“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”
Quote Ephesians 5:22 in a small group, a meeting, a marital argument, a dinner among friends or even a Facebook status and just watch what happens. This little line from one of Paul’s many letters is perhaps one of the most hotly debated in all of Scripture. But why is it so controversial—and what does it really mean?
Those of us who hold to so-called “traditional gender roles” are often assumed to believe women should submit to men. This isn’t true. Indeed, a primary problem in our culture and in our churches isn’t that women aren’t submissive enough to men, but instead that they are far too submissive.
First of all, it just isn’t so that women are called to submit while men are not. In Scripture, every creature is called to submit, often in different ways and at different times. Children are to submit to their parents, although this is certainly a different sort of submission than that envisioned for marriage. Church members are to submit to faithful pastors (Heb. 13:17). All of us are to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Of course, we are all to submit, as creatures, to our God (James 4:7).
And, yes, wives are called to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1-6). But that’s just the point. In the Bible, it is not that women, generally, are to submit to men, generally. Instead, “wives” are to submit “to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1).
Too often in our culture, women and girls are pressured to submit to men, as a category. This is the reason so many women, even feminist women, are consumed with what men, in general, think of them. This is the reason a woman’s value in our society, too often, is defined in terms of sexual attractiveness and availability. Is it any wonder that so many of our girls and women are destroyed by a predatory patriarchy that demeans the dignity and glory of what it means to be a woman?
Submitting to men in general renders it impossible to submit to one’s “own husband.” Submission to one’s husband means faithfulness to him, and to him alone, which means saying “no” to other suitors.
Submission to a right authority always means a corresponding refusal to submit to a false authority. Eve’s submission to the Serpent’s word meant she refused to submit to God’s. On the other hand, Mary’s submission to God’s word about the child within her meant she refused to submit to Herod’s. God repeatedly charges His Bride, the people of Israel, with a refusal to submit to Him because they have submitted to the advances of other lovers. The freedom of the Gospel means, the apostle tells us, that we “do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Despite the promise of female empowerment in the present age, the sexual revolution has given us the reverse. Is it really an advance for women that the average high-school male has seen images of women sexually exploited and humiliated on the Internet? Is it really empowerment to have more and more women economically at the mercy of men who freely abandon them and their children, often with little legal recourse?
Is this really a “pro-woman” culture when restaurant chains enable men to pay to ogle women in tight T-shirts while they gobble down chicken wings? How likely is it that a woman with the attractiveness of Henry Kissinger will obtain power or celebrity status in American culture? What about the girl in your community pressured to perform sexual favors for a boyfriend; what is this but a patriarchy brutal enough for a Bronze Age warlord?
In the church it is little better. Too many of our girls and young women are tyrannized by the expectation to look a certain way, to weigh a certain amount, in order to gain the attention of “guys.”
Additionally, too many predatory men have crept in among us, all too willing to exploit young women by pretending to be “spiritual leaders” (2 Timothy 3:1-9; 2 Peter 2). Do not be deceived: a man who will use spiritual categories for carnal purposes is a man who cannot be trusted with fidelity, with provision, with protection, with the fatherhood of children. The same is true for a man who will not guard the moral sanctity of a woman not, or not yet, his wife.
We have empowered this pagan patriarchy. Fathers assume their responsibility to daughters in this regard starts and stops in walking a bride down an aisle at the end of the process. Pastors refuse to identify and call out spiritual impostors before it’s too late. And through it all we expect our girls and women to be submissive to men in general, rather than to one man in particular.
For women, sexual and emotional purity means a refusal to submit to “men,” in order to submit to God and to their own husband, even one whose name and face they do not yet know. Closeness with a husband, present or future, means a distance from every man who isn’t, or who possibly might not be, him.
Beauty is found not in external (and fleeting) youth and “attractiveness” but in the “hidden person of the heart” which “in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). And it will be beautiful in the sight of a man who is propelled by the Spirit of this God.
Women owe no submission to Hollywood or to Madison Avenue, or to those who listen to them. Worth and dignity cannot be defined by them. Girls, stop comparing yourselves to supermodels and porn stars. Stop loathing your body, or your age. Stop feeling inferior to vaporous glamor. You are beautiful.
There is no biblical category for “boyfriend” or “lover,” and we owe such designation no submission. In fact, to be submissive to her future husband, a woman must stand back and evaluate, with rigid scrutiny, “Is this the one who is to come, or is there another?” That requires an emotional and physical distance until there is a lifelong covenant made, until she stands before one who is her “own husband.”
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as unto the Lord. Yes and Amen. But, women, stop submitting to men.
Dr. Russell D. Moore is an author and Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared on his blog. Used by permission.