by Sonja DeWitt | 11 October 2020 |
The most notable reference in Ephesians 5:26 is to “the word.”
Some commentaries have given the impression that the import of this phrase is that it’s the man’s duty to bludgeon his wife repeatedly over the head with Bible passages, until she gets the message and does the right thing. But this cannot be Paul’s meaning. This picture of self-righteous male superiority is diametrically opposed to the deep humility and self-sacrifice of Christ, highlighted so clearly in the rest of the passage.
While I believe it is a husband’s duty to encourage his wife with truths from the Bible, this is also a duty of a Christian wife to her husband. I believe the real meaning of this phrase is deeper and less obvious.
“The Word” is a phrase with a multitude of connotations in the Bible. In John 1, for example, Christ himself is presented as “The Word,” and also as the Creator. God’s word has creative power on a massive scale.
Of course, human words do not have the cosmic creative power of God’s words. But human words still have immense power to create and destroy. As James puts it, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.”
A woman is particularly vulnerable to her husband’s words. His praise pours warmth and healing over her, and his unfair criticism or harshness wounds like a knife in the gut.
There are at least three types of words every woman needs to hear from her husband.
- Words of love and attraction
Because of a woman’s dependence on a man’s love, women can be desperately insecure in relationships. This is compounded by a Western culture which deifies youth and an impossible standard of physical beauty in women—in which even the world’s most beautiful women are airbrushed and Photoshopped before appearing in magazines and on billboards.
Thus, it is crucially important for a man to continually tell his wife of his love and commitment, and remind her that she is beautiful—inside and out. A woman should be in no doubt about her husband’s attraction and desire for her. (Good news, husbands: The more a woman is told she is beautiful, the more radiant and beautiful she will become, and the more effort she will make to please you. Trust me on this!)
- Words of empathy and comfort
Because women are naturally nurturing and develop deep emotional bonds, they tend to take on others’ pain in addition to their own. Women also become depressed when they feel no one is there to nurture them and care about their pain and sadness.
There is no greater gift a man can give his wife than to listen patiently, quietly and sympathetically as she explains her feelings. This is truly the way to a woman’s heart. While she’s expressing herself, all a man needs to do is make empathetic comments like, “Really? Tell me more,” “How terrible!” and, “Wow, that’s really tough.”
If he takes her in his arms and holds her silently and allows her to relax into him, he gives her a priceless gift that no one else can give her.
- “Prophetic” words
A loving and observant husband knows his wife as no one else does. He has seen her at her best and her worst. He knows her brilliance and her brokenness. And he knows—like no one else on earth— her full potential in every area of her life. He has the capacity to see her as her perfect self—the powerful, radiant soul buried beneath the flaws and wounds and brokenness
Thus, a loving Christian husband has a unique ability to see his wife as Christ sees her, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” And he has the privilege to show her the dazzling image of the woman God intended her to be. Being reminded of her best self by someone who knows her completely is an incomparable support to a woman in her efforts to become her best self.
“Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself,”
This is an immense, sweeping command with too many distinct facets to explore them all in any depth. But the one that seems to me to need special emphasis is that this command absolutely prohibits a man from harshly criticizing his wife. It also precludes a man denigrating his wife’s accomplishments out of jealousy or insecurity.
I know it can be a tough crust for the male ego to swallow, but this command envisions a relationship in which a man supports and applauds his wife’s development and accomplishments—both personal and professional—with the same joy and pride he feels about his own. In which the husband is his wife’s biggest fan and loudest cheerleader. There is no room in Paul’s teaching for an inflated male ego—not when the husband is being compared to the awe-inspiring humility of Christ.
Of course, Paul explicitly requires the same of the wife, commanding her to respect her husband. So there is no room for male-bashing, contempt or feminine manipulation from the wife, either. Mutual respect, mutual support, and mutual celebration is required.
Let us concede at once that the standard Paul sets is dauntingly high for any human being to meet—well-nigh impossible, in fact. The Perfect Ephesians 5 Husband could well take his place among the greatest mythical creatures of all time—alongside the Centaur, the Unicorn, the Mermaid and, of course, the Proverbs 31 Woman.
Good news, bad news
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that a man doesn’t have to be the Perfect Ephesians 5 Husband to create an ecstatic intimate partnership with his wife. He needs only have a genuine desire and commitment to “grow in grace.”
Only three qualities are actually required. The first and most important is deep love for his wife. And even if he doesn’t feel such love when he starts the process, it will develop as he acts in loving ways and his heart is opened by the overflowing love she reflects back to him. The second is the humility to recognize and admit mistakes, and correct them. The third is a yearning to know her deeply—mind, soul and body.
The bad news is—for a Christian husband, a sincere and committed attempt to reach this standard is not optional. It is a Christian duty. Emulating Christ’s love, particularly in marriage, is a primary obligation for any Christian husband. Peter even reminds men that the failure to do so will “hinder their prayers.”
I cringe in using the dread word, “duty,” because, like many other people, I hate the word. It smacks of cold, joyless, slogging self-righteousness, of which I myself have experienced way too much.
But I also realize that for many people, duty is an indispensable gateway to joy. Many of the deepest joys, including an extraordinary lifetime love, can only be reached through sustained discipline and commitment supported by a strong sense of duty. But it’s crucial to make sure that duty is only a gateway, not a permanent residence. No wife has ever yet responded with ecstasy to her husband’s grim-faced pronouncement that he was loving her, “because it’s his Christian duty.”
A husband has the power of life and death over his wife’s love and joy in marriage. The Song of Solomon gives us a compelling picture of the desolation of the unloved woman.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song of Sol. 1:6)
It is virtually impossible for a married woman to become her best, most radiant, most feminine and loving self without the love, attention and support of her husband.
On the other hand, when a woman has such love and support, her blossoming is magical. Here is the Bible’s most compelling picture of the magnetic beauty of a woman who is deeply loved.
“A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a spring locked, a fountain sealed.
Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon…
with all choice spices—
a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
let its spices flow.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits. (Song of Sol. 4:12-16)
So the question for all men, those who are married and those who hope to be: “Which picture would you want to describe your wife?”
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney with over 20 years of experience handling Equal Employment Opportunity cases. She has a strong interest in religious liberty and has worked with the North American Religious Liberty Association, work for which she received an award. She blogs about religion, politics and government, and social justice at www.voicesfromthewilderness.net.