Wives submit to your husbands. It used to be those words were heard in nearly every Christian wedding. Today they are hardly ever spoken and in fact are intentionally avoided. Certainly part of the reason for the change has much to do with a renewed sense of equality that women are striving towards. But it also has a great deal to do with the fact that over the years these words have been used as a hammer to get women to do whatever a man says, no matter what. The fact is, these words are avoided today by men and women in large part because most people have no clue what Paul was really saying. So here is your chance to finally get a correct understanding of this very provocative piece of Scripture.
In order to understand what Paul meant we absolutely must get the context. That means ignoring the little “helpful” headings that most publishers put throughout the passages of your Bible. The passage in question is Ephesian 5: 21-33. Let me print is exactly as it is found in the New International Version. Nearly every publisher has done this so I just use this as one example.
21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives and Husbands
22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30for we are members of his body. 31“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
What usually happens is that people jump right in on verse 22, “Wives submit to your husbands”. Any discussion of submission starts and stops with the wife submitting to her husband. But look just before the start of verse 22. What do you see? There is a little heading that was inserted by the publisher. The intent is to let you know that a new subject is coming. The subject is Husbands and Wives. Paul never wrote those words there. It is not a new subject in verse 22 and the heading only serves to cause huge problems in interpretation. Let’s take out this little helpful heading and read verse 21 in context with 22 to 33. Verse 21 is an instruction for all of us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. What Paul then does is give examples for people in various life situations on how to submit to one another. He says “wives, here is what submission to your husband means in your life. But then he immediately goes to the husbands and says, this is what submission to your wife looks like for you, “Love your wife in the same way Christ loves the church. Lay down your life for her”.
Yes wives are to submit to their husbands in the same way the church submits to Christ. What does that look like? It means following his lead and serving him out of love. It is not a blind obedience but a following that comes from a relationship of trust and mutual esteem. Husbands are to submit their desires to their wife by serving her to the point of death. Husbands are to “die to themselves” and do all they can to help their wives becomes the beautiful, precious bride, that Christ also has in mind for the church. For most men the idea of laying down their life for their wife will immediately go to fighting off an attacker or pushing her away from an oncoming bus while you take a grill to the chest. The chances of either of those opportunities happening are astronomically slim. What is far more likely is that husbands will be asked to die to themselves and submit to their wives by doing dishes, caring for the kids so she can have a day away, ironing her clothes, or making her lunch. It includes helping her achieve her dreams and become all that God made her to be. It means putting her first.
For wives, submission means putting him first. It means to honor and respect him. I have seen far too many cases of wives who never have an encouraging word for their husband. They never have an honoring or respectful thing to say about him or to him. In fact in our culture, ridiculing a husband has almost become a national sport. How hard is it to find something nice to say about the person you are married to? Every man marries a woman wanting her to think that he is the greatest guy in the world. When all he gets is berating and ridicule, the relationship is in deep trouble.
Some will disagree with me that Paul is talking about mutual submission between husbands and wives and try to make a distinction between a wife’s submission and a husband loving his wife by laying down his life. I say they are the same thing. The further proof of that is how Paul continues in chapter 5 beyond verse 33. He goes on to tell slaves how they are to serve/submit to their master and how masters are to serve/submit to their slaves. He goes even further and does the same thing in the relationship between parents and children. The bottom line is back in verse 21. We are all to put others before ourselves and serve one another, even submit to one another as Christ serves us. We are all to submit our desires and wants in order to bring out the best in the other person. This is not about being abused or humiliated. Biblical submission is about honoring another person as one made in the image of God and seeking to do all we can for their honor and well being. That is Christ-like submission of wives to husbands and husbands to wives.