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Husbands, submit to your wives

iStock/Dmitriy Fesenko
iStock/Dmitriy Fesenko

Right out of the gate, I can hear some of you saying already: “Now hold on just a minute … the Bible says that a wife is supposed to submit to her husband and not the other way around! Is this some kind of woke, radical feminist thing I’m about to read?”

No, it’s not.

I’ll give you that Scripture instructs wives to submit to their husbands; Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says, “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” (5:22-24).

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Case closed, right? Well, not so fast.

A lot of messages on the subject of marriage that quote Paul’s text in Ephesians make the mistake of starting with verse 22 primarily because, in many Bibles, there are section breaks in the text that give the impression the topic starts there. In reality, the context for it begins a couple of verses prior, which ends this way:

“… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vs. 21, my emphasis).

That changes things just a bit on what follows in the next set of verses on submission, doesn’t it?

With verse 21, the Apostle first says we are to submit to each other and then follows it up by discussing how that plays out with 1. husbands and wives in 5:22-33; 2. children and parents in 6:1-4; 3. indentured servants and those for whom they work in 6:5-9.

The highest possible standard

Let’s first discuss a few points in Paul’s section on wives submitting to their husbands. First, note it doesn’t say that women submit to men; if you want that paradigm, you’ll need to find a different religion.

A while back, one of my sisters-in-law was about to get on an elevator with a guy who was behind her. She boarded first and looked at him thinking he’d get on, but he said, “My religion says I am not to be alone with a woman” in a tone that implied she should get off. “Oh,” I guess you’ll be taking the next one then …” she said as she hit the ‘Close Doors’ button.

Next, the wives’ submission isn’t one of blind, unquestioning obedience. In his commentary on Ephesians, Harold Hoehner says: “This little phrase [“in everything”] must, however, not be interpreted as if it meant “absolutely everything.” If the husband should demand her to do things contrary to the moral and spiritual principles established by God himself, submission would be wrong (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19, 20).” 

Are we all good so far?

If so, onto the husband’s responsibility to his wife, the text of which reads: “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” (Eph. 5:25-30).

Notice how the husband gets more than double the number of verses than the wife? Why? Because back in Paul’s day, wives submitting to their husbands was par for the course in the culture. But husbands loving their wives in a servant kind of way? Nope.

To be sure, the word ‘submit’ is nowhere in the above text, so where do I get the idea that husbands are supposed to submit to their wives? From the fact that 1. Paul kicked off this section by saying we are to submit to one another in verse 21 and, 2. love always implicitly involves submission to someone else’s needs and desires, i.e., putting the other person first and acting in a servant-like manner, with Christ being used as the example in this case.  

Scripture tells us, in general, to “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Rom. 12:10) and “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:3–5).

Paul uses the highest possible standard (Christ) in the verse above and in his section on submission in Ephesians to make his point for husbands. We are to be servant-leaders to our wives in the same vein as Jesus describes Himself: “... whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:26-28). 

Put another way, it's hard not to submit to someone when you become their slave in a servant manner as described above. And that’s the example Paul gives us in Jesus when he’s instructing husbands on how to love and behave towards their wives.

Things get elevated a bit more when we think about wives loving and serving their husbands for the same reason we love God: “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). In other words, a husband’s love for his wife results in her loving him back.  
If a husband isn’t submitting to and loving his wife in that manner, he’s unknowingly living out the curse God placed on humanity when our first parent fell. Addressing the woman in Genesis 3, God said: “ … your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Wives deliberately manipulating their husbands and husbands riding roughshod over their wives happens all the time, but that’s not how things are supposed to be.

The whole idea of submission has a bitter taste to many today, primarily because it implies dominance and weakness. But the fact is, submission does not mean inferiority with the highest example being Jesus submitting to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28), even though He is fully God.

One last important point: When I submit to my wife, I don’t abdicate my leadership role in our home at all. On the contrary, it demonstrates leadership at its zenith because I’m leading out of my love for her and desire to do what’s right to properly care for her.

And for certain, the type of submission a husband has for his wife is different than what she has for him. It’s clear there is a defined order in the three groups Paul discusses with husbands having authority in marriage, parents having the same with their children, and bosses with their workers. Someone must have oversight, with such supervision hopefully being devoid of a me-monster spirit.   

The bottom line for us in all of this is where we started: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vs. 21). It’s a different way to live than most do in our culture for sure, but nothing bears more goodness, peace, and joy in a relationship.  

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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