The responsibilities of husbands in Ephesians 5

Yesterday someone asked on Facebook whether husbands have a particular responsibility for the spiritual growth of their wives, and whether husbands will present their wives to Jesus in much the same way as Jesus presents the church to himself in glory (cf. Eph. 5:25-27). It’s been a while since I last heard someone mention these ideas. So it was disturbing to find out that the person asking these questions had just sat through a sermon on this.

These faulty ideas about “male-only'” responsibilities are based on a faulty understanding of Paul’s teaching Ephesians 5:21-33. So what does Ephesians 5 tell us about a husband’s responsibility? And which parts in this chapter are referring only to Jesus?

Spiritual Growth, Sanctification and Salvation: What Husbands Can’t Do

The moment we make the decision to trust and follow Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, we are sanctified, set apart as a child of God. But a process of sanctification and spiritual growth continues, aided by the Holy Spirit. The goal of this process is that we become mature in our faith. The ultimate role model and the pinnacle of that maturity is Jesus. It is not our spouse.

As well as being the primary example in our journey towards spiritual maturity, the Bible is clear that Jesus is the only Saviour who can rescue us from sin and death, and give us eternal life.

Husbands are not the saviours of their wives (cf. Eph. 5:23), and they are simply incapable of sanctifying or cleansing their Christian wives. Moreover, there is no hint anywhere in the Bible that husbands will present their wives—like a debutante(?) or like a showpiece of their workmanship(?)—to Jesus. If a wife is a Christian, she has already been introduced to Jesus and is known by him. She does not need a husband, or any other human mediator, to present her (as an individual) to her Lord.

What Husbands and Wives Can Do

The phrases in Ephesians 5 that mention “saviour”, “sanctify”, “cleansed”, and “present” refer to Jesus and to no one else. These phrases show the extent and commitment of Jesus’ love. His love is an active love that does not suppress but serves and glorifies his beloved. Husbands and wives need to find other, appropriate ways of expressing the extent and commitment of their love.

All of us who follow Jesus are to love one another sacrificially (Eph. 5:1-2). And all of us who are led by the Spirit will be submissive towards one another (Eph. 5:21 cf. 5:18b). Nevertheless, Paul singles out husbands in his instructions for them to love and to cherish their wives, and to be united with them. And he singles out wives in his instructions for them to be submissive and respectful. But husbands are not exempt from being submissive and respectful to their wives, and wives are not exempt from loving and cherishing their husbands, as these are normal attitudes and behaviours for Christians.

Marriage was a hierarchical relationship in the first-century Greco-Roman world. However, Paul hoped to soften the impact of this hierarchical imbalance of power by emphasising love, unity, and mutuality (Eph. 5:28-29, 31). Paul wanted to bring the marriage relationship more in line with his own more mutualistic and egalitarian ethos (e.g., 1 Cor. 7; Gal. 3:28), and more in line with Jesus’ teachings on relationships in his kingdom community. In many cultures today, it is easier than ever for married couples to have a relationship of mutuality that honours Jesus and his kingdom principles.

Some Husbands Sanctify their Wives: Some Wives Sanctify their Husbands

Curiously, the fact remains that a Christian husband does sanctify his spouse of she is an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:14). Husbands cannot sanctify a believing spouse; however, because Jesus has already done that, and the Holy Spirit continues this work. It is both silly and dangerous to think that a husband can do a better job of sanctifying than Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Rather, we need to make room and allow time for the Holy Spirit to sanctify people and produce spiritual growth, instead of taking on a role that is not meant for us. All any person can do is cheer, guide or console from the sidelines. And we can pray.

It is important to note that a Christian wife also sanctifies her unbelieving husband (1 Cor. 7:14). 1 Corinthians chapter 7 is full of statements which show that men and women, husbands and wives, are equal in status, with equal rights and responsibilities. Elsewhere in the New Testament, also, we read that Christian men and women have the exact same status.

A Christian spouse, simply by virtue of her, or his, status as a holy child of God, sanctifies their unbelieving spouse. (That is, an unbelieving spouse is somehow set apart for special treatment from God because of their relationship with their Christian spouse.) There is nothing we can physically or humanly do to sanctify our spouse.

Whose Responsibility?

It is Jesus who saves, sanctifies, cleanses, and will one day present the church to himself. We must not confuse Jesus, and the expressions and actions of his love, with husbands.

Nevertheless, we each have a duty or responsibility concerning our attitudes and actions, which should be motivated by a self-giving love like that of Jesus. We each have a responsibility to look after and encourage — physically and spiritually — those in our family and in our community (Heb. 10:24). In Jesus’ kingdom, the responsibility to love is not tied to one gender.


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