Provocative Bible Verses: Wives Submit to Your Husbands

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.

Provocative Bible Verses: When Submission is a Bad Thing

A recent post on the topic of submission in the Bible has received a fair amount of response in the way of readers and comments. A couple of those readers pointed out a missing piece in what I said. Put simply the question would be, is there ever a time when a Christian should refuse to submit? Is there a situation when submission to those in authority would be a bad thing? The answer is clearly yes. There are times when a Christian should refuse to submit to a human authority, but those times are few and specific and we must be prepared to face the consequences for our rebellion.

Shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter and John where arrested for preaching the name of Jesus and taken before the religious rulers. They were commanded to stop preaching in the name of Jesus and stop trying to convert people to him.  But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19 & 20

The decision was between obeying God or obeying man. Peter and John had received a clear and specific command from Jesus, “Go and preach the Gospel to all the world”. The religious leaders gave them a clear and specific command to not preach the gospel. The choice was clear, they had to obey God rather than man. So they continued to preach. The result was that they were arrested and beaten and the Apostle James was executed.

A similar event takes place in the Old Testament. The prophet Daniel was forbidden to pray to anyone accept King Darius. God had made it clear that only He was to be the object of our pray life and that we should never pray to a false god. Daniel had no choice but to continue to pray as he had always done. As a result he is arrested and thrown into the Lion’s Den. God in His mercy rescued Daniel from the lions.

In both cases there was a clear command from God about what we are to do. When those in authority tried to require God’s people to violate God’s command, the only choice was to rebel against the human authority and obey God. But it must not be forgotten that refusing to obey the human authority and follow God does not come with a guarantee that you will not suffer for your rebellion. Daniel was thrown to the lions and God saved him, but James was beheaded for insisting on preaching the name of Jesus. We make a grave mistake when we think that obeying God rather than men should result in things being wonderful for us. Often that is not the case. If your boss wants you to do something illegal or unethical and you rightly refuse, he may still fire you. In that case the Bible would actually have us rejoice in the blessing of suffering for doing good. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 1 Peter 2:20.

Provocative Bible Verses: Submit to One Another

\”Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ\” Ephesians 5:21

Since the 1970\’s one of the mainstays of pop-psychology has been that in order to be an emotionally healthy human being you absolutely must look out for yourself first. You must make sure that you have a strong sense of self esteem. Most importantly, you must never put yourself in a position of considering others to be more important than yourself. That is seen as degrading and demeaning. You should be strong, positive, stand up for yourself, and rise above the others. In the corporate world that translates into winning by having people serve you, getting the corner office, making people bend to your will. In the marriage relationship it becomes, taking care of yourself, making sure that you are being fulfilled.

Certainly the last thing on the minds of pop psychologists and the liberated 21st century human being is that in order to really be fulfilled we should actually submit to others. Yet that is exactly what the Bible teaches, over and over and over again. The wisdom of God is completely counter-intuitive. Jesus said that if you want to gain your life, you must lose it. He said that if you want to be the greatest among people, then you must become the servant of all. The Bible says that if we want to truly live, then we must die to ourselves. In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul says that if we want to be truly fulfilled, then we need to empty ourselves and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Somehow in our vocabulary, to submit means to give up and be the ultimate loser. It means that someone else is dominant and rules over you and you have no control of your life. Most recently being submissive is defined in terms of \”having no voice\”. It is the image of a person who, cowering in such fear and humiliation, that they can\’t even speak to defend themselves. What a sad and pitiful definition of a wonderfully powerful and empowering biblical concept.

Mutual submission is not about one person winning and everyone else losing. It is not about having no voice or no power or no control. The reason it is none of these things is because submission as a biblical concept is fulfilled when everyone submits to everyone else because we love Jesus. Submission is never a one way street. Paul tells wives why and how to submit to their husbands. But he also tells husbands why and how to submit to their wives, and children to parents and even parents to children.

You see, what Jesus wants to see happen is that we never have to worry about guarding or building up our self esteem. We should never have to worry about ourselves because others are loving and serving us, even submitting to us with the result that we have every confidence that we are valued and loved. When we in turn submit to others and esteem them, not only are they built up, but we are too. We are built up because in submitting ourselves to others and deferring to them out of love for Christ, we end up being like Jesus. Whenever we live and love like Jesus there is an empowering as well as a blessing that comes our way.

But let me give you an even deeper reason to submit to others. It is not simply in order to be a part of God\’s plan to feel better about yourself and have your esteem built up. The real reason to submit to others is given in the text. we do it out of reverence for Christ. So what does that mean? Jesus made a big deal out of saying that whenever we serve the poor, visit the prisoner, comfort the sick, and so on, we do these things for Jesus and in fact do them to Jesus. When you feed a hungry person, you are feeding Jesus. When you clothe a naked person, you are clothing Jesus, when you house a homeless person, you are housing Jesus. Likewise, when you submit to a brother or sister in Christ, you are submitting to Jesus. You submit to Jesus as he lives in them. So out of reverence for Jesus in them, you need to consider them before yourself. You need to honor them instead of yourself.

When we submit in that way, it is not about us putting ourselves down. It is really about lifting them up. When a husband submits to his wife it is in order to help her become the most wonderful person in Christ that she can be. He lifts her up. And in the amazing way that God works, that husband ends up being lifted in the process. How? Well he is one with his wife so if she is lifted up, so is he. As Paul says, \” if one of us is honored, we are all honored\”. When a parent submits their own desires for the sake of a child and the child is lifted up in love and esteem, then the parent is too, because they are a part of one another. In the Body of Christ, we are all part of one another and when we lift one another up by submitting to one another, in a miraculous way, we are all lifted up.

But the flip side is also true. When one of us is put down, we are all put down. If my wife suffers humiliation, so do I. If my kids suffer, so do I. If my brother in Christ suffers, so do I. So if I try to raise myself up, by putting others beneath me, what I really end up doing is pushing all of us down. By trying to raise myself up, I actually lower myself, because I am spiritually tethered to those I am pushing beneath me. I don\’t even realize that as a result, we are all sinking. How much better is it to willingly submit myself to the task of raising others higher and being pulled aloft by the upward momentum of my connection to them.

Saying “Uncle” to God

“the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” Romans 8:7

One of my favorite shows when I was growing up was The Three Stooges. It is a sign of my wife’s love for me that she married me in spite of this fact. She can’t stand the Stooges. One of the more common parts of the Stooges was the slap-stick comedy in which somebody was getting their head squeezed in a vice, or nose twisted by pliers, or head spun around three or four times like something out of the exorcist. At some point the person under duress would yell “uncle”. At that time in American slang it meant that you gave up, you surrendered, you submitted to the stronger person.

Of course the Stooges borrowed the phrase from the culture. Kids would wrestle with one another for all they were worth, but when someone got the upper hand and the one loosing was willing to give up all he had to do was say “uncle”. If you were the one winning you would keep prodding your opponent, “SAY UNCLE!” until they finally gave in. To hear your opponent say uncle was to know the thrill of victory. To be forced to say uncle was to know agony of defeat.

The false impression that people have is of some weak, mindless, almost lemming-like following of another, no matter what they say or do. Submission is seen as giving up your voice and having no say in what happens. Many people who have demanded submission of this variety have pointed to the Bible for their justification. They point to verses like Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” or Colossians 3:18 “Wives, submit to your husbands”. They demand a submission that is complete and total and unquestioning.

That is not what the Bible means when it tells us to submit to our leaders or even to submit to God. The Greek word that the Bible uses for submit has the idea behind it of yielding to someone after a debate or engagement. Think of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord and eventually yielding or submitting. Think of the Hebrew understanding of the word for woman, which carries with it the idea of “one who talks back”. (insert joke here) The wife was not expected to yield mindlessly to the husband, but to in fact be in a complementary relationship that offers another alternative. The yielding or submission comes once you have expressed your thoughts and wrestled with those of the other person. At some point you must submit yourself to what they decide.

Healthy relationships are ones in which there is a kind of wrestling and debate about issues of importance. People express their ideas. Options are explored. Everything is put on the table and sometimes passionately. We even need to do this in our relationship with God, but in the end we yield to His will. This is what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. He wrestled with the Father.  He proposed other options. He did so with passion and agony. But in the end, he yielded to the Father. The result of the kind of wrestling that results in saying “uncle” is that you then own the decision. You have put forth your idea to the best of your ability. But in the end, you agree with the one in charge. It becomes perfectly clear that you must submit because it is the best possible thing to do.

When we fail to wrestle before we submit there is a tendency to hold on to rebellion in our hearts. We still hold out that we are right and we go along with a grudging attitude. There remains that little voice saying that we are smarter, we know better, we would do it differently. Our submitting to God must be such that with our whole heart we are able to say that His way is right, we have no alternatives that could compare, and we gladly follow Him because we recognize that He is Lord and not us. He has won the wrestling match and we say “uncle”.

Provocative Submission: The Lure of Islam

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:9

Any discussion about a life of submission in the 21st century has to take into account the growing popularity of Islam. The reason is simply this, the word Islam is derived from the Arabic word “salema”. The common meaning of the word is “submission”. Ultimately it is about submission to Allah who is the supreme deity in Islam. An oft-quoted phrase among Muslims is “insh’Allah”, which translates to “if God wills”. It is indicative of a mindset of submission to God in all things. If tragedy strikes, “insh’Allah”. If something wonderful happens, “insh’Allah”. If your plans are changed due to circumstances out of your control, “insh’Allah”. All of life is seen as being subject to the will of Allah.  

But, like any oft-repeated phrase, especially religious ones, insh’Allah can become a meaningless mantra. For Christians The Lord’s Prayer or even saying “God bless you” after a sneeze come to mind as common examples of phrases with powerful meaning that has been lost in the repetition. One only needs to hear a football team rush through the Lord’s Prayer after a victory, or a congregation say it in a mind-numbing monotone to know what I mean.

Yet in spite of the fact that there are times when such phrases are meaningless because of our human tendency to be shallow and glib, there is still power in such phrases. When they come from the heart, when they express our deepest longing or highest dreams, they become powerful symbols of reality. In some way they even serve to turn those dreams into reality. To pray with all your heart to the Lord that He “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us” is to in some way bring reality to the prayer. You can’t pray that prayer from your heart and not be in some way changed by it into a more forgiving person. When the mouth speaks from the heart, the heart is in turn made more like the thing spoken.

So when a Muslim says, “If God wills” and does so from the heart, he is saying that he is completely and totally dependent on Allah for all things. It means that his own will as a human being is of no real consequence and the only path to peace in life is to submit to the will of Allah. It is an amazing statement when viewed alongside a western, post-enlightenment mindset, that holds individual freedom and self-determination to be among the most important of all human rights.

That Enlightenment mindset, that has so powerfully influenced Western Christianity, rejects any notion that we should submit ourselves to anyone or anything, even God. It is in part why I think so many are comfortable with a nebulous belief in some unknown supreme being who is out there somewhere. By holding to such a belief it is possible to still claim to believe in God but yet have no need to respond to or certainly not submit to Him. The Deists of the Enlightenment saw God as something of a great watch maker who made the world, wound it up, and then let it run on it’s own. That kind of philosophy has man at the pinnacle and the real power in the world, with no need to submit to God.

A Biblical worldview, certainly as it relates to submission to God, is far closer to the Muslim idea of insh’ Allah than it is to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The previously mentioned Lord’s Prayer is probably the clearest example of this truth. Jesus said that we are to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven”. Jesus echoed this in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was faced with his impending death on the cross and asked if possible that there be some other way, some other cup to drink from. But in true submission to the Father be prayed, “Never the less, not my will, but Thy will be done”.

For some this sounds like a defeatist’s path. It is the path of one who has given up and has no hope. It sounds like the choice of the weak and faint of heart and a choice in which one has resigned oneself to pain and suffering for no reason. If however, we truly understand that our God loves us enough to send Jesus to the Cross and we understand that our God is in fact all wise and the sovereign King of all Creation, then whatever He decrees is in fact the best for us. Instead of us resigning ourselves to His will in an attitude of defeat or depression, we need to embrace His will and the freedom it gives us.

That freedom may just be lure of Islam that Christians must understand. It is something we can have in reality and not in the false way of Islam. There is an amazing comfort that comes when we embrace the fact that our God is sovereign and that our path is to submit to Him. It means that when things are going well we can rejoice and delight in knowing that our God is blessing us by His grace. When things are going badly from our perspective, then it means that we can rest in the comfort of knowing that even though we cannot see or fully understand, we have a God who loves us beyond measure. He is a God who does not abandon us but orders our steps for His purposes and glory. That is true freedom.