

“ From husbands, on the other hand, the apostle requires that they cherish toward their wives no ordinary love; for to them, also, he holds out the example of Christ, — even as Christ also loved the church. If they are honored to bear his image, and to be, in some measure, his representatives, they ought to resemble him also in the discharge of duty.” [5]

Again, he sees the marriage relationship as giving us an insight into the relationship of Christ to his church.

“As the beauty of the wife produces love in the husband, so Christ adorns the Church his bride with holiness as a proof of his regard. This metaphor contains an allusion to marriage; but he afterwards lays aside the figure, and says plainly, that Christ has reconciled the church, that it might be holy and without blemish. The true beauty of the church consists in this conjugal chastity, that is, in holiness and purity.” [6]

The basis of a husband’s love then is found first in the example of Christ but there are other clues given to us by General Revelation.

“He that loveth his wife. An argument is now drawn from nature itself, to prove that men ought to love their wives. Every man, by his very nature, loves himself. But no man can love himself without loving his wife. Therefore, the man who does not love his wife is a monster.” [7]

Notice the strong words there for the loveless husband. If we think that the concept of abuse is new so that past generations are excused then we are challenged and corrected by Calvin. Again his words are stronger than we might expect and go further even than many today. The husband charged with being a monster not only is such because of harm and abuse done but because of absence of love. To withhold warmth, delight and care is to make him less than a man.

Calvin then returns to the example of Christ.

“The strong affection which a husband ought to cherish towards his wife is exemplified by Christ, and an instance of that unity which belongs to marriage is declared to exist between himself and the Church. This is a remarkable passage on the mysterious intercourse which we have with Christ.” [8]

The point then is that Christ by his own sacrificial love sets us an example to follow in our marriage relationships.  This in turn points us back so that through our experience of marriage we should gain a deeper understanding of that love which Christ has for us.


[1] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection,104-105.

[2] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 105.

[3] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 105.

[4] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 105.

[5] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 106.

[6] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 108.

[7] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 109.

[8] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 109.