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Introduction

Last August, the day after my 28th wedding anniversary, I preached the passage of Ephesians 5:25-33, with the sermon title, “As Christ Loves the Church.” We studied how Christ shows love to his bride the church and considered what that means for husbands. I noted then that perhaps I would come back to the previous verses another time and address the responsibility of wives. So here we are. The matter of submission, which this passage presents, is a controversial subject in our society. And even for those of us willing to submit to Scripture, the matter of wives submitting to their husbands still presents difficulties in understanding how this is to be carried out. We are going to give our attention to these three brief verses that have led to so much controversy and uneasiness.

Let me alert you to my system. When I taught English literature in high school, I told my students that before they gave me their opinion about a particular poem, they had to first tell me what the author was actually saying. That is my intention here. We will examine what the text actually says; only then will I reflect on it. All we want to know, first, is what the Apostle Paul is communicating in these three verses. Once we understand his meaning, then we can move to understanding how it plays out in marriage.

Text

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

Let’s look at this word “submit.” It means to place oneself in a subordinate position. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, “Originally it is a hierarchical term which stresses the relation to superiors.” It is commonly used to denote the relationship between officers and those under them. So then, the implication is that the submission is based not on superiority of character or power in one person over another, but on the position that each possesses in a given context. So, for example, an employee submits to a supervisor; a student submits to a teacher, an athlete to a coach, a citizen to police officer or a judge, a private to a sergeant and a sergeant to a captain, all because of the position that each holds.

Did you know that the term for “submit” does not even appear in this verse in the Greek manuscript, at least not for all manuscripts? There is actually no verb in verse 22. “Submit” appears in verse 21, where Christians are told to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Verse 22 then follows literally with “wives to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” No one disputes filling in the missing verb with “submit,” but verse 21 does lead some commentators to think that the whole passage of verses 22-33 should be seen as a teaching about how both wife and husband are to submit to one another. Certainly the phrase “one another” typically means to reciprocate. When Jesus told his disciples to love one another, he meant for Peter to love John and for John to love Peter. It is the context, however, that leads us to understanding Paul to be saying something like this: Submit to one another in reverence for Christ. Here is how submission works out in the home: wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves (servants in the home) to their masters. So then a wife is to submit – i.e. place herself in a subordinate position – to her husband who is appointed head of the marriage.

How do we get this? Verse 21 sets the teaching for the longer passage of 5:22-6:9. The passage considers relations in marriage, then between children and parents, and finally between slaves (domestic servants) and masters. We see then, that Paul is addressing submission within the institution of the home. Yes, submit to one another, but within prescribed relations. This harmonizes with Paul’s similar remarks in Colossians 3:18-41 and with Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2:13-3:7.

I would also say that submission is not the primary idea of verse 21 and the following passage. Understand, that Paul is not proposing any radical change in the order of these three relational structures. There was no question in Paul’s day as to whether wives should submit to their husbands, or children obey their parents, or slaves obey their masters. None of Paul’s readers would have been scratching their heads, puzzled over who is to submit to whom. The primary concept that Paul is conveying is the spirit in which everyone is to carry out their role, which is “out of reverence for Christ.” See how this idea carries forth:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v 22).

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (v 25).

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (6:1).

“Fathers…bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4).

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters…as you would Christ” (6:5).

“Masters…stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven and that there is no partiality with him” (6:9).

In every instance, each party is to act in mindfulness of Christ. The order of relationships does not change, but the spirit in which that order is carried out is changed dramatically. No longer may anyone regard another except in Christ.

Let’s explore what our verses have to say about the influence of Christ in the marriage for wives. The wife is to submit to her husband “as to the Lord.” Standing alone, this phrase could mean for the wife to take the attitude that all Christians are to take in their relations to one another: Do whatever you do as though you are doing it to or for Christ. This is the concept in 6:7 where slaves are told to render service with “a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” But it is clear by what he says next that Paul means more. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

The position of the husband to the wife is the same as that of Christ to the church, namely, he is the head. Therefore, the wife is to place herself in a position of subordination to her husband because he possesses the position of headship similar to that of Christ to his church. However we want to view the subject of mutual submission, we still cannot escape the clear teaching here of an ordered relationship. And it would have been understood in no other way by the readers of his day.

Establishing this recognized order of husband as head of wife as Christ is head of the church, Paul then reinforces in the next verse what he has already stated in verse 22: Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

There is no “wiggle room” room here. After verse 22, one might conclude that wives really are being asked to submit to the Lord by showing respect to their husbands. Verse 23 adds that wives should understand their husbands to be their heads in the same way as Christ is head of the church. Even with this teaching, we could perhaps slide out of the full implications with the explanation that one young bride gave to me – “I am to submit in spiritual matters to my husband.”

We cannot, however, escape that phrase “in everything.” So what is meant by it? Is Paul actually telling wives to submit to everything that their husbands tell them to do or to everything that their husbands want to do? Are they to regard every word of their husbands as law to be obeyed?

Let me give a real-life illustration to understand what is being said here. Nine years ago, I left Tenth Church, having served in the same position of Executive Minister. There was a young minister on staff, named Phil Ryken. Phil had lots of ideas and opinions like he still does. But how I regarded his ideas then is different from how I do now. Here is a scenario. Ten years ago, Phil walks into my office.

“Marion, I’ve got a great idea for building camaraderie on the staff. The Phillies are playing the Cardinals next week in the afternoon. Let’s have the staff take the afternoon off and go to the game.”

“Phil, that’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think so. If we go to see anyone, it will be when the Braves come into town.” Phil then has to accept that decision.

Phil comes into my office again, only this time it is 2008.

“Marion, I’ve got a great idea for building camaraderie on the staff. The Phillies are playing the Cardinals next week in the afternoon. Let’s have the staff take the afternoon off and go to the game.”

“Phil, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll see if everyone can go and get back to you today.”

Why the change in my response? I don’t actually regard his idea being any better than it was ten years ago! And I might question him about it. “Are you sure this is a good use of time?” But if he still thinks he is right, I go along with him. Why? Because our positions have changed. Ten years ago, he submitted to me; now, I submit to him.

And I submit to him in everything. Everything? Yes, everything in our common sphere of the church. In everything I do, I do it either with his specific instruction or knowing that it would meet his approval. If I have an opinion that is contrary to his, I am careful not to publicly oppose him or set him in a bad light. In everything I take into account his wishes and his welfare.

But what if he instructs me to do something that is wrong? What if he carries his zeal too far and tells me to order Cardinal hats for the staff to wear to the game? I first try to reason with him. Failing that, I respectfully decline to carry out his wishes. On what grounds? The same two reasons that a wife who is submissive to her husband should not obey certain instructions. First, the instruction crosses the line of moral acceptance. Requiring Phillie fans to wear Cardinal hats certainly fails the moral test!

Now look at what Paul has said earlier in his letter to all Christians. He has told them not to lie (4:25), not to steal (4:28); they are not to be involved in sexual immorality or covetousness and idolatry (5:5); they are not to engage in filthiness, foolish talk, nor crude joking (5:4). Are we really, then, to expect Paul to say to wives, “However, if your husbands want you to do these things, then go ahead”?

Another reason why I would not carry out Phil’s orders about those hats is that my very role of being submissive requires that I act for his good. To require the staff to wear Cardinal hats at a Phillies game would be scandalous and cause great harm to his reputation and ministry! To be submissive is ultimately not about taking orders, but doing what upholds the dignity and welfare of the one placed in a headship position. And my particular role is to be the kind of counselor that the one over me can trust to look out for his good.

So is the role of the wife for her husband. When I go over this passage with couples, I will ask the wife what are the two ways in which her husband is not like Christ. Every wife or fiancée quickly answers that he is a sinner. The second way I usually have to explain. Jesus never needed the counsel of his disciples and certainly needs no counsel from us. But husbands do. They do not have complete knowledge and wisdom. And there should be no counselors more able and more concern for their welfare than their wives. To be properly submissive, they must be willing to act in the best interests of their husbands. This then leads to many questions as to when a wife should concede to the wishes of a husband and when not. To be honest, it is difficult to know what is right for every case. But the principle remains, that in everything she is to submit her own will to doing what supports the headship of her husband. If she keeps that principle before her, she will more often come to the right decision than not.

In summary, these three verses teach that there is a hierarchy in a marriage. The husband is the head of the wife who, therefore, is to submit in all aspects of her relationship to him as her head.

Lessons

This seems an unfair system. I think it clearly puts the wife in a delicate position, and Christian wives do struggle with knowing how to appropriately act in such a role, especially when their husbands act sinfully and foolishly. Let me say now to single women who are considering marriage, that if you cannot now respect the man you intend to marry; if you do not now look up to him and trust him to be a worthy head for you, do not marry. I don’t care out cute he is, how sweet he is; if you cannot trust him as your head, you are headed for trouble.

Having said that, there is another question I will ask of husbands and fiancés about this passage. I will ask them how they feel when they read these verses. Only one has given the answer that he feels good. The rest soberly shake their heads and say that they are unnerved by the heavy responsibility placed upon them.

They understand that if Scripture teaches wives to regard them like Christ, then Scripture is expecting them to be like Christ. And if wives are told to submit to them in everything, then that means that in everything they, the husbands, will be held accountable. Most men I know would prefer to follow the example of Adam who blamed his wife for his sin.

I would further say that verses 22-24 teach that the husband, as head of the wife, is accountable before God for everything that happens in the marriage and family. The buck stops with him. If you don’t want to go that far, then you must agree that wherever the wife is submissive, then the husband is accountable for what she does and what results. You can’t have one person being submissive without the other person being accountable.

Hebrews 13:17 says about church leaders: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Catch that sense of weightiness being expressed. With leadership comes accountability, and for the Christian that means accountability before God.

I want to comment on one particular misuse of headship. As noted, husbands (and wives) are sinners. Husbands sin against their wives, just as they may do outside the marriage. The one disadvantage of the wives is their peculiar relationship to their husbands, i.e. of being submissive. This causes a burden for them in that they don’t know if they should turn to others, such as their elders, for counsel and even protection. It is not unusual for a husband to demand that his wife keep private his anger or folly, and particularly to keep quiet about abuse. Such behavior is not headship; it is tyranny. I am a man; I know the embarrassment a man feels about sin. That embarrassment cannot be used to excuse keeping a wife, and keeping yourself, from getting the help you need.

When sinful and abusive behavior becomes known, it is not uncommon for the husband to blame his behavior on his wife. Let me say this clearly. A wife is a sinner and no doubt has sins she must deal with before the Lord. But never, never can the head of the wife blame his behavior on his wife, whether or not she is submissive. Why? Because he is the head. He represents Christ. Christ acts according to the will of his Father and not according to how submissive we in the church are to him. We husbands have no other model than Christ. And for us to act abusively and then to blame our wives, then that is…well, the only word I can come up with is the biblical word, an abomination.

We husbands represent Jesus Christ. We are to be like him as head. And what is he like? He is Savior. Note that additional phrase in verse 23: “and is himself its Savior.” What’s the point of adding that phrase? Shouldn’t it be enough that Jesus Christ is Lord? Isn’t his Lordship more to the point?

I got to thinking about this. Do you remember God’s claim on Israel? Let me read it to you in Exodus 19:4-5. This is the setting for the commandments, by which God seals his covenant with Israel to make the people his own. “Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” His claim upon them is the deliverance he achieved as their Savior. And the Jewish people remember this. They worship God as Creator, but they passionately submit to him as the one who delivered them from bondage.

But we husbands are not saviors. Is that right? Verses 25ff present a pattern in which we are to sacrifice ourselves for the wellbeing of our wives. That sounds like the work of a savior to me. We protect our wives. We are considerate of them and take time to understand them (cf 1 Peter 3:7). We are gentle with them (cf Colossians 3:19). We are concerned for their spiritual wellbeing (5:26). That is saving work.

Sounds too difficult? Then turn to your Savior for help. He is there for you, husbands, as he is there for you, wives, and as he is there for you who are single. He is your Head, and he cares for you as his own body. He loves you with sacrificial love. We who are married know that marriage, for all its blessings, brings out a lot of shame, as our spouses somehow bring out in us behavior we thought we had under control. But our Head, who is our Savior, knows already our hearts. And what he wants from us is the honesty to confess our need. He has more than enough power to save any marriage and to save us in any circumstance. But what is being called upon wives to do before their husbands, is what we are all called to do before our Head – submit to him.

And there is no need to fear submitting to him, for he is not a sinner; he is good. He will not act foolishly, for he is wise. As Lord he will not act as a tyrant, for he is your Savior.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org