Who Submits to Whom?
By Melissa Kircher
April 18, 2012
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. (Ephesians 5:22-33, NIV)
I can already hear the frustrated sighs and harrumphs at the very mention of this passage. These verses have been picked apart for years by pastors, scholars and theologians.
I am, however, none of those things. I am a woman and a wife, and these verses are important for me to understand. As someone who has a deep relationship with Christ, I can’t simply ignore the parts of the Bible that make me uncomfortable. So, what do I do with this passage about submission?
I read the whole thing—and I read it in context.
The same Greek word Paul uses for submission concerning wives in verse 22 is used earlier in verse 21 when he’s describing all relationships. "Submit" was a Greek military term meaning "to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader." In non-military use, it was "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden.”
Look, I’m not trying to say these verses aren’t controversial, nor am I trying to twist them to fit some agenda. What I am saying is all this bickering about the specificity of wordings is missing the point. The passage as a whole is addressing mutual submission within a marriage relationship.
Maybe we get stuck trying to pick apart semantics because neither husbands nor wives want to admit the Bible calls both of us to submit. In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson states most spouses get stuck in what she calls “Demon Dialogues.” These are circular arguments where, she says, “Couples cannot connect safely with [their] partner. [They are] dead-end patterns of mutual blame that effectively keep a couple miles part, blocking reengagement and the creation of a safe haven.” When we get stuck in these Demon Dialogues, neither spouse is submitting. We are digging in our heels and staunchly defending our own positions, mindful of only our feelings.
Maybe the Bible knows what it’s talking about, then.
Dr. Johnson goes on to suggest married adults need to have the same kind of emotional bond that parents and children have. In fact, having this bond is crucial for the survival of the marriage. She says, “Forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached and dependent on your partner … for nurturing, soothing, and protection. Adult attachments may be more reciprocal and less centered on physical contact, but the nature of the emotional bond is the same. [We should] focus on creating and strengthening this emotional bond and by identifying and transforming the key moments that foster an adult loving relationship: being open, attuned, and responsive to each other.”
I don’t know about you, but if my husband were always open, attuned and responsive to me, he’d definitely be submitting. And vice versa. If we could both do this all the time, our marriage would be awesome.
Sadly, the beginning verses of this Ephesians passage have been used by husbands to oppress wives—to make them feel less intellectual, capable and equal. Even in Baker’s Commentary of the Bible, it says a husband should not “burden the wife with the decision-making responsibility … but rather make decisions according to her needs and welfare, even when it means making a decision she may not like.”
I disagree wholeheartedly with this interpretation. It just doesn’t make a good marriage when one person is the decision-maker. My husband and I make decisions based on mutual submission (which I believe is supported by the verses in Ephesians) and on prayer. If we can’t agree, we put off making the decision indefinitely. We take the time to ask for God’s guidance, talk it through and consider the other person’s opinion. And we always end up in agreement, even if one or both of us have changed our minds along the way.
When this passage in verse 23 says the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, my mind immediately goes to 1 Corinthians 12:21, which says, “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!’” God very pointedly directs the Church body to work together and makes it clear that no one part is better than the other; all the parts deserve equal honor and consideration. Isn’t that what Ephesians is talking about?
Despite how the word “submit” has been abused over the years, it actually isn’t negative. It’s a picture of joyful, freeing, healthy Christian living. In its purest application, the word draws us out of ourselves into thinking about other people, loving them, listening to them and putting their needs ahead of our own. "Submit" only becomes a negative command when it’s one-sided. When the wife submits but the husband doesn’t. When the husband submits but the wife doesn’t. That’s where things get all screwed up. Both the husband and wife are called by God to be submissive to each other.
Men and women are different. They don't always experience love in the same way, and so the Bible sometimes gives gender-based remarks for how to best treat one's spouse. The fact that Ephesians lumps the expectations together is a big deal. Marriage is to be done as a team. We work together, sacrifice for one another and submit to the needs of each other. We're different but equal.
And for me, this is what this passage is all about. It's the way a marriage partnership works, the way God wants it to be healthy and life-giving for both husband and wife. Marriage takes the submission of selfish will; there is no way around it. Husband or wife, you will be challenged daily to have your mate’s best interests at heart … when all you really want is to have your own way.
I trust that when God gives me commands about my marriage relationship, He has my best interests at heart, even when the things He tells me to do are difficult. Christ submitted to the Father’s will out of love, not forced obedience. That is what God wants for a marriage—for husband and wife to lovingly submit to one another and create a bonded, secure partnership.