Digging in Deeper: Ephesians 5:22-24

“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.”  (ESV – Read the chapter)

Here it is at last.  The gleaming evidence, lit up by a flashing neon sign, pointing to the fact that Paul is now finally letting out his true colors.  He hates women.  He uses the dreaded “S-word” here.  He thinks women should be submitted, subjected, subordinated to men.  He is convinced, just like everybody else in his day, that they are of less value to society than men.  He was laying a foundation of oppression and injustice here that has persisted in the church until today.  Women should be silent and seated at the feet of their men, catering to their every whim, and treating them as if they were the god of the home.  Disgusting!  Why else would he write something like this? That’s the way our culture receives these verses, isn’t it?  That he would tell women to be submissive to their husbands and not then turn around and say the same thing to husbands when he turns to them (we’ll talk about his words to husbands soon, don’t worry…) has grated on the awakened women’s conscience for centuries.  He took the liberating, empowering, equalizing messages of Jesus, wrapped them in a garb of culture, and made them something entirely more restrictive and potentially harmful than they were intended to be.  We’ve got to get him out of the way in order to get at the truth of what Jesus really wanted for His followers.  Right?!?

Well…not so fast.  If you know me very well or have been reading this blog for very long, you know I am convinced that there is perfect continuity among the various authors of the Scriptures.  More to the point, this reaction to the text here, while totally understandable given the state of our culture and the kinds of things it teaches us about men and women and the relationship between them, is completely mistaken.

Allow me to offer three reasons why.  The first is grammatical.  Grammatically speaking, the word “submit” does not actually appear in v. 22.  Rather, a more literal translation would read, “wives to your own husbands as to the Lord.”  Instead, the Greek word translated “submit” appears in v. 21 as a participle.  Broadly speaking (and with lots of contextually appropriate exceptions), participles in Greek correspond to the -ing form of an English verb.  In this case, v. 21 says this: “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

In other words, v. 22 here borrows its verb from v. 21.  Translators generally add it in for the sake of clarity in English.  But, “submitting” is not the controlling verb of this section (participles rarely are).  It is part of a series of commands issuing from Paul’s command in v. 18 that believers should be filled with the Spirit.  In other words, Paul’s primary goal here is not to jump on wives and tell them how worthless they are.  It is instead to unpack what being filled with the Spirit looks like in the lives of followers of Jesus.  And in particular here, he is describing what it looks like for believers to be submitted to one another out of their reverence for Christ in the home.

This means that the submission Paul describes is first mutual rather than unidirectional, and it comes out of our prior submission to Christ.  In other words, if we don’t have this submission to Christ in place first, the submission to one another isn’t going to work, especially as it exists between a husband and a wife.  Or, to put that even more directly: If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, don’t even bother trying this because it probably will not go well for you.

Second, believe it or not, in Paul’s day, this would have been a greatly liberating command.  In the first century Greco-Roman culture a woman’s value was roughly equal to that of a houseplant.  There were occasional exceptions, but not many.  The rule was that a woman was valuable for birthing children and that was about it.  A woman was to subordinate herself to every man.  Any man off the street could tell a woman what to do and she had to do it.  To violate a woman was not a crime against a person, but a property crime against the owner.  If you violated another man’s wife, you were guilty of desecrating his property.  What had happened to her was of fairly little consequence except where it inconvenienced him.

What Paul did here was something radical.  He said that wives, not women generally, should be submitted to their own husbands, not all men generally.  What we look back at through the lens of our culture and see as horrendously restrictive, the women of Paul’s day experienced as incredibly freeing.  Many of the early converts were women precisely because their roles and recognized value in the church were so far beyond what they could experience anywhere else in their culture.  Their opportunities to have their gifts recognized and appreciated there went well beyond what they could have achieved anywhere else.  We have to learn to take the Scriptures on their terms, not ours, if we want to see them for what they truly are.

Third, let’s actually talk about how this call to submission might play itself out in our culture today.  A significant and growing body of research is showing more and more conclusively that the happiest married couples are the ones who pursue and occupy traditional gender roles.  Marriage was never designed to be an equal partnership.  Before you click off this page in disgust, though, hear me out.  It was designed to be a complementary one in which both partners bring their unique gifts to the relationship which are shared generously for the benefit of the other, which ultimately proves to be for their own benefit.  Indeed, whenever we can advance and celebrate the personal successes of our spouse instead of coming at them with a heart of jealousy or competition, we will always find more happiness in our relationships.

Today, we are generally taught that submission is when one person actively forces another beneath them and achieves his goals at their expense.  Someone in a submissive position is always of less value to a partnership than the one to whom they are submitted.  This is not what the Scriptures have in mind when they talk about submission.  Submission is a voluntary elevation of the needs and interests of someone else at the expense of our own.  It is always done from out of our prior submission to Christ, and comes out of a position of strength and power, and never one of weakness.

Indeed, when we practice this kind of submission in our relationships, we set them on a path for life that is not achievable in any other way. Specifically, when wives practice this kind of submission with their husbands, they set their relationships on a path to fulfillment for both partners.  This is the case whether or not the husbands live up to the even higher and more difficult calling Paul makes  to them next.  And think about why: When a wife voluntarily puts the needs and interests of her husband above her own, what is the result of this?  He is empowered to become more fully who God made him to be.

If she does this consistently and he is a good-willed man (and if not, this is a separate issue, but not one that affects the call to practice mutual, godly submission, on the shape of it),  he will be highly motivated to return the favor.  Thus, by giving of herself, her own needs get met.  It creates a life-giving cycle that proves to be to everyone’s benefit.  The word submission may not ring with much consonance to modern ears, but when we practice it like Paul describes here, it is a very good thing indeed.

4 thoughts on “Digging in Deeper: Ephesians 5:22-24

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