Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22 NIV)
I like to call this verse a “Marmite” verse. If you have ever eaten Marmite you will know that it gets a strong response, you either love it or you hate it. Some people love this verse and the idea of hierarchy in a marriage, others loathe it. The relevant question, though, is not whether you like it or not, but rather is submission in marriage an old fashioned idea that needs to be left behind in our day? How shall we answer, how shall we proceed?
Admit that sometimes things are not as simple as they seem.
Perhaps Paul is saying “the hierarchy of husbands over wives is to be recognized by all Christians everywhere.” Or perhaps he is saying “since right now in the Roman Empire, husbands are dominant over wives, and since we are not in a position to do anything about that, let wives continue to submit, but as to The Lord, and let the men love their wives as Christ loved the church.” Which is it?
Let us try an example. Suppose you are a missionary sent to an island never before discovered. Upon arriving you find that the women are dominant over their husbands and often oppressively so. We’ll call this Marmite island. You share Jesus, people give their lives to Christ and they are looking for you to teach them and apply the scriptures to their situation. Working your way through Ephesians, do you focus on getting them to reverse their marital hierarchy, or do you encourage the oppressive women to give up their oppression and love their husbands instead?
To help us think this through further, when you get to the passage a little later in the chapter about masters and slaves, and as you realize that there are no masters and slaves in their culture, do you encourage them to now divide up into masters and slaves in order to be Biblical? Most of us would think not! Perhaps something similar is going on here with wives and husbands, that is, Paul is not laying out the ideal situation, but rather how to be a Jesus follower in a less than ideal situation.
But then on Marmite island you also teach about the passage on children and parents and you realize that there are parents and children in this society just as there is in every society. It is just the way it is, and is the ideal situation. Perhaps Paul’s teaching is like this with regards to wives and husbands, that is, there are differences between men and women and these differences are recognized by what Paul says to each.
While some will jump to conclusions, either that men should always be the head of the household in every society, or that our passage is ’stuck’ with some of the trappings of Roman society, we do well to approach this passage with a spirit of humility and the willingness to give it some deep thought, and prayer.
Recognize what the verse does not say.
The text does not say “women submit to men,” the passage being clearly about marriage and not gender issues in society. Additionally, many translations for some reason leave a word out, the word for “one’s own”. “Submit to your husband” is a different statement than “submit to your own husband” the focus of the first being marital hierarchy, the focus of the latter being marital faithfulness. That being said, the matter of hierarchy does seem clear:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24 NIV)
Read the verse from the perspective of the original readers.
The above verses seem sexist when read in today’s society. However, if you make some effort at reading the passage from the perspective of the society Paul is writing to, something different emerges: this passage was incredibly good news for women! In ancient literature you could find similar lists dealing with husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and masters as we find here in chapter five, but in our passage much more emphasis is placed on the responsibilities of the more ’powerful’ partners. And in each case their ‘power’ is qualified by the demands of Christian love.
In the case of husbands and wives, the husband is called to love his wife the same way Christ loved the church and gave his life for her. This is a sacrificial love that puts the needs and rights of the wife over the needs and rights of the husband. This was revolutionary back in the day! And it would still be revolutionary in may marriages today.
There are three main words for love in the Greek, one being eros, which is the kind of love that speaks of the physical side of love, another being philos which is the kind of love that denotes friendship and the last is agape which speaks of a willful loyalty. According to our passage husbands are to love their wives with this last kind of love, agape. In our day when romance and friendship both fade from a marriage, many couples will speak of having fallen out of love. Indeed some would say that if the romance has left, and the friendship has left, then it is time for the husband to leave also. What the Bible teaches is that if the romance has left, and the friendship has left, then the husband should love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the church, that is, by leaving everything else and pursuing his wife! This may mean getting creative in getting the romance fires burning again and finding ways to nurture friendship, but in the least it means remaining committed to the relationship and placing the needs and rights of the wife over his own. From the Biblical perspective, you never ‘fall out of love,’ rather love falls out when you cease deciding to love.
Speaking of the demands placed on the husband, it is interesting to note that “obedience” is not demanded from the wives to their husbands. The word for obedience can be found in the following bits of Ephesians where obedience is called for from children to parents and slaves to masters, but this is a different word used for the attitude of wives to husbands. The word literally means “to place under,” the idea being that wives should consider the needs and rights of their husbands over their own. This sounds a lot like what the husbands are to do for their wives in loving them!
Read the entire New Testament.
Read through the entire New Testament and you will find the concept of submission to be central, that Christians are to delight in submitting to one another. Consider the example and teaching of Jesus:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17 NIV)
And when James and John go looking for positions of authority, consider these words of Jesus:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NIV)
Paul applies the example and teaching of Jesus when he teaches us to
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3, 4 NIV)
Reading the entire New Testament will give any person who thinks they have authority a wake up call to their responsibility to serve. Our passage is not sexist in the least in how it calls for husbands and wives to serve each other. This is what Christians should be used to doing anyway!
Earlier I mentioned Marmite, but there is another reason I consider verse 22 to be a Marmite verse. Marmite draws attention to itself; in fact it has such a strong taste that you can forget that you are eating toast! Some people get so stuck on verse 22, they miss the wonderful teaching about Jesus!
First, Christ is the head of the church: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour” (Ephesians 5:23 NIV). We are not left leaderless, Christ himself is committed to directing us! Those of us who are leaders in the church do well to learn that to lead people, we must first submit to Christ – this includes leadership within a marriage.
Second, Christ loves the Church:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV)
I often say that I would be lost without my wife! But I would be lost for all eternity without my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ! His care is complete. His loyalty is lasting. His love is without limit.
Should submission be left behind as an archaic way of thinking about marriage? Not at all, rather it should be emphasized as an important attribute of any Christian in any relationship, and what is good in any relationship is excellent in our key relationships. In being taught to submit, and to love, both wives and husbands are encouraged to value each other over themselves, and in doing so they are following the example of Jesus himself:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8 NIV)