God’s Call to Wives and The Rationale for the Call
If you were to read the writings of philosophers, theologians, and ethicists from the ancient world–men like Aristotle–you’d find that they frequently wrote about the duties of individuals toward one another within a society—parents and children, masters and slaves, etc. These were known as “household codes” and were an important part of a person’s moral education. And that makes sense, right? If families and societies are going to function in any sort of cohesive way, it’s natural that there would be some sort of instruction on how people should relate to one another.
So, when Paul covers this same ground in several of his letters, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to his readers. Paul affirms that, yes, how we relate to one another is important, but he doesn’t simply mimic what the larger culture says. Instead, he re-casts how we relate to one another in light of what God has done for us in Jesus. He wants us to see and pursue relationships from a distinctively gospel-centered, Christ-centered perspective. He wants us to see the call God has given to each of us as we follow Jesus together.
In Ephesians 5:22- 24, we see God’s call to wives. (Don’t worry – next, we’ll look at God’s call to husbands!)
What The Call to Submission IS and ISN’T
Near the beginning of each Mission Impossible film (one of our family’s favorites), Ethan Hunt gets a message outlining his next mission. It’s always something that appears crazy, something that appears, well…impossible. But, invariably, he says yes to the call. Yes, to the very thing that may go against his feelings and instincts, but something he knows is worthwhile, nonetheless. Saying yes to that call is the most important part of every film—everything else is simply an outworking of the details.
Look with me at Ephesians 5:21. Wives receive a call that may seem just as crazy, just as impossible, at first glance: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Paul repeats the same thing in verse 24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
There probably aren’t many verses in the entire Bible that can elicit such a visceral, negative reaction as these.
So, I want to make sure you understand what Paul is—and isn’t—saying. The intent is clarity; the intent is understanding God’s word.
Paul’s command is clear enough: “wives, submit to your own husbands…wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” These verses aren’t about women being subservient to men in general. They’re not about a married woman submitting to some other guy. They’re not about relationships in the workplace or in society at large. The context is the marriage relationship between a husband and a wife. So, ladies: your application of these verses is how you relate to your husband. That’s it. That’s what Paul is discussing.
He says to “submit”—that’s the verb that shows up in both verses.
- That doesn’t mean being a doormat, allowing yourself to be treated terribly, and never saying or doing anything about it.
- It doesn’t mean that you don’t assert your God-given dignity as an image-bearer of God and daughter of the King.
- It doesn’t mean that you don’t offer opinions and wisdom and insight and counsel to your husband.
- It doesn’t mean glibly following your husband into catastrophe. You know, he says, “Honey, I really think it would be a great idea to take every dime of our life savings and gamble it on this business venture that a Nigerian prince told me about over email,” and you say, “Well, I’m supposed to submit, so okay.”
- It doesn’t mean following him into sin: “Well, I know extortion is wrong, but that’s what he wants to do, so I guess I’ll go along with it.”
Now, you might say, “Brian, doesn’t the end of verse 24 say that wives are supposed to submit in everything to their husbands”? Yes, but you obviously can’t take that as an absolute—if you did, you’d have Paul telling wives to sin if their husband tells them to. No, just like Paul’s use of the word “everything” in verse 20, he’s using hyperbolic, over-the-top language to make the point: the default should be to submit.
Commentator Frank Thielman gives a helpful caveat:
The principle [of submission] was commonly understood not to apply in cases where ignorance, harm, or wrongdoing came into play. In the same way, Paul probably would have thought that when difficult situations arose, wives should use their discernment in “find[ing] out what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:10) and in doing it, although that might mean noncompliance with their husband’s wishes.
(And let me say this, parenthetically: husbands, if you complain, “My wife isn’t being submissive,” and you’re treating her badly or disrespecting her or not honoring who God has made her to be or you’re leading her down destructive paths, and she won’t submit–you’re the problem. The kind of submission you envision isn’t the kind the Bible discusses.)
Rather, when Paul says to submit, he means that wives are to follow the lead of their husbands—again, assuming it isn’t sin or some kind of obvious folly that’s going to get people hurt. They are to place themselves under his leadership and authority as the head of the home.
This isn’t something they’re forced into; it’s something they do purposefully and willingly.
A Message That’s Counter to Today’s Culture
I know this message doesn’t fly well in our modern world. In fact, if you are a wife, you may be a bit uneasy—maybe even offended—by what Paul has said here. When we find ourselves in that position when we read Scripture, it can be helpful to ask ourselves why we’re reacting as we are. There are always factors that contribute to how we react. And make no mistake: we’re in a culture that makes a statement like Paul’s seem completely out-of-bounds, if not downright absurd. I want to identify a few of those cultural factors that may make what Paul says in these verses difficult for us to embrace.
Misunderstanding what biblical submission is, and what it isn’t, is a main factor. We’ve already discussed this, but it’s worth re-iterating. Submission isn’t weakness. Submission isn’t being “less than.” Genesis 1 makes it clear that both men and women are made in God’s image, equal in personhood and dignity. Furthermore, Paul teaches in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, in Christ, we are equal; we are co-heirs of the inheritance we have as children of God, united to Christ by faith.
The biblical teaching that men and women are equal is unique in the history of the world—at least in terms of systematic teaching. It certainly wasn’t this way in the world in which Paul was writing.
New Testament scholar William Barclay wrote this: “The whole Greek way of life made companionship between man and wife next to impossible. The Greek expected his wife to run his home, to care for his legitimate children, but he found his pleasure and his companionship elsewhere … In Greece, home and family life were near to being extinct, and fidelity was completely non-existent … In Rome in Paul’s day the matter was still worse … The degeneracy of Rome was tragic … It is not too much to say that the whole atmosphere of the ancient world was adulterous … The marriage bond was on the way to complete breakdown.”
Scholar Charles Steltman says this of the Roman world: “A girl was completely under her father’s, a wife completely under her husband’s, power. She was his chattel … Her life was one of legal incapacity which amounted to enslavement, while her status was described as ‘imbecilitas.’”
On the other hand, the Bible sees women as equal in personhood; Jesus especially honored women in his ministry; women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb; and everywhere Christianity has traveled around the world, it has invariably led to the elevation in status of women and girls. Always.
Submission has nothing to do with lesser dignity.
2. Karl Marx
That may sound strange, so let me briefly explain. Karl Marx, the father of Marxism, a particularly virulent form of socialism and an avowed enemy of Christianity, ostensibly wanted to do away with hierarchy, authority, of any sort. In his worldview, everything—all relationships and all social structures—were functions of oppressor and oppressed. Therefore, all relationships must be egalitarian in all ways–no hierarchy, no “leader” and “led.” Not only is such a scenario impossible practically (think about workplaces, sports teams, clubs, etc.), but it’s against the Bible’s clear teachings about the reality and nature of authority in many realms of life, from the family to the government. Still, Marxism has infiltrated our cultural atmosphere to such an extent that the ideas of submission or authority seem ridiculous and stifling. And that has colored the way we often think about the relationship between husband and wife, which leads to our next reason for misunderstanding.
I’m not referring to the desire for women to have equal rights and protections under the law—we all want those things, and I’m thankful for those who worked for them. I’m talking about the philosophy known as feminism. At least in the forms it’s taken since the 1960’s and even before in the writings of authors like Simone de Beauvoir, feminism has taken Marxist ideology and overlaid it on top of the relationship between men and women. Men are the oppressor, and women are the oppressed. So, women are often encouraged to seek complete independence from—and in some cases, antagonism toward—men. And in that atmosphere, the idea that a woman should submit to anyone—especially to a man, even if it’s her husband—is anathema.
4. Failing Husbands
Some husbands are abusers, or neglectful, or persistently foolish, or all of the above. Perhaps you have seen one of these kinds of men in your father, or in a friend’s husband, or in your own husband. And because of that, you can’t even conceptualize what it would look like to submit to your husband—even if he isn’t guilty of anything; it’s simply the association of what you’ve seen and heard elsewhere. Submission sounds dangerous, perhaps even traumatic. Sister, if that’s the situation you find yourself in, please talk to one of your sisters in Christ, to your pastor, or to a counselor. There may be some very real, very serious hurt there.
Likewise, there may be some things that truly need to change with your husband—he may need to undergo a time of deep repentance. And submission may be more of a gradual, step-by-step process because of areas in his life where it would be wrong to submit to him (as discussed above). So, submit where you can, biblically, but realize that it may be “a little here, a little there” as your husband learns what it means to be the kind of man God has called him to be.
But please, don’t give up on the call to be submissive. It’s meant to be a blessing—yes, a blessing—that God wants you to experience.
Remember earlier that I said Paul’s household codes are different from the surrounding culture? Here’s the first place we really see that come into play.
Aristotle would have agreed that wives should submit to their husbands, but here’s why: he taught that women in general should be subservient to men because they were lesser beings—and he wouldn’t have been alone in that assessment. It was taken as a truism that women weren’t as good, so, of course, wives should submit to their husbands. But that’s not how Paul reasons. Look at how he frames his command in Ephesians 5:22. Remember that the verse numbers and section breaks weren’t part of Paul’s writing; they are simply added for the reader’s convenience. Verse 22 flows out of verse 21: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” In other words, we all submit to one another, in one sense, in the relationships he outlines in chapters 5 and 6.
Yes, wives, children, and slaves/employees are overtly called to submission, but husbands, parents, and masters/employers are called to submission in the sense of humbly serving those over whom they exercise authority. So, submission isn’t a dirty word. It’s a blessing; it’s actually a mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit, according to Paul’s argument in verses 15-21 of Ephesians 5.
Wives submitting to their husbands is simply a subset of the larger principle of mutual, Spirit-empowered submission among believers.
Look at what comes after Paul’s command: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Ultimately, submitting to your husband isn’t even about your husband, even if he’s wonderful and easy to submit to. It’s about Jesus. You submit as an act of worship.
You’re saying, “Lord Jesus, I’ll follow my husband’s lead, not primarily because he is good or because I feel like it, but because this is the relational structure you’ve established for our good and for your glory. So, by faith, I’m going to submit.”
Sisters, submit to your husbands boldly, joyfully. Don’t listen to the culture. God isn’t asking you to become less. He’s asking you to become more by doing as he’s calling you to do.
The Rationale for the Call
I’ve had some stomach trouble recently. When my doctor told me some foods to cut back on and suggested a medicine for me to take, I needed to understand both the basic pathophysiology of the problem and why those dietary restrictions and medicine would be helpful. Once I did, I was ready to move forward much more eagerly than I would have otherwise. What can I say? I love to get the rationale for things I’m being asked to do.
When we come to Scripture, I love to read rationales there as well. God tells us something to do, and then he tells us why. Now, don’t get me wrong—he doesn’t owe us a rationale. He’s God and doesn’t need a reason to tell me what to do. Whatever he says is right, and his word goes… or at least, it should. But I do like to know the reason for what he’s telling me when he chooses to reveal it.
Thankfully, this is one of those times that God does just that. Look at verse 23. Paul tells wives that their call is to submit in 22, and then in verses 23-24, he tells them why: “For”—there’s the rationale language, the basis language—“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.”
Like any good teacher, Paul makes a straightforward statement and then illustrates it to help get the point across. He helps them see the rationale for the call they’ve been given in two ways.
First, he helps them see who they (and their husbands) are. He writes that the husband is the head, i.e., the leader, of the wife “even as” Jesus is the head, or leader, “of the church, his body.” So, just as the church is Jesus’ beloved—the one who is attached to him and identified with him, and in the position of being led, so the wife is the husband’s beloved—attached to him and identified with him—and also in the position of the one being led.
And don’t miss that last phrase: “…and is himself its Savior.” In other words, Jesus is the one who laid down his life for the one who is in submission to him. His love would spare no expense. He didn’t despise his submitted church; he died for it.
You see? If you look at a wife submitting to her husband through this lens, it’s obvious that the wife isn’t a doormat or “the minority partner” in a business arrangement. She isn’t a slave or a nanny or a housekeeper. God forbid that a husband should see his wife like that. It dishonors his bride, and it dishonors Jesus, because it distorts the image Scripture gives us of his relationship to his bride, the church.
Second, he helps them see what they are to do. Look again at verse 24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” We’ve talked about the last part of this verse already, but now we see its full significance. Can you imagine the church not submitting to Jesus? Yes, individual members of the church are guilty of that—we all are at times. And entire congregations are guilty of that sometimes. But the design is that the church, the body of Christ wherever it’s found, would submit to Jesus and follow his lead.
And in the same way, Jesus’ bride, his church, submits to him, wives are to submit to their husbands. Granted, you’ll never do this perfectly. And your husbands won’t lead perfectly. But by God’s grace, we’ll both get better—husbands at leading, wives at submitting. And the more that happens, the more our marriages will reflect an even greater reality.
Jesus—the Lord of heaven and earth—is the model of submission. He submitted to His Father. Perfectly. He wasn’t weak. He wasn’t “less than.” He willingly, joyfully submitted to his Father by taking on flesh. By dying on the cross. By walking out of the grave at the Father’s word. And why did he do it? What was his rationale? Look in the mirror. Look around you. Jesus lived a life of submission for us. For wives who have failed to submit like they should. For husbands who have failed to lead like they should. For sinners of all kinds. His submission cost him everything. He was humiliated. He was mistreated. He bore burdens that weren’t his to bear by taking our sin upon himself and paying the price for every bit of it. His submission means our salvation, if we repent and trust in him.
Run to Jesus, our submissive, strong, Savior, today.
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