As many have previously noted, Paul begins his so-called “household tables” of Ephesians 5:22-33 through Ephesians 6:1-9 with an admonition to all Christians in Ephesians 5:21:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The verb “be subject” in 5:21 is actually a present participle, the last in a sequence of present participles that give examples of what Paul meant by “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18. In Ephesians 5:22, then, Paul begins to give examples of how the Christians of his day were to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ in the concrete circumstances of their lives. Paul begins his discussion by talking about the relationship between husbands and wives in Christian households.
For Christians, the love between a husband and wife is not one kind of love and Godly or spiritual love another kind of love. The love between a husband and a wife in a Christian home is not simply a matter of emotional attachment or physical attraction even though those aspects of marriage are part of the human nature that we share with all humanity. For Christians, however, the love one spouse has for another is a specific application of loving others as Christ loved us ( cf. John 13:34).
Earlier in Ephesians, Paul says:
Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children. And walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
For Christians, true love is on display in the life of Jesus. Paul specifically tells husbands:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).
If husbands are to love their wives sacrificially just as Christ loved them, wives are to submit themselves to their husbands as they would to Christ himself (Ephesians 5:22). Now many have taken this distinction in language hierarchically, and I have no doubt that in Paul’s day how one loved one’s spouse in a Christian home looked a good bit different for men than for women.
Still, I think we can read too much into Paul’s decision to use different words to describe the duties of a wife and a husband.
Submit yourself to your spouse as you submit to Christ himself (Ephesians 5:22-24) . Love your spouse like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25-33). Are those really two different things?
Are wives not supposed to love their husbands following the example of Christ? As we have just seen, all Christians are to love others as Christ loved them.
Are husbands not supposed to submit themselves to their wives? As we observed, Paul begins this section by saying that all Christians are to submit themselves to each other out of reverence to Christ. Submission is one aspect of Christ-like love.
Are husbands not supposed to love and submit themselves to their wives as if they were doing it for Christ himself? In Colossian 3:23 Paul says, “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men.” All of our actions should be done as for the Lord. All of our relationships within the church are venues for loving Christ (cf. Matthew 25:40).
Paul quotes Jesus (Mark 10:6-8 and parallels) and Genesis (Genesis 2:24) with reference to the institution of marriage.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.
Paul then adds:
This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)
For most of those in Christ who are married, the marriage relationship becomes the most demanding venue in which we learn to love another as Christ loves us. It’s one thing to say, “I love people” when “people” is abstract and undefined. It’s quite another when “people” is the person with whom you wake up every morning, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Marriage also becomes the venue in which the married can express their love for Christ in concrete terms in the way they treat their significant others. As a male spouse, I think the words of Ephesians 5:25-33 apply to me. But I think the words of Ephesians 5:22-24 apply to me as well.