As Aretha put it, every marriage needs plenty of love, and more than a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The Ephesians passage we come to today presents the most powerful choice a husband and wife can make in how they treat each other. What’s in here, when it’s rightly understood and put into practice by both husband and wife, absolutely makes for a better marriage. And whether you are single, married, divorced or widowed, you will see that what’s urged here of married couples is first anchored in how all Christians should treat each other

Open your Bible or Bible app to Ephesians chapter 5, beginning in verse 21. While you are getting there, Let’s do a brief review. We covered verses 17-20 last time, noting that the double imperative (don’t get drunk, but be filled with the Holy Spirit). The evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is then noted as four differences among Christians: four ways Christians ought to be different from society at large:

  • In how we speak;
  • In what we sing;
  • And 3, we should be different in what we dwell on, what we devote our mental real estate to. 

There’s a fourth difference that ought to mark Christians compared to society at large, and that’s where we begin today. Before we read verses 21-33, I want to read just the first and last verses of this passage, because together they summarize everything found in between. Here it is, also on your bulletin:[

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ…each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

Ephesians 5:21 & 33

The theme of love and respect among Christians is structured around a literary device called an inclusio. An inclusio serves as the brackets that summarize everything in between. Call them bookends if you want. This is a literary device found throughout the Old and New Testaments, and it helps clarify anything that might be hard to understand in the middle. So again, verse 21 summarizes how mutual respect ought to play out among all Christians, and then verse 33 summarizes how love and respect ought to play out in the Christian’s marriage.

The Greek word translated submit here is hupotasso. Jill Briscoe calls it ‘hilarious hupotasso’ because of the pre-conceived bias that comes to mind when you hear the English translation submit. We all look to models of submission we have experienced, whether positive or negative. If you grew up in a family or have been in a marriage where the husband ruled like a tyrant, that’s not the meaning here.

When Marine recruits go through Basic Training, they must submit unquestioningly to their Drill Instructors. That’s not the meaning here.

By the way, in a book I read titled “Making the Corps,” Drill Instructors admit that when they return home at the end of the day, they have to work on treating their wives with tenderness. They have to choose to be different at home. The Christian is called to be different compared to society at large, first in all of us submitting to one another, and then Christian husbands and wives choosing to act out of love and respect for one another.

So what is the kind of submission called for by all Christians toward one another in verse 21, and then specifically by wives in a Christian marriage? The literal meaning of hupotasso helps. Rather than anything demeaning, it simply means to arrange yourself under. When you come together with fellow Christians, consider the other person, not just your own preferences. Consider what’s good for the whole church, not just what you want. That’s the spirit in which we’re called to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It’s wanting the best for one another. It’s the opposite of selfishness and self-centeredness. And we do it “out of reverence for Christ.” Just like we willingly choose to align ourselves under Christ, we are called to extend that kind of respect toward our dealings with one another.

Now let’s read the passage in its entirety, Ephesians 5:21-33. 

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Ephesians 5:21-33.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” [That’s a quote from Genesis chapter 2, which shows that God’s design for marriage is a man and a woman coming together in a lifelong covenant to form a new family] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Let’s unpack the power of love and respect in marriage, then I want to give you a couple of tools that make for a growing marriage.

Verses 22-24 speak to the power of a wife following her husband’s loving leadership. That’s the theme. It’s not about being mousy. It’s not advocating being a doormat. It’s a call to follow your husband’s loving leadership. The instructions for a Christian wife here are only to be understood in the context of the instructions to a Christian husband. 

And notice two other things: the command for husbands to love their wives is repeated three times, as though we need to hear the kind of leadership we’re called to bring to marriage.  

So for married women, the call here is to treat your husband with respect, so that he is motivated to treat you with love. 

And for married men, the call for you is to treat your wife with such love that she is motivated to treat you with respect. That’s the power of love and respect in marriage. 

So when verse 23 speaks of the husband as the head of his wife, thatheadship or leadership must look like the way Christ treats us, his church. As John Stott puts it, this Scripture is talking about the power to care not to crush, power to serve not to dominate. The kind of husband a Christian wife is called to align herself under is one who loves her like Christ loves the Church. Married men, you are called to love your wife with a Calvary kind of love.

Finally for the Christian wife, the command that a wife submit to her husband in everything means everything that is good and right and appropriate. It is in no way an unqualified “anything goes.” The whole passage is talking about a Christian wife willingly following a Christian husband who loves her like Christ. 

Since Jesus is the constant reference point in this passage for what kind of submitting God calls for, it’s worth considering how Jesus submitted himself. 

For thirty years in backwater Nazareth, Jesus submitted to God the Father, growing up in a family and learning the skills of carpentry. After those first thirty years, Jesus submitted to God’s will as he stepped out into the next three years of touching lepers and holding sick kids, treating the naked and demon-possessed with love and respect. 

Each morning Jesus got up and went out to a secluded place to submit himself to God the Father’s will for that day. 

At the Last Supper, Jesus who stands in the highest place of authority wrapped a towel around his waist, and submitted to his disciples by washing their filthy feet. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus pleaded for the Father to take this cup from him, but still submitted to the Father’s will. And then at Golgotha, Jesus’ submission was put on display in cruciform love.

So here’s the question: what does this passage mean when it calls all of us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and what does it mean when it calls for a Christian wife to submit to the loving leadership of a Christian husband? It means you give of yourself to somebody else. That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what we’re called to do for one another. And then in the context of marriage, the submission and love called for here are two sides of the same coin—the wife choosing to align herself under her husband’s loving leadership, and the husband loving his wife like Christ does the Church. Both husband and wife are called to give themselves to one another. 

Let’s touch on verses 25-32, the instructions for the Christian husband. Jesus is the standard for the Christian husband to emulate: love your wife and give yourself for your wife—as Jesus did for his “bride,” the Church. And if that sounds too lofty, Paul appeals to something far more basic: love your wife as deeply as you love yourself. You feed and take care of your own body; take care of your wife’s needs, too.

And then Paul connects the unity of Christ with his Church, with the best of what a Christ-centered marriage looks like. He calls it “a profound mystery,” that somehow, a distinctly Christian marriage in which the wife chooses to align herself under her husband’s loving leadership, leadership that loves like Christ himself, to the extent that you do this in your marriage, your marriage models the love between Christ and his Church. That’s what we should be aiming for!

What about when your husband is unloving? What about when your wife is disrespectful? That’s what the graphics are about in your bulletin.

Both come from Dr. Emerson Eggerichs in his best-selling book titled “Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires, the Respect He Desperately Needs.” First is what Eggerichs calls “The Crazy Cycle.”

In The Crazy Cycle, your husband treats you in a way that leaves you feeling unloved. Your natural reaction is to react against him with disdain, disrespect. Without love, she reacts without respect.

It goes the other way, too. When a husband feels disrespected, the natural reaction is to react to your wife without love. Before you know it, this thing starts spinning like your washing machine. Without love, she reacts without respect. Without respect, he reacts without love. Round and round it goes; where it stops, nobody knows.

You have this quote inside your bulletin: “When a husband feels disrespected, he has a natural tendency to react in ways that feel unloving to his wife. (Perhaps the command to love was given to him precisely for this reason!) When a wife feels unloved, she has a natural tendency to react in ways that feel disrespectful to her husband. (Perhaps the command to respect was given to her precisely for this reason!).”

Anyone who has been married any length of time knows what it’s like to take a ride in the Crazy Cycle. The reason this Scripture was given is to help Christian couples get off the Crazy Cycle, and get on to what makes for a mutually satisfying marriage. And that’s what the second graphic shows. 

Eggerichs calls it The Energizing Cycle. All it really is, is a visual representation of verse 33.

Married men, when you treat your wife with love, your love will motivate her to treat youwith respect. 

Married women, when you treat your husband with respect, your respect will motivate him to treat you with love. This is the ideal of what a distinctly Christian marriage should look like. This is what we’re to aim for. 

So for all the times you start taking a spin through the Crazy Cycle, here’s where the power of love and respect come into play. When your spouse is not showing you the love or respect you want, the challenge is for you to break the Crazy Cycle, by choosing to show love to your wife, by choosing to show respect to your husband. Someone has to go first if you’re going to break free from the Crazy Cycle. Make it you. You be the adult. You go first.

And of course if you’re always the one trying to break the Crazy Cycle, it’s time to get outside help. The best marriage counselor Karen and I saw made us take turns in the hot seat, one of us each week. It was hard to submit to those counseling skills. But it helped us

Let me give you another positive example of the power of love and respect in marriage. A man I know—I’m telling this with permission—was offered a new job with a hefty salary increase. The job description matched his strengths. But it would mean moving out of state. 

He asked his wife what she thought. She said she really didn’t want to move, but, she added, “If you think you should take it, we’ll go.”

They prayed about it as a couple. He sought counsel from trusted friends. Then he returned to his wife with hisdecision: since she wanted to stay, he would turn down the job offer. 

That’s a real-life, recent example from a couple I know, where both the husband and wife, out of reverence for Christ, submit to each other. She respects his responsible leadership in the family. He loves his wife so strongly that he gladly sacrificed a job move because what matters most to him is not him, but them. What matters most to him is not him, but them as a couple and as a family. That’s the kind of submission and loving leadership God calls us to. God is looking for the local church, and for our marriages, to look like Jesus. 

Can you see how this is good and desirable? Nothing in here is abusive or demeaning when you understand what it’s actually calling for. This is liberating—a local church and a marriage where each one is pursuing what’s best for the other person, trusting that it goes both ways.

If we devoted ourselvesto what this passage is truly urging, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, the world would take note. If more Christian marriages were marked by Christlike love and respect, there would be such an attractive difference about Christians, that people would be drawn to Christ.

For those of you who are married, what will it take now to make for a better marriage five years from now? Practicing love and respect in your marriage. Whatever your track record thus far, however many times you’ve gotten caught in the Crazy Cycle, you have the power of the Holy Spirit, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, available to you as a couple. 

Pray together as a couple. Ask God to breathe new life into your relationship. Be quick to ask forgiveness when you blow it. Be quick to extend forgiveness when your spouse asks for it. 

If you need outside help, a referee, do the hard work of finding a good marriage counselor.