Should a wife respect her unkind husband? While the answer is an obvious and absolute yes, is it right to make that blanket edict without filling in this problem with a biblical understanding? Paul would say absolutely not.
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…she respects her husband. – Ephesians 5:33
These are the last four words in a section of Scripture where Paul is talking about Christ and the church while making a few application points for husbands and wives. These are the last four words of a greater body of thought, which begs the question,
When you read a letter from a friend, have you ever taken the last four words of that letter and developed a way of thinking that is divorced from the point of the letter?
I think most of us would consider that to be an odd way, if not a dangerous way, of interpreting and applying any letter from a friend. The prudent thing to do is make sure the last four words are not disconnected from the point of the letter.
Every Bible passage has one point, not two. Each author’s intent is singular. While you can make many applications from a passage, you can only have one point. Of course, the applications cannot be disconnected from the point of the passage or your application could alter the point. Changing the point of a passage is called eisegesis, where a person “reads into the passage” what he wants it to say rather than allowing the passage to speak for itself.
This is why it’s essential to understand Paul’s “context point” in what has been primarily considered a passage on marriage. It is rare for someone to talk about the last four words of this section of Scripture and connect it to Paul’s intent of the passage.
And nearly every time those four words are lopped off and lifted out of the passage, Paul’s words become twisted to mean something he did not intend. Namely, the wife is supposed to respect her husband with no context, qualification, or elaboration.
That is an embarrassing interpretation of the passage at best and damaging to the wife and marriage at its worst. Before I go into a fuller understanding of what those four words mean, it would be helpful to talk about what the passage is about. Paul did not leave us in doubt about that. We see the meaning of the passage in the middle of it.
So that he might present the church to himself. – Ephesians 5:27
The point of this passage is about Christ and the church and what that means to us. Paul is elevating this mysterious idea of Christ and the church with a special emphasis on the unity between the head (Christ) and the body (Church).
Point Of the Passage
Paul was abundantly clear about what he wanted to highlight in this passage. It is Christ and the church, not the husband and wife. The husband and wife in this passage are illustrations that point to his main idea. Paul was careful and clear to make sure we saw the beauty and unity of Christ and the church. You see this at the heart of the Ephesians passage.
So that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. – Ephesians 5:27
His very next words are “in the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” He is making an application from his main point: Christ and the church, not the other way around.
“In the same way” means in a similar way. Paul is introducing a situation–marriage–that is similar to the point of the passage. He does not talk about the husband and wife and then says, “In the same way this is how you should think about Christ and the church.” That would make marriage the main point and Christ and the church an illustration of the marriage point.
To say the point of the passage is about husbands and wives, while Christ and the church are secondary at best is to read into it an agenda that Paul does not have.
Each time he talks about marriage in this passage, he connects it to Christ and the church. You see that with his conjunction, in the same way (noted above). Secondly, you see it when he talks about the mystery of the husband and wife relationship. He says the profundity of that mystery was to point to Christ and the church, which brings you back to the point of the passage.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. – Ephesians 5:31-32
A third way to understand the point of the passage is to lay it out the way it was written. Paul used a common literary device called chiasm or chiastic structure. If you’re not familiar with a chiastic structure, you can learn more about it here, here, and here.
Chiasmus was very important in ancient texts, as it was a way to strike balance in a work of literature. Examples of chiasmus can be found in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin texts, as well as many religious scriptures. Chiasmus had a particularly important place in Christianity.
The word “chiasmus” starts with the Greek letter “chi,” also the letter that begins Christ’s name. The “X” that makes this sound in Greek also looks like the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Therefore, chiasmus was important for Christian poets to represent both Christ and his crucifixion.
When chiasmus is found in a place such as the works of John Milton in Paradise Lost, it is a very intentional way to add more religious significance to that line.
This standard literary device is not exclusive to the Bible, though you find this writing technique throughout the Bible. A chiasm is writing something and restating it (or a similar idea of it) in reverse order: ABBA. Thus, a chiasm has the look of an X, hence the Greek letter Chi.
Five simple chiasms:
- I went to the doctor five days ago. Yes, last week I went to the hospital.
- He told me he isn’t coming back. He’s not returning, he said.
- She disappeared for just a moment. In just a second she’ll reemerge.
- We ate all the leftovers so quickly. Speedily we polished off all that food.
- You should get a pet to help you with your anxiety. That worry could be cured by a dog.
In a more developed chiasm, the centerpiece of the thought is marked by an X (ABXBA), which is the intentional, inserted, emphasis of the chiasm. The main point, if you will. This is what we have in Paul’s chiastic development of Ephesians 5:22-33.
As you can see in the chiastic structure, X marks the spot: the intentional, inserted emphasis of the passage: “So that he might present the church to himself.” Download free PDF of the Mind Map.
Theme Of the Passage
With Christ and the church clearly fixed as the point of the passage, the next most obvious thing is how Paul is driving home a unity theme between Christ and the church.
Paul consistently writes each element to show the unified relationship between Christ and the church, which he also applies to the unity between the husband and the wife. You cannot have one (Christ or the husband) without the other (church or the wife). They are not connected to each other like they were contiguous but they are part of each other. They are one flesh, not two.
There is a discussion to have about leading and following but that is not Paul’s main idea. You must begin with unity before you talk about roles. Each one of these statements below makes a case for the unity of Christ and the church and/or the husband and wife. Their roles flow out of their unity.
Nine common sense unity statements:
- Wives submit to your own husbands as unto the Lord. v. 22
- For the husband is the head of the wife. v. 23
- Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. v. 23
- Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. v. 24
- In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. v. 28
- For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church. v. 29
- Because we are members of his body. v. 30
- “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” v. 31
- However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. v. 33
Paul’s statements above are the only ways one flesh can function well. You cannot have one idea without the other idea, as the chiasm reflects. They both are essential in order to make a unified whole. E.g., if the wife is submitting to the husband, there must be a husband for her to submit to. If the husband is the head of the wife, there must be a wife for him to be the head of. They are one.
At every turn, you see the unification of two parts. They are now one flesh, which is a mystery that points to Christ and the church.
Practically Speaking to Marriage
With Christ and the church as the point of the passage and unity as the theme, you’re ready to address Paul’s application points about leading and following, loving and respecting. The point of this article is specifically about a wife respecting her husband. More pointedly, should she respect her unkind husband?
The answer is as I stated at the beginning: It’s an absolute yes; she should respect her husband. However, here is the problem. If you take those four words and lop them off and lift them from the context of the passage, all you’re going to do is rail on the wife for not respecting her husband without addressing the reason(s) she is not respecting (or submitting).
- She may not respect her husband because she is not a Christian and, thus, rejects Christian teaching.
- She may not respect her husband because she is a hard-line feminist who rejects any Christian teaching, especially anything about respecting or submitting to a man.
- She may be rebelling against her husband because she has a sinful disposition to rebel.
- She may not respect her husband because her husband is harsh, unkind, and brutish, which makes it hard to respect or submit to him.
- She may really want to respect him but he makes it hard to do it. She’s honestly trying but he’s a jerk.
The word respect means reverence for her husband. It is reverential fear in a similar way to how we think about the fear of God. It is not being afraid of her husband. To be afraid of him and to have reverential fear (respect) are two radically opposing things.
However, if the husband is harsh, unkind, or mean to her, she will be afraid of him. This is why it’s essential to have the right interpretation of Paul’s passage. It’s about the unity between Christ and the church, which should be modeled in a similar way in the marriage.
Let me illustrate: If your calf muscle had a painful cramp, you could make a blanket edict to your leg that it should not cramp up any longer. Perhaps you could yell at your calf. Maybe you could say embarrassing, condemning, and other manipulating things to your leg to get it in line.
Of course, you know that is ridiculous. Your leg is part of your body. You are a unified whole. Yes, no doubt, your leg should not have cramps. It should respect your body and cooperate with it. But/and, you should do all you can to make sure it does not have cramps.
Manipulating your leg without careful analysis or addressing of the whole problem is ignorant. In nearly every case you’re going to find more things going on in your body than just an isolated cramp below your knee. Why? Because no part of the body is uninfluenced by or uninfluencing the rest of the body.
When it comes to Christ and the church, we know if there is a problem in the church, it’s not with Christ because the head of the body is perfect in every way. But when it comes to marriage problems, like say with a disrespecting wife, it would be careless and harmful to think the husband has no role in their one flesh problem.
Perhaps, he is squeaky clean and the lack of respect is all on the wife. Perhaps. However, to put the total blame on a disrespecting wife without a full examination of the unified body is misguided as well as a misapplication of this passage.
Call to Action
- Should your wife respect you? Yes.
- Does your wife respect you? Yes or no.
- If she does not, how have you addressed the problem? Have you made it all about the “leg” or are you looking into a comprehensive cure that factors in all the possibilities in your body?
Also published on Medium.