The great tragedy of our time is that many people do not know what a good marriage is – they have never seen one. Their parents’ marriages may have ended in divorce, and their own relationships may be far from satisfactory.
In this context it is important to emphasize several things. First of all, the world was created by God, and when He created it He intended it to function a certain way. God’s norms are the standard.
Secondly, the world as we see it is fallen and corrupt. It does not function the way God intended.
What all of this means is that when we come to a subject like marriage we must go by Scripture, not experience. The question is, what does God want? If we want our marriages to work the way they were supposed to work, we have to do it God’s way. That is only way we can expect to find happiness and fulfillment, and any other way is bound to lead to disappointment and sorrow.
There are several passages of Scripture that describe what a Christian marriage is supposed to look like, but we will focus on just one, Ephesians 5:22-33. The apostle Paul is giving practical exhortations to believers, and in these verses he deals specifically with husbands and wives, urging them to live with each other in a Christ-like manner.
The key to understanding how a godly marriage would work is actually found immediately preceding – verse 21: “. . . submitting to one another in the fear of God” (NKJV). This is addressed to believers in general, and what is required in all of our relationships with each other is that we “submit to one another.” We are not to be stubborn, selfish and self-willed, but are to subordinate our individual needs and desires to those of others. That is the Christian way. There is not place in the church for rugged individualists.
The passage makes it clear that husbands and wives do have different roles in marriage, and to explain how these different roles work Paul compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church. He also uses an interesting analogy: Christ (and the husband) is the head; the church (and the wife) is the body. The head gives direction to the body, but has an integral connection to it. The head tells the body what to do, but cannot function without the body and is very much affected by what happens to the body. Therefore the head cares very much for the welfare of the body.
The husband, then, is to love his wife – not merely tolerate her, not merely coexist with her, but actively care for her. The word “love” (agapate) here does not necessarily that he likes everything about her. Rather, it is a self-sacrificing love that puts her welfare ahead of his own. Moreover, in enjoining this duty Paul sets the highest possible standard: the husband is to love his wife “just as Christ loved the church” (v. 25). It is the love that Christ showed us when He gave His very life for us, even though we were sinners.
But exactly how does Christ love the church? First of all, He is attendant to the church’s needs – He is preeminently concerned with her welfare. These needs include both the church’s true needs as well as her felt ones.
First of all, Christ aims for the church’s genuine well-being: “. . . that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it with the washing of water in the word, that He might present the church to Himself glorious, not having stain or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it might be holy and without blemish . . .” (vv. 26,27). The words “present the church to himself” suggest the idea of a wedding, with the bride looking resplendent in her beautiful gown as she marches down the aisle to her waiting groom. Will there ever be a day when she will look more beautiful than she does on this day? But there is an element of Cinderella here as well. Christ found his bride in rags; now she is “glorious, not having stain or wrinkle or any such thing” (v. 27). In order to get to this point He had to “wash her with water in the word.” This may be an oblique reference to conversion and its attendant ordinance of baptism. Before conversion the elect were hardly fit to be called the bride of Christ. But now look at the church! But it must never be forgotten that it is Christ who makes the church what she is.
But he husband will also pay attention to the wife’s felt needs as well. Paul reminds the husband that he and his wife are “one flesh.” Therefore he ought to have the same care and concern for his wife that he has for himself: He will feed and warm her (v. 29). Is she hungry? He will provide her with food. Is she cold? He will warm her.
But more importantly, Christ showed His love for the church by sacrificing Himself for it. The text says that He “gave Himself for it” (v. 25). The word “gave” (paredoken) literally means “to hand or give over, to deliver up,” often to be arrested. In this context the reference is obviously to Christ’s arrest and crucifixion. And if Jesus was willing t make the supreme sacrifice for the church –to lay down His very life for her, should not a husband be willing to do the same thing for his wife?
Loving your wife, however, does not mean fulfilling all of her demands. When Christ gave Himself for the church He had a specific end in mind: “. . .that He might sanctify and cleanse her . . . that she should be holy and without blemish” (vv. 26,27). Christ (and the husband) is looking out for the bride’s total well-being, not just her desires and wishes. In some cases the husband, using his own judgment, may actually have to contravene his wife’s wishes, but he should do so with her true well-being in mind.
A husband, then, must devote himself to his wife’s well-being. She is not his chattel slave to do with her as he pleases. He is the head of the home. But that means that he is responsible for the well-being of everyone in the home, and must make wise decisions accordingly. On occasion he may have to sacrifice his own personal well-being for the sake of hers. And he should do this because he genuinely cares for her, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.”