Wives Submit to Your Husbands; Husbands Love Your Wives

Few passages in Scripture have caused as much emotion and disagreement as Ephesians 5:22-23.  Few passages have also been as abused, and as a result, inflicted such grief to families as this passage.  Yet, in spite of often being misunderstood and feared, the passage has also ushered great harmony into Christian marriages when it is recognized for what it teaches.

I suspect that the primary reason this passage has been the center of so much emotion is because it seems to suggest that God has established a hierarchy in marriage.  A hierarchy is a system in which one party has some kind of authority or status over another.  This seems to suggest inequality, which goes against our grain as men and women. Yet, there it is, in plain, black and white language, for the husband is the head of the wife.  It is easy to see why an improper understanding of this passage can quickly set the stage for abuse.

Let me first dispense with a teaching that continues to circulate among churches, of which I feel is wrong. Often it is suggested that in a marriage there must be mutual submission.  This is based on Eph 5:21, which says, submit “to one another in the fear of God.” Teachers will often show how this passage sets the tone, and is linked to the next few verses.  I have actually heard it said that God desires for the husband to submit to his wife just as the wife is to submit to her husband.

One of the problems with mutual submission is that it makes no sense.  It dismantles leadership and stalls forward motion.  No employer submits to his employees in the same way that they submit to him.  If that happened, then no decisions could ever be made.  Furthermore, if mutual submission is what God intends for a marriage, we would have no basis for understanding this type of organization; there is no Biblical model.  No, within every system that God has developed there exists some type of leadership that requires one party to submit to the other. If God intends for mutual submission in a marriage, then He gave it to us without any specific instructions, or example of how we are to understand it.

I do not believe that God intends for the husband and wife to be mutually submissive to one another.  Eph. 5:21 is a call for how church members are to be in relationship.  In marriage, I believe that God’s perfect design is for the husband to be the head, and the wife to submit to her husband. Not only does Paul say it to the Ephesians, but he says the same thing to the Colossians (Col. 3:18-19) and to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:3).  Peter says it as well (1 Peter 3:1).  Mutual submission is not mentioned in any of these passages. It is not part of the plan.

A second teaching that we should  be cautious of is termed spiritual leadership.  After reading the passage in Ephesians, many interpret that the husband is the spiritual head of his wife, as if his leadership is limited to that realm.  The word “spiritual” does not appear in any text dealing with a husband’s leadership.  People usually insert the word to soften its blow, or to introduce their own version of what marriage should be.  Although it may be true that the husband is the spiritual head of his wife, we need to recognize that if we use that term we are inserting a word that is not in the text.

So what does all of this mean?  Is the husband supposed to lord over his wife?  is the wife supposed to become a servant to her husband?

Fortunately, we have enough Biblical data to answer “no” to both of these questions.  Let me explain as I address the two roles in marriage.

To the husband: Paul makes it clear the kind of leadership he intends.  In Eph 5:25, Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for her.  In other words, husbands are to imitate Jesus’ love for His church in the marriage. How did Jesus love the church?  Paul reminds us: Jesus died for the church.  Husbands are called to live sacrificially for their wives.  Jesus did not browbeat the church.  He did not abuse, neglect, nor put His own needs ahead of the church.  His love is tender and compassionate. His love does not force its own way.  His love is not hard to submit to.

I believe a perfect model for husbands is the picture set for us in John 13.  Jesus was meeting with “the church” in the upper room.  We see him taking a basin and towel, getting on His knees and washing the feet of His bride.  That’s your picture, husbands.  That’s how you lead your wives.  The initiative falls on your lap.  Husbands do not wait for their wives to serve them, rather, they take up the towel.  They set the example.  This is true leadership.  Jesus never strong-armed the church.

But, you may ask, what if my wife will not follow my leadership?

Jesus never forced anyone to follow His lead.  His service to the church was a gentle invitation.  It is not dependent upon the response He gets.  I believe He would lead even if no one followed.  Remember, He also washed the feet of Judas, who rejected Him.

A husband’s focus must always be to imitate Jesus.  If his wife chooses not to follow him, then that is between her and God.  The moment he says, I’m in charge, you must follow me, he is out of line.  A godly husband focuses on his own role, not hers.

To the wife: We need to remember that submission is not a bad word.  Jesus said that He was here to submit to His Father’s will, not His own (John 6:38). If it was bad, Jesus would not have submitted.  Submission is something that all Christians are called to do-not just women.

But, aren’t women and men equal?  Why should I submit to someone who is my equal?

Jesus is equal to God, yet He joyfully submitted to Him (Philip. 2:6).  Do you have greater rights and prerogatives than Jesus?

By living in submission, wives are imitating Jesus, which is God’s will for all of us.  Yes, men and women are equal (Gal. 3:28).  But, equality in nature does not necessarily mean equality in roles.  Two things can be equal in value but have different functions. Women and men are equal before God, but are clearly designed to fulfill different roles.

Submission is also something done for God, not husbands.  A wife who submits to her husband is doing it to please the Lord.

So, what does submission to a husband look like?  Fortunately, Paul gives us the answer.  He says that women are to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord.  In other words,  the example is the church submitting unto the Lord.  The church is called to follow Jesus. The church is called to assist Jesus is His ministry on earth.  The church is called to imitate Jesus.

Just as a godly husband must focus on his own role, I believe that a godly wife must concern herself with her own calling.  She should avoid the temptation to shape her husband into the leader that she wants.  After all, what she wants for him may not be what God wants for him.  Maybe he is already providing the leadership that God desires for her.  Trying to reshape him may be fighting God’s will.

For both men and women, marriage is a training ground where we learn to surrender ourselves to God.  It is a place where we learn to die to ourselves, and submit to God.  It is a system that God has ordained, for this life, wherein He desires to teach us obedience to Him.  If we reject the roles that God has created in marriage for ourselves, we are rejecting God’s will for us.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.



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