Wives, be subject to your husbands

This afternoon, I heard that passage from Ephesians read in worship, by a woman, and I smiled. I smiled because I knew that she was going to have something to say about it! I smiled, too, because it reminded me of my colleagues from the preaching class I took in my first semester at seminary, their wisdom, grace, good humour and encouragement.

So, just because I can, I am sharing with you, in abridged form, the last sermon I preached in that group, back in the late fall of 2008. It was on, oh yes, Ephesians 5. Wives, be subject to your husbands.


… Perceptions of marriage have changed over the years. …

What remains constant about marriage is that it is life-changing. Marriage is a revolution.

This text hints at the enormity of marriage when it talks about the mystery that makes one flesh out of two, and then, wonderfully, goes on to apply this image to Christ and the church.

It uses the imagery of marriage and of the body to give the commandment that a man is to treat his wife as he does his own body; not as a body which he owns, but as one that is essential to his own well-being, to his very life.

But sometimes, the beauty of that imagery, of that marriage, gets obscured. It’s the second sentence of the passage that trips me up:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” …

To be honest, I don’t think that these words belong with the rest of the gospel message – the message which then strives to make up for them by telling husbands how much they must love their wives.

I think that these words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” come from a place of fear, when the rest of the message comes from a place of celebration.

We, the church, are so closely united to Christ, the writer tells us, that it is as though we have become one flesh with him. We have become his body. We are members together of Christ, more closely united ot one another than any human marriage ceremony could make us.

That is the glorious part of the message.

And yet, out of fear of what the neighbours might say about it, there is this caution: Wives, be subject to your husbands.

Maybe the fear is justified. After all, what will the neighbours say? They might reject the message of Christ because it challenges their way of being, their careful hierarchy and gender roles. They might persecute the Christians. They might make martyrs of them.

These fears were real for the Ephesians and their advisor. The Gospel was real and true; but they still had to face the neighbours every morning.

Of course, these days things are different, aren’t they? The church is still subject to persecution, tragically, in some parts of the world. But we, here in north America, are, on the contrary, privileged.

So why do we still worry about what the neighbours might think? Why do we still hold back parts and pieces of the gospel message of reolutionary equality and justice? Because we do. Even though we have begun to talk about stewardship of the earth and caring for the environment; even though we talk about was and the death penalty and the moral issues surrounding the beginnings and endings of life; even though we talk about institutionalized racism; even though we talk a lot about sex – there are times when our courage fails us, as churches and as individuals.

What is holding us back? …

The fact is, as this text intimates, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We have been washed clean as a church, clothed in a white garment, and presented to Christ as nothing less than his own body.

(You know, my own christening gown was made out of the remnants of my mother’s wedding dress!)

In baptism, we have shared in Christ’s death and in Christ’s resurrection, so what do we have left to fear?

Marriage itself is an act of courage, an act of faith, even an act of recklessness – to promise to spend one’s whole life with another person, all while knowing that it doesn’t always work out as planned. Yet each couple who enters this state of marriage is emboldened – by love, by example, by the knowledge that in this of all things they are not alone; their spouse, their beloved, their other half will help them keep their promises.

How much more can we depend upon Christ to help us in our reckless revolution, which declares all of God’s people to be members together of our own bodies, married to Christ’s own.

I know that I of all people am not the best example of this courage, but I am trying to learn from others who are braver and bolder than I,

and I am surrounded by the assurance that neither death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This marriage is for good, and for ever.


Thank you to my bold and reckless friends and mentors. Thank God for you.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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