This past weekend, I had the enjoyable task of preaching out of Ephesians 5:22-33. Paul describes how our new identity in Christ can express itself in marriage. The controlling verse for the passage is actually found in 5:18, “Be filled with the Spirit…” and v. 21 continues the thought. We can be filled with the Spirit in the way we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Reverence for Christ – that’s the reference point, or as I said it this past weekend, the reverence point. All of our interactions with each other are influenced and directed by our reverence for Christ. In fact, we can even submit to one another when the other person is not so “submittable” because our submission is ultimately to Christ.
I think that’s easy enough for most of us to grasp. The difficulty is when Paul applies this to marriages. Wives are to submit to husbands and husbands are to love their wives. At first glance, this command could be seen as mysogynistic or at best old-fashioned. How are we to understand this? We can’t redefine what it means to ‘submit’. The text won’t let us wiggle on the definition of the word. So how do we apply this with wisdom?
There’s some great practical insights from the Appendix of Tim & Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage. They work out what submission looks like in decision-making and gender roles. Here’s their highlighted points (read the appendix for more explanation):
- The husband’s authority (like Jesus’) is never used to please himself but only to serve the interests of his wife.
- A wife is never to be merely compliant but to use her resources to empower. (Remember how I talked about the idea of multiplying power?)
- A wife is not to give her husband unconditional obedience.
- Assuming the role of headship is only done for purposes of ministering to your wife and family. The Kellers explain, “[in the case of a stand-off], the wife will try to respect the husband’s leadership, and the husband will in turn try to please his wife. If this dynamic is in place, in the course of a healthy Biblical marriage, ‘overruling’ will be rare.”
I had the chance to discuss the topic of submission later Sunday evening with a non-believing neighbor, and he unknowingly helped me synthesize this. (It’s amazing what anyone can teach us if we’re willing to listen!) Wives are to SUBMIT their power and rights to their husbands, and husbands are to use that authority to lovingly SERVE their wives. SUBMIT & SERVE. Given the context of Ephesians, I think that captures the tenor of Paul’s instructions. You’ll see the same principle expressed in the relationships between parent-child and employer-worker.
As I thought more about this, I realized that we have misleadingly assumed that wives submit, and therefore, husbands lead. But Paul doesn’t use the word ‘lead’. He does compare the husband’s role to Christ as the head, but that’s it. Instead, he says LOVE, and Jesus himself equates love with serving, not necessarily just leading.
So I’d sum it up this way. Husbands, SERVE. Wives, SUBMIT. Do so out of reverence for Christ as an opportunity to live out what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Just imagine the kinds of dynamic marriages we’d see lived out – glorious, other-worldly examples of the Gospel alive right in front of us. Both husband and wife would then bring their gifts, passions, and power to illustrate the Gospel in mutual submission and service.
If you want a picture of this in real life, watch this video. We usually show it in our pre-marital class. It’s a fitting picture of submission and love no matter what the circumstance.