Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. – Ephesians 5:22-24 ESV
Submit is not a four-letter word. But in our culture and context, it has become a dirty word, conjuring images of slave-like subjugation and subservience. These two verses strike fear into the hearts of many pastors and insight anger among women. This passage is viewed as old-fashioned, a throw-back to some cultural context that has no bearing on our more sophisticated modern milieu. Many conclude that Paul was writing to a people trapped in an antiquated social structure that doesn’t apply to us as modern Christians. Either that, or he was just misogynist, trying to keep women in their “proper” place.
But what most of us fail to realize is that submission is a non-negotiable requirement of every believer in Christ. These two verses, like so many others in Scripture, are typically lifted from their context and treated in isolation. But Paul has been talking about how believers were to live their lives – how they were to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). They were to live differently than those who were unsaved. Their behavior was to set them apart as children of God. They were to walk in love, as children of light, exhibiting the wisdom of God, not the foolishness of the world.
The verses that often get overlooked when dealing with this passage are located right before it. In them, Paul gives an admonition to every single believer – male and female.
…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV
Submission is expected of each and every follower of Christ. A lifestyle of submission is one of humility and honor, not subservience and servitude. When done properly it reveres Christ, because it models the very lifestyle that He lived. Jesus Himself described His mission in terms of submission and a servant-like attitude. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT). The apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. – Philippians 2:5-7 NLT
This had nothing to do with Jesus’ rights. He was the Son of God. He was divine and powerful. He had created the world and all those who lived in it. Yet, He was willing to submit to His Father’s will and set aside His divine privileges and prerogatives in order to serve mankind by giving His life. In the upper room, on the night that Jesus was to be betrayed and arrested, He washed the feet of His disciples. He set aside His robe, wrapped himself in a towel and did what none of the others would have dared to do. Jesus told His disciples, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7 ESV). When He had finished, Jesus said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:12-17 ESV).
Jesus’ act of submission was meant to be a living lesson to the disciples about what their lives were to be like in the days to come. They were to serve one another. They were to submit to one another. Titles were not to stand in the way. Rights were to be set aside. Status was to be ignored. Submission was to be a key characteristic of their lives. And what the disciples did not yet understand was the foot washing by Jesus was simply a symbol of His ultimate act of service that would take place on the cross just a short time later.
When James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples came to Him and arrogantly asked if they could have positions of prominence in His coming Kingdom, the rest of the disciples became angry and jealous. Jesus responded, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45 ESV). Among you it will be different. In His Kingdom, sovereignty was marked by slavery. Honor was achieved through humility.
So what does all this have to do with wives? In this chapter, Paul is going to use a number of earthly relationships to illustrate Christian submission. He will talk about husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters. As believers, we do not operate in a vacuum. We are not independent agents, acting on our own and focused solely on our individual walk with God. We live in the context of community. Wives have husbands. It is in that context that they are to practices submission. Notice that Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” He does NOT say that all women are to submit to ALL men. This has nothing to do with the value or significance of women in general. It has everything to do with the context of marriage. What more difficult place to practice submission than in a marriage. Just as the disciples would never have lowered themselves to wash the feet of one another, wives will find it difficult to submit to their husbands. Especially if their husbands fail to love as Paul commands. Yet submission is not optional. It is a willing coming under the other, making them more important than yourself. It is NOT an admission of their superiority, but a recognition of God’s divine order. He has made the husband the head of the household, not because He is smarter, more spiritual or even better equipped to lead, but in order that there might be order in the home. He holds the husband responsible. Just as He held Adam to a higher standard than He did Eve when it came to their mutual sin against Him.
Submission is essential to every relationship in which we find ourselves as Christians. And submission is one of the hardest things for us to do. We long to be first. We see ourselves as somehow better than others. We long to be in control. But when we submit to others, we are really submitting to God. We are coming under His divine authority and recognizing His righteous order for His creation. At the end of the day, submission is about trusting God. It involves a realization that He is in control and that He has authority over the husband. A believing wife must submit to her husband “as to the Lord.” She is trusting God to lead him and protect her. But the temptation will be to step in and take over, stepping out from under God’s ordained plan. Submission will not always make sense. It will not always appear to work. It may even be uncomfortable at times. But even Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death, offering Himself as a ransom for many. Submission is not a dirty word. It is a way of life for the believer.