A friend of mine recently posted a picture of a study she was doing on Ephesians 5. The author (I don’t know who he was) talked about a need for women to fit into the role God designed for them when He created them as women, and to follow the script of His divine drama, which is the Bible.
And of course the book highlighted a wife’s need to submit to her husband in everything.
Because I have a wife, whom I respect and care for, this particular way of interpreting the passage left me a little irked. Why? Well, lets take a look at this passage and perhaps the reasons will become clear.
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Well, there you have it. The Bible is crystal clear on the subject; wives need to submit to their husband’s authority as we all submit to Christ. The Bible said it, ladies, not me. If you want to be a good Christian, submit to your husband!
Now, if you are like me or you are a women who has a strong will, good leadership skills, and negative experiences with this verse you may be feeling a deep unsettling tension in your soul. It’s almost as if someone is trying to choke your worth.
I implore you, hold on. I think there is far more in this passage than meets the eye.
First, we forgot the most important rule of biblical interp – Context!
Lets take a look at the context. First, we will look at the immediate context. Then, we will dive into the New Testament picture of submission and “biblical” roles to see if we can’t understand what’s going on here.
Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Ok, that changes things a little bit. ALL are to be submissive. What exactly does this “all” mean? The text says, “submit to one another.” The Greek translates literally, “all of you are subordinate to one another” or “all of you are to submit yourself under the authority of one another.” The language used isn’t a slave to master type of submission, but carries more of a submission out of love or reverence feel to it.
Therefore, all Christians are to have a humble and submissive attitude, even men. This instruction isn’t just for women. Although the context places women in the submissive roll in a marriage, the context also makes clear that men are not exempt from a submissive, humble attitude toward his wife.
Ok, that was the immediate context before. Let us dive past v. 22-24 and see what we can find. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). Now we enter into the instruction for men in marital relationships. We husbands are to “be like Christ” specifically in his efforts to give his own life for his bride. I think this falls well into the context, because Christ’s self-sacrificial love was submissive, gentle, and humble. Paul is expounding on what a marriage looks like when both sides are “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The husband may have been given the role of authority, but biblical authority—as evidenced by Christ destroying the authority of Satan and death on the cross—is not power hungry and manipulative, but humble and submissive.
Furthermore, as we begin to unpack the “drama” of Christ and the church (that is the context of the NT as a whole), we see a relationship that gives the bride a unique privilege. The Groom has invited His bride into his story, allowing us to partner with Him. He gives us a say in prayer, He gives us opportunity to succeed or fail with each choice we make with His resources and His church, and He is patient and kind, not lording His authority over us. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:29, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Submission in the New Testament can be a tricky concept to unpack.
We have verses that speak of submission to God (Jas 4:7), demons submitting to disciples (Lk 10:17), believers submitting to one another (Eph 5:21), wives submitting to husbands (Eph 5:22, Col 3:18), slaves submitting to masters (1 Peter 2:18), submitting to governing authorities (Rom 13:5), and younger believers submitting to elders (1 Peter 5:5).
Basically, submission has to do with recognizing who has the authority, and respecting it.
First, we Christians can all agree that God has the highest authority, which can never be revoked.
What about slave masters? Can their authority be revoked? Have we as a culture not come to a place where slave masters are no longer viewed as a good thing, but the strong lording over the weak in order to manipulate them for labor or sex?
What about government? Can its authority be revoked? Have we not, speaking to American Christians, founded our country on the basis that we will not be submissive to a governing authority that oppresses our basic human rights? And don’t we also, speaking again to American Christians, by and large agree with our governing authorizes that we need to force other governing authorities out of power if they are oppressive toward their people?
What about elders? Can their authority be revoked? Don’t we, young Christians, reject the authority of our elders if we disagree with their interpretations – liberal or conservative?
What about husbands? Can their authority be revoked? Don’t we agree that if a woman is in an abusive relationship that she should get out and seek help?
And are we not horrible at submitting to others when they disagree with us, try to harm us, use us, or break us?
When authority is used to manipulate, harm, belittle, oppress, or stifle a person’s worth, will, and talent, that authority is not in line with God’s definition of authority. We can all recognize this and we naturally rebel against it. Biblical authority is something entirely different.
In Colossians 2:15 Paul says,
“[Christ] disarmed the powers and authorities, [and] he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
And 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul says,
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Brothers and sisters, I ask you to hear these words – God disarmed the “powers and authorities” by the cross. He saved His bride by the cross. His power is evidenced most perfectly by the cross.
God has both power and authority and both are manifested most fully by the cross.
Therefore, if a man has biblical authority over a woman, let it be known what authority is and what it is not. A wife, who is compared to the bride of Christ, is worthy of infinite love and respect. In order to fully respect someone, you must be willing to listen, uplift, and defend that person’s worth as defined by God.
Now, lets address the matter of what authority is and the cultural issues of our passage.
First, what is authority? It differs greatly from power. A dictator can force people to do things with military might, but does that mean he has authority? Satan can manipulate us, but does that mean he has authority over us?
Authority is the right to rule.
What gives a person the right? Divine appointment? Expertise? Education? Selection for the position?
I believe that it can be any of these or a combination of them.
Therefore, we need to ask the question why did the man have the authority in a first century household?
Many would say that it is because God appointed the authority, which may be true. However, remember what biblical authority is and what it is not. Authority is defined by self-sacrificial, worth-giving love. And if God has given us that authority (I’ll let someone else tackle that question) we should be quick to remember who has authority over us and His command to love our wives.
That being said, I think that male authority has more to do with education and expertise than a divine appointment of authority.
Let me explain:
A woman in Paul’s day would have lacked fundamental education. Therefore, when it came to leadership, the man had all the knowledge, experience, and expertise. Therefore, he had the authority. Women would have had expertise in two areas only: child rearing and running a household. No man would have dared to tell a woman how to breastfeed or the best way to prepare a meal that the woman invented. These would have been her areas of authority in which the man had no knowledge or expertise. (I know that there are exceptions to this, but I’m trying to simplify to illustrate a point.)
Today women are educated. They know a lot more, and in many areas have more knowledge and expertise than their husband.
For example: My wife is a worship leader. I am not. When it comes to leading worship, I am called to submit to her authority in this area because it is her realm of authority. It would be unhelpful and a hindrance to the body for me to assert my “authority” over that area because I’m her husband. That would be an un-Christlike use of authority. My job then is to submit to her authority, recognizing and respecting her expertise in this area. (On a side note, it took me months to let her lead this because I, as many humans are, am selfish and want to be in control.)
I think individual authority is best explain by using 1 Corinthians 12:12, 21-25
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ… The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
We are the body of Christ and each part of that body has a part to play. One part cannot look at another and say to it, “I don’t need you.” To translate, a man cannot look to his wife, a vital part of the body, and take over her part to play in the body.
Lets say that the husband in one given relationship is a hand, a doer, great at building and maintaining programs, and his wife is a foot, the kind of person who is good at going to those in need and bringing them hope. The foot would need to submit to the hand in areas of building. The foot cannot build. Likewise, the hand would need to submit to the foot in knowing where to build. The hand isn’t good at walking to the right place. Each has their area of God-given authority and a place to use it. It is outside of a husband’s authority to take authority over areas where his wife has been given authority. Each part is given equal concern and (this is the kicker) both must submit to one another to get the job done.
Now, lets connect that with everything else we’ve addressed and the real point of the passage begins to come to light.
Submission to God is the ultimate goal of a Christian because God knows all and is our Creator. Therefore, God has ultimate authority. God exercises His authority through self-sacrificial, worth-giving love demonstrated most fully on the cross. Therefore, when we are called to submit to one another, we are manifesting the self-sacrificial, worth-giving love Christ has demonstrated toward us. All of us have worth and a part to play in the body of Christ.
Therefore, when a woman is called to submit to her husband, she is doing what Christ has already done and she does so out of respect and the self-sacrificial love of Christ that is in her. Her submission is to the areas of authority that her husband has been given, which will be different for each couple because education levels and expertise vary from couple to couple.
A man’s authority over his wife is to be an echo of Christ’s authority – self-sacrificial, worth-giving love. His authority over her is manifested not in his power over her, but in his ability to uplift, encourage, and sanctify her (Eph 5:27). In order to do so, he must be willing to submit to her areas of authority – the knowledge, wisdom, and expertise given to her by God. In doing so, he is allowing the body of Christ to function as it should. If it helps, think of the husband as the protector of worth to his wife. Just as Christ is the truth and breaks down the lies of Satan, a husband is the one who is to speak the truth about the value of a woman.
The world we live in is male dominated. This is not our fault; we’ve inherited a broken system from our forefathers, who inherited it from their forefathers and so forth. Our job now is to recognize the authority we have and use it to uplift, encourage and assign worth to those who have be disenfranchised by the male dominated system.
Husband, father, and male: never forget that submission is a call on all Christians, even your marriage partner. Use the authority given to you to protect the worth of your wife, your daughter, or your female friends. Recognize their areas of authority, their gifts, talents, education, and expertise. And empower them to exercise it. In doing so, the body will work more efficiently and the message of Christ’s love will become more evident.
To the author of the article my friend posted: I hope you hear God’s call to manifest Christ’s love more fully in the lives of the females you know.
1: No, really, if you haven't read it, do so now!