To people who don’t hold to the Christian faith, especially women I think, submission is a four-letter word, and they can’t believe we Christian women ascribe to it. (Heck, to some women actually in the Christian faith, submission is a four-letter word.)
“No man is going to tell me what to do…” et cetera, et cetera.
And I get that. And I believed that up to the point where I accepted Christ at the age of fifteen. Okay, up to the point where I read this verse:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” –Ephesians 5:22
The first time I read that, I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit. If someone had asked me before that time, I would’ve said I considered myself a feminist in that I believed men and women are equal.
And I still believe that. And I believe God believes that. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re talking about how totally clear the Bible is that a wife is to submit to her husband, and what that means.
I remember my youth pastor’s wife telling me that submission was something that, if done well, you could barely even tell it was happening. Meaning, you’ll be loved so well that you won’t mind deferring when the situation arises. I felt okay with that definition of it and moved on with my life. (Plus it tends to be easy to be okay with the idea of submission when you aren’t even dating anyone.)
But what do you do when – as a wife – you don’t feel loved well and yet the Bible says to submit to your husband?
I think I thought during all those years that I was married (and even a few before marriage, as illustrated here) that submission meant I had to do what I was told. We never talked about it like that. But I made choices that reflected that belief.
And even now as I look back on my choices – mainly to let myself be told what to do, to let sin go on for years and years and years – I struggle with wondering if my newfound hutzpah is just nazi-feminism and if given the same circumstances if I would – in the name of submission – make all the same choices again.
Because bottomline, in a marriage, I would want to please God. And pleasing God means following what’s in the Bible. And the Bible says to submit to your husband – wait for it – in everything. (Ephesians 5:24)
People – way smarter than I am – have written volumes on this topic, and I couldn’t do it justice no matter how much I wrote about it. But I’m reading a book by Dr. Larry Crabb that is super good and it’s rearranging my thinking a bit, in a really helpful way.
Because Dr. Crabb says, basically, that yes, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands in everything. E-ver-y-thing. And that every word of God’s word is for our benefit. And that “a feminine woman discerns and is open to receive only what reflects God’s character and advances His purposes.” And so therefore, submission can look like this:
Saying no, with respect, to your husband who asks you to co-sign a loan that has purposely inaccurate financial information on it. Because to live a life of integrity will reflect God’s character in that situation.
Saying no, with respect, to your husband who suggests a threesome. Because to live a life of purity will reflect God’s character in that situation.
Saying no, with respect, to your husband who is intoxicated before getting in the car with him. Because to live a life that respects the preciousness of life will reflect God’s character in that situation.
Telling someone, respectfully, that there is abuse or addiction in your marriage and asking for help. Because desiring to have your marriage truly represent Christ’s love for the body of believers and to live in authenticity and wholeness will reflect God’s character in that situation.
Leaving for a time, respectfully, if you are in physical danger and/or sin patterns are not being acknowledged and repented of. Because bringing what’s dark out into the light for Christ to heal could reflect God’s character in that situation.
If you are told (or if it is being implied) by your husband or – God forbid – your church that submission to your husband means sometimes you must sin or that you should even allow sin, you are being misled.
Yes, the ideal is that your husband will love you as Christ loves the Church and so therefore, submitting to his loving care of you will actually be a wonderful, life-affirming experience. But life isn’t always like that. And I’ve seen too many broken Christian marriages where the wife is being mistreated left and right. So in those cases, you can submit in everything by making the choice that will most reflect God’s character. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No, not with the Spirit indwelling.
If this post helped you, I would encourage you to check out “Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage”, found here.
It’s amazing to me how that passage (Eph 5:21) is routinely pulled out, divorced from its context. The previous verse sets off the series of directives by saying “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” then the following go on to outline that.
Submit to one another
A. Wives submit to husbands
A1. Husbands love wives
B. Children obey parents
B1. Parents (father) don’t exasperate children
C. Slaves to masters
C1. Masters treat slaves “in the same way.”
The bigger irony is that in this passage we focus on that which would have been the mundane in Paul’s day (wives, children, and slaves submitting) and we ignore the revolutionary. To expect the husband/master to treat anyone below him on the totem pole with love is what’s radical about this passage. Women already submitted to their husbands. Further, how did Christ love the church? He submitted his very life for its benefit. What’s most radical about Christian relationships is mutuality in service, leadership, and submission. It’s those with power (tends to be men) emptying themselves of power over another, as Christ did.
There’s some good resources at cbeinternational.org. Here’s a short article about this passage: http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/ephesians-518-33
Years ago I read a book which claimed that wives had to submit but were in no way obligated to love their husband as the command to love was given to husbands, not wives. I realized immediately how absurd this was as we are all called to love. Then it occurred to me that we are also all instructed to submit to each other. Why was the call to love seen as universal but not the call to submit? Also, when we submit to God, we are submitting to the one who has declared that he came to free us from oppression and who wants us to be like our teacher. So Why do we have this idea that husbands have been directed to command and control? That’s not how God does it!
Such an important discussion! Personally, early in my marriage I lived out that verse as “submit to your husband as your lord.” Not healthy for myself nor my husband. Nine years, much prayer/work/tears, and with a great rearranging of my priorities in life, and I can honestly say my husband is my greatest supporter of how our God is working in and through my life. Never would have believed it even five years ago. You are doing such important work, Elizabeth, in giving hope to so many women who feel forgotten and voiceless. Praying blessings for you this morning!
Oh WOW…..and whoa….WHAT an excellent insight and I agree – totally —
Thank you for being so truthful! I will look into that book —
…that key word is RESPECT!
This is a wonderfully balanced piece.
I would never ask my wife to submit to me in any form that diminishes her self worth, since she is His daughter before she is anything to me.
Also, I would never ask het to submit to me, if I wasn’t fulfilling Ephesians. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, If I’m not doing that, I forfeit any implied “authority.”
This whole argument is usually presented backwards to me anyway. My “authority” is to love my wife like Christ loved the church. I’m called to place her needs before my own, to give my life for hers. How does that get twisted into submission to tyranny?
“If you are told (or if it is being implied) by your husband or – God forbid – your church that submission to your husband means sometimes you must sin or that you should even allow sin, you are being misled.”
AMEN!!!! Loved this article!! Thank you !!
What a great way of looking at this Elisabeth! I couldn’t agree more, when you say women should not do anything in the name of “submission” that would go against the Lord. After all, our first authority is God, not our husbands. Whenever I write about submission, I always begin with Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.” For me that one sentence, which begins the passage on marriage, sums up this discussion. First of all, that we are to submit to ONE ANOTHER, (mutual submission), and secondly, that we are to be in reverence to Christ in our submission. Thanks for another great blog!
Thank you for reading and commenting, Caroline! -Elisabeth
I had it all wrong, too, for a very long time. I thought “submitting” meant signing loans that had no hope of being paid back, not holding my ex-husband accountable for much of anything he did, allowing him to not respect our marriage…I allowed this to happen and although I knew it wasn’t right, prayed that if I just stepped back and let it continue, my then-husband would eventually “get” it and come to me and we could make our marriage work.
I had tried getting him to come to church, counseling (both of us and individually), praying, talking with him, writing him numerous letters, telling his father to stop enabling him, etc., etc., etc. Thankfully I FINALLY realized your points, Elisabeth, that allowing him to sin and/or enabling it (signing more loan papers) was NOT what God meant by submitting. Unfortunately, when I started holding him accountable, it was easier for him to seek out someone else who would give him the pity/”understanding” (“oh, poor you, everyone is so MEAN to you; life is so UNFAIR to you!”) and when I did hold him accountable for that, he made choices that left my only choice to be to end our marriage.
Our pastor said something in his Easter sermon that was really revealing, when he quoted the verses about submission. He said, “Wives, you really have the easy part.” (I think there was actually a gasp from the congregation). “Husbands have the hard part because they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And Christ loved the church so much that HE DIED FOR HER. Are you ready to die for your wife?” So to me it put that into perspective, for me and as an answer for those who see the verse only as demeaning to women.
Thanks for another good post!
Thanks, Shelly! -Elisabeth