In the Roman Empire, men held tremendous power over their households. According to Charles Seltman, “A girl was completely under her father’s, a wife completely under her husband’s, power. She was his chattel … Her life was one of legal incapacity which amounted to enslavement, while her status was described as ‘imbecilitas,’ whence our word [imbecile].”
With Seltman’s statement in mind, we can see that what Paul writes about a wife’s submission to her husband (Ephesians 5.22–24) expresses the classical world’s traditional wisdom. But do we also see that what Paul writes about a husband’s relationship to his wife (5.25–32) was and continues to be a revolution in marital relationships? He replaces a husband’s power over his wife with a Christ-like love for his wife: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church” (verse 25).
How does Christ love the church? And how does this affect a Christian husband’s love for his wife? Look at verses 25–27: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for 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.” In theological terms, Christ sacrificed himself to sanctify us. He died so that we could live. And that life he died to give us is not mediocre. It is “radiant,” “without stain or wrinkle or blemish, and “holy.” We might say that Christ gave his whole self that we might become our best selves.
In the Roman Empire, a wife served her husband’s whims. But in a very real sense, Christ serves the church’s needs. And this service is what gives him authority over us. For in contrast to worldly notions of power and authority, Jesus says: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant … just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20.26–28). Paul commands Christian husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church” (verse 25), that is, by serving them.
Paul also writes that Christian husbands “ ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body” (verses 28–30). Roman husbands may have had the legal power to abuse and neglect their wives, but in doing so, they were only abusing and neglecting themselves and making their own lives miserable.
Paul concludes his teaching with this summary statement: “each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (verse 32). Men, if you want your wife to respect you, then love her. Devote yourself to her best interests. Take care of her better than you care for your own body. As you do, you will find that a happy wife makes for a very happy life.