Ephesians - Lesson 11

By Curt Niccum

The Household Code. Ephesians 5:21-33


  1. The student can summarize the meaning of the Household Code - "The Kingdom is only as strong as its weakest family."
  2. The student can connect marital love to God's love.


  1. Bibles and pens as needed.


In the practical section of the letter, Paul has emphasized "family" language when addressing God relationship with His people and the church's relationships with each other. He now speaks specifically about Christian families. The highest level of God's love that humans can experience is that which gets expressed within the family.

Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class


  1. Call the roll or have someone check it. (It is very important to know who is present so someone can check on those who are absent.) Introduce and welcome visitors, take prayer requests, and make any necessary announcements.
  2. Prayer and songs as desired.
  3. In one of the earlier lessons, we had an opportunity to discuss the four categories of love identified by Bernard of Clairvaux. Each statement sounded the same: "I love_ for _." In each instance, the blanks would be filled by the personal pronouns "you" and/or "me."
    1. Q: What was the worst possible form of love discussed? A: "I love me for me" - a total focus on self with no regard for others.
    2. Q: Bernard identified another level of "bad" love, one he considered the most common. How would you summarize it? A: "I love you for me" - this is superior to the former because the person recognizes others, but only for his or her own(ab)use.
    3. Q: In terms of "good" types of love, Bernard felt that most Christians might achieve which level? A: "I love you for you" - an acceptance of others with a positive valuation of their role in the relationship. This level exhibits healthy reciprocity and might also be summarized as "love is a two way street."
    4. Q: Which level is best identified with Christ? A: "I love me for you" - a commitment to be the best person possible for the best of the other person. A  willingness to give up one's rights and privileges for the benefit of another.

Learning Experience:

  1. This highest level of love Paul will specifically apply to marriage in 5:21-33. Before this passage can be fully understood, though, the teacher needs to help the class understand two ideas that strongly influence Paul's discussion of family here. (Note that even Gentile Christians in the first century would have immediately recognized both of these. We merely [re]introduce them because 2,000 years have blurred the original setting.)
    1. The Old Testament. How does one describe God's indescribable love - Nothing we experience here on earth compares to the love God shows creation and especially his people. Throughout the Bible, though, when God through inspired writers explains the depths of His love for us, he uses the analogy of love within the family, especially that between husband and wife. Thus this institution provides the closest possible insight into God's love this side of heaven. This makes the bond of marriage all the more important and sacred within the Kingdom, the family of God.
      1. The following points would be useful for sharing in class, but the material, if time or church traditions are an issue, can be omitted. Since marriage provides the best and highest analogy for God's love towards us, then much can be learned from scripture's account of His love.
      2. The following observations come from the record of God's grace found in both testaments with a primary reliance on passages like Ezekiel 16, the entire book of Hosea, and Malachi 2. (See also Genesis 1-3, 1 Peter 2:11-3:7; and Revelation 19:1-10, 14, and 21:1-9.)
        1. God has shown single-minded devotion to me. Before I even knew God, He loved me.
        2. Even when I learned of God and rejected Him, God continued to love me.
        3. When I repented and sought a relationship with God, He responded according to His constant and eternal love for me.
        4. I pray it never happens, but even should I again reject God, He will continue to be single-mindedly devoted to me.
      3. As much as the world would like to consider love a two-way street, biblical love, God's love, has always been one-way.
        1. When I come to realize this, my relationship to my spouse changes. I had to be single-mindedly devoted to my future spouse, even before she knew me. (This rules out premarital sex.)
        2. When my future spouse did know me, even though she at first rejected me, I still had to be devoted to her. (This also rules out premarital sex.)
        3. When my future wife finally accepted me, I needed to continue in my devotion to her. (This rules out extramarital sex.)
        4. And, even though I pray it never happens, should my wife ever leave me, I must continue to love her as God loves me. (This rules out divorce and remarriage.)
    2. Greek Philosophy. The entire section belongs to the genre of the Household Code (frequently referred to in commentaries by its German name, Haustafel).The Household Code had its origin in philosophical speculation about politics. It presumes that an empire is only as strong as its weakest family. Christians adopted this form with respect to the kingdom of God - the church is only as strong as its weakest family. (See also Colossians 3:18-25 and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. Note that "family" in the first century included children and slaves even though this class focuses only on the husband and wife. The other two groups will be discussed in the next lesson.)
      1. The family was viewed as a microcosm of the empire. The pater familias, the family patriarch or head of the household, therefore, was to rule over his family in the same manner as the emperor ruled Rome.
      2. But whereas the Roman patriarchal figurehead imitated the emperor, the father figure in the Christian family imitates Christ (thus Ephesians 5:25-30). What a contrast! The God of love, visibly demonstrated in the self sacrifice of Christ Jesus, replaces the iron-fisted emperor as the model for the pater familias.
      3. Relationships throughout the household, therefore, are redefined in light of the cross. Read Ephesians 5:21-27.
    3. In light of this teaching, churches must make the family a priority. The cross totally redefines what it means to be husband or wife, parent or child. Without a firm foundation for our families, many congregations face an uncertain future.
  2. Because Paul so closely associates the family with the Kingdom, his discussion moves subtly back and forth between God's marvelous grace towards us in Christ and how spouses put that grace into action towards each other. How a husband treats his wife becomes more than just a reflection of Christ's love for the church - it is its embodiment. This interplay between the gospel displayed in Christ and the gospel displayed in marriage leads Paul to an amazing conclusion.
    1. As one would expect in a discussion about marriage, Paul quotes fromGenesis 2:24. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined with his wife, and the two will become one flesh." Paul, though, does not immediately apply this to marriage or the wedding ceremony.
    2. Paul instead interprets this in terms of the incarnation. Jesus left his divine "parentage" to become human. He thus became one flesh with his wife, the church!
    3. One should not weaken Paul's statement in 5:32 just because it does not neatly fit what we expect in a discussion about marriage. It fits perfectly because human marriage finds its true meaning in the incarnation. "This mystery" truly "is great," and Paul really is speaking "of Christ and the church"!
    4. Note also that the very characteristics of the bride of Christ (the church) and the Christian bride (5:27) are the same as those God determined for all God's people (1:4) - "holy and blameless." Once again God's love finds its greatest expression in "holy" matrimony.


  1. There is so much about the gospel story in this passage that it would be easy to just stop and reflect on the majesty of God's grace and neglect the very real impact Paul expects this to have on Christian families. However, the real danger lies in being so overwhelmed with the marvelous story of the incarnation that it makes no remarkable difference in family relations? How many spouses come to worship on Sundays and then go home to abuse their spouses or children? How many celebrate being the Bride of Christ each Sunday morning but cheat on their spouses on Monday? How many people who participate in the Lord's Supper go home to feast on internet pornography? Godly marriages must be discussed, presented, modeled, and followed.
    1. Q: What does it mean for a wife to be submissive to her husband (5:22)? A:This does not mean forced into submission as some have read it. Christ does not browbeat, verbally abuse, or physically harm the church, nor is the church's response to Christ forced in any way. The submission the Lord seeks comes from a voluntary giving up of one's rights for the benefit of another. It is being obedient to the cross (Philippians 2:5-11).
    2. Q: What does it mean for a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church (5:25)? A: Husbands too must be submissive (v. 21). Specifically,husbands must give themselves up (vv. 2 & 25) on behalf of their wives. They always act on what is best for their wives. Thus, this also is a cross-shaped relationship. Note that this differs little from Paul's instructions to the wives.
  2. One congregation near my office takes a Sunday night each year to powerfully display successful Christian families. All couples who have been married fifty years or longer are brought to and seated on the stage. (In this congregation's case, these couples represent over 2,000 years of marriage.) Before that Sunday couples are interviewed and written responses to set questions are solicited in order to provide the basis for the lesson on godly marriage. Something similar could be done as part of this class. Allow some of those who have successfully navigated the uncharted waters of marriage to share how they have learned and imitated God's love and how that has made it possible for them to remain true to each other "for better and worse."

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