A few weeks ago, I started reading a favorite book from childhood to my 5- and 3-year-old sons. Days on the Farm with Annette and Samuel is their first chapter book, and each evening my oldest son patiently waits for me to finish a section so he can study the simple line drawing that accompanies each story.
The first night he looked up from the picture of Annette and Samuel playing house and asked, “But Daddy, where’s the net?” I was stumped for a moment until I realized that he heard the title of the book as Days on the Farm with a Net and Samuel. This simple mistake changed the entire story—my child had visions of a little boy romping around the farm, accompanied not by his older sister but by his trusty net, ready for all occasions of challenge or trouble.
Missing a point of emphasis can dramatically change a story. In the same way, missing a critical point within a biblical text can send us careening in a direction not supported by God’s Word. Our conclusions may seem biblical to us, but they only seem biblical because we’ve misunderstood or overlooked something within the text.
Ephesians 5:21–33 is probably the most frequently read, preached, and counseled biblical passage regarding marriage—and for good reason. Paul reaffirms and expands God’s picture for healthy marriages that work to the joy and flourishing of both husband and wife. Paul draws our attention to the parallel between Christ’s love for his bride, the church, and a husband’s love and self-sacrifice on behalf of his wife.
Don’t Miss the Point
But we must be careful at this point, lest we make a quick and easy mistake about how exactly a husband’s service and leadership mirror that of Christ. While a husband and a wife are equals, Christ and the husband are not equals. Paul is employing the strategy of arguing from greater to lesser in this passage. It’s as if he’s saying, “If Christ Jesus, who is God himself, can stoop to serve human beings who are inferior to him, surely you, husband, can serve your wife who is your equal.”
Unlike Christ’s service to the church, a husband’s serving his wife is not “grace” or “mercy.” It is not “condescension.” It is not the stooping of a superior to serve an inferior. After all, grace, mercy, and condescension are given to those who have no claim upon them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be grace, mercy, or condescension.
Now, husbands certainly need to show their wives mercy and grace, but that necessity comes from them both being human beings who struggle with sin, not because the husband is in an exalted state above his wife.
Rightly understanding that husbands are not equal to Christ but they are equal to their wives keeps us from a host of possible abuses. Christ rightly manages our lives because he is our Creator, covenant Lord, and Savior. He regulates sex because he created sex. He orders our finances because the cattle on a thousand hills are his. He commands us to be unified with his people because he is the head of the church.
Rightly understanding that husbands are not equal to Christ but they are equal to their wives keeps us from a host of possible abuses.
A husband is none of those things. And so, while a wife submits to her husband in everything, a significant burden is placed on the husband to make sure he does not claim his leadership is evidence of moral, intellectual, or spiritual superiority. We are wise to note that Paul’s emphasis in this passage is on Christ’s sacrifice, not his lordship. Yes, husbands lead their wives. But that leadership is the leading of a wife who is equal, not someone to whom he condescends.
Serve as an Equal
Recognizing that in Ephesians 5 Paul is not grouping together Christ and husbands as superiors and the church and wives as inferiors pulls us back from the treacherous and deceptive ledge of heavy-handed complementarianism. Consider the following truths:
- Christ’s desires are inherently superior to human desires.
A husband’s desires aren’t inherently superior to his wife’s desires.
- Christ’s wisdom is inherently higher than human wisdom.
A husband’s wisdom isn’t inherently higher than his wife’s wisdom.
- Christ’s importance is inherently higher than human importance.
A husband’s importance isn’t inherently higher than his wife’s importance.
- Christ’s moral sensibility is inherently clearer than human moral sensibility.
A husband’s moral sensibility isn’t inherently clearer than his wife’s moral sensibility.
- Christ’s ability to reason theologically is inherently better than human ability to reason theologically.
A husband’s ability to reason theologically isn’t inherently better than his wife’s ability to reason theologically.
A husband’s role as leader isn’t because he’s better than his wife. If that makes us nervous, perhaps we’ve talked too much about roles and too little about equality.
Affirming these truths does not in any way undermine God’s revealed pattern of leadership and submission in the home as taught in Ephesians 5:21–33. And it does not suggest that men and women are indistinct from one another except biologically, as though God has simply dubbed a husband “leader” and a wife “follower” by the flip of a coin. God’s revealed roles are good, and he uniquely designs us to flourish in those roles.
A husband’s role as leader isn’t because he’s better than his wife. If that makes us nervous, perhaps we’ve talked too much about roles and too little about equality, or we’ve absorbed the cultural idea that leaders are inherently superior to those they lead. Husbands are God’s gift to wives, just as wives are God’s gift to husbands. But a husband is not a ruler who reforms a naturally unstable female. Instead, the joy of being a husband is the joy of being a God-ordained servant leader to his wife, who is his equal.
A version of this article first appeared on The Biblical Counseling Coalition blog.