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 (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 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; we are 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, and the pinnacle and ultimate role model 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 is already sanctified and has already been introduced to Jesus and is known by him. She does not need a husband, or any other human mediator, to sanctify her or present her 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 not to husbands (e.g., Eph. 5:26–27 cf. Col. 1:21–22). These phrases show the extent and commitment of Jesus’ love. His love is an active love that does not suppress but serves. Jesus also elevates and glorifies his beloved (Eph. 5:27. Since husbands cannot save or cleanse or glorify, they need to find other ways of expressing the extent and commitment of their love; they need to serve, encourage and edify their wives in meaningful and appropriate ways.
Paul writes that all of us who follow Jesus are to love one another sacrificially (Eph. 5:1–2), and that 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 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. Paul, however, hoped to soften the impact of this hierarchical imbalance of power by emphasising love, unity, and mutuality (Eph. 5:28–29, 31). Husbands could even out this imbalance by giving themselves for their wives, effectively lowering themselves, and by treating wives as their own male bodies, effectively elevating their wives who in the first century typically had a lower status than their husbands (Eph. 5:25 & 28).
Paul wanted to bring the marriage relationship more in line with his own more mutualistic ethos (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11–12; 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.
Sanctification, Holiness, and 1 Corinthians 7:14
According to Paul, an unbelieving husband is sanctified in, or by, a Christian wife, and an unbelieving wife is sanctified in, or by, a Christian husband (1 Cor. 7:14). An unbelieving spouse is sanctified, made holy, simply by virtue of their association with their Christian spouse who is a holy child of God.
1 Corinthians chapter 7 is full of statements that show that men and women, husbands and wives, have equal rights and responsibilities. They have the same status, and 1 Corinthians 7:14 applies equally to Christian husbands and to Christian wives. (Elsewhere in the New Testament, we also read that Christian men and women have the same status.)
The issue behind 1 Corinthians 7, including 7:14, is sexual renunciation as an expression of holiness. Even though Paul thought being single and celibate was ideal, he knew it wasn’t for everyone (1 Cor. 7:7). So he makes concessions such as allowing sexual abstinence for only short periods of time (1 Cor. 7:5–6). In 1 Corinthians 7:12–14, he encouraged Christians married to non-Christian spouses not to separate by saying that their spouses and children are holy. He wanted the Corinthians to know that sex and procreation with a non-Christian spouse was not a threat to Christian piety. (I have more on the context of 1 Corinthians 7 here.)
There is nothing we can physically or humanly do to sanctify our spouse. Sanctifying others is not our job. It is Jesus who saves, sanctifies, cleanses, and will one day present the church to himself (Eph. 5:27; Col. 1:22). 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 those in our family and in our community (Heb. 10:24). And we each will be held accountable for the way we have treated others. In Jesus’s kingdom, the responsibility to love and care for others is not tied to one gender.
© Margaret Mowczko 2016
All Rights Reserved
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22–33
Ephesians 5:22–33, in a Nutshell
Mutuality in Marriage: 1 Corinthians 7
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
The Household Codes are Primarily about Power, not Gender
Are men accountable for their wives’ actions? (The accountability of Eve and Sapphira)
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Protecting the Weaker Sex
The Status of Christian Women
David Croteau, “‘To Make Her Holy’ (Ephesians 5:26): Are Husbands Responsible for the Spiritual Maturation of Their Wives?” JBMW 21.1 (Spring 2016), free online here.