Epistles: Ephesians 5:21-33 – The Call to Submission in Christ

Key text: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up to her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Lesson objective: To understand that all believers are called to mutual submission to one another, and this is especially true for husbands and wives, who are called to live together honorably after the pattern of Christ and the church.

Introduction: In America, many marriages today last only five to seven years. The last half-century has seen a proliferation of divorces and remarriages. And the statistics for church members are not much different from the rest of society! Analysts claim that several factors have contributed to the demise of marriage as a life-long arrangement. The following factors are often mentioned:

  • the disdain for institutional authority beginning in the 1960s,
  • the declining influence of American Christian culture,
  • the economic liberation of an ever-increasing army of women in the workplace,
  • the relaxation of moral taboos within society,
  • the adoption of a pluralistic-toleration for opposing belief systems and lifestyles, and so on.

However, it is difficult to say how much blame can be placed on society’s ever-changing landscape and how much responsibility each individual carries, especially, if they are believers in Christ!

In Paul’s day, divorce was not practical for the poorer classes, but readily available for the more affluent. Of course, there were plenty of marriages that existed in name only, as is the sad case today. But Paul had a different vision for the new Christian community, one based not on short-term erotic love (Gr. eros), but on Christ-like unconditional love (Gr. agape). Paul knew that the only way to make a marriage work according to God’s intentions is by the principle of mutual submission to one another in Christ (vv. 21-24). If the church has failed to maintain the sanctity and integrity of life-long marriages, it is because individual members have failed to apply and live by the code of mutual respect and submission.

No greater example can Paul give of what a marriage ought to be, but that of the agape relationship that exists between Christ and the church (vv. 25-33). By bringing this example to the fore, Paul automatically dispels any warped paradigms of each partner’s role in the marriage. No tyrannical husband can ever make the claim of living a Christian marriage. Nor can a back-talking, nagging wife can ever claim the same.

Christ loved us, the church, to the point of giving his life for us. And the church has accepted the responsibility of submitting freely to our Lord in gracious response to his loving act. There is a great mystery here! The mystery is that in a profound way that surpasses all understanding, like Christ and the church are united spiritually as head and body, so too husband and wife are united as one integrated soul and body. This is why divorce hurts so much, because it tears into the very fabric of what were once two integrated beings.

For another study of this passage, click here.

God did not intend for marriages to break up (Matthew 19:1-9). Sin in many forms is ultimately what is responsible for marriage disasters. Couples that refuse to submit to one another in the Lord display their egos, pride and carnality in their defensiveness, false superiority, immaturity, verbal abuse, and even violence to beat one another into submission!

Christian marriages need to renew their commitment to the principles of unconditional love and mutual submission in Christ. Three major reasons for break-ups today are arguments over religion, money and sex. When a husband unconditionally demonstrates loving affection to his wife, and a wife freely submits to her husband, then there is true love. In the Lord, difficulties over money and other intimate matters can be dealt with in a Christ-like manner, always maintaining mutual respect and a life-long commitment.

Questions for Bible study

Read the following verses and respond to the questions:

1. Matthew 19:1-9

a. Where does Jesus go and what is he doing? vv. 1-2.

b. Who comes to him, and with what motives? v. 3a. What test question do they ask Jesus? v. 3b. What is meant by “lawful” and “for any reason”? Note: The Jews were divided into two camps over the issue of divorce. The conservative school of Shammai held to lawful divorce only in the case of marital unfaithfulness, while the liberal school of Hillel held to lawful divorce “for any reason,” even burning supper! The test was to identify which camp Jesus supported.

c. What was Jesus’ answer to their test question? vv. 4-6. Note: In his initial response, Jesus does not take sides with either school, but transcends them both to reveal God’s true intentions for marriage.

d. What rebuttal in the form of a question do the Pharisees make to Jesus’ first response? v. 7. Note: The whole dispute among the rabbis was centered on their interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It was here where both schools sought, on Mosaic legal grounds, the righteousness (or right-ness) for divorce!

e. How did Jesus respond when they appealed to Moses? v. 8. Note: Under Moses, divorce was never commanded, but only permitted or tolerated, and that because of sin! In other words, although divorce is permitted, there is no “righteousness” in it, for any reason, because divorce was never God’s intent for humankind. Also, see Malachi 2:16a.

f. What is Jesus’ bottom line concerning divorce? v. 9. What exception does he make? Under what negative circumstances does even this exception arise? Note: Both rabbinic schools missed the point of God’s true and righteous intentions for marriage. Even the school of Shammai sought grounds for divorce in the law itself. Jesus shows that there are no such grounds in God’s righteousness. Divorce, although legally permitted, is always the result of sin. Even where one party is not at fault, both are affected. Remarriage after a legal divorce was never an issue, for the Jews always permitted it. Jesus only questioned the motives behind it (this is the reason for the exception clause).

2. Ephesians 5:21-33

a. What is Paul’s appeal to all believers? v. 21a. Why? v. 21b.

b. What is Paul’s appeal to Christian wives? v. 22. In what manner are they to submit?

c. What reason does Paul give for this submission? v. 23. Explain the spiritual analogy that Paul uses to illustrate his point. What does Paul mean by the words: “in everything”? v. 24. What do you think it does NOT mean?

d. What is Paul’s appeal to Christian husbands? vv. 25-27. Is this something that has already taken place, or something yet to take place? Or both? How can husbands “give themselves” for their wives on a day-to-day basis? What does the analogy convey?

e. To what extent should husbands love their wives? vv. 28-29.

f. What parallel mystery is presented here between husband and wife, and Christ and the church? vv. 30-32.

g. What is Paul’s summary of mutual respect and submission in marriage? v. 33.

Contemporary interaction:

Respond to the following questions:

1. How do you think most people would describe their marriages: Happy, content, marginal, conflictive, or war zone? Where do you place your own marriage? Why (be constructive in your answer)?

2. What do you think Paul’s marriage principle of mutual respect and submission means? Can this principle work and the husband remain head of the household? Why or why not?


The principle of mutual submission is of paramount importance for Christians to follow, especially in marriage. In the church we all have different roles, but in the end we all submit to the Lord and to one another, and so it is also with marriage.

Author: Lorenzo Arroyo


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