Today’s post is a lightly edited transcript from my wedding sermon at my sister’s marriage ceremony.
The wives lean forward eager to hear me say that the secret to a successful marriage is: a husband who moves the clothes from the laundry basket to the washing machine; or a husband who both lifts the toilet seat and puts it back down again; or a husband who arrives home with a bunch of flowers, a box of chocolates and an eagerness to cook dinner for you.
The husbands lean forward eager to hear me say that the secret to a successful marriage is: a wife who is determined to cook you a fillet steak at least once a week; or a wife who possesses an array of lingerie (and uses it); or a wife who loves watching football and has something more intelligible to say about it than ‘why don’t they just kick it in the net’.
I’ll take at least some of those assumptions to be correct.
But this is not what the Bible says is the secret to a successful marriage. The Bible, in Ephesians 5:22-33, tells us that the secret to a successful marriage is the gospel.
What is the gospel?
To explain this we need first to understand what the gospel is – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).
The word gospel simply means ‘good news’, and for the Bible all good news revolves around Jesus Christ. This part of the Bible explains the good news about Jesus Christ by telling us ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. In other words, Jesus willingly died for the church (for Christians, for people – the church is the people not the building).
These verses go on to tell us that the death of Jesus achieved something. Words like sanctify, cleanse, wash, splendour, holy and without blemish explain what was achieved. All these words are pointing to is a change, a transformation. Jesus’ death achieved a change in those of us who are Christians.
The image is of a beautiful young woman – exquisite, unsurpassed and matchless. Just as a bride appears at the church exquisite, unsurpassed and matchless, so Christians are changed and transformed.
This is the good news – Jesus Christ died to transform us. We are all sinners, without a hope of being anything else – except for this good news; Jesus gave his life to transform us. Earlier in the book of Ephesians sinners are described as followers of Satan, disobedient and children of wrath (Eph. 2:2-3). We all begin life as sinners. But for those of us who are Christians, people who have been changed because of Jesus willing death, we are now different, splendid and without spot, wrinkle or blemish.
The good news is that Jesus sacrificially and selflessly gave himself for us. The secret to a successful marriage is this good news.
How does this help marriage?
You may wish to ask the question, ‘how does this help marriage?’ Explain how this good news is the secret to a successful marriage…
This good news is the secret to a successful marriage firstly by changing and transforming us – as we have just noted. But, secondly it is the secret to a successful marriage in its example.
The church is the example for the wife – Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24). The church, this group of people changed and transformed by Jesus, is who the wife is to imitate.
The Bible is plain in its call; wives are to submit to their husbands. The church’s submission to Jesus is the model for the wife’s relationship to her husband. Why? The husband is the ‘head’ of the wife – the primary idea being taught is that the husband is responsible for the wife. The wife’s submission is to be in everything, meaning all areas of life.
Further, this submission is not given conditionally on the husband’s love, but is given in obedience to Jesus’ call. Wives are called to submit to husbands because of what Jesus has done for you – because of his death for and transformation of you.
The wife’s transformation by Jesus’ willing death is the motivation for her submission. You are to do this because of what Jesus has done for you. But this does not mean you sit quietly and only speak when spoken to. No! Submission is the willingness to honour, support and respect your husband.
Submission is the willingness to sacrificially and selflessly honour, respect and support your husband.
What is interesting is that the husbands are not then commanded to ‘rule’ over their wives. Jesus is the example for husbands – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (Eph. 5:25-30).
The command for husbands is to love their wives. In fact, not only is it to love, but to love like Jesus; and just as Jesus gave his life for the good of the church, so husbands should give their lives for the good of their wives.
Just as Jesus’ life given for the church enables him to present her holy and blameless, so a Christian husband’s life should enable a wife to grow and develop in holiness and purity. There is no ruling and reigning – only sacrifice and selflessness. Or as these verses tenderly put it, nourishing and cherishing.
This is the call as a husband. You are to love your wife like you have never loved anything else in your life – except your Saviour Jesus. Giving yourself for her good; executing utter commitment to the total well-being of your wife.
Self-sacrificing love is what you are commanded to give to your wife. You, as a husband, are called to set the spiritual standard in your new family by your own sacrifice. This ‘headship’ title is about controlling ourselves in sacrificial love, not controlling our wives.
Husbands are to give themselves, their life, their being, to the care, love, protection and encouragement of their wives.
The reason that this results in a successful marriage is because these two roles are complimentary when embodied by spouses.
A married couple are no longer two people, but one – “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Eph. 5:31). If both spouses in this new unit attempt to fulfil the same role; if both fight to be responsible for everything, or if both try to push the other into all the responsibility there is just going to be tension and unrest.
However, if one spouse (the wife) seeks continually to support and respect while the other spouse (the husband) seeks continually to love and encourage then there should be a mutual growth in the one flesh that is marriage. Through this act you become one person, and just as you sacrifice many things for your own personal good, so now you should sacrifice many things for the good of your other half.
This is not an easy concept to get our heads around; in fact the Bible tells us it is a mystery. The Bible also clearly states that marriage is one of the best examples of the gospel, the good news, of Jesus’ love for the church – but only when it is exercised in this manner.
So, we return to the question with which we began:
What is the secret to a successful marriage?
This gospel, good news, of Jesus giving himself for the church is the secret to a successful marriage; through Jesus’ giving of himself people are changed and transformed; and beyond that spouses find a perfect example of their relationship in how the church submits to Jesus and how Jesus loves the church.
I leave you with the closing words of our passage – This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph. 5:32-33).