A Commentary on Ephesians 5:21-33
A force that welds society together
The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord?” Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside down. When the generals of an army are at peace with each other, everything proceeds in an orderly fashion, and when they are not, everything is in disarray. It is the same here.
For the sake of harmony, then, he said, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” From these words of Paul you sense how open-hearted should be your wife’s subjection. But now listen to what Paul requires of you. Follow the same example. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.” You see how much obedience is asked of you. Now hear how much love is required.
Care for your spouse as much as Christ cares for the church
You want your wife to obey you as the church obeys Christ? Then you must care for her as much as Christ cares for the church. Should it be necessary to die for her, to be cut into a thousand pieces, to bear any sort of suffering, you should not say no; and if you have indeed suffered like that, you still have done nothing compared with what Christ has done. In point of fact, you would be doing these things for one to whom you are already united, while he has done them for one who opposed him and hated him, despised him, spat on him, rejected him. With all the tenderness of his soul he prevailed upon her to kneel at his feet without insulting her, without humiliating her, without making her afraid.
You, too, must behave in the same way with your wife. Even if you see that she despises you, even if she rejects and humiliates you, you can bring her back to you if you take trouble over her, if you care for her, if you are fond of her, if you love her.
Nothing is stronger than these bonds, particularly between husband and wife. By resorting to intimidation you might be able to keep a domestic servant attached to you – but not even him, for probably the servant will leave you and escape. The companion of your life, the mother of your children, the basis of all your joy, ought not to be tied to you by threats and fear, rather by love and the warmth of emotion. What sort of union would that be in which the wife is afraid of her husband? And what pleasure could her husband find in staying with her as if she were a servant?
Christ made his bride, the church, resplendent without spot or blemish
Whatever kind of woman you have chosen, you cannot have chosen anyone like the spouse Christ has chosen in marrying the church. And if she is different from you, it is not so different as the church is from Christ. Even so, he has not hated her, or loathed her for her terrible deformity. You want to know the extent of her deformity? Then listen to Paul: “You were one time darkness” (Ephesians 5:8) Do you see how obscure she was? What is more obscure than darkness?
See too how brazen-faced she was. “We were passing our days in malice and iniquity” (Titus 3:3). And how unclean: “We were foolish and disobedient.” [ibid] What I mean to say is, she was a fool and a blasphemer, and yet, despite that, he sacrificed himself for that deformed spouse as if she had been beautiful, most deserving of love, marvelous. Full of admiration, Paul exclaims: “One will hardly die for a righteous man, yet Christ died for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:7-8).
After taking a spouse like that, he made her beautiful and he washed her. He did not shrink even from that. He did it “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present her to himself in splendor.” With water he washed her uncleanliness away, water accompanied with a word. What word was it? “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He not only adorned her, he made her resplendent “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”
We too, in our spouse, seek this beauty. It could be that we are in a position to create this beauty ourselves. Do not ask of your wife what is not in her power. Note carefully that the church received everything from the Lord. It was he who made her resplendent without spot or wrinkle.
This article is excerpted from a commentary by John Chrysostom, On the Letter to the Ephesians, 20, 1ff. (PG62, 135)
Top image credit: The Wedding Feast at Cana, © painting by Michael O’Brien. Used with permission.
John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) was an important early church father. He was born of noble parents in Antioch in 349. John acquired the skills for a career in rhetoric, as well as a love of the Greek language and literature. As he grew older he became more deeply committed to Christianity and went on to study theology. John became a hermit around 375. He was ordained a deacon in 381, and then ordained as a presbyter (priest) in 386 by Bishop Flavian I of Antioch.
Over the course of twelve years, he gained popularity because of the eloquence of his public speaking, especially his insightful expositions of Bible passages and moral teaching. Known as “the greatest preacher in the early church”, John’s sermons have been one of his greatest lasting legacies. The most valuable of his works from this period are his Homilies on various books of the Bible. He emphasised charitable giving and was concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor. He also spoke out against abuse of wealth and personal property. He founded a series of hospitals in Constantinople to care for the poor.
In 398, John was requested, against his will, to take the position of Archbishop of Constantinople. John was fearless when denouncing offences in high places. He was banished twice by the secular authorities. After his death, which occured in 407) he was named Chrysostom, which comes from the Greek word which means, “golden-mouthed.”