Men and women will naturally love themselves first. Husbands will have selfish ambitions, wives will manipulate. But in Christ, God calls us to live not in the curse, but the blessing.
Many books and sermons exist that describe the differences in men and women. At the same time, our culture insists gender is not binary or clearly defined in anyway. While this is an important subject to deal with Biblically, I will not address it here. This document isn’t about gender differences, gender identity, gender fluidity or gender definitions.
I’m concerned with the Bible’s instructions regarding marriage between a woman and man because that is what is the Bible discusses. (No reference is made to how a man should treat his husband, for example.) Because of this, I will stay focused on this “type” of marriage.
“… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” —Ephesians 5:18-25
The imperative in this passage is at the place where I began my quote. “Be filled with the Spirit.” It is written in the original language in a way that could better be translated, “be being filled with the Spirit now and now and now …” It is on-going and dynamic.
For just a moment, let me clarify that once someone has professed faith in Christ Jesus, they are filled with the Holy Spirit. However, here Paul is telling us that we need to continuously let Him consume us. The whole of verse 18 is, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Don’t fill yourself and alter your own mental state. That self-indulgence is a “wasteful expenditure” as Merriam-Webster defines dissipation.
In contrast, we are passive as we are being filled continuously with the Holy Spirit; it is God’s work. The results of this on-going filling aren’t dulled senses, slurred speech or next-day hangovers. Instead we become more fully alive, encouraging one another, declaring praises to God and experiencing healthy relationships and vibrant marriages. (Reread the passage above.)
The instruction, or rather implication that comes from being consumed with God and not ourselves, is that we are willing to put others first:
Be subject to one another in the fear [reverence for] of Christ. —Ephesians 5:21 (brackets mine).
Single people, children, elderly widows/widowers, married people—everyone is instructed to submit to others. Yet Paul takes a look at wives and husbands here to show us an illustration of our relationship with the Lord. Directly after telling us to submit to one another, he tells women to be subject to their husbands.
A heading is added here in most of my Bibles, creating a break between verse 21 and 22, but this passage is a continuation of the implications of verse 18. Paul hasn’t suddenly switched gears into a homily about marriage; he’s describing what happens in marriage when we are being filled with the Holy Spirit. One result is that women will be subject to their husbands or as some Bibles say, submit to them.
Let’s back up for a moment to verse 21 where we’re told to be subject to one another, again as an implication of our filling with the Spirit. If we subject ourselves, we will put others first and consider our needs secondary to theirs. Practically speaking, it can mean to put our energy, talents, time and even finances towards the needs of others before ourselves.
Getting drunk—or in a broader sense, living in self-indulgence—is the contrast to this. Instead of intoxicating ourselves, we can live truly indulgent lives: generous lives that lift up and meet the needs of those around us. In turn, we not only have the fullness of Christ’s Spirit dwelling continuously in us, we are receiving what we need from others. This is the picture—one of mutually lifting and encouraging within the body of Christ.
Focus the idea down to one woman and one man. The husband is to (out of his Spirit-filled life), put his wife first and himself second. He is to lift her up, loving her sacrificially. He is to devote more of his energy, talent, time and money to her than to himself. This passage even goes so far as to say he is to sacrifice his life for her.
In first century Ephesus, this was even more radical (if possible) than in 21st century America. A man had a wife to bear children and tend to his home. He often had a mistress for recreational pleasures. It was also not uncommon for a man to have a young boyfriend. These dalliances were part of the culture but not of God’s creation.
When men became believers in Christ and began living life full of Him, this Ephesian norm needed to be corrected. So God instructed husbands to love their wives. This wasn’t simply a wedding homily or a sermon on how to treat your bride. It implied stopping all the other relationships and loving her only. It meant truly putting her above all others, including oneself.
In contemporary terms, a husband may or may not have other side relationships, but he’s told work, hobbies—everything he thinks and does—is to come second to his wife.
The wife is to (out of her Spirit-filled life), do exactly the same! Of course she wouldn’t have been told to love only her husband as extra-marital affairs would not have been allowed. In that culture women didn’t vote, attend school, or have any political agency. They were socially and economically subject to their husbands and very dependent upon them.
But these circumstances did not guarantee she was, in the most crucial ways, putting her husband before herself. Since Eve, women have been tempted to be domineering. In fact, this is part of the curse that came upon women as a result of sin in the world.
“Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.” —Genesis 3:16b.
The desire described in Genesis 3 wasn’t sexual attraction or an emotional feeling of fondness. Women would have a hunger to overcome and control their husbands—to lie in wait to pounce on them like an animal hunting for prey. This is the curse!
Yet in God’s original design, a wife is to put her husband first and herself second. She is to lift him up, loving him. In practicality, she’ll devote more energy, talent, time and money to him than to herself. She will subject herself to him wholeheartedly like she’s submitting herself completely to God.
When a husband and wife prioritize one another, they become a visual aid to the world of Christ and the church. Others can see that Jesus is our loving Savior and believers promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ instead of themselves. While a Christian marriage may not look like this, it could. Marriage will be this if both wives and husbands allow the filling of the Holy Spirit enable them to live as God intends.
This is not a new intention. From the beginning, God states that He created humanity, male and female to rule the earth. Only after the fall did God say husbands would rule their wives, and that is the curse! The pure, original design was male and female as the image of God. He gave them equal blessing and shared responsibility over the rest of creation.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food;’ and it was so.” — Genesis 1:26-30.
As in the beginning of time and in first century Ephesus, men and women will naturally love themselves first. Husbands will have selfish ambitions, wives will manipulate people and circumstances to meet their needs. But in Christ, through the perpetual pouring in of His Spirit, God calls us to live not in the curse, but the blessing.
God Himself enables us to humbly submit to Him and to each other. He gives us strength and willingness to lift one another up. He provides a way for us to live and love as He meant for us from the start. Will we allow ourselves to “be being filled” with His Spirit? I pray so, because if we do, the world will get a desperately needed picture of selfless love.