by Matthew W. Bassford
Of all the spiritual topics in the Bible, there are few that are more difficult to discuss in our society than the subject of submission in marriage. Americans never have been particularly submissive people, to begin with, and in the decades since the Sexual Revolution, most traces of an older patriarchal culture have been obliterated. People who accept without batting an eyelash that there are 30 different genders will explode with outrage at the thought that wives ought to submit to their husbands.
In our study of submission, our goal is not to be conformed to the America of 2021. However, neither is it to be conformed to the America of 1950 nor indeed to the worldly ideas of any time and place. Instead, we want to be transformed to become unlike the world and to be conformed to the image of Christ.
In this, our greatest enemy is not our society but ourselves. All of us who are married, husbands and wives alike, know the temptation to put ourselves first instead of our spouses. The selfishness within us is the foe we must defeat. With this in mind, let’s consider what the Bible has to say about submission.
Who Must Submit
We’re going to confine ourselves to the discussion of marriage in the latter half of Ephesians 5. However, we’re going to start this study slightly earlier than is usual by considering what the Scriptures reveal about who must submit. Paul lays this out in Ephesians 5:18-21. This is one of the places where paying attention to a verse’s immediate context is vital. Yes, women are told to submit to their husbands in the next two verses, but Ephesians 5:21 makes clear that submission isn’t a woman thing. It’s a Christian thing. All of us are to submit to one another, and that’s emphatically true of both spouses in a marriage!
Indeed, I think it’s appropriate to read Ephesians 5:21 as a subject heading for everything from Ephesians 5:22-6:9. Paul is telling spouses, children, parents, servants, and masters what submission looks like in their particular situation. We all are in different positions, but all of us are to share in the mind of Christ.
For that matter, it’s worth paying attention to the context of Epheisans 5:21 too. “Submitting” is actually the last of three instructions that are given to us in a series, and all of them are expressions of a spiritual state. We are supposed to submit for the same reason that we sing and that we give thanks. All three of those are products of our choice not to be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit, back in Ephesians 5:18. Even though we’re not in Galatians 5 here, it’s completely legitimate to say that submission is a fruit of the Spirit.
With this in mind, let’s pause to notice the complete absence of asterisks in Ephesians 5:21. Nobody’s Bible says, “Submit to one another in the fear of Christ, except when. . .” As long as the submission is not literally sinful, we are required to submit. It doesn’t matter if we don’t want to or don’t like it. Either we fear Christ, or we don’t.
After this, Paul begins his series of applications by discussing submission for wives. This appears in Ephesians 5:22-24. The first thing to note here is that Paul is speaking to wives about how they should behave, not to husbands about how their wives should behave. None of us should feel triumphant about how the Scriptures stick it to our spouse. Instead, all of us should feel humbled and ashamed about how the Scriptures stick it to us.
Paul’s instruction to wives to submit is, to say the least, not popular. A lot of Christian women try to opt-out of this command by comparing their husbands to Christ, to the inevitable detriment of their husbands. The battle cry is, “As long as he is treating me like this, I don’t have to submit to him!” Brethren, let me tell you straight. The behavior of our spouses has nothing to do with our obligation to obey God. Even if your husband is the most obnoxious, rude, insensitive jerk on the planet, you married the guy, so you have to submit to him! Fundamentally, submission in our marriages is submission to God, and the only way to opt-out of the commandment is to opt-out of obedience to Him.
When Clay and I were asked to preach a sermon series on submission, the requesters asked for examples of how these principles should play out in real life. When it comes to the submission of the wife to the husband, the number of applications probably is infinite, but there are three, in particular, I want to point out.
First, being submissive means acknowledging your husband’s right to have the final say. Though the amount will vary from marriage to marriage, I don’t think it’s ungodly for a wife to disagree with her husband. Lauren disagrees with me frequently! Sooner or later, though, every disagreement must be resolved, and it is fundamentally the responsibility of the head of the family to make those decisions.
Second, being submissive means honoring your husband’s decisions, even when you disagree. A submission that passive-aggressively shuts down the argument, then sneaks around doing what it wants, isn’t truly submission at all. Nor, for that matter, is grudgingly offering the minimum amount of cooperation you think you can get away with. Submission must come from the heart.
Third, being submissive means speaking respectfully of your husband to others. The church exalts Christ. It doesn’t go around running Him down behind His back. Gossip is a sin, and gossiping about your husband is doubly a sin.
Finally, let’s consider submission for husbands. Paul explores this subject in Ephesians 5:25-33. The first thing I want us to notice here is that this section is much longer than any of the others we’ve studied this morning. Apparently, the Holy Spirit thought the husbands of the church in Ephesus needed much more persuasion than the wives did!
Second, as with the instructions of the previous few verses, these verses provide a command for husbands with no exceptions. The wife is to submit to her husband, no matter what. The husband is to serve his wife with self-sacrificing love, no matter what. Even if her behavior is utterly horrible, that does not change our obligation one little bit! Christ gave Himself for us, so we must give ourselves for our wives.
It’s interesting, though, that in the second half of this context, Paul drastically changes his rhetorical tack. The first part is an appeal to selflessness — be like Christ! The second part, though, is an appeal to selfishness — care for your wife, because you’re really caring for yourself.
Brothers, truer words were never written! Yes, we can put ourselves first in our marriages. Yes, we can trample all over our wives. However, if we do, the price that we will pay will be far higher than we can possibly imagine. The fruit of our bad behavior will embitter our entire lives.
As I did for wives, I want to close with three concrete examples of what submission for husbands looks like. The first of these is that we must make every decision for our wives’ benefit and happiness. As we do this, we must remember that the best guide to our wives’ benefit and happiness is. . . our wives. Beware of constantly rejecting what she wants and telling yourself it’s for her own good!
Second, take the suffering in your marriage upon yourself. Christ suffered for the church, not vice versa. If someone in your marriage is going to be inconvenienced or hurt by a decision that you make, make sure it’s you every time.
Last, be the one to offer reconciliation. Every marriage, no matter how good, will have problems in it because all of us are imperfect people. When Wife is in the kitchen, mad, thin-lipped, not talking, and Husband is sitting in the recliner in the den, mad, thin-lipped, not talking, who should be the one to reach out? Who should be the first to swallow their pride a little bit, to apologize, to acknowledge wrongdoing rather than finding fault? The Biblical answer here is clear. Christ was the first to reach out to us, so husbands should be the first to reach out to their wives.