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Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33).
“She respects her husband” are the last four words in a section of Scripture where Paul is talking about Christ and the church while making a few application points for husbands and wives. These are the last four words of a more fabulous body of thought, which begs the question, “When you read a letter from a friend, have you ever taken the last four words of that letter and developed a way of thinking that is divorced from the context of the letter?” Most people would consider that to be an odd, if not dangerous, way of interpreting and applying a letter from a friend. The prudent thing is to read the last four words in context with all the words, not disengaging them from the main point the writer makes.
Every Bible passage has one point, not two. Each author’s intent is singular. While we can make many applications from a passage, we can only have one point. Of course, the applications cannot be disconnected from the point of the passage, or our application could alter the point. Changing the point of a passage is called eisegesis, where a person “reads into the passage” what he wants it to say rather than allowing the passage to speak for itself. This problem is why it’s essential to understand Paul’s point in what has been primarily considered a passage on marriage.
Before I go into a fuller understanding of what those final four words mean, it would help to talk about what Paul intends with the whole passage. Nearly every time those four words are lopped off and lifted out of the passage, Paul’s words become twisted to mean something he did not intend. Namely, the wife is supposed to respect her husband with no context, qualification, or elaboration. That is an embarrassing interpretation of the passage at best and damaging to wives and families at its worst. Mercifully, Paul did not leave us in doubt about what he meant because the meaning of the passage is right in the middle of it.
So that he might present the church to himself (Ephesians 5:27).
The point of this passage is about Christ and the church and what that means to us. Paul is elevating this mysterious idea of Christ and the church with a particular emphasis on the unity between the head (Christ) and the body (Church). Paul was abundantly clear about what he wanted to highlight in this passage. It is Christ and the church, not the husband and wife. The husband and wife in this passage are illustrations that point to his main idea—Christ and the church. Paul was careful and clear to make sure we saw the beauty and unity of Christ and the church. You see this at the heart of the Ephesians passage:
So that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27).
His next words are, “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” He is making an application from his main point: Christ and the church, not the other way around. Paul is introducing a situation—marriage—that is similar to the point of the passage. He does not talk about the husband and wife and then says, “In the same way, this is how you should think about Christ and the church.” That would make marriage the main point, and Christ and the church illustrate the marriage point.
To say the point of the passage is about husbands and wives, while Christ and the church are secondary at best, is to read into it an agenda that Paul does not have. Each time he talks about marriage in this passage, he connects it to Christ and the church. You see that with his conjunction in the same way (noted above). Secondly, you see it when he talks about the mystery of the husband and wife relationship. He says the profundity of that mystery was to point to Christ and the church, which brings you back to the point of the passage.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32).
A way to understand the point of the passage is to lay it out the way Paul wrote it. He used a standard literary device called chiasm or chiastic structure. If you’re unfamiliar with a chiastic structure, you can learn more about it here, here, and here. Chiasmus had an essential place in Christianity. Chiasmus was very important in ancient texts, as it was a way to strike a balance in a work of literature. You may find examples of chiasmus in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin texts and many religious scriptures. The word “chiasmus” starts with the Greek letter “chi,” also the letter that begins Christ’s name. The “X” that makes this sound in Greek also looks like the cross upon which Christ was crucified.
Therefore, chiasmus was important for Christian poets to represent Christ and his crucifixion. A chiasm is writing something and restating it (or a similar idea) in reverse order: ABBA. Thus, a chiasm looks like an X, hence the Greek letter Chi. This standard literary device is not exclusive to the Bible, though you find this writing technique throughout the Bible. When you find a chiasmus in a place, such as the works of John Milton in Paradise Lost, it is a very intentional way to add more religious significance to that line.
Five simple chiasms:
In a more developed chiasm, the X (ABXBA) marks the centerpiece of the thought, which is the intentional, inserted emphasis of the chiasm—the main point, if you will, which is what we have in Paul’s chiastic development of Ephesians 5:22-33. As you can see in the chiastic structure, X marks the spot: the intentional, inserted emphasis of the passage: “So that he might present the church to himself.”
With Christ and the church fixed as the point of the passage, the next most obvious thing is how Paul drives home a unity theme between Christ and the church. Paul consistently writes each element to show the harmonious relationship between Christ and the church, which he also applies to the unity between the husband and the wife. You cannot have one (Christ or the husband) without the other (church or the wife). They are not connected like they were contiguous, but they are part of each other. They are one flesh, not two. Of course, there is a discussion about leading and following, but that is not Paul’s main idea in this paragraph. We must begin with unity before discussing roles. Each of the statements below make a case for the unity of Christ, the church, and the husband and wife. Their roles flow out of their unity.
Nine common sense unity statements:
Paul’s statements above are the only ways one flesh can function well. As the chiasm reflects, you cannot have one idea without the other. They both are essential to make a unified whole. E.g., if the wife submits to the husband, there must be a husband for her to submit to. If the husband is the head of the wife, there must be a wife for him to be the head of to function well. They are one. At every turn, you see the unification of two parts. They are now one flesh, a mystery that points to Christ and the church.
With Christ and the church as the point of the passage and unity as the theme, you’re ready to address Paul’s application points about leading and following, loving and respecting. The point of this article is specifically about a wife respecting her husband. More pointedly, should she respect her unkind husband? As I stated at the beginning, the answer is an absolute yes; she should respect her husband. However, here is the problem. If you take those four words, lop them off, and lift them from the context of the passage, all you’re going to do is rail at the wife for not respecting her husband without addressing the reason(s) she is not respecting (or submitting).
The word respect means reverence for her husband. It is reverential fear similar to how we think about the fear of God. She is not afraid of her husband. To be frightened of him and to have reverential fear (respect) are two radically opposing things.
However, if the husband is harsh, unkind, or mean to her, she will be afraid of him. This reality is why it’s essential to interpret Paul’s passage correctly. It’s about the unity between Christ and the church, which we should model similarly in marriage. Let me illustrate: If your calf muscle had a painful cramp, you could make a blanket mandate to your leg that it should not cramp up any longer. Perhaps you could yell at your calf. Maybe you could say embarrassing, condemning, and other manipulating things to your leg to get it in line.
Of course, you know that is ridiculous. Your leg is part of your body. You are a unified whole. Yes, no doubt, your leg should not have cramps. It should respect your body and cooperate with it. But it would be best if you did all you could to ensure it does not have cramps. Manipulating your leg without careful analysis or addressing the whole problem is ignorant. In nearly every case, you’ll find more things wrong in your body than just an isolated cramp. Why? Because no part of the body is uninfluenced by or uninfluencing the rest of the body.
When it comes to Christ and the church, we know if there is a problem in the church, it’s not with Christ because the head of the body is perfect in every way. But when it comes to marriage problems, like a disrespectful wife, it would be careless and harmful to think the husband has no role in their one flesh problem. Perhaps, he is squeaky clean, and the lack of respect is all on the wife. Perhaps. However, to put the total blame on a disrespecting wife without a complete examination of the unified body is misguided and misapplication of this passage.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).