Paul’s Inspired Teachings on Marriage

Kent R. Brooks

Kent R. Brooks, “Paul’s Inspired Teachings on Marriage,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 75–97.

Kent R. Brooks was an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.

Marriage, which is essential to God’s plan of happiness, was instituted among our first parents, Adam and Eve, even before the Fall. [1] In every dispensation since, prophets bearing the holy priesthood have taught God’s eternal plan and have been witnesses to the central nature of marriage and the family in that plan. One of those prophets was Paul. During his ministry in the meridian of times, Paul encountered a Church membership that was changing with the influx of Gentile converts. These converts, many of whom were Greek, had been reared in a morally corrupt society and were often undisciplined and self-conceited. At times, their background created disorder within their branches and prompted numerous questions as they struggled to understand what true discipleship entailed. Questions arose regarding marriage. Paul responded with sensitivity yet directness as he clarified the relevant doctrines. This paper will address some of his inspired teachings on marriage.

Was the Apostle Paul Ever Married?

Students of the New Testament frequently raise the question as to whether or not Paul was ever married. From the viewpoint of modern Latter-day Saints who understand that marriage and family are central to God’s plan of happiness, it seems logical to conclude that one who was called as a special witness of Christ (see Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 9:1; Galatians 1:1) would have lived in accordance with all of the gospel law and hence would have been married at some point. But from the New Testament record itself is there evidence that would support that conclusion? Yes. Let me suggest four compelling evidences.

First, Paul came from a Judaic background (see Acts 21:39; Romans 11:1) wherein marriage was viewed, traditionally, as a religious duty of utmost importance. According to an early delineation of the 613 precepts contained in the law of Moses, marriage was listed as the first. Customarily, Jewish men and women married between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, although some were as young as fourteen. It is likely that Paul would have wanted to comply with the traditional religious expectation of marriage. [2]

Second, Paul was a Pharisee (see Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5), one of the strictest bodies of Judaism (see Acts 26:5), and prided himself in being a devout adherent to all of Jewish law. Tutored “at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers,” Paul became, by his own admission, “zealous toward God” (Acts 22:3). In fact, Paul described himself as even “more exceedingly zealous” in fulfilling the requirements of the law than were his peers (Galatians 1:14). It seems plausible that Paul’s zealous determination to strictly obey the totality of the law would have extended to marriage. If Paul “lived unmarried as a Jerusalem Pharisee,” noted Frederic Farrar, “his case was entirely exceptional.” [3]

Third, evidence suggests that Paul was either a member or an official representative of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish senate. As either member or representative of the Sanhedrin, Paul would have been obligated to live in harmony with Jewish customs. The Sanhedrin, comprising chief priests, scribes, and elders, served as the supreme legislative council and court of justice in Judea. Members of the Sanhedrin were required to be married and to be fathers, both considered requirements to the development of wisdom and trustworthiness. [4] As a representative of the Sanhedrin, Paul said, “Many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:10). Paul’s presence as a witness to the stoning of Stephen is further evidence of his association with the Sanhedrin (see Acts 7:58).

Fourth, Paul’s teachings on marriage are, themselves, indicative of his conviction to the importance of marriage in God’s eternal plan. “Marriage is honourable in all,” (Hebrews 13:4) Paul wrote, and “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Priesthood leaders, Paul counseled, such as bishops, were to be married. In his instructions to Timothy, Paul wrote: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). Similar counsel was given to Titus (see Titus 1:6). Prophesying of the apostasy of the last days, Paul warned, “In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, . . . forbidding to marry” (1 Timothy 4:1, 3). It would be inconsistent for Paul to characterize those who would forbid or counsel against marriage as having departed from the faith if he were himself antimarriage. So these teachings, as well as others Paul gave during his apostolic ministry, are testaments to the favorable feelings he had toward marriage.

Paul was qualified to speak on marriage. Most likely a married man himself, Paul would have been able to speak from personal experience as he taught Church members about marriage. Since experience and credibility are so closely intertwined in the minds of most people, the Saints of that day would have been more likely to listen to Paul’s counsel if they believed he had learned, by his own experience, what a marital relationship was really like. But even more important, Paul was an Apostle, a special witness of Christ. Living and knowing well the doctrine of the Church, he would have been able to teach that doctrine in the authority of his divine calling. Subject to the overall power and authority of Peter, the President of the Church at that time, Paul possessed the right, the power, and the authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people. Paul knew that salvation was not to be found in the tenets of the law, but rather in Christ. His example of discipleship was described by his declaration:

“I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

“And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8–9).

Convert, disciple, Apostle—Paul was a great advocate and defender of the faith. His teachings, including those on marriage, reflect his discernment of the unique needs and concerns of a disparate, changing Church membership and his inspiration regarding the doctrines that should be taught. Paul’s most pivotal teachings on the subject of marriage are found in 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 11, and Ephesians 5.

First Corinthians 7

Chastity before Marriage. First Corinthians 7, probably written sometime in the spring of A.D. 57, was a letter Paul wrote in response to questions posed in an earlier correspondence from Corinthian converts. That is made clear in the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the first two verses which read: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me, saying, It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

“Nevertheless, I say, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (all Joseph Smith Translation changes in this article are noted in italics).

Unfortunately, we do not have the text of the letter sent from Corinth to Paul and are therefore left to surmise regarding the questions to which Paul was responding. However, President Howard W. Hunter suggested that “the communications revealed that there were factions forming in the branch with different views regarding moral conduct and doctrine. . . . Some were defending loose sexual standards that were rampant in the notorious city.” [5] Addressing those inappropriate justifications, Paul teaches the Corinthian Saints in verse 2 that sexual relations between unmarried partners constitute fornication. Sexual desires are to be fulfilled only within the bonds of a legal marriage.

Total Fidelity after Marriage. Having taught the importance of chastity before marriage, Paul counsels members regarding total fidelity after marriage. Recognizing that temptations occur after marriage as well as before, Paul teaches three principles that will help the saints avoid those temptations.

First, in verse 3, Paul suggests that benevolence should be the underlying principle in the intimate relationship between husband and wife. “Let the husband,” he says, “render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.” Benevolence is a “disposition to do good” or to “an act of kindness.” [6] President David O. McKay said: “Benevolence in its fullest sense is the sum of moral excellence, and comprehends every other virtue. It is the motive that prompts us to do good to others and leads us to live our life for Christ’s sake. All acts of kindness . . . of forgiveness, of charity, of love, spring from this divine attribute.” [7]

When a marital relationship is characterized by “moral excellence,” kindness, forgiveness, charity, and love, then intimacy—including sexual intimacy—seems to naturally follow. In my work as a marriage and family counselor, I have observed that rejection of or withdrawal from intimate relations in marriage generally occurs when those qualities are absent and selfishness sets in. Benevolence and selfishness are opposing forces. Benevolence enlivens a marriage and invites the Spirit. Selfishness weakens a marriage and repels the Spirit.

The second principle Paul teaches to avoid temptation after marriage is trust. Trust is an expression of confidence and hope in another. In verse 4, Paul uses an analogy to describe the trust that should exist between a husband and wife. He says, “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.” In other words, marriage and the intimate relationship within it are joint stewardships in which the two separate entities of husband and wife unite in becoming one complementary whole. The couple becomes, as it were, one synchronized body—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies,” Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and “he that loveth his wife loveth himself (Ephesians 5:28). The husband is as anxious and desirous (if not more so!) for the happiness and well-being of his wife as he is for his own. To make her happy will make him happy. They are one body. The wife does not fear that her “desire . . . be to [her] husband” (Moses 4:22) because she trusts him and feels as safe in his care as she would in her own. Both can be perfectly trusting of the other if both have proven to be perfectly trustworthy, which is possible because the seeds of benevolence have been sown between them. “To be trusted,” President David O. McKay taught, “is a greater compliment than to be loved.” [8]

Third, to avoid temptation after marriage, there must be commitment. In verse 5 of the JST, Paul counsels couples, “Depart ye not one from the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency” (emphasis added). President Spencer W. Kimball said: “There are many aspects to love in marriage, and sex is an important one. Just as married partners are not for others, they are for each other.” [9] Paul’s counsel to married couples is that they not depart nor abstain from sexual intimacy except by mutual consent or mutual agreement, and then only for brief periods of time lest they be tempted for their incontinency.

“Incontinency,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie noted, “is lack of restraint and failure to bridle one’s passions (particularly where sex desires are concerned).” [10] What was Paul suggesting, in this context, by the word incontinency? Was Paul counseling married couples to restrain or bridle their passions even for each other? Can temptations come to a married couple if they fail to do so? President Boyd K. Packer said: “A married couple may be tempted to introduce things into their relationship which are unworthy. . . . If you do, the tempter will drive a wedge between you. If something unworthy has become part of your relationship, be wise and don’t ever do it again!” [11] President Kimball concluded: “Sexual relations in marriage are not unrestrained. Even marriage does not make proper certain extremes in sexual indulgence. . . . If it is unnatural, you just don’t do it. That is all. . . . There are some people who have said that behind the bedroom doors anything goes. That is not true and the Lord would not condone it.” [12]

But while prophets have counseled married couples to keep their sexual passions and behaviors within appropriate boundaries, the context of 1 Corinthians 7 suggests that Paul is referring to something else. More likely Paul’s concern here has to do with a husband or wife who rejects or withholds sexual intimacy from the spouse for long periods of time in an attempt to hurt, manipulate, control, or seek revenge. Abstinence in marriage can cause unnecessary temptations and tensions. Temptations often occur during times of abstinence, particularly vengefully imposed abstinence. The mind of the spouse begins to wander and the heart begins to stray, thereby allowing Satan to gain greater power to tempt and destroy the marriage. Satan can tempt a couple to adopt a recycling pattern of self-justification and other-blaming. Blind to personal sin and thus rejecting any personal responsibility for the dysfunctional pattern, each spouse, in a conscience-salving manner, blames the other and then justifies his or her own continued acts of unrighteousness, which ironically are, in true self-justifying fashion, often perceived to be righteous.

So how do couples break such a cycle? First, they must look inward. They must cease their blaming, recognize their own sins, and take personal responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Each could ask “How am I contributing to the problem,” and “What can I to do help my partner?” Second, they must look forward. They must be proactive in implementing preventive measures that will keep the cycle from recurring. I would suggest that Paul’s counsel to develop benevolence, trust, and commitment is a good place to start. Third, and most important, the couple must look heavenward. They must recognize that they cannot break the cycle on their own. They each must come unto Christ through personal repentance and be determined to let the Savior be the center of their lives. Elder Richard G. Scott taught: “Now, the most important principle I can share: Anchor your life in Jesus Christ, your Redeemer. Make your Eternal Father and His Beloved Son the most important priority in your life—more important than life itself, more important than a beloved companion or children or anyone on earth. Make their will your central desire. Then all that you need for happiness will come to you.” [13]

“I Would That All Men Were Even as I Myself.” Paul begins verse 7 with this statement: “For I would that all men were even as myself.” What exactly is Paul yearning for here? Some New Testament scholars have used verse 7 as evidence that Paul was never married and thus was advocating a life of celibacy. But, as previously enumerated, there is ample evidence to suggest that Paul was, or at least had been, married and was wholeheartedly in favor of the institution. Other New Testament scholars have suggested that at the time this counsel was given Paul was either widowed or divorced. If so, are we to conclude that Paul wished that all men might experience the trauma of divorce or the loneliness of widowhood or that being divorced or widowed was somehow preferable to being married? In verses 10–11, Paul clearly counseled against divorce. He wrote: “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But . . . be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.” In reference to young widows, Paul wrote: “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (1 Timothy 5:14). Thus, it hardly seems likely that Paul’s intent in verse 7 was to encourage divorce or extol widowhood.

What, then, did Paul mean by the statement, “I would that all men were even as I myself? Elder Bruce R. McConkie interpreted Paul’s statement to mean, “I would that all men understood the law of marriage, that all had self-mastery over their appetites, and that all obeyed the laws of God in these respects.”[14] That interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the rest of verse 7: “But every man hath his proper [i.e., his own] gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.” In addition to the spiritual gifts Paul discerned among the Corinthian Saints, he desired that they seek after the gifts of understanding, of self-mastery, and of unqualified obedience to the will of God. Those so endowed would be able to fully consecrate themselves to the work of bringing souls to Christ and make all other interests, including a possible remarriage, secondary.

In verses 8–9 (JST) Paul expanded upon the desire expressed in verse 7 for all men by directing specific counsel to a specific audience—the unmarried and widows. He said: “I say therefore to the unmarried [i.e., those currently unmarried rather than those never married] and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.

“But if they cannot abide, let them marry: for it is better to marry than that any should commit sin.” Paul’s wish was that they could so completely divest themselves of personal needs, such as the need to be married and to satisfy sexual desires, that they would be able to fully devote themselves to the will and work of the Lord. He counseled, however, that if they could not do that, it would be better for them to marry than to commit sexual sin. Would Paul’s counsel in these verses be suitable for all Church members or even for all unmarried and widowed members? Would not many of them be able to serve the Lord better with a marriage companion than without? Could not the satisfying of sexual desires within marriage add to rather than detract from one’s ability to serve the Lord? That Paul’s counsel, here, may have been intended to have limited applicability is suggested in verse 6 (JST) where Paul makes it clear that his words represented his personal opinion, directed to a particular group of Saints, rather than official doctrine for the general membership of the Church. Paul wrote, “And now what I speak is by permission, and not by commandment.”

Elder McConkie duly noted that “we do not know to whom the instructions here given apply. In any event, they are an exception to the law, and do not apply, even as a personal opinion, to others than those involved.” [15] “It may be that he was referring to some particular persons for whom it would have been unwise to contract marriages. Knowing what he did about the doctrine of celestial marriage and exaltation, it is unthinkable that he would have counseled against marriage, except in some peculiar circumstance. There might be cases today in which individuals should not marry, but it is not the general rule, and the principle of not marrying is not the doctrine of the Church now any more than it was in his day. If we knew the situation about which Paul wrote, and had a full transcript of his actual words, there would be no ambiguity as to his meaning and doctrine.”[16]

Interfaith Marriage. Another question that Paul apparently dealt with on a frequent basis had to do with the issue of interfaith marriage and whether or not a member so involved should seek a divorce, particularly in cases where the influence of the unbelieving spouse was perceived by the member to be negative or detrimental to gospel living. Paul taught.

“If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.

“And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.

“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. . . .

“For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:12–14, 16). Paul’s counsel, then, was that if married to an unbeliever, one who would permit the spouse’s continued activity in the Church rather than divorce; the member should seek to be an influence for good and to have the best marriage possible while maintaining hope that one day the unbelieving spouse would desire to unite with the Church. In our day, prophets and leaders would agree with Paul’s counsel. [17] Additionally, to avoid the problems associated with interfaith marriage prophets today would advise the unmarried, as did Paul, to marry within the faith, lest they be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14; see also D&C 74:5). [18]

What if the children were being negatively influenced by the unbelieving spouse and were being raised outside the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Would divorce be justified then? In Paul’s day “there arose a great contention among the people [Christian and non-Christian Jews]” as those who “believed not the gospel of Jesus Christ” [and believed that children were born unholy] held that children “should be circumcised and become subject to the law of Moses” or else remain unholy (D&C 74:2–3). Many of those children, raised in subjection to the law of Moses, gave heed to the “traditions of their [unbelieving] fathers and believed not the gospel of Christ, wherein they became unholy” (D&C 74:4; emphasis added). Through modern revelation, the Prophet Joseph Smith learned that children under the age of eight are unaccountable and hence without sin (D&C 29:47; 68:25). They are not unholy but are “redeemed from the foundation of the world” (D&C 29:46) and are “sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ” (D&C 74:7). Only when a child begins to become accountable at the age of eight (D&C 29:47) and chooses to violate gospel law can he become unholy. If he becomes unholy, it is only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ that he can once again become holy or sanctified. So, if after children reach the age of accountability, they are being drawn away from the Church by an “unbelieving” parent, would the “believing” parent be justified in seeking a divorce? Possibly. In all cases of divorce, the decision should be made only after careful consultation with priesthood leaders, diligent prayer, and confirmation from the Lord through the Holy Ghost.

Missionaries and Marriage. Verses 25–38 of 1 Corinthians 7 address the subject of missionaries and marriage, with the heart of Paul’s counsel found in verses 26–33. The inspired changes made in the JST are invaluable to a correct understanding of these verses. Note two key points:

First, in verses 25–26, Paul addresses those who had never been married and who either had been called or expected to be called to serve as full-time missionaries. He counsels that it would be better for them to remain single until they had completed their missionary service so that they could more easily focus on the work, and hence do more good. Paul writes:

“Now concerning virgins [those who had never married] I have no commandment of the Lord; yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.

“I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress [a full-time mission], for a man so to remain that he may do greater good” (JST). Prophets today have echoed that same counsel. [19]

But, what if a call came, as it sometimes did, to a married man? Should he divorce his wife? Or, what if the call came to a divorced man contemplating remarriage? Should he marry before leaving on a mission? Paul’s counsel on both issues is found in verse 27: “Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.” Then, in verse 28 (JST) Paul added: “But . . . if thou [one who is divorced and contemplating a remarriage] marry, thou hast not sinned. . . .” “Nevertheless,” Paul warned, “such shall have trouble in the flesh. For I spare you not.” In other words, married missionaries are not exempt from the temptations of the flesh and may, in fact, feel them more than those who have never married.

The second counsel Paul gave regarding missions and marriage was that all missionaries, single or married, should be fully devoted to the work. He wrote: “But I speak unto you who are called unto the ministry. For this I say, brethren, the time that remaineth is but short, that ye shall be sent forth unto the ministry. Even they who have wives, shall be as though they had none; for ye are called and chosen to do the Lord’s work. . . . But I would, brethren, that ye magnify your calling” (JST 1 Corinthians 7:29, 32). Paul’s rationale is further explained in the rest of verse 32 and in verse 33: “I would have you without carefulness [cares or distractions external to the mission]. For he who is unmarried, careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; therefore he prevaileth.

“But he who is married, careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife; therefore there is a difference, for he is hindered.” Then, in verse 38 (JST) Paul concludes, “So then he that giveth himself in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth himself not in marriage doeth better.”

First Corinthians 11

In one of his greatest teachings on the subject of marriage, Paul declared the eternal doctrine that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). God Himself declared: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), “so God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

“And God blessed them [not him or her alone] and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion” (Genesis 1:27–28, emphasis added).

Our Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness allows that God’s greatest gift, eternal life (D&C 14:7), and the attendant blessing of eternal increase, are extended only to a man and a woman who have been sealed in the temple, by proper authority, and who then subsequently keep their covenants (see D&C 131:1–4). Only in that manner will God grant the blessings of “thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers,” and of being able to “pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things . . . and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever”(D&C 132:19). One cannot obtain those blessings “separately and singly” (D&C 132:17), nor can they be obtained by two men or two women. In Heavenly Father’s plan it takes two complementary halves—a man and a woman—to make a man or a woman and to form a unified, interlocking whole.

Husband, Wife, Christ, and God. The interdependent relationship between a husband, a wife, Christ, and the Father was described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Certainly many people would categorize this counsel as among the most controversial ever given by Paul. The controversy stems largely from an incomplete, if not erroneous, interpretation of Paul’s intent. Yet properly understood, this verse entails one of the most powerful and important concepts ever taught on the subject of marriage. It consists of three elements: First, the head of Christ is God the Father. Second, the head of every man is Christ. And third, the head of the woman is the man. Let’s consider each element and how it relates to the other two.

The Head of Christ Is God the Father.

Jesus declared:

“For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. . . .

“And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up in the resurrection of the just at the last day” (JST John 6:38, 40). The will of the Son was “swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7), which was to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). “For God [the Father] so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). And Jesus “so loved the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons of God” (D&C 34:3). “That they all may be one,” Jesus prayed, “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. . . .

“And . . . know that thou . . . hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:21, 23).

The Fathers love for His Only Begotten Son was unbounded. The Father manifested His great love for each one of us when He “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all,” (Romans 8:32) even His “dear” Son, so that we might be “delivered . . . from the power of darkness” (Colossians 1:13). Through His submissive obedience to the Father and His atoning sacrifice for each of us, both voluntary acts (see John 10:17–18), Jesus demonstrated His perfect love for us and for His Father. In fact, it was His love for the Father and His obedience to the Father that made His love for us possible. That is, the more He loved the Father and did His will, the more He could and would be able to love us. That divine pattern is also true in marriage. The more a man and a woman love the Lord, the greater will be their capacity to love each other. Conversely, as Elder Russell M. Nelson noted: “Without a strong commitment to the Lord, an individual is more prone to have a low level of commitment to a spouse.” [20]

The Head of Every Man Is Christ.

Paul described the second element in the interdependent relationship of God, husband, and wife, teaching that “the head of every man is Christ.” When that is true, the love of a husband becomes a mirror-image reflection of the love of Christ (and the Father) for the wife. And as already noted, the greater the degree that a husband loves the Lord and seeks to do the will of the Lord, the greater is his desire and his capacity to love his wife. Why is that so? The more he yields his heart to the Lord, as Paul counseled (see Romans 6:13), the more sanctified he becomes (see Helaman 3:35). Submissiveness is the key to sanctification. Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted that submissiveness is the catalyst that enables us to develop all other godly attributes, [21] including charity, or pure love, which Paul described as “the greatest” of all godly attributes (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). When the will of the husband becomes swallowed up in the will of the Lord, the husband becomes a “man of Christ” (Helaman 3:29), one who emulates the works of Christ and acquires the nature of Christ.

Regarding the nature of Christ to love, John the Beloved wrote: “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). That statement could be preceded by this one: “Jesus first loved us because the Father first loved him.” Can you see a pattern? Could those two statements be followed by “And wives love their husbands because husbands first loved their wives?” Now, certainly we could reverse that and say that husbands love their wives because their wives first loved them. But it seems that part of the role and responsibility of a “head” is to lead out. The Father led out by first loving the Son. The Son led out by first loving us. Perhaps the pattern that would be most pleasing to the Lord, would be for the husband, the head of the wife, to lead out by first loving her. Surely a submissive husband whose Head is Christ would do that. It would be his nature to emulate the works of Christ. Surely in return, a wife would have little difficulty loving a husband who first loved her.

The Head of the Woman Is the Man.

The third and concluding element in Paul’s counsel is that the “head of the woman is the man.” Paul teaches the concept by way of analogy. He says:

“The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. . . .

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;. . .

“So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.

“For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.

“For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.

“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh” (Ephesians 5:23, 25, 28–31; emphasis added).

The Savior’s role, in partnership with the Father, is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, to be the savior of the body of the Church—for those who repent and come unto Christ (see D&C 10:67). The role of a righteous husband, Paul analogizes, is similar. As head of the wife, the husband is to act in partnership with the Lord in being a savior for the marriage body, comprising husband and wife. As the head of that body, the husband bears the responsibility to act as a savior for his wife in helping to sanctify and perfect her. In that endeavor, he is responsible for his wife and to the Lord. As husbands and wives become sanctified and purified (through Christ), they experience at-one-ment with each other and with the Lord. And if they “are not one, [they] are not mine,” the Lord declared (D&C 38:27). A husband accomplishes that Christlike mission, Paul says, by loving, nourishing, and cherishing his wife and by giving himself.

A husband loves his wife, President Kimball taught, when there is “faith and confidence and understanding and partnership. There must be common ideals and standards. There must be great devotion and companionship. Love is cleanliness and progress and sacrifice and selflessness. . . . For [true] love to continue, there must be an increase constantly of confidence and understanding, of frequent and sincere expressions of appreciation and affection. There must be a forgetting of self and a constant concern for the other.” [22] The Savior instructed His Twelve Apostles that they were to minister to and be the servant of those they were called to lead (see Matthew 20:25–28). Loving husbands emulate that pattern with their wives.

To nourish is to “promote the growth of.” [23] President Benson counseled husbands: “Recognize your wife’s intelligence and her ability to counsel with you as a real partner regarding family plans, family activities, and family budgeting.

“Give her the opportunity to grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially as well as spiritually.” [24] Paul suggested that another way a husband can promote the growth of his wife is by nourishing her through “words of faith and of good doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:6).

To cherish is to “hold dear: to feel or show affection for,” and cross-referenced with “appreciate.” [25] Husbands should offer frequent and sincere expressions of appreciation to their wives, especially for the repetitive tasks they perform day after day that so often go unnoticed and unrecognized. Gratitude, I believe, precedes love. And love precedes progress.

Paul’s concluding counsel is that men, like Christ, should give themselves. It is interesting to note that Paul didn’t say “give of himself.” The Savior did not just give of himself. He gave himself. The marriage covenant, President Kimball taught, “presupposes total allegiance and total fidelity. Each spouse takes the partner with the understanding that he or she gives totally to the spouse all the heart, strength, loyalty, honor, and affection, with all dignity.” [26] A husband should give himself to making his wife happy.

Summarizing Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 5, President Benson said: “That is the model we are to follow in our role of presiding in the home. We do not find the Savior leading the Church with a harsh or unkind hand. We do not find the Savior treating His Church with disrespect or neglect. We do not find the Savior using force or coercion to accomplish His purposes. Nowhere do we find anything but that which edifies, uplifts, comforts, and exalts the Church. Brethren, I say to you with all soberness, He is the model we must follow.” [27]

Ephesians 5

Throughout Paul’s writings, the virtue of submissiveness was encouraged in a number of different contexts, each bearing the connotation of supportiveness, cooperation, or subjection to the organizational leadership of another. For example, Paul counseled children to be submissive to their parents (see Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20). All Saints were instructed to submit to their church leaders (Hebrews 13:17) and to “principalities and powers, [and] to obey magistrates” (Titus 3:1). They were to submit to the gospel (2 Corinthians 9:13) and its ordinances of salvation (Colossians 2:20), and were to subject the physical body to the spirit (1 Corinthians 9:27). So, in Ephesians 5, when Paul admonishes wives to “submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord . . . in every thing” (Ephesians 5:22, 24), Paul’s oft-repeated theme continued. Paul’s admonition, here, was certainly not meant to discriminate against nor to single out wives as the only ones from whom submissiveness was required.

A husband can only function effectively as the head of the wife when the wife is willing to submit to the husband. The idea that a woman should submit to her husband in everything is a controversial notion in our day. For example, to a woman who feels dominated, controlled, or abused by an unrighteous husband who erroneously interprets this teaching as license to exercise unrighteous dominion, Paul’s counsel seems frustrating and demeaning. Many wives in that kind of marriage report a correlation between their own submissiveness to such behavior and the increase in severity and frequency in the acts of domination imposed upon them by their husbands. But Paul was neither condoning a husband’s unrighteous dominion nor was he lending support for any kind of abuse. Paul’s teachings clearly teach otherwise. For example, to the Saints in Rome Paul explained that any man who would use counsel, such as that given in Ephesians 5, to justify unrighteous or domineering acts would be guilty of misusing the truth and therefore changing it into a lie (see Romans 1:18–25). Paul wrote: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men; who love not the truth, but remain in unrighteousness, after that which may be known of God is manifest to them” (JST Romans 1:18–19).

Does the Lord require a wife to follow an unrighteous husband or to submit to his unrighteous demands or behavior? Paul’s wording in verse 22 of Ephesians 5 would suggest not. He said, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (emphasis added). It is interesting that Paul teaches the same idea regarding children and parents. He counseled children: “obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1; emphasis added). So then is Paul suggesting that, as far as the Lord is concerned, wives (or children) are only required to submit to their husbands (or parents) when those husbands (or parents) are righteous or at least striving to be so? It would seem so.

President Joseph F. Smith said, “According to the order that is established in the kingdom of God, it is the duty of the man to follow Christ, and it is the duty of the woman to follow the man in Christ, not out of him.” [28] A humorous anecdote is told from the life of Brigham Young. A distraught woman went to the Prophet, lamenting the treatment and language of her husband. “Brother Brigham,” she said, “my husband just told me to go to Hell. [What should I do about it?]” The Prophet thoughtfully responded: “Well, sister, don’t go.” [29] “I have counseled every woman of this Church,” Brigham Young taught, “to let her husband be her file leader; he leads her, and those above him in the Priesthood lead him. But I never counseled a woman to follow her husband to hell. . . . I am sanguine and most emphatic on that subject. . . . If a man is determined to expose the lives of his friends, let that man go to the devil and to destruction alone.” [30]

President Harold B. Lee added, “Now, you are bound to the law of your husband only so far as he keeps the law of God and no further. . . .

“[But], polish your husband as best you can while you have him with you here and then hope that the Lord will continue the process to aid you even beyond the veil.” [31] President Kimball wisely counseled wives: “No woman has ever been asked by the Church authorities to follow her husband into an evil pit. She is to follow him as he follows and obeys the Savior of the world, but in deciding this, she should always be sure she is fair.” [32]

Now, what about Paul’s counsel that women should submit themselves to their husbands in “every thing.” Are women really required to submit to their husbands in every thing? Clearly that would not be true if the husband were unrighteous. But if the husband were faithful, then should the wife be willing to submit to her husband in every thing? To answer that question, consider two similar queries: Should a husband be willing to submit to the will of the Lord in every thing? and Was Jesus willing to submit to the will of the Father in every thing? We could answer “yes” to both questions. The Saviors and our submissiveness was (and still is) complete and unconditional. In saying that, we should remember the Lord’s counsel to the Saints living in Jackson County, Missouri, in 1831: “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward” (D&C 58:26). Thus we could say that it is the will of the Lord that we use our agency and our intelligence to make many, if not most, of the day-to-day decisions—particularly those that are matters of preference rather than principle. In such matters, the Lord’s will would likely be “you choose or you decide.” That should be true in marriage. When considering matters of personal preference or choices that merely reflect a wife’s individuality or uniqueness of personality, a husband should not hesitate to say to his wife, “you choose or you decide.” It is important for every husband to allow his wife opportunities to develop and express her own individual talents and to make her own unique contributions to the home, the Church, the community, and the world.

Marriage Ordained of God

“Marriage . . . is ordained of God and . . . the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. . . .

“Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. . . .

“Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” [33]

The Apostle Paul understood and was a witness of those truths. His teachings on the subject of marriage represent significant contribution to our standard works.

“Surely,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley, “no one reading the scriptures, both ancient and modern, can doubt the divine concept of marriage. The sweetest feelings of life, the most generous and satisfying impulses of the human heart, find expression in a marriage that stands pure and unsullied above the evil of the world.

“Such a marriage, I believe, is the desire—the hoped-for, the longed-for, the prayed-for desire—of men and women everywhere.” [34]

Paul would have understood and concurred with those sentiments.


[1] Bruce B. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 242; see also McConkie, Mortal Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 3:294–95; Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, March 1976, 71; Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 534.

[2] Frederic W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul (London: Cassell & Company, 1885), 46.

[3] Ibid., 46.

[4] Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 24.

[5] Howard W. Hunter, “The Reality of the Resurrection,” Improvement Era, June 1969,106.

[6] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “benevolence.”

[7] David O. McKay, “Christ, the Light of Humanity,” Improvement Era, June 1968, 4.

[8] David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals: Selections from the Discourses of David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953), 187.

[9] Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 73.

[10] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 556.

[11] Boyd K. Packer, Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 113.

[12] Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 311–12.

[13] Richard G. Scott, “The Power of Correct Principles,” Ensign, May 1993, 34.

[14] Bruce B. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 2:345.

[15] Ibid.

[16] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 120.

[17] See, for example, Boyd K. Packer, “Begin Where You Are—At Home,” Ensign, February 1972, 69–74; James M. Paramore, “A Personal Commitment to the Savior,” Ensign, May 1979, 61; Thomas S. Monson, “Hallmarks of a Happy Home,” Ensign, November 1988, 72.

[18] See, for example, Spencer W. Kimball, Marriage and Divorce: An Address (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 7; Ezra Taft Benson, “The Great Commandment—Love the Lord,” Ensign, May 1988, 5–6.

[19] See, for example, Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Young Women of the Church,” Ensign, November 1986, 82–83; Benson, “To the Single Adult Brethren of the Church,” Ensign, May 1986, 44.

[20] Russell M. Nelson, Perfection Pending, and Other Favorite Discourses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 131.

[21] Neal A. Maxwell, “Willing to Submit,” Ensign, May 1985, 70–71.

[22] Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 159.

[23] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “nourish.”

[24] Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Fathers in Israel,” Ensign, November 1987, 50.

[25] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “cherish.”

[26] Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, 143.

[27] Benson, “To the Fathers in Israel,” emphasis added.

[28] Joseph F. Smith in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 16:247.

[29] Martha Nibley

[30] Brigham Young as quoted in John A. Widtsoe, Priesthood and Church Government (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939), 90.

[31] Harold B. Lee, The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. by Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 247, 253.

[32] Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 316.

[33] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995,102.

[34] Gordon B. Hinckley, “What God Hath Joined Together,” Ensign, May 1991,71. Beck and John C. Beck, Breaking the Cycle of Compulsive Behavior (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 225.