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The Spirit-filled Church: Filled with the Spirit (Marriage)

Paul's teaching being filled with the Spirit continues with an explanation of submission in reverance to Christ. The first concerns marriage, the second parents and children and then finally masters and slaves....

Ephesians 5v18-33

There are words for husbands and wives, but we must note that in v32 Paul says he is first teaching about Christ and the Church. The way that Christian marriage works will teach us much about the way that Christ loves his church... his people, predestined in love to be in Him... chosen before time to be made holy by his sacrifice...

Christ is the head of the church and saves it - v22-24
The headship fo husbands over wives teaches us about Christ and the church, and from this wives should submit to their husbands. And this echoes their submission to the Lord. Submission is a dirty word in the 21st Century western society. But we must see Christ as the model of submission here. From this an order is established - Christ: Church.... Husband: Wife. This submission benefits the one in submission rather than being oppression. If we view wives submission as oppressive then we would have to veiw submission to Christ as oppressive. Only someone who does not know Christ would conclude this.

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her - v25-28
The model turns around and husbands are instructed to love their wives - a command repeated in v25, 28 and v33. Its not natural - we have to be told.

What does this love look like? Christ's love:
  • Gives himself up for her
  • Sanctifies her cleansing with the word
  • To present her as holy
In the same way - v28 - husbands should love their wives. Such love is sacrificial and beneficial to the wife, just as Christ's love benefits the church. Christ's love saves making the church spotless, but the husbands life is also for the wives splendour. This is a far cry from any thoughts of oppression.

Further we should note that Christ's sacrificial love was for the unlovely church. The church who was enslaved to sin, under wrath and stained by sin's ugliness. Likewise a husband's love is not simply to love when the wife is loveable, but to love always. And to love sacrificially.

Christ nourishes and cherishes the church as his own - v29-32
Christians are part of Christ's body. So Christ nourishes and cherishes us. In the same way husbands leave their parents and become one with their wife. And so their love for their wife should be to cherish and nourish. To love and care for their wife. Paul is not interested in feminism or chauvisim, but creationism - a creation mandate of the order of things.

Paul confesses that its a profound mystery and teaches amazing things about Christ's love for the church and Christ's union with the church... Just as the Trinity is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit loving one another, now the same love is found with Christ and his church. Christ the image of God, and male and female in the image of God... united Christ. Love divine, all loves excelling. Christ and the church - a most profoundly wonderful mystery - announced in Eden, before the fall through the creation of male and female and their marriage!

Christ and the church are a model for marriage - v33
Much as Paul is teaching about the church he is also teaching about marriage. And here he wants the husband to show Christlike love for his wife. The husband is to be so Spirit filled that he pursues what pleases the Lord, understanding the Lord's will... and in that to lead his wife, in speech and sacrificial service.

And the wife should likewise respect her husband. Or rather reverence.... just as the church has for Christ. Much grace is required - much filling with the Spirit so that we would live worthy of our calling.

This is a challenge to us and our ideas of how marriage should be. But we must not take offense at this, any more than we should take offense at Christ's love for his church.

Rather they are exhilarating truths that should impact the way we live together as Christ's church, in Christ. True Christian marriage must be Spirit-filled. Left to our own devices and reverting to our sinful nature husbands will not love like Christ, nor wives submit like the church.
Father, fill me with your Spirit that I would love my wife as Christ loves the church... that I would teach her the word, that I would cherish and nourish her. And give her the grace to submit even as I fail to love like Christ. Let us live together worthy of our calling under Christ's headship. And help us know Christ's love in all its fulness. Amen.


  1. Your comments are interesting and pick up on what the American theologian John Howard Yoder calls 'revolutionary subordination' (although he applies it to a person's relationship to the State, not particularly to marriage - see his 'The Politics of Jesus').

    I agree, as a critique of patriarchy, the Ephesians passage forces a redefinition of masculinity in a more Christ-like way.

    However I would take issue with the attempt to map what the author of Ephesians says about husbands and wives and the church, onto a theology of the Trinity.

    A Trinitarian theology goes far further than the Ephesian writer's social vision. In the Trinity there is simply no hierarchy at all.

    To my mind the Trinity is a better model for marriage (mutual self-giving) than the sort of order one might extract from Ephesians. (Indeed what Paul writes in 1 Cor 7: 4 is a much more equal model of marriage than Ephesians 5).

    The danger is that however excited one gets about husbands loving their wives as Christ loves the Church, ultimately that model casts the wives as the passive subjects needing saving by their active Christ-like husbands (as I think you yourself say: "...we should not[e] that Christ's sacrificial love was for the unlovely church. The church who was enslave[d] to sin, under wrath and stained by sin's ugliness. Likewise a husband[']s love is not simply to love when the wife is loveable, but to love always."

    However carefully one uses the metaphor, that model always seems to me close to implying ("likewise...") that women are somehow inevitably more sinful than men (and one can read the history of Christian anti-feminism since Ephesians to see where that has lead).

    Moreover, a curious issue of context: just a few lines later the ethic about children obeying parents would seem to me undercut both by Christ's words (refutation of accepted duty to honour one's earthly father, Mat 23:9) and his own actions (cf rejection of his own family, Mark 3:31-5). I don't often hear that obedience to parents being given the same profile as the expected obedience of wives to husbands (rightly so).

    Isn't Jesus saying in those quotes that in the Kingdom, such institutions and their value systems of human hierarchy have no place?

    To my reading, Ephesians is a temporary reinstatement of traditional civic values for the short-term aim of making the Christian message seem less socially threatening. (And there is evidence of a 'shocking' feminist 'New Woman' movement in the Roman World that was scandalizing some people which a few Christian evangelists wanted to dissociate themselves from - see 'Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities' by
    Bruce W. Winter).

    When the chips are down I'd rather play my gender politics along the line of Paul's words (probably quoting an early baptismal formula) "you are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female..." (Gal 3:26-28).

    Gender simply shouldn't be an issue anymore - it is part of a failed human self-understanding (like slavery and nationalism) that the Gospel is sweeping away. It's just taking a little while for that to sink in to the Church... ;-)

    All the best Dave,


  2. I think you're right to say that Trinity is the model for marriage - in that what Paul quotes from Genesis 2 is itself an exposition of Genesis 1 and male and female in the image of God... so we get a second trinity of Christ-Male-Female after Father-Christ-Spirit.... in which there is equality but there is also difference in role. Jesus does submit to the Father, for example. And that submission is definitely good.

    I'm not sure Ephesians clashes with Jesus teaching on family. Paul is addressing Christian families in Ephesians and even then calls for obedience in the Lord. The Spirit-filled church in its marriage, family and work displaying something of Order - as it lives out submission (not equal mutual submission, but particular submission).

    What Paul teaches never says that women are more sinful - indeed in Ephesians 2 he is very clear that ALL were slaves to sin and under wrath... no sense of women being more so. And yet, somehow marriage has a way of displaying Christ's salvation of the church in the relationship of Husband and Wife.

    I don't buy this as a response to a cultural situation then - Paul would have appealed to culture in that instance, but he doesn't. He appeals to Trinity and to creation order. It's amazing that he takes the announcement of the church from marriage... from something pre-fall. From the marriage of Adam and Eve before the fall... rather than something post-fall.

    Thanks for the interaction on this.

  3. Mm, not convinced about bringing the concept of 'submission' into the Trinity. The Church Fathers knew of no such hierarchy. They coined the term 'perichoresis' from a Greek work for 'dance' to describe the inner workings of mutual love.

    The Trinity for them involves interpenetration not submission. Cf John 17:21b ' you are in me, and I in you...'. Indeed the passage then goes on to speak of human incorporation into the Godhead (again not submission but partnership: 'may they also be in us', i.e. we join the dance).

    The whole image is nicely depicted in the famous icon by Rublev. If you're not familiar with it - or indeed even if you are - I've just discovered a nice on-line meditation on it here:

    Interestingly there's pretty much unanimity about Trinitarian theology across the theological spectrum now. Cunningham's superb intro to Trinitarian thelogy 'These Three Are One' manages to include the whole lot from the ultra conservative RW Jenson to the ultra radicals.

    By chance I also came across this blog today (, which I think adds a little to what I'm reaching for as an alternative to a God-human submission model (and its human-human submission knock-on):

    'In a 2001 Modern Theology article, Matthew Boulton points to the theme of gratitude in Barth's theology. Gratitude is for Barth the "one but necessary thing which is proper to and is required of him with whom God has graciously entered into covenant." It is the "genuine being of man," and only the grateful man is "true man." In the covenant of grace, man is enlisted as God's "partner" in "gratitude": "On the side of God it is only a matter of free grace and this in the form of benefit. For the other partner in the covenant to whom God turns in this grace, the only proper thing, but the thing which is unconditionally and inescapably demanded, is that he should be grateful." More evocatively: "Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning." Thus, "only gratitude can correspond to grace, and this correspondence cannot fail. Its failure, ingratitude, is sin, transgression. Radically and basically all sin is simply ingratitude." (Quotations from Church Dogmatics, 4.1.)'

    I'd rather go with 'grace' and 'gratitude' rather than 'authority' and 'submission' (the latter term is ironically what 'Islam/Muslim' means, as I'm sure you are aware; but much as I respect Islam, I feel Christianity doesn't ask of me to have that kind of relationship with God...)

    Must get a life and use my paternity leave for something better than arcane theology.


  4. Thing is the Bible does use the word "submission" for male-female.

    And you're right that that is what islam means - except that Bible words should have Biblical definitions not definitions from elsewhere.

    Islamic or other definitions are not what submission means... rather than drop the word from use I'd rather reclaim its meaning from scripture.

  5. Well, hum (apprehensive in-take of breathe), if we're playing the submission game, one ought to note that the writer starts on that theme in verse 21 with a general statement: 'Submit to one another', before illustrating various instances of that (marriage, family, slavery).

    When one comes to commenting on the following verses it would make sense to recognise that submission, according to the writer, is a category applicable to all Christian relationships, not just of wives to hubands.

    It would seem, reading carefully, that 'mutual submission' (as the notes in my NIV study Bible put it) is the order of the day, and would fit perfectly with 1 Cor 7:4 'the wife does not have authority over her own body but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body but the wife does'.

    If I were to rewrite the Ephesians passage rather more humourously it seems to me that the logic of it would go something like this:

    (v.21) Everyone should play football
    (v.22) Wives should play football with their husbands

    It would be rather odd logically if one went around the country giving the impression that wives in particular should play football with their husbands without noting the prior message that everyone ought to be kicking a ball around. (Can't stand the game myself, I'm more of a rugby man...)

    Trying to extract a kind of unique wifely-submission ethic out of Eph 5 runs the risk of - dare one say it - being unbiblical? ;-)

    What is even more interesting is that in the two earliest manuscripts of Ephesisans (Papyrus 46, the earliest edition of Paul's letters we have, dated to around 200; and the earliest edition of the complete NT, the fourth-century 'Vaticanus' Manuscript) the word 'submit' is missing in v. 22.

    Both read '[v.21] Submit to each other out of reverence for Christ: [v.22] wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord... [v. 25]And husbands, love your wives...'.

    Later manuscripts would seem to have added in the verb 'submit' in v.22 presumably to make the sentence flow more easily, but the Greek does not require it.

    In the Bible 'as originally given' to quote the CUs doctrinal basis, the phrase 'wives submit to your husbands', simply does not exist...

    The same is true in v.24, which literally in the Greek says 'but as the church is subject to Christ so also [are] wives to their husbands in everything', a verse which is then counter-balanced and made reciprocal by v. 25 'And hubands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church, and surrendered himself for her'.

    The writer thus indicates a mutual 'surrender' of each self to the other.

    (The translation and comment about the manuscripts comes from John Muddiman's Commentary on Ephesians. Not my own wisdom, I'm afraid.)

    Oh dear, how complex is that? But as you have written more recently, 'there are countless numbers of professed Christians who care nothing for any type of theological precision'. ;-)

  6. Precision is vital!

    I'm not sure by your interchange that the blanket submission of v21 is a universal command... given what follows it. Are parents to submit to their children? or Masters to their slaves? - those two examples seem to continue the same theme, albeit differently nuanced.

    Either way, all these things are about Spirit-filled living. The king of living that comes only from the Holy Spirit. That certainly can't be divisive or opressive in a marriage. The Spirit unites and leads believers to build one another up - in the Lord.

    In marriage there can't be a domineering or authoritarian approach.. but is it off track to say that as husbands should not be taking a responsibility to care for our wives - building them up in the word, growing them in the gospel... its interesting that we have to be told three times here to love our wives in a Christ-like way... Spirit-filled living doesn't come naturally!

    Neither would it come naturally for a wife to submit to her imperfect husband - but if she is submitted to Christ how that can be displayed in her fallible submission to a fallible husband... in the same way doesn't the husband's fallible love of his wife displays something of Jesus' perfect love?

    Also, what make ye of v33 - wives reverencing/respecting husbands (paralleling v21 as far as I can see)?

  7. Hi Dave - yes I do think that v.21 is universal the Greek just says 'one another'.

    It does sound odd from what follows. Partly, I think - as you rightly query - in that it leads to some really socally destabilizing consequences. As you point out - how can masters and slaves possibly have a reciprocally submissive attitude whilst a system of slavery continues?

    (That's why, personally, I think Paul's words in Galatians about 'neither slave nor free' in Christ were slowly lost sight of until the evangelical movement in the late nineteenth century picked up the anti-slavery cause.)

    I can see the outworking of the kind of mutual submission though in that little letter to Philemon - Onesimus is sent back, but as a brother, not a slave (v.16). Paul recommends mutual service replacing slavery (I wonder if it really did...?)

    As for parents and children, that's an interesting one. May be we would say the central thing Ephesians is trying to highlight is that parents and children are both entities of equal human right (whereas at the time it should be remembered that children had virtually no moral worth - hence the high instance of murdering unwanted children - so in context Ephesian's words are still pretty radical).

    I find Christ's drawing out of a child and his 'unless you are like this...' interesting in this context.

    I have to admit (and here I'm showing my colours) maybe the writer just hadn't cashed out what his intial (correct) radical statement fully meant in all cases. Perhaps it was just too radical to imagine reciprocal service of parent and child. Only a few verses are devoted to the subject - hardly a theological masterpiece.

    (As a parent I'd say that, issues of their maturity not withstanding, I have 'submitted' my life for the well-being of my children, and in a sense they in turn defer to me. There is, now I think about it a kind of reciprocity here.)

    Oddly enough the model of Christ the Son and his Father aren't too far away...

    By the way, I've had a go at responding to David Gibson's article - I've posted it on the end of my Barth entry. Thanks for pointing to that.

  8. Two more nerdy comments, the first re: master and slave mutual submision.

    After the instructions of how slaves are to treat their masters (vv.5-8), the author then tells masters to treat their slaves (v.9)'in the same way'.

    The Greek is literally, 'and masters, do the same thing to them'. Another plank in favour of a general argument for reciprocal rather than hierarchical social ethics underlying ch.5?

    (Indeed the universal reciprocal submission in v.21 really only echoes the earlier reciprocal injunctions of 4:2 and 4:32, and behind them the over-arching statement that there is now a 'single body' and that social distinctions are surpassed: 2:11-18)

    Second, on the apparent vocation of husbands to contribute to their wives' salvation (v.26-7), this is a mis-construal of the text.

    In the Greek there is no punctuation at all, all translations add it.

    Vv 26-27 are a tangental illustration of what Christ's love (in particular) for the Church means, not what husbands are to do.

    The NIV attempts to indicate the distinction - not very well to my mind - by adding a comma after 'holy' in v.26. One might equally (and I think, more appropriately) use brackets, thus:

    [v.25] Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church (and gave himself up for her [v.26] to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, [v.27] and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without sin or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.)
    [v.28] In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives...

    The phrase 'in the same way' refers back to v. 25, i.e. love just as Jesus loved. 'Love' in v. 28 functions as a 'catch-word' to take the reader back to v. 25 - a common feature of rhetoric still used today when we wander off the point and want to return to what we were saying originally.

    I don't think - thank God - any husband is uniquely responsible for his wife's wrinkles - moral or physical - or for 'washing her with the water of the word' (clearly a reference to baptism).
    Obviously both of us try to 'build oneanother up' to use a biblical phrase.

    Having said that I do occasionally run a bath for her ;-)

    Thanks for the opportunity to rethink this and return to the orginal sources closely.


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