A couple I was to marry a week later asked me to preach on Ephesians 5:21-33, the passage I’ve come to view as Paul’s cheat sheet on marriage.
Paul’s call to husbands was simple enough, if not easy: love your wife as much as Jesus loves us. Oh, and be ready to lay your life down for her.
Of course, I wanted to say something to the bride, too. As I glanced over the passage, I noticed Paul’s instruction to wives:
‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord’. (Ephesians 5:22)
OK, I thought. But that doesn’t sound like the kind of feel-good message the bride – let alone the other women in the room – are expecting to receive. There had to be something – anything – else I could glean from the passage, right?
As I poured over the passage, though, I reached the unmistakable conclusion. There really was nothing else. Not in this passage, anyway. Paul could have said absolutely anything to wives and he said ‘submit’. Twice (see verse 24).
A Bigger Issue, An Important Choice
So, if we believe that the entire bible is ultimately written by God, we have a choice to make. We can say that there may be some significant mistakes (like this passage), but then we really can’t trust anything, including the parts that we do like.
The other option is to trust that God has preserved his word and, therefore, we can trust it. So, in this case, the question isn’t, ‘Should wives submit to their husbands?’, but rather, ‘how’?
What It Doesn’t Mean
I hate it when pastors skirt around thorny passages like this one. So don’t worry; I’m going to get to what Paul is saying.
But first, let’s talk about what he isn’t saying.
- First, he’s not saying women should submit to men in general. He’s saying a wife should submit to her husband.
- Second, he’s not saying women are in any way inferior to men. That’s shot down everywhere in the bible, perhaps most clearly in Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28.
- Third, submission is something a woman chooses to do in deference to God, not something a man requires his wife to do. The command comes from God to wives.
- Finally, he’s not saying ‘do whatever your husband tells you’. If your husband asks you to do something that doesn’t square with biblical teaching, you can’t go along with him. When faced with a choice, we ‘must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).
So What Is God Saying?
Still, the question remains: what does Paul mean by telling wives to submit to their husbands?
In calling wives to submit to their husbands, God is saying that the husband has ultimate leadership and responsibility for the health and well-being of their marriage.
In part, this means that there will be occasions – hopefully rare – where a husband and wife disagree on some important issue. (We’re not talking Coke or Pepsi). They try to work it out, but can’t. If what the husband is suggesting is compatible with God’s Word, God is asking his wife to follow his lead. To submit.
As a quick example, after a move my wife, Sharon, and I had to find a new church. We visited several and, after lots of praying and listening, wound up having a different opinion on which was best for our family. Since we couldn’t come to a consensus, I asked her to follow my lead. (As a FYI, this was a rare occurrence, one of perhaps 5 in our 16-year marriage).
But that’s just part of what Paul has in mind, I think. Look at verse 33, the summary of what Paul says in our passage. ‘However, let each one of you [husbands] love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband’.
God – through Paul – gives husbands and wives different instructions because they’re… different. And not just anatomically. While we don’t want to stereotype and be overly rigid, in general men and women have different primary needs. Most men desire respect first and foremost, while most women would say the same of love.
So, submitting to your husband is largely to show him respect. To treat him as an equal made in God’s image (i.e., made like him). To let him know you appreciate him and what he accomplishes at work, in the home. And to avoid things that have the opposite effect.
This is so incredibly different than where we are as a culture. Think about our TV commercials and sitcoms, for example. If someone is portrayed as foolish or incompetent, it’s always the guy. The woman (or children), through her intelligence and moxy, is the hero. Sadly, this dynamic both reflects a trend that already exists, and, continues to perpetuate it.
Jesus Shows The Way
If this teaching seems hard – and it is – wives can take comfort in Jesus’s example. Although he was and is equal to God the Father, he showed his Father the kind of respect and deference we’re talking about.
This is probably most clear in his fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, hours before his death, he asked the Father three times to avoid the cross, but always with a ‘nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’ (see Luke 22:39-44).
Jesus, it turns out, is only asking wives – and husbands (see Ephesians 5:25-31) – to do what he has already done.
Making It Personal
I want to, very briefly, move this from the realm of theory to your everyday life as we close.
If you’re already a wife, do you respect your husband and communicate that to him? Are you willing to follow his lead when you have a disagreement?
If you’re not yet married, it’s so important to find a guy you can respect. My wife tells me that it’s natural for (some) women to wind up with a guy who will basically do what they want. It feels good for awhile, but turns out empty when you realize you need someone who has his own thoughts and opinions. A nice, passive guy might change later, but you can’t count on it. So, if you’re not married yet, do you need to move on from a relationship you’re in, or, change the kind of guy you’re looking for?