Mutual Marriage: Loving as a servant (Ephesians 5)
I was struck when I first saw this commercial for Gatorade with Robert Griffin III, particularly by the slogan: “Greatness isn’t given, it’s taken.” This mentality is very prevalent in American society. Like many American values, however, it is quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus made it clear that greatness is found in being a servant, in putting the needs of others ahead of our own. If more spouses would apply this teaching to marriage, I believe most marriages would be much healthier.
As I have discussed over the last couple posts, I do not believe Paul is promoting a hierarchical marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:21-33. However, I need to make clear that I also do not believe Paul is teaching a democratic marriage relationship. That is often the alternative posed to traditional hierarchical marriage. As good as that idea may sound to Americans, neither Paul nor Jesus promote democracy within marriage or the church. A democratic marriage features negotiation, compromise, and manipulation. A marriage based on democracy quickly begins to look like Congress, and no one wants that. The kind of relationship Paul is describing here in Ephesians 5 is the same kind of relationship Jesus taught his disciples: a relationship of radical loving servanthood.
A common misunderstanding of the mutual view of marriage is that it eliminates the command for wives to submit to their husbands. This is not true. The mutual marriage model simply recognizes that husbands and wives are called to submit to each other equally. Paul calls wives to submit to their husbands “as you do to the Lord” and calls for husbands to love and sacrifice themselves for their wives “just as Christ” did. As I have said before, I see these commands as mirroring each other. Paul compares the husband’s relationship to his wife to Christ’s relationship with the church but not in a context of authority. Husbands are called to mimic Christ in the way he sacrificed, served, and provided for the church.
Authority is not in view as Paul unpacks his metaphor in verses 28-30. His command for husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies” is a statement of mutuality if there ever was one. Despite the common usage of this passage, authority is nowhere to be found in Paul’s view of marriage here. In fact, the only place in scripture where the most common Greek word for authority (exousia) is used in the context of marriage is in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. Here we find not hierarchy, but the most explicit statement of mutuality possible. The husband and wife have mutual authority over each other. As others have noted, this is Paul once again turning the conventional standards of hierarchical marriage upside-down. Certainly it is the sexual component of the marriage relationship that is in view, but the general principle of loving servanthood permeates Paul’s understanding of marriage.
This should not be surprising, since both Jesus and Paul taught radical loving servanthood as the basis of all interpersonal relationships for Christians. The idea of submitting/sacrificing ourselves to the needs of others permeates the New Testament scriptures, from Matthew 23:11-12 to Acts 4:32-35 to Philippians 2:3-4 to list just a few examples. The ultimate effect in a marriage is for husband and wife to be competing to “out-serve” each other. No hierarchy, no authority, no negotiation, no voting, but pure loving servanthood. I cannot imagine a marriage based on this principle ever descending into divorce.