Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The L-Word

Last time, we talked about the S-word: submit. So, what about the L-word from Ephesians 5. Scratching your head? Biting your nails? "What else are wives supposed to do? Wasn't submission in everything enough?" Don't worry; the L-word isn't for wives. It's for husbands.


Ephesians 5:25 says, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." Verse 28 continues, "In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself."

Why isn't this emphasized more in conservative Christian circles, this command for husbands to love their wives? Don't get me wrong; I definitely think it's mentioned, discussed even, but it's not emphasized. I'm not speaking comprehensively, but from what I see on complementarian blogs, from what I heard for years in sermons at both Reform and Evangelical churches and fellowships, the emphasis is placed always on the wife's submission whenever Ephesians 5 comes up--either trying to explain it, exhort it, or evade it.

In fact, apart from when someone is quoting the Scriptures, I rarely even hear (or read) of the husband's love as being the correlative command to the wife's submission. Rather, I all too often hear that the wife must willingly submit to her husband's headship (true), and that he should in turn act as a "servant leader," which is also true but not an accurate correlative. Nowhere does the Scripture instruct the husband to "be a servant leader to his wife"--it instructs him to love her.

Maybe it's because love is a less controversial topic than submission that the husband's command to love is often overlooked or eclipsed in the longwinded rhetoric about the wife's command to submit to her husband. That could be a legitimate excuse, but it is merely an excuse, not a defense.

Perhaps it is deemphasized because we've already "heard too much" about luuhhhv as Christians1. In a way, it might seem like the husband is just being reminded to do what all Christians are called to do: to love one another even as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35). But, then why say it at all? Why call husbands out specifically to love in this specific relationship?

By the same logic, one could argue that wives are commanded to submit only in the sense that all Christians are called to submit, since Ephesians 5:21 says, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ," but complementarians are the first to point out that if this were the case, then the subsequent verses on submission in Ephesians 5 would be superfluous; they wouldn't mean anything. But, all Scripture means something. So, the wife must be called to submit to her husband in a particular way. So, too, is the husband called to love his wife in a particular way, and Ephesians 5 explains how.

  1. "...just as Christ loved the Church..."
  2. "...and gave Himself up for her to make her holy..."
  3. " [his] own bod[y]..."
  4. as he loves himself (Ephesians 5:28)
When the husband's command to love his wife is discussed, it is usually in the context of point #2, so I will begin there. Conservative Christian husbands are instructed these days that they can show his Christlike love for their wives by being willing to die for them. It's a tall order--a fact that is pointed out ad nauseum whenever the subject is raised. Quite frankly, though, this sort of talk always made me feel like the men got off pretty easy.

I mean, wives are called to submit "in everything." If my husband's only correlative obligation is to take a bullet for me on the off-chance that someone attempts to murder me in cold blood in his presence, then I'm thinking I got the thin end of the wedge. Fortunately, this isn't what Scripture is saying. As you can see from looking at Ephesians 5 carefully, being willing to die for his wife as Christ died for the Church is only one aspect of the husband's duty to love his wife.

Did Christ show His love for us only on the Cross? Did Christ love us only by dying in our stead? No. He sacrificially loved day in, day out, in little things as well as major ones. This is point #1 in the above outline, and it's directly related to point #3. Let's take a look at just one illustrative passage from the Gospels.

Mark 6 tells us that, after preaching all day long so that He never even had a chance to eat, Jesus asks His disciples to sail off with Him so they can all rest. But, the crowds follow them and when the boat docks, Jesus "has compassion on them," ignores His own very real hunger and fatigue, and continues to preach some more. Not only that--he has more compassion for their hunger than His own. He takes what little there is and feeds the Five Thousand.

Think about it. These people adored Jesus! They were willing to go without meals and outrun a boat to chase him around a lake just to hear Him talk. Scripture does not tell us so, but it's no stretch to imagine that these people probably would have been happy to give Jesus the couple of fish and few loaves of bread they could scrounge up among them. Something else the Scripture doesn't mention? The people don't tell Jesus that they're hungry. He has compassion on them and takes notice not only of their expressed desire to hear His teachings but also of their unmentioned hunger. This is the way Christ loves: He loves our spirits and our bodies; His love is attentiveactive, tangible, and sacrifical. Now that's what call a tall order.

Finally, let's take a look at point #4. At first glance, this is pretty much just a reiteration of the Golden Rule. As we've already discussed, though, all Scripture means something, which means that the husband's command to love the wife as he loves himself has a unique meaning for this unique relationship. I am not a Bible scholar, and I will not presume to say that I hold the monopoly on wisdom for this point, but just as a contribution to dialogue, I will offer my thoughts on what I think the uniquness of this command relates to.

I think what we're seeing here is a picture of the indissolubility of marriage. Whoa, is that ever a foreign concept in our modern no-fault-divorce era. Ever wonder why Orthodox Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Othodox, etc.) don't allow divorce? It's because these faiths recognize as Christ and His apostles taught that we, as human beings, can't allow divorce. Mark 10:9: "Therefore, what God has joined together let not man separate."

If we really understood that the husband was the head of his wife and conceived of the wife as the body of her husband, then we would understand just a little bit more why St. Paul calls marriage a "mystery." The husband and wife are "one flesh." You can't separate a head from a body. You can't separate a body from a head. If you do, the result (decapitation) is gruesome and deadly. Divorce is decapitation.

This the fourth reason that a husband is told to love his wife and it is, perhaps, the most compelling. If the husband fails to love his wife as the body to which he is the head, then he is literally harming himself. If he divorces her or induces her to divorce him, then he is literally harming himself. Conversely, if a husband does love his wife as Christ loves--attentively, actively, tangibly, and sacrificially, even unto death--then he is literally blessing himself as he blesses her.

1 For the record, I don't think we can ever hear too much about love; I'm merely borrowing some of rhetoric I often here that men are tired of the grace part of the Gospel and more interested in the "hard stuff"--as if loving our enemies, loving others as ourselves, and loving God with all our being were not the hardest and most central commands of Scripture! Also for the record, I don't think the Complemetarians who use this rhetoric are anti-love, either, but they should understand just how their rhetoric can be easily misconstrued.


  1. I really enjoyed both this post and the one on submission. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  2. Thank you so much for this post as well as the submission post---both really gave me a different perspective on what submission and love mean. I am going to share both with my husband--thank you! Holly N.

  3. Thank you for this. I would love to see more specific details about how a husband can love as Christ loves the church (in other words, what are examples of loving attentively, actively, tangibly, and sacrificially?).

  4. Jenny - I think this will look different in every marriage. In our house, this might be anything from Brian taking the ugly-looking slice of pie so I can admire the pretty one to him changing a dirty diaper when he gets home so I don't have to to him volunteering to wash the dishes to him giving me his scarf if I forgot to bring one and it starts snowing. Part of it will depend on your husband's personality and strengths, some of it on your own desires and needs. God bless!


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