John Calvin on the Family – Husbands Loving Their Wives

In Calvin’s Geneva, all of life was being reformed. What many people do not know is that, while God was reforming His church regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the family was also being reformed. When one embraces “Sola Scriptura”, everything changes — including family life.

Calvin was first and foremost an expositor and pastor. Because of this, he applied Scripture to family life. The family reformation that was happening in Geneva, and spreading over Europe, was sparked by simple biblical exposition and warm hearted pastoral care.

As unbiblical propositions were being overthrown, the marriage relationship was redefined according to biblical terms. Family relationships were set aright as proper honor and authority was reestablished in the home. Popular attitudes toward children were transformed. Unbiblical attitudes toward fertility were reversed. Affectionate love and romance were dusted off and put back into use in marriage. The Roman church’s “days of abstinence” were questioned, and the freedom of sexual activity within marriage was renewed according to biblical teaching. The biblical teaching of a husband’s service to his wife was revived, as well as the doctrine of submission and authority.

The spring from which all of the reforms flowed was the principle of “Sola Scriptura.” This principle was being applied both in the church meeting and in “The Consistory” which was established to bring biblical counsel to bear on all matters of life. Most of the matters that came before the consistory were family matters.

Calvin Spoke Broadly on Family Life

Calvin spoke much on the subject of marriage. He wrote specifically on wives, adultery, the blessing of children, childbearing and fertility, the discipleship of children, family relationships, the family at Church, the family life of an elder, female modesty, gender roles in Church, premarital counsel, taking care of widows, gender roles in the home, infant baptism, and abortion. He also spoke very tenderly regarding a husband’s love for his wife.

One of the most controversial subjects in our own day has to do with the role a husband plays with his wife. Calvin spoke very clearly about the things that we call “headship” or “patriarchy.”

Calvin on Husbands Loving Their Wives

The following are selections from various writings of Calvin on “Husbands Loving Their Wives.”

A Husband’s Headship Resembles Christ’s

“For 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.” (Ephesians 5:23)

This is the reason assigned why wives should be obedient. Christ has appointed the same relation to exist between a husband and a wife, as between himself and his church. This comparison ought to produce a stronger impression on their minds, than the mere declaration that such is the appointment of God. Two things are here stated. God has given to the husband authority over the wife; and a resemblance of this authority is found in Christ, who is the head of the church, as the husband is of the wife.[1]

Strong Cherishing Affections

“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” (Ephesians 5:28-29)

The strong affection which a husband ought to cherish towards his wife is exemplified by Christ, and an instance of that unity which belongs to marriage is declared to exist between himself and the Church. This is a remarkable passage on the mysterious intercourse which we have with Christ.[2]

Eve — The Inseparable Associate of His Life

“I will make him an help meet for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

They do not think that a wife was personally necessary for Adam, because he was hitherto free from lust; as if she had been given to him only for the companion of his chamber, and not rather that she might be the inseparable associate of his life.[3]

Who is “The Savior of the Body”

“For 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.” (Ephesians 5:23)

As Christ rules over his church for her salvation, so nothing yields more advantage or comfort to the wife than to be subject to her husband. To refuse that subjection, by means of which they might be saved, is to choose destruction.[4]

What Kind of Love Must a Husband Give?

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;” (Ephesians 5:25)

And gave himself for it. This is intended to express the strong affection which husbands ought to have for their wives, though he takes occasion, immediately afterwards, to commend the grace of Christ. Let husbands imitate Christ in this respect, that he scrupled not to die for his church. One peculiar consequence, indeed, which resulted from his death, — that by it he redeemed his church, — is altogether beyond the power of men to imitate.[5]

The Danger of Tyranny in Marriage

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.” (Colossians 3:18-19)

He commands wives to be subject. He requires love on the part of husbands, and that they be not bitter, because there is a danger lest they should abuse their authority in the way of tyranny.[6]

The Man is a Monster Who Does Not Love His Wife

“So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies: he that loveth his wife loveth himself.” (Ephesians 5:28)

He that loveth his wife. An argument is now drawn from nature itself, to prove that men ought to love their wives. Every man, by his very nature, loves himself. But no man can love himself without loving his wife. Therefore, the man who does not love his wife is a monster. The minor proposition is proved in this manner. Marriage was appointed by God on the condition that the two should be one flesh; and that this unity may be the more sacred, he again recommends it to our notice by the consideration of Christ and his church. Such is the amount of his argument, which to a certain extent applies universally to human society. To shew what man owes to man, Isaiah says, ‘hide not thyself from thine own flesh’ (Isaiah 58:7).[7]

A Husband’s Protection of His Wife

For that as much as was in him, he laid his wife open to be defiled. And why so? We have seen before that the husband ought to be as a veil or coverture to his wife. When a woman shall be married, and that her husband shall live with her doing his duty, this is to the end, she may be there as it were in safeguard, and that none come to deceive nor defile her. Now therefore Isaac, for the discharging of his duty, ought to have been as a veil or coverture to his wife: that is to say, under the name of a husband and of marriage: he ought to have let that none should have attempted to withdraw her, whether it were to have her to wife, or after any other manner: For marriage is as a safeguard, (as we have said) and God would have it honored in all ages.[8]

That the Sweetest Harmony Would Reign in Marriage

“I will make him an help meet for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

For if the integrity of man had remained to this day such as it was from the beginning, that divine institution would be clearly discerned, and the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage; because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman in this would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful intercourse.”[9]

Thy Desire Shall be Unto Thy Husband

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Genesis 3:16)

The second punishment which he exacts is subjection. For this form of speech, “Thy desire shall be unto thy husband,” is of the same force as if he had said that she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will; or as if he had said, “Thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes.” As it is declared afterwards, “Unto thee shall be his desire,” (Genesis 4:7). Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.[10]

A Wife — Companion and Associate

“Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.” (Malachi 2:14)

He calls her a consort, or companion, or associate, because marriage, we know, is contracted on this condition — that the wife is to become as it were the half part of the man. . . . The wife of thy covenant is to be taken for a covenanted wife, that is, “The wife who has been united to thee by God’s authority, that there might be no separation; but all integrity is violated, and as it were abolished.”[11]

For Wives with Unbelieving Husbands

“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.” (1 Peter 3:1-2)

He proceeds now to another instance of subjection, and bids wives to be subject to their husbands. And as those seemed to have some pretense for shaking off the yoke, who were united to unbelieving men, he expressly reminds them of their duty, and brings forward a particular reason why they ought the more carefully to obey, even that they might by their probity allure their husbands to the faith. But if wives ought to obey ungodly husbands, with much more promptness ought they to obey, who have believing husbands. But it may seem strange that Peter should say, that a husband might be gained to the Lord without the word; for why is it said, that “faith cometh by hearing?” Romans 10:17. To this I reply, that Peter’s words are not to be so understood as though a holy life alone could lead the unbelieving to Christ, but that it softens and pacifies their minds, so that they might have less dislike to religion; for as bad examples create offenses, so good ones afford no small help. Then Peter shews that wives by a holy and pious life could do so much as to prepare their husbands, without speaking to them on religion, to embrace the faith of Christ.

While they behold. For minds, however alienated from the true faith, are subdued, when they see the good conduct of believers; for as they understood not the doctrine of Christ, they form an estimate of it by our life. It cannot, then, be but that they will commend Christianity, which teaches purity and fear.[12]

Husband and Wife on a Journey Together

Afterwards, taking me by the hand, she said to me, ‘How happy I am, and how am I beholden to God, for having brought me here to die! Had I been in that wretched prison, I could not have ventured to open my mouth to make confession of my Christianity. Here I have not only liberty to glorify God, but I have so many sound arguments to confirm me in my salvation.’ Sometimes, indeed, she said, “I am not able for more.” When I answered her, “God is able to help you; he has, indeed, shown you how he is a present aid to his own;” she said immediately, “I do believe so, and he makes me feel his help.”

Her husband was there, striving to keep up in such sort that we were all sorry for him, while he made us wonder in amazement at his fortitude. For while possessed with such grief as I know it to have been, and weighed down by extremity of sorrow, he had so far gained the mastery over self, as to exhort his better part as freely as if they were going to make a most joyful journey together.[13]

The Woman is a Distinguished Ornament of the Man

“For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.” (1 Corinthians 11:7-8)

The woman is the glory of the man. There is no doubt that the woman is a distinguished ornament of the man; for it is a great honor that God has appointed her to the man as the partner of his life, and a helper to him, and has made her subject to him as the body is to the head. For what Solomon affirms as to a careful wife — that she is a crown to her husband, (Proverbs 12:4) is true of the whole sex, if we look to the appointment of God, which Paul here commends, showing that the woman was created for this purpose — that she might be a distinguished ornament of the man.[14]

1. Calvin, John, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), p. 318.

2. Ibid., pp. 322-323.

3. Calvin, John, Commentary on Genesis, translated by John King, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), pp. 130-131.

4. Calvin, John, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, p. 318.

5. Ibid., pp. 318-319.

6. Calvin, John, Commentary on Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), p. 219.

7. Calvin, John, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, p. 322.

8. Calvin, John, Sermons on Genesis, Battles Translated by John Field, ©1996 (ebook, ages Bible Software, Used by permission from Old Paths Publications), p. 128.

9. Calvin, John, Commentary on Genesis, p. 129.

10. Ibid., pg. 172.

11. Calvin, John, Commentary Twelve Minor Prophets Volume 5, translated by John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), p. 554.

12. Calvin, John, Commentary on The Catholic Epistles, translated by John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), pp. 95-96.

13. Calvin, John, Tracts and Letters Volume 5, Letter #240, Edited by Henry Beveridge & Jules Bonnet (ebook, Ages Bible Software ©1998), p. 234.

14. Calvin, John, Commentary on the Corinthians Volume 1, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), p. 357.