In a culture of #MeToo and misogyny, in which women are fighting for equal rights and equal pay, the Bible brings a command that seems out of step with these struggles.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”Ephesians 5:22
When placed agains the backdrop of the rhetoric of our political climate, those words seem so bad.
The conversations we are having are also affecting the way the church approaches this verse. Rather than embracing it and encouraging women to obey it, we are backing off. This is in part due to a rash of bad behaving men who have taken advantage of women in “Jesus’ name.” Numerous allegations of sexual misconduct have come to light in the church and it causes us to question, what gives the right for any male to encourage a woman to “submit” to any other man, even her husband?
You won’t find a 13 week study at Lifeway entitled, “Wives submit to your husbands.” If you attend a marriage retreat you will find sessions on communication, intimacy, and finances; but you will have to look long and hard for a breakout session on submission. Submit is a word we are even leaving out of weddings.
Even the church is uncomfortable with this command.
But as uncomfortable as we are with it, there is on thing we can’t deny. This command is in the Bible. As such, we can take one of three approaches.
- We can remain uncomfortable with it, confused by it and choose to not take it seriously. Sure, Ephesians 5:22 is in the Bible, but let’s exile this command to the same place we sent the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Who knows what they are? It’s too hard to explain, furthermore the Bible says a lot of other things that seem a whole lot better for women, and a whole lot easier to explain to women than telling them to submit.
- We can be offended by it, reject it, and discard it. Let’s just place it in a scrapheap of other seemingly archaic statements the Bible makes that we don’t like. God created the world – unscientific. Homosexuality is a sin – homophobic. Wives, submit to your husbands – misogynistic. Scrap it.
- We can commit to obey it. Isn’t obedience what all of God’s commands require of us? If this is the case, we should ask of this command what we ask of every command. Why is it that God thinks that this command is good for us, particularly for women?
What is Good About God’s Commands?
- God’s commands are good. Despite the commands sounding extremely negative, we trust that they are very good. After all, as stated previously, they come from a good God. “Do not kill.” That sounds extremely negative, but as a command it is very good. God values life. The same God who has given us “wives, submit to your own husbands as unto the Lord” also gave us “Do not commit adultery.” No adultery is a command that is good for men, women, and marriage. Perhaps the same is true of “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
- Obeying God’s commands is a witness to our culture. Scrapping or ignoring bits and pieces of the Bible does not endear us to the culture, it makes us dishonest. Moses told the Hebrew people in Deuteronomy 4:6-8 that they would be admired by the pagan nations because of God’s commands. They would be in awe of the society that God’s Word would create when obeyed. If this is the case, perhaps there is actually something in Ephesians 5:22 that the world will admire if Christian wives obey it.
- God’s commands bring us to Christ. In Galatians 3 Paul discusses how the covenant of law served to bring us to Christ. There is a principle here to which we should pay attention. Any command in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, reveal our insufficiency and our need for Christ. Perhaps there is something wonderful for women in Ephesians 5:22 that brings them to Christ.
These things being true of God’s commands, I think it wiser for us to study Ephesians 5:22 than be content to be confused by it or uncomfortable with it. There is nothing in God’s Word, Nephilim included (and we know that’s a weird one in Gen. 6;4), that God has given us a hall pass on so we may ignore it. And if we just start rejecting commands we do not like, there will be no end of it. There is a reason Satan began the conversation of temptation with the question, “Has God really said?”
So let’s study Ephesians 5:22 and make sure that we are not misunderstanding it to be something that encourages misogyny. Let’s make sure that our discomfort is not just cultural conditioning. If it is, let’s find the blessing of it. Like every command, let’s embrace the good of it and shun the evil it saves us from. Let’s seek to live it and in so doing become an admired witness before a culture in desperate need of a better answer.
Ephesians 5:21 does not demean women, it values them.
The command of Ephesians 5:21 occurs in a string of teachings on relationships as the new Christians of Ephesus are trying to navigate social order in light of the gospel. Notice that in the layout of the Book of Ephesians there are 6 chapters. 3 chapters are doctrinal, teaching us what to believe. 3 chapters are practical, teaching us how to behave.
The original audience of Ephesians is people who were being called to Christ out of a 1st century Roman culture in which women were little more than the property of men, children were insignificant, and slaves had no say. It is this cultural backdrop that makes the passage revolutionary.
Paul first addresses the women, then the men. He speaks to the children, then the parents. He addresses the slave (more akin to an employee in the American economy than to a slave in American history), then the master. Paul addressed them as people with an identity, who had a choice in the matter, and a critical role to play in each relationship. In 1st century Rome, the gospel represented a major progression of rights for women, children, and workers. Women found something more meaningful in Christian community than they found anywhere else in Roman society.
It is ironic what is happening to women in our culture. Women are being intellectually imprisoned by the progressive movement. A woman is not considered intelligent, liberated, and she will not be listened to unless she is pro-choice, Democrat, and left-leaning. She is devalued if she chooses to work with her children in her home. If a woman gets married, there are many who claim that she surrenders her identity. We are even to the point that a female does not have to think of herself as a woman at all. She can identify as a man. How is this progress for women if we are jumping genders?
I cite as an example the reaction to the recent passing of our nation’s most aggressive anti-abortion legislation in Alabama. Joy Behar on The View and actress/activist Alysa Milano on Twitter, began to call out the men who voted for the legislation. They referred to them as sexual predators and went so far as calling for them to have forced vasectomies.
While there were a marked majority of men who voted for the legislation, Milano and Behar gave no consideration to the 8 women of the Alabama legislature that voted for the bill. They gave no consideration to the woman who brought the bill forward from the Alabama State House to the Alabama State Senate. Furthermore, they did not acknowledge that the Governor of Alabama who signed the bill into law is a woman. If you need an explanation as to why Governor Kay Ivey is not a good candidate for a vasectomy, Google it, then send the link to Joy Behar.
Is it that every woman’s voice has the right to be heard in our culture, or is that that only certain viewpoints will be considered? Does every lady have a right to the public square or only left leaning ones?
We live in a culture that is dictating to women their identity, sexuality, and mentality. But then comes the Bible that addresses a woman by saying you have first choice and a voice in Christian marriage.
Ephesians 5:21 is addressed to the woman, not the man. She is created uniquely by God. She is valued and man is in desperate need of her. The marriage needs her and she has an important choice to make. This brings us to our next point that will help us better understand this command.
Ephesians 5:21 is not for every woman and it is not for any man.
In the 1st century context, marriage was not doing well. Men had wives who stayed home and bore children, while they also had mistresses they chased for pleasure and power. In Ephesus stood the Temple of Artemis, the goddess of love. Within its pillars were hundreds of prostitutes that men would use for “worship.” The Ephesian culture was extremely decadent and demeaning to women.
A Roman man could easily divorce his wife and leave her financially, socially, and sexually vulnerable. In 1st century Rome, marriage was not good for women.
And then here comes this radical new way that the gospel calls for a man and a woman to be married.
Christian marriage is the place where 2 disciples of Jesus begin to flesh out with one another what Jesus has done for them.
Notice in the Ephesians 5:21 command that the wife does not submit to her husband for the sake of her husband, she does it as unto the Lord. Submission is something she does for the Lord, not for her husband. There is NO MAN on earth worthy of a woman’s submission in and of himself. It is not masculinity or that calls for her submission, nor is it femininity that requires it. Submission is a matter of Lordship and discipleship.
This command is not for every woman. It is only a command for Christian marriage. Ephesians 5:21 is a command for a woman who is seeking a Christ-centered way to relate to a man she is going to relate to as her husband.
Not a command for ANY man.
Notice that the command is addressed to the wife, not the husband; the lady, not the man. It is also important to note that the verb “submit” does not actually occur in verse 22; it is supplied from verse 21. I will speak to the implications of this more fully later in the post. But the tense of the verse means that this is an ongoing decision that a woman in Christian marriage must make. Submit is a decision she makes daily. And she is the ONLY one who can make that decision. The Bible does not tell the husband to submit his wife. The call is for the wife to make that decision of her own volition, not under compulsion from her husband.
The Bible calls for all of us to observe order and authority. In such cases these are holistic calls that are necessary for existence in Christian community. That said, the Bible never gives a man any direct authority to submit any woman to himself. Men are mistaken, in marriage and in church, to believe that they have any Biblical authority to make a woman feel inferior. Men do not have the Biblical authority to be unchallenged or unquestioned. Men using the Bible to gain a false sense of superiority over women in Christian community is dangerous, ridiculous, and heretical. In recent years it has led to men behaving badly in church.
Men Behaving Badly in the SBC
Every denomination seems to be responding to men behaving badly as of late, but this is especially true in my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. #MeToo has made its way into #ChurchToo. I believe God is bringing three gross sins of men in the church to light.
- We use biblical language but behave in an unbiblical way. Men in the church have embraced the perverted and pornographic sexual behaviors of the world rather than repent of it. This is not news. We knew this was happening. The problem is that the church has seen it as unfortunate, but has not engaged in the difficult, dirty work of redemptive church discipline with badly behaving men (including leaders).
- We have not taken marriage seriously. I think this is the case for both men and women in the church. We need to realize that Christian marriage is counter-cultural. It is unusual and requires a filling of the Holy Spirit that is supernatural (Eph. 5:18). Couples in the church need to realize that Christian marriage is more about holiness than happiness. It is more about exemplifying Christ and the church than it is about “just” staying together. Unless we are willing to take our marriages “next-level”, Ephesians 5 level, we are going to remain disillusioned, dissatisfied, and be prone to sexually misbehave.
- Ephesians 5:22 is one of several passages that have been perverted by men that has resulted in women being disadvantaged in the church. To correct and clarify confusion and misinterpretation our convention put together The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This council was designed to not only clarify confusion and misuse of these passages but to address the abuses women have suffered in the church at the hands of badly behaving men. You can research the council and its statements here.
Before I leave this topic, allow me to make a very clear statement. Ephesians 5:22, in no way, calls for any woman to submit to abuse of any kind. The Bible does not call for you to submit to a man who is sexually, verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive. If you are a woman in an abusive situation you should be able to inform your church leadership and find a safe place of redemptive intervention. The church should rise up and deal righteously with abusive men.
So that leaves us with this question. If we have established what the command is not, what is it? What good is the command?
Ephesians 5:22 prevents misogyny in marriage.
In short, misogyny means to hate women. This word, like others in a divisive and political “gotcha” culture has been misused and misapplied.
When words like misogyny, sexist, racist, and prejudice get misused and misapplied the real victims of these abuses are not rescued. Their stories are hijacked by others who desire attention or power. The word gets diluted and real situations get ignored.
The other unfortunate misapplication is when a word like misogyny is applied to men who do not hate women. There may be a man of whom you do not appreciate his opinions, politics, decisions, or morals, but that may not mean that he hates women. It is easy to take a politically and emotionally charged word like misogyny, apply it to a person, and marginalize them.
It should be especially true of Christian women that they do not want to get caught up in mischaracterizing men who are not misogynistic. As Christ followers we are to be people of truth. We should deal truthfully with misogyny where it really does exist. We should refrain from name calling and deal truthfully in dialogue and disagreement where misogyny does not exist.
Ephesians 5:22 In Context
That said, if we look at the context of Ephesians 5:22, it calls for a man to think of a woman, especially his wife, in the best possible way.
The context of the passage is the need for God’s people to be filled with the Spirit so that they may relate to one another in a Christ-like way within Christian community (5:18). The context of the Book of Ephesians is how Christ creates “oneness” when he redeems people out of divisiveness (Eph. 2. Pay particular attention to verses 15 and 16). In Ephesians 5 Paul now shows us how the “creation of one new man in place of the two” works in the relationships of husband/wife, child/parent, worker/employer.
The governing text for this relationship section of the book is Ephesians 5:21, “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It is not just the wife that submits to her husband, but the text also explains how a husband submits to his wife.
Husbands submit to your wives – sacrifice.
For the husband, submitting to his wife looks like sacrifice (Eph. 5:25-32). It looks like love, attention, nurture, communication and a concern to become one flesh with her.
The Ephesians 5 man is the furthest thing from a misogynist. This is a Christ-centered man who loves his wife.
This passage is important to Christian husbands because it corrects an otherwise Christ-less man. Another passage that helps us understand the call of a Christian husband is 1 Peter 3:7.
Likewise husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.1 Peter 3:7
The wife is equal, but she is not the same. She is the weaker vessel. This does not speak to her lack of talent, intelligence, or identity. Weaker here refers to her general stature.
“Weaker vessel” could be used in speaking of the difference between a brick 3 bedroom rancher and a rose bush. The brick rancher is the stronger structure, but the rose bush is by far a more beautiful and intricate creature. “Weaker vessel” is an observation of the nature of things, not a derogatory comment.
Because men are generally stronger in stature than women, a man may be tempted to use his physical strength, commanding voice, or unflinching emotion to intimidate or dominate a woman. But here comes Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3, in Christ, putting a whole new parameter on men. Husbands, men, are not to be mindful of themselves – to use their frame to their own advantage, but they are to be mindful of women, especially their wives.
Can men be misogynistic? Absolutely. But in Christ, a man is called to use what he is for the sake of another. Christ-like sacrifice is the greatest preventative of misogyny.
So if the benefit of this command in context is that it corrects a Christ-less man, how does it correct a Christ-less woman?
Ephesians 5:22 prevents a morbid end of a marriage.
In Ephesians 5:23, Paul provides a metaphor to help us understand how mutual submission works in Christian marriage. The man is the head and the woman is the body. Being that the goal of Christian marriage is that the two become “one flesh (v. 31b)”, then the Head/Body metaphor is fitting. This metaphor is critical to a husband and wife’s understanding of the word submit.
The popular cultural understanding of “head” in reference to the man is one of leadership, but this fails to honor the metaphor. Let’s try to apply this understanding of the man as the head/leader and the woman as the body/follower to popular understandings of the passage.
Who’s the boss?
Does head mean that the man is much like a boss and the woman much like an employee as the body in the sense that she carries out commands? Boss worker relationships sour and end all of the time. It is unfortunate and inconvenient, but not tragic.
Is the man a “head” and the woman the “body” in much the same way as an executive with an assistant? The relationship is much closer in mission and respect, but there is still that of a leader/follower mentality present in the metaphor. And again, the ending of an executive/assistant relationship is inconvenient and unpleasant, but it is not tragic. People move on. It happens all of the time.
So, let’s just call it Head/Leader and Body/Follower. Leaders quit leading and followers quit following all of the time. Again, unfortunate but not tragic.
But if you separate a head from a body, it is horrific and tragic for a “one flesh” relationship.
A better understanding of head is one of supply and responsibility rather than leadership. Is leadership involved? It is. But a woman’s role is not to dutifully follow her husband, but in mutual submission to connect with him and him to her.
I have referenced it, but if you read of the man’s description of submission to his wife in Ephesians 5:25-32, it is a heavy responsibility. His focus is on her. Her welfare. Her sense of belonging. Her sense of beauty. Her sanctification. Her nurture and needs.
I Don’t Need a Man!
And many women will respond to this, “I don’t need any man to take responsibility for me.” And as far as life and well-being, that is probably true. I would say most women are fully capable of making it very well in life without needing a man to take responsibility for her. But here is the caveat. Remember how the woman submits to the husband, not because of him, but as unto the Lord? Even here, the woman does not allow a man to take responsibility for her out of personal need, but out of obedience to the Lord.
And it is this very fact, that a woman does not need a man to take responsibility for her, that submission is necessary in Christian marriage. If he is seeking to do all that he is called to do in Ephesians 5:25-32, and she doesn’t need him, she will be a miserable woman and he will be a defeated man. It will be a morbid end to the marriage.
Why wives need to submit.
If you go back to the curse passage in Genesis 3, you will read God articulate how the introduction of sin will cause a struggle between women and men. To the woman God says:
Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.Genesis 3:16b
If you read the passage correctly, God is not giving the man and the woman a correction. He is articulating the curse. A man ruling over a woman is not the relationship God intended for man and woman. This is that relationship flawed. Now that there is sin, misogyny is a possibility. A man may try to use his stronger frame to rule, or dominate a woman. This is a far cry from the intended creation of woman as a helper “fit for him” in Genesis 2:18 or “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” as she is described in Genesis 2:23. She was not called Woman because she was to be ruled by man, but because she came from him. “Rule over you” is hardly the relationship God intended between the sexes.
Likewise, “your desire shall be for your husband” is not a correction but a curse. This does not describe the new world order of a woman suddenly needing to be a dutiful wife. This is the description of a woman who will try to dominate a man.
“Your desire shall be for your husband” is much like the words God uses to warn Cain in Genesis 4. As Cain is about to be overcome by his anger and fall into sin, God warns him.
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.Genesis 4:7
In short, “your desire shall be for your husband”, is the articulation of the attitude a woman will struggle with, because she doesn’t want or need a man taking responsibility for her.
The only way that a man with a sinful nature that wants to dominate a woman, and a woman with a sinful nature that desires to overcome a man, can become one flesh is for them to submit to one another.
Ephesians 5:21-33 in every conceivable way corrects our Christ-less selves.
The only way that a woman can become one flesh with a man is for you to let him do what God has called him to do. Let him take responsibility for you, not because you need for him to, but because that responsibility corrects the Christ-less him, and your submissive response corrects the Christ-less her.
What if she doesn’t want to submit?
As we said, “submit” is a supplied verb from verse 21. An English statement needs a verb for it to be a complete sentence. Your 3rd-grade grammar teacher harped on this. In Greek grammar, there is no issue with a verb-less sentence. If the verb space is left blank, you supply it from the previous statement.
But for argument sake, let’s leave it blank. Let’s erase submit and fill in some other alternatives.
Wives, LEAVE your husbands. To decapitate a marriage is messy. That is not a good option.
Wives, PROTEST your husbands. That seems to be the climate of our culture and it is not helping the two become one flesh.
Wives, COMPETE with your husbands. She may be fully capable of winning, but it will not be good for the husband she is losing.
Wives, RESIST your husbands. There is nothing more deflating for a loving, sacrificial man than an unresponsive, resistant woman.
Wives, CHANGE your husbands. Yeah, that always goes well 😉
The Bible describes the sins of a woman who seeks to be overcoming rather than submissive. The Bible’s Book of Proverbs gives us the nagging, controlling, demeaning, demanding, withdrawing woman. Then the Book of Proverbs ends with a mother showing her son a true picture of beauty in Proverbs 31. Essentially the book ends with momma counseling her boy, “Son, take your pick.”
Submit to one another as husband and wife, true romance.
If a husband and wife submit to one another, he uses his strength to sacrifice for her. Ephesians 5:33 calls this love. And she, being every bit as capable as him, submits to him by responding to him and encouraging him in his responsibility as head. She connects with him as the body. Ephesians 5:33 calls this respect.
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.Ephesians 5:333
The Good of the Command in Conclusion
The good of the command is that of every command. It calls us beyond ourselves and makes us reliant upon Christ. There is no way that a woman can submit to her husband and respect him, or a man submit to his wife and sacrifice for her, without Christ. Ephesians 5:18 calls this being filled with the Spirit. And Spirit-filled marriage works well in mutual submission.
This command is a witness to the world of what marriage is supposed to look like. Sacrifice and respect. Love and admiration. Christ and the church. A submissive marriage is a living witness of the gospel.
Our culture should be able to look at Christian marriage and see a strong woman who has made a choice to submit and a man who his making a choice to sacrifice for the sake of the Christ who has called them into this marriage. He is not a misogynist and she is not a sexist. They are a picture of Christ and the church. Admirable. Exemplary. Romantic. Different.