“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”.
Paul introduces this section about how we are to live faithfully as Christians in the previous verse, 5:21. This statement is many times left off study and discussions about marriage, children and work relationships. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”; next Paul begins the application of how we are live in our daily lives in our most intimate and sometimes trying relationships.
“Paul has already laid an extensive groundwork for understanding the thoroughness with which the Holy Spirit penetrates our being with the very life and presence of God, into every detail of our lives. There is nothing of God that is not livable by us. Nothing in creation, nothing in salvation is remote from or irrelevant to who we are, the people we live with, and the people we work with. Every jot and tittle in the gospel of Jesus Christ is here for living, for embodiment in each and every one of our bodies, for working into the muscle and bone of our ordinary lives.” Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson
Additionally, I think we should examine a clear understanding of this word “submit”, not from our cultural view but from a biblical context. Submit can be defined as “to accept or yield to a superior force or to the authority or will of another person.” Spirit-controlled believers, those who have submitted their will to Christ, to God’s plan for our salvation, are now to submit to one another willingly, serving others, putting others before self, accepting God’s direction rather than attempting to dominate others or exalting self above others. How are we even capable of doing this? It is only out of our respect for Christ who is our ultimate example of putting others before self, of denying himself for our sake, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9
Notice that the application of our spirit filled life is to permeate every area of our life, it is not reserved for Sunday with worship, singing hymns and praise but it is to spread to our closest relationships – husbands and wives, children and parents, employer and employees. In each of Paul’s example the first person mentioned is to willingly submit to the other, but the second person is to willingly practice submissiveness with the care and concern to the first person and that every willing submissive act is as rendered to the LORD!
Notice too that submission does not mean inferiority in any way, our example again is Christ, who even though He could have summoned an army of angels to protect him He willingly chose to submit to the injustice rendered by the Pharisees, his disciples and Pilate. Jesus submitted, yet He was not weak or without power, He surrendered his will to God’s plan – this is our definition of submit.
Finally, Paul doesn’t give detailed advice or declare how “submit” looks or works out across the board. He doesn’t declare what is the official Christian method on raising children or getting along with our spouse. I think this is where we get into trouble in our lives and our resistance to God’s plan which includes “Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord”. “What Paul does is replace our understanding of our already culturally defined roles with a Christ-defined role. Every aspect of our family and work life is redefined in relation to Christ rather than to what we have grown up with as wives to husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, parents to children, slaves to masters, masters to slaves.”
For example: the Bible does not say that only husbands control the finances and make all decisions unilaterally, it does not define the roles of women and men in general based on gender, the bible does not command all women to submit to all men, Paul defines this submission specific to her husband. Finally the bible does not define submission the way our culture often does, to mean door mat, slave, without power or as being biologically inferior.
Roman life and culture was highly stratified, “women, children, and slaves were to submit to the head of the family: Slaves would submit until they were freed, male children until they grew up, and women and girls their whole lives. Paul’s teaching emphasized the equality of all believers in Christ, but he did not suggest overthrowing Roman society to achieve it. Instead, he counseled all believers to submit to one another by choice—wives to husbands and also husbands to wives; slaves to masters and also masters to slaves; children to parents and also parents to children. This kind of mutual submission preserves order and harmony in the family, while it increases love and respect among family members”. Notice that Paul’s instruction for how we are to live as believers transformed the culture in the Church and the Christian family, between husbands and wives, children and parents and slaves and masters. But Paul did not advocate for the overthrow or revolt against the Roman cultural norms.
This concept of equality is clearly defined in Paul’s teachings: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female —for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise”. Galatians 3:26-29 This concept of equality between men and women, slaves and masters, children and parents was completely revolutionary to Roman thinking, and this concept of willingly submitting to one another was revolutionary as well. This went contrary to the constant striving for a higher position in Roman society by any means possible. Inferiors were to stay in their assigned roles until released usually by death, they were never to step out of line or even intermix with those of a lower station in life. This was not true in the new culture of the Church and the Christian family. The revolution came by individual transformation, a new way of thinking that replaced the worldly way of living with the kingdom worldview out of respect for Jesus Christ.
“Across the board, the way Paul trains us to re-understand ourselves in relation to those we live with and work with is ‘as to Christ’ or ‘in the Lord’ or ‘under a common Master’. In the practice of resurrection we no longer understand our role by comparing it to some model taken from culture, but always, without exception, to Christ. The measuring stick for maturity for the Christian is the ‘measure of the full stature of Christ’” Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson
Paul then gives the reason for mutual submission, “Because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church (he himself being the savior of the body)”. Consequently we quickly fall back into our cultural notions of what this means, over the years many have liken this “head” of the family to a CEO, or Captain of the ship who must be obeyed without hesitation. But what is our example from Christ’s life? Did He ever demand obedience? Did He lead an army of men handing out directives? Did He tell Mary to get up off her butt and get back to women’s work? No, what we see is that He was the one washing the feet of His disciples – serving not ruling over, He was the one caring for the poor and including the rejected – not telling people to keep to their place in life, He was not establishing divisions between groups he was breaking down the barriers between husband and wife, children and parents, slave and free, the righteous and self-righteous.
The example we have of how this mutual submission works is not the Roman family structure or the structure from our culture in ages past. The example we have is how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit work together to do God’s will. Jesus says in John 5:19, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”. The Father and the Son are of one mind, purpose and plan; the united Son does not go off on His own agenda or resist the Father’s plan. The example that Jesus uses to describe this union is marriage, husband and wife, bound together and working together for one purpose in their family with mutual self-sacrificing love. The example that Paul uses is the church, as a body working together not the foot deciding to do something different from what the mind is leading. All of our body parts, head, arms and feet, should strive together to do the will of the Father, submitting our thoughts about how we think we should be treated to God’s plan and purpose for each of us and for His church.
Paul ends this section stating, “For no one has ever hated his own body, but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church”.
Remember that “mystery” in the Bible means God’s purposes which have been hidden in the past but is now revealed. Let’s review the mysteries revealed so far in Ephesians from the Message:
1:8-10 –“He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth”.
3:1-3 – “This is why I, Paul, am in jail for Christ, having taken up the cause of you outsiders, so-called. I take it that you’re familiar with the part I was given in God’s plan for including everybody. I got the inside story on this from God himself, as I just wrote you in brief”.
3:9-10 – “My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!
5:32-33 – This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.
This is God’s mystery that has been revealed to believers that has overturned our usual or worldly thinking about life: that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world; the mystery of the church includes both Jew and Gentile; that the first shall be last; that we are to forgive those who wrong us and not seek revenge; that we cannot gain our salvation by our good works, it is only by grace; that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God will transform us to be like Christ. Notice that we are to submit to God’s work in our life through pain, distress, joy and loss and by submitting ourselves to God’s plan, even though it goes against everything inclination of our hearts to assert our own will to seize control, dominate and manipulate things. That the way to resolve conflicts in the church, in our marriage and family and in our work is to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” and it is to be done willingly, graciously and with respect for Christ. This is a hard lesson to learn, but when we apply God’s truth, His wisdom and His way to live, which is contrary to the world’s way of doing things, we will be transformed in our thinking, become like Christ and will be filled with joy.