Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:21-24
The Benefits of Submission
Paul begins his instructions for Christian households with a command that challenged the cultural norm of his contemporaries. He commands them to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. In Greek culture, people were addressed and treated according to their social rank and status. The idea that the Ephesians should submit to one another was vexing to most. The word submit literally means “to be under rank.” Scholars remind us that it is a military word that speaks of the way an army is organized among levels of rank.” According to Warren Wiersbe, “The idea of submission doesn’t have anything to do with someone being smarter or better or more talented. It has to do with a God-appointed order. “Anyone who has served in the armed forces knows that ‘rank’ has to do with order and authority, not with value or ability.” What Paul is really commanding the Ephesians to do is to take the idea of rank in the military and apply it to their daily lives. He wants them to understand that becoming a member of the Body of Christ is like joining the military. As members of the Lord’s army, they are required to surrender the right to do what they want with their life and time. They now have to think about what is best for the Body of Christ with a “team-first” mentality. Evidently, if every individual thinks of what is best for the collective, then injustice, abuse, inequality, and discrimination based on race, gender or ethnicity would not exist. Paul maintains that submission in the body of Christ demonstrates our reverence for Christ. That is, Christians should submit to one another because they love Christ.
It is with that backdrop that Paul starts verse 22 by asking Wives to submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord. Paul makes it clear that the sphere of the wife’s submission is only to her husband. He never asked women to be submissive to men in a general sense. Indeed, Paul believed in the equality between men and women, as reflected in Galatians 3:28. From Paul’s perspective, “Submission does not mean inferiority. Submission means “sub-mission.” There is a mission for the Christian marriage, and that mission is obeying and glorifying God. The wife says, “I’m going to put myself under that mission. That mission is more important than my individual desires. I’m not putting myself below my husband. I’m putting myself below the mission God has for our marriage, for my life.” (David Guzik) This is all predicated upon the idea that the wife and the husband are already submitting to one another as members of the body of Christ. That is, they are both willing to sacrifice individuality for the sake of a shared life in reverence to Christ. In submitting to her husband, the wife recognizes that there is an order of authority in a Christian marriage that shapes her relationship with her husband and with God. That is why Paul asks wives to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord.
This verse has often been misinterpreted either to suggest that a wife should submit to her husband as if he was God himself. Or, that a woman should only submit to her husband as long as he does what the Lord wants. This implies that it is the job of the wife to decide what the Lord wants, or when her husband is doing what the Lord wants. Both interpretations are wrong. That is definitely not what Paul had in mind. “As to the Lord does not define the extent of a wife’s submission or the limit of a wife’s submission. It defines the motive of a wife’s submission. “It means: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands because it is a part of your duty to the Lord because it is an expression of your submission to the Lord.’” The salient truth that Paul teaches in verse 22 is that a Christian wife’s submission to her husband is both her ministry and an expression of her faith in Jesus Christ. It was not necessarily predicated upon what a husband did or did not do, or whether or not he is right on a particular issue. The focus remains on honoring the Lord Jesus Christ by submitting to her husband. That is why a Christian woman needs to marry a God-fearing man whom she can respect. Otherwise, the mission of obeying and glorifying God in that marriage becomes impossible as both individuals walk in disobedience to Christ. The point here is that the expectation for the wife to submit to her husband is not conditional or subjective. It is part of her covenantal agreement with her husband and God.
In verse 23, Paul states that the wife should submit to her husband because the husband is the head of the wife. The idea of the husband as the head of the wife carries means to have the appropriate responsibility to lead and the matching accountability. This is consistent with the creation language of Genesis 2, where God created man first and gave him stewardship over every other creation. Then the Lord created the woman as his helpmate. This does not suggest that the man is better or wiser than the woman. Instead, it has to do with role and responsibility. The dynamic of that relationship is to be understood within the context of Christ’s relationship with the Church. That places more pressure on the husband than the wife. The critical point, however, is that it is nearly impossible for the man to operate within his role as the head of the wife within a covenantal marriage if the wife does not submit. In the same way, submission to the Lord of the Church is what allows the members of the Church to actualize the fullness of God. That is the point that Paul is emphasizing in verse 24. It is in submitting to the Lordship of Christ that we affirm our membership in the body of Christ. Likewise, it is in submitting to her husband that the wife affirms her membership in a covenantal marriage.
Both men and women have badly misinterpreted the idea of submission in a covenantal marriage. Many preachers and Bible teachers have worsened the matter by isogeting the text and incorporating their personal biases into the text as opposed to using the tools of sociolinguistic for proper exegesis of the text. The result has been distrust by many Christian women that find it difficult to accept any interpretation that can further justify the subjugation of women.
Many of the household instructions provided in the New Testament have been interpreted with a hermeneutic of suspicion by people who are historically oppressed. That does not invalidate their biblical authenticity or theological application. We must resist the urge to contextualize the text in such a way as to water-down Paul’s command for wives to submit to their husbands. This command is as applicable now as it was to the Ephesians.
God is a God of order. His creation reflects his orderliness. He created man and appointed him as the steward of his creation. After that, he created wo-man as a helpmate to create a community that reflects the relationship within the triune Godhead. That relationship (marriage) is so sacred to God that he infuses himself into it, and made it a triangle of loving union between a man, a woman, and God.
Every person within that triangular relationship functions under a specific authority just as it is done in the military. Thus, the man functions under the authority of God, and the wife functions under the authority of the husband. That authority is not coercive or domineering. Rather it is empowering and liberating. That does not mean the husband is better, wiser, or even stronger than the wife. The role and authority given to the husband within a covenantal marriage are not based on his qualification. Rather it is intended to reflect Jesus’ relationship with the Church for which he died.
Father, please help husbands and wives to understand and appreciate the roles and authority that you ordained within covenantal marriage.