Sacrificial Love: Ephesians 5:25–30

sacrificial love

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c) Eph 5:25–30: We cannot separate Paul’s exhortation to wives to submit from his charge to husbands (Eph 5:18–24).[1]

As with fathers and slave owners, he instructed husbands not to abuse their authoritative position (Eph 6:1–4, 9; Col 3:19).[2]

Such reciprocity in household codes was unheard of in the Greco-Roman milieu. Typically, they regulated the behavior of women, children, and slaves toward husbands, parents, and masters.[3]



Greco-Roman men would have expected Paul to command husbands to rule over their households.[4]

For example, the first century BC author Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote:

This custom still remains…[Roman] law obliged both the married women, as having no other refuge, to conform themselves entirely to the temper of their husbands, and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions.

Accordingly, if a wife was virtuous and in all things obedient to her husband, she was mistress of the house to the same degree as her husband was master of it.[5]



In contrast, Christian husbands could no longer emulate the harsh, oppressive rule which their fathers practiced as they led their families (Eph 6:1–4).[6]

When Jesus came to earth, he adopted a position of extreme abasement diametrically contrasted with his preexistent condition (Phil 2:5–11).[7]

During his ministry, humiliation, suffering, and death, Christ assumed the role of a slave for the sake of the church, his bride (Eph 5:31–32; Rev 19:6–9).[8]

Therefore, Paul called Christian husbands to follow the example of Jesus (Mark 9:33–35; Mark 10:42–45; John 13:1–5, 12–17).[9]

He charged them to apply the gospel to their cultural context.[10] The proper exercise of headship consists of loving self-sacrifice, not self-assertion (Eph 4:15–16).[11]



Ironically, Paul later directed the women of Ephesus “to rule the house and family” (1 Tim 5:14).[12]

He used a term of strength (oikodespotein) which many translations weaken to mean “keep house.” In Greco-Roman households, homeowners expected their wives to oversee their children, their slaves, and crops growing on their estates.[13]



Like most other ancient writers, Paul did not specifically mention husbands loving their wives, yet his intent remains clear.[14]

Believers cannot insist on getting what we want but must love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev 19:18; Luke 6:31; Gal 5:13–26; Phil 2:1–8). Therefore, Paul taught that a Christian husband must exhibit this type of attitude with his wife, putting her interests before his own.[15]

Paul described this kind of love in 1 Cor 13:4–8a.



The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus (30–102 AD) provides us with the closest Greco-Roman parallel to Paul’s admonition to Christian couples. He wrote this:

But in marriage there must be above all perfect companionship and mutual love of husband and wife, both in health and in sickness and under all conditions, since it was with desire for this as well as for having children that both entered upon marriage.

Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.

But where each looks only to his own interests and neglects the other, or, what is worse, when one is so minded and lives in the same house but fixes his attention elsewhere and is not willing to pull together with his yoke-mate nor to agree, then the union is doomed to disaster and though they live together, yet their common interests fare badly; eventually they separate entirely or they remain together and suffer what is worse than loneliness.[16]

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Read Eph 5:25–30. Why is this passage counter-cultural? What did Jesus do for the church? How can a man emulate Christ’s expression of love for his wife? What happens in a marriage when a couple practices self-sacrificial love, submission, and respect?





Go to Three Heads (1 Cor 11:3)


[Related posts include Unity in the Spirit (Eph 5:18–21); Submissive to One Another (Eph 5:21–24); Obedience in the Lord (Eph 6:1); Life-Long Honor (Eph 6:2–3); Nurturing and Training (Eph 6:4); Partners in Ministry (Acts 18:1–3, 18–20, 24–26 and 2 Ki 22:11–23:4); Effects of the Fall Reversed (Rom 5:12–21 and Rom 16:1–12); Marital Separation (1 Cor 7:10–11); Concerning Mixed Marriages (1 Cor 7:12–13); Contagious Holiness (1 Cor 7:14); Dissolution of Marriage (1 Cor 7:15–16); Three Heads (1 Cor 11:3); Interdependence (1 Cor 11:11–12); Equality with God (Phil 2:5–6); A Summary of Trinitarian Creeds (Appendix to Phil 2:5–6); Taking the Form of a Slave (Phil 2:7); Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); The Name Above Every Name (Phil 2:9–11); A Minority Religion (1 Pet 3:1–2); In the Spirit of Sarah (1 Pet 3:3–6); and Living Together with Understanding (1 Pet 3:7–9)]

[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History; or to Chapter 8: Pain and Desire (Genesis 3:16, 20)]


[1] Lincoln, Ephesians, 374.

[2]Fitzgerald, “Haustafeln,” ABD 3:80.

[3]Balch, “Household Codes,” ABD 3:318.

[4]Arnold, Ephesians, 380.

[5]Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities (LCL; Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press; Heinemann, 1937), 2.25, 383,

[6] An official statement of the theologically-conservative Presbyterian Church of America states, “The Committee believes that when there are words and actions on the part of one spouse that threatens the life of the other spouse and/or children, that the one(s) threatened should be counseled by the [elders], or representative thereof, to remove themselves from the threatening situation and the abuser should be urged to seek counsel.  Such a procedure will protect those threatened.  When the abuser does not cease these words and actions, the [elders] should investigate whether these words and actions are in effect breaking the one-flesh relationship by ‘hating’ the abused spouse and not ‘nourishing and cherishing’ this one (Eph 5:28–29). In counseling the abuser, the reality of his Christian faith should be ascertained. When it is determined by the [elders] that the abuser does not appear to them to be Christian and the abuse continues, the Pauline teaching about an unbeliever leaving a believer should be applied [1 Cor 7:12–16].” (PCA Digest, “Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Divorce and Remarriage.” (To the Twentieth General Assembly, 1992), Appendix 0,, 291–2.

[7] J. Behm, “μορφη” (morphē), TDNT  4:750.

[8]Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 55.

[9]Arnold, Ephesians, 380.

[10]Gordon D. Fee, “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18–6:9,” Priscilla Papers 31, no. 4 (1 September 2017): 6,

[11] Lincoln, Ephesians, 374.

[12]Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “οἰκοδεσποτεω” (oikodespoteō), NIDOTTE, 2:49.

[13]Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 68–9.

[14]Snodgrass, Ephesians, 296.

[15] Lincoln, Ephesians, 366.

[16]Musonius Rufus, Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. 13a, 89, Https://