"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" (Ephesians 5:22-24).
These are three of the most controversial verses in Scripture. Why? Because these verses tell a woman to submit to her husband, and many people find that notion downright offensive. It doesn't matter how carefully and humbly one tries to lay out the meaning of these verses. If one comes down on the side of the wife's submission, then that person will be accused of oppressing women, opening the doors of spouse abuse, re-writing the Bible to make it say what it doesn't, stealing Christmas and eating the last oatmeal cream pie.
At the risk of being called a cream pie glutton, I'm going to give my take on these verses. I'm not writing about this to try to engage or challenge or convert the people I just described. I'm writing for the sake of those who really want to know what this verse means. I'm writing to those who really want to follow God and glorify the gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm writing to those who will let this text say what it says and try to live it out. I'm not writing for the sake of those who use all sorts of silly mind games to explain this text away. Here goes.
Ephesians 5:22-33 deal with marriage in the church. The key to understanding verses 22-24 is verses 31-32. "'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church." Paul says that marriage is a profound mystery, pointing to the relationship between Christ and the church. When God created marriage way back in Genesis, he was laying the groundwork for the gospel. Until Paul came along and revealed this mystery, we didn't have the full understanding of the significance of marriage. But Paul gives the ultimate purpose of it. So the question is how marriage points to the relationship between Christ and the church. Ephesians shows how the husband's love for his wife points to Christ's love for the church. And it shows how the woman's submission to her husband points to the church's submission to Christ. So there is a lot more going on in these verses than who gets to decide what we're having for dinner.
This text is very clear. It tells a wife to submit to her husband. If the woman would ask why, the text responds, "For the husband is the head of the wife..." For is the important word there. Why should a woman submit to her husband? Because he is the head of his wife. What does it mean that the husband is the head of his wife? Naturally, there is disagreement. Some say it points toward leadership, while others say it points toward source (like Eve came from Adam's rib, so Adam is Eve's head). I think the debate is silly, because whatever it points to, it resembles Christ and the church. Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife, "even as Christ is the head of the church." Some people try to explain that head has nothing to do with position in the marriage. But whatever tinkering someone does with the meaning of the husband's headship is also being done to the headship of Christ. But people try and try to explain away a husband's headship while leaving Christ's headship intact. It can't be done because Paul has forever linked the two.
How extensive is the wife's submission? "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands." That's pretty extensive. Many people think this sounds like good old fashioned slavery. It puts womanhood back a billion years, washing away all the strides made for women's rights. Some try to explain away the clear meaning of these verses by pointing out what Paul says in verse 21, "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ," and suggest that husbands and wives should equally submit to one another - mutual submission. I could buy that if they mean the husband submits to his wife by loving her like Christ does the church. But that's not usually what they mean. They mean that there should be little distinction between the way a husband and wife submit to each other. I don't think that view is valid when three verses later, the wife is told to submit in everything to her husband. The husband is never told to do that. Ever. But he is told to love his wife so much that he'd live for her and die for her. So in that way, it is a tremendous submission on the part of the husband. But it's a different kind of submission.
When a wife submits to her husband, she is giving a beautiful picture of what it means for the church to submit in Christ. Some women are afraid that submission is about keeping one group of people permanently under the thumb of another. They're afraid of their husband's headship. I think this fear flows from a lack of heavenly-mindedness. Some women are more concerned with how good of a life they can make for themselves here than how good of a life Christ has promised them in the next world. They're more worried about their husbands making much of them than they are about making much of what Christ is doing in the world. They're afraid they can't self-actualize under the thumb of their husbands. What's worse, they think Christ agrees with them. They think the central message of the cross is that traditionally oppressed people are now liberated from the bondage of others.
There are some real similarities between the feminist understanding of what Christ has come to do and all liberation theology. Liberation theology puts the emphasis of Christ's work in this world. It's not heavenly-minded enough. It thinks Christ came to bring "equality" on earth, and punish the oppressors. That's why Marxists always try to use liberation theology to advance communism. The problem with all liberation theology is self-righteousness. Those who hold to it are always looking at the sins of others, and always trying to fight for their rights. They think that's what Christ wants. Instead of personal repentance and gospel-zeal, lib theology preaches power to the oppressed. And of course, most who hold to liberation theology think they're among the oppressed rather than oppressors. So they fight against anything that stands in the way of their self-advancement. This explains why they always claim the rights of the victim.
Christians women, daughters of God and sisters of Jesus Christ, you are not victims. You are more than conquerors through him who loves you. Being a humble, submissive wife is not a victim's role. It is a conqueror's role. How? Because only those who truly understand what Christ has come to do through the gospel can afford to give up their claims to autonomy and submit to someone else. By submitting to your husband, you are showing that no one on earth has the power to enslave you. No one can take from you what you freely give. Such upside down thinking is a powerful light in a selfish world, even if it is offensive to those who only care about comfort in this life.