“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” When a number of people read Ephesians 5, these are the only words that they see. A number of years ago before I transferred to Bible college, I had a history professor who also happened to be the head of the women’s studies department. Her whole agenda for the course was to point out how unenlightened cultures and religions were in their treatment of women. When she got to Paul it struck a nerve and I vaguely remember calling her out on some absurd point that she was making and she had no response for me because her argument was invalid. But just in case you think I’m a chauvinist pig who won’t accept teaching from a woman, my wife happened to have the same professor years later and also butted heads with the woman.
Anyone who claims that Christianity is repressive to women is ignorant of history as ironically my history professor was. The fact of the matter is that Christianity was and is extremely liberating to women. Jesus had his disciples but so many of His miracles are done for women. It was a woman who first heard the news of the resurrection.
Paul is often criticized for a misunderstanding of passages such as Ephesians 5 and when he writes that a woman is to remain silent in the church. But once again, this fails to understand the background of these statements. One of the ministry teams that Paul worked and traveled with were Priscilla and Aquila. Every time you hear them named, the woman is listed first. This is in all likelihood because she was the greater of the two. In fact, it is possible that Priscilla is the writer of the book of Hebrews. In truth, we have absolutely no clue who wrote Hebrews but she is a possibility. I personally lend a bit more weight to Priscilla being the author because we really have no clue who wrote it. I believe that she may have penned it anonymously, knowing that it wouldn’t be well received by some if they discovered a woman had written it. But once again, we don’t really know.
I say all of this to give some background information to help us understand Ephesians 5. These are not the words of a male chauvinist who is trying to put women in their place. Instead, they are the words of a man who happily worked alongside women in his ministry and actually worked to elevate their status in the ancient Roman world.
For the proper context of Paul’s writing about husbands and wives, we need to back up a verse from where it seems we should start. We start with Ephesians 5:21
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Often people want to make an issue of women submitting to their husbands because the man is the authority and should be in charge. But the reality is that we are all involved in layers and layers of authority and submission. As the pastor, you are all under my authority and should be submissive to it. This doesn’t mean that I can be a tyrant or that I have unchecked power because our denominational structure makes me directly accountable to a bishop. But even if we were a completely independent church, I’m still accountable to God. Every decision I make and everything I ask the church to be submissive to, I am accountable. If I make a poor decision, it not only affects me but it affects the church. The greater the authority, the greater the responsibility that comes with it.
If you look at the word submit, it is most often used in correlation to submitting to God. There’s nothing mysterious about the meaning of the word. It means to put yourself under the authority of another. The idea is that this is a voluntary action. Now, I know that there have been conversions and swordpoint and under threat of violence but overall when one chooses to follow any religion, they do so of their own free will. No one forces them to do it. You might be uncomfortable with the idea of submission but it is central to every religion that I can think of. It is submitting to the ideals of the religion and in most cases the deity of that religion. So Christianity is hardly alone with the idea of submitting to someone or something.
Back to the idea of the wife submitting to the husband. There’s a couple of things here. First and foremost, this does not mean that the man rules every facet of a woman’s life and if he says he’ll be home at 5 and expects dinner to be ready, he has every right to beat her if she doesn’t listen. There is absolutely nothing like that in this although I believe that this was the interpretation by many not that long ago. I’ll come back to explain why that interpretation is absolutely wrong in a bit.
Some of this is a matter of practicality. Someone has to be in charge and final authority is given to the man. That doesn’t mean that the wife has no say in anything. It doesn’t mean that most things should not be mutually agreed upon or compromised. It means someone needs to say “the buck stops here” and make a final decision and then accept full responsibility for that decision. Our democratic system has shown repeatedly that when everybody has a vote, they are mostly going to vote for only what is best for them and not what is best overall. Things like our tax code and health care system are far too complex for me to know what is best and most fair but I do know that most people are going to vote for whatever results in them paying the least in taxes and health care and making someone else foot the difference in cost. We have no such final authority in our democratic system but ideally there would be a final authority who would say “this is the best decision for everyone overall. It won’t make everyone happy but I have to do what is best for as many people as possible and this is it.” The husband is given this authority because the wife should trust him enough to make such decisions. Once again, in politics there is no one that we would trust so absolutely to always make the right decision for the people.
But the husband’s authority is not wielded unchecked. The wife does not submit to taking care of his every whim and basically acting as a slave at his beck and call. Any interpretation of this passage that is similar is absolutely wrong. We need to read on with verses 25-28.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
It’s easy to read this and say, yeah of course I love my wife, that should go without saying. And then continue on to the next passage. But there is a broad difference between the way we love or say we love and the way that we are supposed to love. And that is the key to this entire passage.
Husbands are called to love their wives the way that Christ loves the church. Ok, so you say that means that we have to really love them. Wrong! The love that Christ had for the church was a self sacrificial love. He gave up everything that He had for the sake of the church.
Now I understand that most men are never going to be called to give up their lives for their wives. But the truth of the matter is quite often I won’t sacrifice fifteen seconds of tv time when my wife asks me to rinse out a bowl that I left in the sink. Sure, I have good reasons like the fact that the bowl isn’t going anywhere and it doesn’t need to be rinsed right in the middle of a show but honestly, if it bothers her enough to ask me to do it, I really should be willing to make that tiny sacrifice.
That trivializes the real meaning of this passage though. Men who truly love their wives are always going to be looking out for their best interests, even if it means putting their interests second. I don’t mean to say that women are fragile and need a man to protect them. If we’re really honest with ourselves, I think we can all agree that men and women are slightly different physically, emotionally, and mentally. I honestly don’t believe that one sex is superior to the other, we’re just different.
While men have been given authority over women, there’s another side to that coin. The other side of that coin is responsibility. Let’s take a fairly mundane decision like where to go on vacation. There’s two options that cost the same and everything else is essentially the same. One place the wife wants to go to and the husband wants to go to the other. There is no reasonable compromise that will make them both happy. A decision has to be made and ultimately after receiving input from his wife and weighing all possibilities, the man has to make a decision. If the man loves his wife the way this passage says, it’s not even a debate, he sacrifices his choice and chooses his wife’s destination.
So, how does all of this tie into a wife being submissive? The last few verses gives us the answer.
29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
A wife whose husband loves her like Christ loves the church should have no problem submitting to him because she knows that he’ll never do anything to harm her or humiliate her. We mistakenly look at submission as a matter of control where one has authority over another. Instead, this is really a matter of love and responsibility. We can’t be loved unless we are submissive. If we decide to do things our own way, if we always insist on being the one in charge, we can’t be loved.
Sometimes when I visit older people in particular, they’ll insist on offering me something to eat or drink. Instinctively, I’m the type of person who doesn’t take anything from anyone and doesn’t for anything. When I accomplish something, I want to say that I did it and that nothing was handed to me. But if I refuse something from somebody in such a situation, I deny them the opportunity to show appreciation and love.
I’ll never forget shortly before I left VA a lady insisted on having me over for dinner. I really didn’t want to go but she insisted. This lady’s husband had passed away six months earlier and I knew that she didn’t have much to begin with. The house was in very bad shape as I expected. In the dining room I noticed several cockroaches scurrying across the floor and other things. It was a place that I believe most people would be very uncomfortable. But this lady had gone all out to prepare this meal and it really was delicious. Not only did I allow myself to be served by this woman, but I could tell that she took genuine delight in her ability to do this for me. But I had to be submissive and place myself in a position where I wasn’t in control. I won’t say that it is a universal rule but I’m confident in saying that in many cases we must be submissive in order to receive the love that others have for us.
Husbands are responsible for giving that kind of love. When a wife is submissive, the husband must not betray the trust that he is given but he must treat her with constant dignity and respect. It is not a matter of getting what he wants because he is the man and the authority but rather making sure that she is loved properly because he is the man and she is his responsibility.
Before we conclude, I’m sure that some of you are sitting there saying, “My wife is an absolute hard head and she would sooner spit on me than submit to anything I ask.” Or perhaps, “My husband is a jerk and only looks out for himself. I can’t be submissive because he would take advantage of that.” Both of these statements are true for a lot of people and we don’t live in a perfect world where this ideal is played out too often. What do we do then? It is our responsibility to love regardless. Allow me to finish with a story.
A long time ago in China a woman was constantly belittled and abused by her mother-in-law who lived with her and her husband. After a long time of abuse she had finally had enough and decided that she was going to kill the woman. She went to an herbalist and asked for some poison to carry out the deed and hopefully not be caught. The old man said that he had just what she needed but that it needed to be administered slowly so as not to arouse suspicion. Each day she should put a drop of poison in a cup of tea and give it to her mother-in-law. After a number of weeks she would grow weak and eventually die.
The woman did as the herbalist said. Each day she would brew tea and give it to her mother-in-law. What happened next was unexpected however. As the days and weeks went by, she noticed that her mother-in-law’s attitude toward her had changed. Instead of the hateful barbs she received, she actually got words of thanks and praise. She no longer wanted to kill the old woman. Upon realizing this she rushed back to the herbalist and demanded an antidote for the poison she had been giving her mother-in-law. Upon hearing the story, the herbalist laughed and said that the woman she wanted dead was dead and had been replaced with a kinder woman because of her actions. As for the poison, there never had been any, just vitamins to improve the old woman’s health.
The point of the story is that your spouse or maybe coworker or family member may be ungrateful, spiteful, and unloving. It does no good to stand around and point out their faults. Instead we must be the ones to initiate the change by first loving them.
As for Paul’s teaching regarding husbands and wives, we must be submissive to receive love from a spouse but when we love it should always be with the other’s best interest in mind. It is never about us when someone submits, but rather what we can do for them.