Last night at the Grammy awards, the country group Little Big Town performed their recent hit “Better Man.” The song, nominated for best country song of the year, tells the story of a wife who ran from her marriage but still wishes things had worked out differently. If only her husband had been a “better man.” Sadly many women who hear this song will say they’ve lived this story.
This coming weekend, Linda and I are scheduled to speak at a marriage conference. Our goal is to present the biblical teaching about a beautiful, durable marriage. In light of all the grim news reports of men acting badly in and out of marriage (#MeToo), some who hear what Scripture says about marriage will resist or reject the idea that men should be given leadership in the marriage or in the church.
One of the passages we cover in the marriage seminar—a passage that gives God’s vision for a beautiful marriage—is found in Ephesians 5:22-33. Verse 22 begins with instructions some find offensive: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Those who struggle with this command often point back to the previous verse, which calls all believers in the church to be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).
How does verse 21 (mutual submission) relate to verse 22 (wives submit)? My answer comes in three parts.
First, verse 21 (submit to one another) sets the tone for the verses that follow (wives/husbands; children/parents; slaves/masters). Among Christians, God calls for a relational distinctiveness which contrasts with the way things usually happen in the wider society. For example, Ephesians 4:1-3 calls followers of Christ to show a humility and gentleness that runs counter to the #MeFirst attitude so common in our world. So Ephesians 5:21 should indeed shape our understanding of the dynamics in a Christian marriage.
Second, the call to mutual submission (Eph 5:21) does not obliterate all order and authority in the church or in the home. The Bible clearly instructs elders to provide leadership for congregations. Elders are to “rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17); Christians in the congregation must “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). In marriage, God establishes the husband as “the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph 5:22). To see Ephesians 5:21 as a blanket call for a leaderless egalitarianism is to misread the message of Scripture.
Third, Ephesians 5:21 should be seen as setting the ethos for the kind of leadership exercised by those entrusted with authority in the church and home. Elders and husbands are to lead in a way that shows a deferential, sacrificial concern for the good of others. The Bible’s vision of godly leadership follows the example of Jesus, who though he was both Teacher and Lord, washed his disciples feet (John 13:13).
In short, God calls elders and husbands to become “better men” who lead sacrificially rather than selfishly. As Paul put it a few verses earlier in Ephesians 5, men (and women) need to be filled with the Spirit so they can live out God’s will (Eph 5:17-18). Better men love women better. Better men make for better marriages.