Ephesians 5:18, 21-33: That Submission Thing

4:37 AM

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. [B]e filled with the Spirit, ... submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. -- Ephesians 5:18, 21-33
If you know anything about anything, you know how hot this topic is. Many burn on egalitarian and complementarian passions -- the one insisting that this passage is outdated and culturally irrelevant, the other sometimes inching closer to husband-worship than a true model of Christ and His church. In any case, let's leave aside the brand names and focus on the actual passage.

Losing the Forest for the Trees

I think we approach The Submission Passages with a gender-specific knife: ladies, we'll have tea and talk about obedience; guys, let's fry some brats and man talk about servant leadership. The result...burn-out: women only hear about the respect/submission thing, men only hear about the love/leadership thing, and neither grasp the holistic picture of marriage.

I tried to puzzle it out from that angle: Hey, why did the women have to submit? Then I woke up at 7:45 am exactly and got it: Hey, what if I looked at marriage instead of roles?

People use all sorts of diagrams and illustrations to make the Biblical marriage model appealing. One is the umbrella diagram -- the big umbrella is Jesus, the smaller umbrella under that is the husband, then the smaller-er umbrella under him is the wife, then the smallest umbrella under all three is the child. That keeps the family safe and dry from the storms of life. If that hierarchy breaks down, somebody pays.

That doesn't come even close.

The only comparison we're given is head and body, which is the relationship of Christ to the church, which is a profound mystery. Before we get into specifics, it's important to look at marriage as a whole: What is it trying to accomplish?

Holiness, Unity and Service

The context of this passage lies in a discussion of imitating God (holiness), walking in love (unity) and submitting to one another (service). If you read the New Testament, you discover that those three elements are key -- over and over again Paul stresses holiness, unity and service. Nobody may abuse the grace of God to pursue immorality, nobody may cause strife and division, nobody may flaunt his wealth or position.

To illustrate that practically, he gives three pertinent examples: husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters. In all three, Paul gives different charges to different parties in the relationship, but his end goal is the same: holiness, unity and service. Wives submit to husbands but husbands sacrifice everything for their wives. Why? Because unity in body is the end goal. Children obey their parents but parents do not abuse authority. Why? Because discipline and instruction is the end goal. Slaves obey their masters but masters are to care for their slaves. Why? Because serving one another is the end goal.

We tend to approach this passage as if the end goal is roles, divvying up duties and authority into compact little packages. When we focus too much on the wife's submissive role, we can end up with husband worship, as if the wife is the privileged slave of her husband, exclusively responsible for service. When we focus too much on the husband's authoritative role, we can imply that authority means exclusive privilege to boss her around. Instead we ought to throw out roles for a moment and focus on holiness, unity and service to one another.

Both parties are called to submit to one another, unify one another and encourage holiness in one another. Much has been said of a woman's helping role, focusing her attention on her husband, but the husband is also charged (in a lengthier passage) to give himself wholly to his wife, as well. Both ought to be focused on the needs and preferences of the other. (That goes back to Basic Christian Interactions 101.)

This produces a unity of spirit, of head and body. The different body parts don't lord over their importance; the different body parts have only one goal: the health of the entire body. So too, I think, should marriage be. It should be holistic, not partitioned into roles, but both parties ought to be striving to unify and sanctify the entire marriage. The very first mention of marriage established the importance of that unity: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."


We've established that both the goal and the outworking of marriage is holiness, unity and service. I think that if both the husband and the wife are pursuing that, trying to "outdo one another in showing honor" as Paul later put it, the health of the marriage will not depend on dissecting roles.

Because of this, some people have insisted that we erase the language of obedience, submission and head from marriage altogether. I'm not married, but I have heard that when two people genuinely love one another and look out for the needs of the other, these issues become almost moot.

I am hesitant to address this because of the abuse of roles, but from what I have read of Scripture, even while I have seen abuses of this concept in the name of "complementarianism" or "Biblical womanhood," I cannot deny that the husband's and wife's roles/parts/whatever-you-wish-to-call-them are not interchangeable. There is an authority given to husbands that wives ought to submit to -- not an authority to have his needs met but an authority to love her and care for her.

The husband is the head of his wife, even as Christ is the head of His church, the body. It says so, right there. I'd be quaking in my boots to be given a responsibility compared to that of Christ's, for this is not a license to Be the Boss but to serve extravagantly. Think of how Christ served and led by example: on His knees, wiping stinky feet; on a cross, taking blame, shame and pain; on a hill, praying, teaching, exhorting. This is, actually, how Paul explains the headship of the husband: striving for the holiness of his bride, laying down his life for her, ignoring his own needs to meet that of his wife.

Wherever someone is given "authority" in Scripture, it is always the authority to serve extravagantly. I think of my role as counselor: I am given the responsibility of eleven little children. I am given the authority to be responsible in a way that will benefit them. The children do not exist to serve me or meet my needs; I am there to meet all of their needs, laying down my life to make sure they stay alive during the camp week.

I think the headship of a husband ought to be emphasized more from that angle of servant leadership, rather than thinking of it as pure entitlement. The context of the passage demands it: it is, after all, the husband's version of submitting to one another.

In using the above example, I don't wish to imply that wives are like children -- I used it only to illustrate how extravagant a husband's love and leadership ought to be. In actuality, wives complete their husbands. They are co-equal in worth and responsibility (which is why diagrams such as the four umbrellas falls through). I don't think marriage is presented as a hierarchy but as a continuous circle, like the Trinity and the Christ/church relationship.

There are definitely levels of authority in the Trinity, but nowhere does this imply that either the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit are more or less equal, more or less God, more or less important. We are only presented with the whole: God.

Christ is definitely the head of the church, but as we glorify Christ, He glorifies us. In fact, the unity of Christ and His body is a profound mystery, and there is power in that mystery, as there is power in the mystery of the Trinity. It is merely presented as the church.

So too with marriage. There is mystery there as well (for how can 1+1=1?). The husband is the head and the wife submits to his servant leadership, meeting his every need as he meets hers, but it is not presented as fragmented roles but as a mystery: they are one.

What does this mystery look like? I think each marriage, being the union of two different people, looks different. People have different needs and different situations. Relationships in general and marriage in particular do not follow rules and regs. But this much is clear: "Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."

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7 impressions

  1. Interesting post! I do agree with the "continuous circle" image rather than a strict hierarchical stairway type image.

    Something that really bugs me, although I can't very much explain why at this point, is the idea of "submission" strictly as a tie-breaker in which the woman submits to the man's decision in case of irreconcilable differences. It seems to cheapen, somehow, the radical call to selflessly love and serve each other. Like I said, I'm not sure exactly my reasoning, motivations, etc for feeling so, it's just sort of a gut reaction of "there's got to be more to it than that!"

    Also, I must admit to feeling left out in these conversations sometimes. Being married to an unbeliever, I feel I am called to the same radical love, but simply cannot give the same radical submission that is available to two Christians.

    I also want to say that the leadership of the husband and a wife's submission to that leadership within a Christian context should never lead to abusive language or action towards a woman, or a woman feeling as if she is obligated to stay within an abusive situation. It's sad that I have to say that, as it should be obvious, but I've seen too much not to. :(

    God bless!

  2. Good post, Bailey. I've seen both ends of the spectrum; the martyr wife who is the perfect, humble servant to her lord and master, the husband AND the boistrous, domineering wife who says what's what to her meek husband. Both make me so sad!

    As a married woman, I'm learning how amazingly this mystery called marriage works! A pastor gave my husband and me ONE piece of advice: "Even if you don't remember anything else, just be more concerned about the other person's needs. If you BOTH are doing that, you both will be loved and nurtured and fulfilling your purpose in a Godly marriage." When I'm loving my husband and looking out for his good, I naturally submit to him; in turn, when he is putting my interests before his, he is being the true servant leader. It really isn't that complicated! Marriage, just like our Christian walk, is truly about dying to self with the Lord's help... it's that simple!

    God bless!

  3. Elizabeth, I share your big question mark with the submission-as-a-tiebreaker. Like you, I'm not sure why it bugs me so much...maybe I'm unsure of how it actually plays out in a real-life marriage.

    I was thinking of your sort of situation when writing this -- I wanted to note that this passage is directed to two Christians (for a healthy Christian marriage takes both the husband and the wife) and that the dynamics in a believer/unbeliever marriage might look differently. But then I remembered 1 Peter 3:1 -- the wife winning over her nonbelieving husband through her submission and pure, respectful conduct. What are your thoughts on that?

    Rachel, I loved this: "Marriage...is truly about dying to self with the Lord's help." YES.

  4. Bailey, once again you happen to be expounding upon the very same thing I've been thinking about lately. The key to a good marriage is: BOTH, BOTH, BOTH! Both people involved are to be concerned about meeting the other person's needs.
    And I think a circle is a wonderful illustration of marriage. I used a similar illustration in a conversation last night: interlocking hands. :)

  5. You've hit the nail on the head on pretty much every point here---mutual submission, headship yet co-equality, and the bringing of the qualities of divine love into human relationships---in a way that I've hardly seen anywhere but in Charles Williams (the least-famous of the Inklings). Williams has a useful (if somewhat imprecise as to "persons" and "substances" as laid down by the Athanasian Creed) term for these relationships: "coinherence." (And, by the way, there's a bit in his rather obscure novel Descent into Hell in which one character lectures another on the text about "bearing one another's burdens" using a quite unique interpretation; if or when you happen on it I'd really like to hear your perspective on it.)

    One thing, though: As you note, authority is always given so that (one of my church's missionaries, the director of an excellent Christian camp in Fairview, MI, has preached on the "hinna" or "so that" clauses of the New Testament at least twice in my hearing) it may be used for service, just as "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free." But authority is not always used for this purpose, and some of the Reformers (I think notably including Calvin) and especially many of their intellectual descendants in North America at the time of our Revolutionary War preached (arguing from the texts linking authority to responsibility, among others) that "obedience to tyrants is rebellion against God." I'm interested to hear how you think the underlying principles should be applied to situations where those with apparent authority abuse it selfishly.

  6. Very insightful! I really appreciated this post.

  7. 1 Peter 3:1 has been a go-to passage for me, as you can imagine in my situation.

    I want to make sure you know that this is my belief coming mostly from personal experience and prayer, not from scholarship or deep exegetical know-how.

    I think the key is the context of the passages and the difference between the imagery the authors use. Paul in Ephesians relates husbands and wives to Christ and the Church and seems to be specifically speaking about the relationship of Christians with other Christians. Peter, on the other hand, seems to be discussing Christian submission to authorities in general, beginning with a very general directive to "honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king" (2:17) then moving into specific relationships with non-Christians. In addressing these specific relationships, he relates submission in this context not to Christ & the Church, but to Christ & His accusers.

    So, in a sense, we know Christian servants & wives should submit to their masters and husbands, but we also know from the comparison Peter drew that it is not of the same type as the submission between Christ and God the Father or Christ and the Church. And in understanding this, we also see that sometimes we must do what is right "for the sake of conscience towards God" and suffer unjustly for it, and that this, while not submissive to our earthly authorities, is actually pleasing to God (1 Peter 2:18-20). And it all ties in at verse 8 of chapter 3 - that we are to live in a harmonious, peace-seeking, loving manner, giving blessings when we receive insults, being gentle in the face of slander. So, even if we do not submit to husbands and are punished for doing right, we continue to act in submission to God above all, with a gentle, quiet, respectful spirit.

    In the Ephesians passage, the whole model is different because it is assumed that all are working from a common goal and understanding of God as the ultimate authority and loving one another as the primary action. Peter's passage assumes one member of the relationship has very different goals and modes of operation, and seems to assume (the majority of the time) that it is the more powerful member that is not concerned with the authority God or indeed with love for the other member.

    So in conclusion, a couple points: 1) this passage encourages submission and agreement in all cases where it is possible, but allows for "disobedience" specifically in regards to being compelled to act against your conscience, to act against moral good as defined by God, 2) it sets guidelines for handling disagreement with an unbeliever who has some measure of control in your life (no matter the disagreement, you are to act respectfully, with love, seeking harmony, gently, etc.) 3) the way this works out may look different over different cultures (in other words, in this century in the U.S. it would not be reasonable for my husband to "punish me" in the same sense that a first century Roman might've punished his wife - the passage is not advocating that a woman be a man's verbal-physical-emotional punching bag, in other words) 4) it indicates that respectful, gentle, and loving attitude in disagreement/disobedience can actually serve to move unbelievers closer to Christ.

    Hopefully that kind of lays out my views on the passage in a clear way. I hope you will cover this passage in the series and am also wondering if you will be exploring Old Testament women? And I mean other than Proverbs 31! :) Maybe Wisdom as female in Proverbs or Deborah? I always found Deborah's military, spiritual, and political power an interesting contrast to the portrayal of women in the New Testament. Makes you wonder about the traditional view of women in ancient Israel as compared to the Hellenistic Jewish view of women.


Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)