Does Ephesians 5:21 teach mutual submission?

"This view of mutual submission means that a husband is not in fact called to be the leader of his family nor is a wife called to follow her husband’s leadership. So which interpretation is right?" - Denny Burk

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TOvermiller's picture

I've shared some thoughts on this question as well and tend to see some need for "mutual submission." I would suggest that the "submit to one another" (Eph 5:21) describes the way that we should treat one another within the body of Christ in general. For wives "to submit to your own husbands" then is a more specific and distinct way that Christian wives should treat their husbands within their family relationship.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

It does teach mutual submission. Problem solved!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

It does teach mutual submission. Problem solved!

I'll bet you were the kind of kid I would have wanted to punch in school! Smile

Dave Barnhart

Jeff Howell's picture

It doesn't teach mutual submission. Problem still solved. Or, I guess it depends upon what you mean by mutual submission, and then ...

Jonathan Charles's picture

From Harold W. Hoehner's commentary on Ephesians:

"How does mutual submission work?  If A submits to B, then B is not submitting but ruling.  It could be that A submits with respect to some things or areas to B, and, on the other hand, B submits to A in other things or areas."

Bert Perry's picture

is that mutual submission imposes two difficulties on the reader.  First, as the article hints with verse 23, the rest of Scripture makes the comparison of male headhip in human relationships to God's headship over the Church.  So unless Christ radically changes in the space of two verses--probably a couple of minutes for Paul's quill--we have a problem with that hypothesis.  Second, if we follow "mutual submission" with some examples of wives submitting to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters, we might infer that those endorsing mutual submission were of the opinion that in ancient society, wives, children, and slaves ruled things.  Obviously we know the opposite is true, historically speaking.

Sometimes I think we get too bogged down in the minutiae of word definitions to see the big picture.  Not that I don't think those minutiae aren't valuable--I'm a bit of a word junkie myself--but there are times you can't see the forest for the trees.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

Eph. 5:21 concludes a thought which began in 5:15, and indeed in 5:1.  Eph. 5:22 is Paul moving on to a particular subject; that of husband and wife.  While believers are to submit to one another in deference (5:1-21), the wife is to submit to the husband as her "head" just as the Church submits to Christ (5:23-24).  Christ does not submit to the Church, although in His earthly mission He washed the disciples' feet.  In like manner, the husband does not submit to the wife as though she were the head. 

In 5:21 Paul is writing to the saints generally.  In 5:22ff. He is writing to husbands and wives specifically.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Don Johnson's picture

I appreciate Paul's brief comment above. Neatly summarizes the passage. I think the term "mutual submission" as it is bandied about by many actually confuses the biblical teaching of marriage. Burk is correct to point it out, Paul summarizes the passage well, in my opinion.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I think mutual submission is a valid idea because of the intention to strike a balance with these verses. I can't think about this topic without remembering women who were/are dealing with the abuse of 'submission' by their husbands (and sometimes Christian men in general). I've known many women whose husbands were manipulative, demeaning, considered their wives to be their personal slaves, even to the point of using violence. My own husband is a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, and during relapses, I have to walk a very fine line between submission and protecting myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

IMO, the expectation (and condition, from my POV) is that the husband will obey Christ and love his wife as himself. A wife is not required to submit in a way that violates her own God-given conscience or endangers her in some way in order to please her husband. 

It's an extreme example, but Sapphira comes to mind during discussions like this--she and her husband hatched a plan together, but when questioned by Peter, she had to answer for herself. She could have chosen to 'betray' her husband and tell the truth. She continued the deception, and died, because she was responsible for her own actions.

As with many things, it's not simple. 

Dave White's picture

https://centralseminary.edu/submitting-to-each-other-a-response-to-denny...

Burk places more weight on his evidence than it will bear. First, though he appeals to the standard New Testament lexicon (BDAG), he neglects to mention that it includes as one definition of submit (Greek hupotasso) “submission in the sense of voluntary yielding in love.” This definition is fully compatible with “mutually serving each other” and “putting each other’s needs first.” One of the biblical references that the lexicon lists for this usage is Eph 5:21. Furthermore, Gerhard Delling’s discussion of this word devotes an entire paragraph to occurrences in which it connotes “readiness to renounce one’s own will for the sake of others . . . and to give precedence to others,” including, “mutual submission among Christians” (TDNT 8:45).

Second, Burk’s observations about the reciprocal pronoun are mostly flawed. People actually can mutually betray and hate each other (Matt 24:10), step on each other (Luke 21:1), accuse each other (Acts 19:38), deprive each other of marital rights (1 Cor 7:5), and wait for each other to eat (1 Cor 11:33). The one text that appears to support Burk’s argument is Rev 6:4, where people are caused to kill each other. Even here, it is not impossible for individuals to be committing mutually simultaneous murder. In any event, when the reciprocal pronoun is used for groups it uniformly indicates action that occurs indiscriminately among the members of the group, not action in which one specified party is acting upon a different specified party.

Third, Burk completely ignores evidence about how the apostolic fathers understood Paul’s command. For example, 1 Clement contains an exhortation that paraphrases Eph 5:21: “let each man be subject to his neighbor” (1 Cle 38:1‑2). Like Paul, 1 Clement illustrates this principle by using pairs of examples in which each member of the pair exhibits a kind of submission suitable to that party’s station. For example, the strong must not neglect the weak, and the weak must respect the strong. The rich must support the poor, and the poor must give thanks to God for the rich. In each of these pairs, both members are exhibiting mutual submission, though in different ways.

Fourth, if submission does mean serving the other and putting the other’s needs first, then Christ and the Church really do have a mutually submissive relationship. Christ served the interests of the Church when He “loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). For Burk to state that “[t]here is no reciprocal submission between Christ and his bride” is not evidence, but begging the question.

What, then, is Paul saying in Eph 5:21ff? The leading verb is found in Eph 5:18, where believers are commanded to stop being drunk with wine but to be filled with the Spirit. In a series of modal participles, Paul describes what Spirit filling looks like: speaking, singing, and making melody (Eph 5:19), giving thanks (Eph 5:20), and submitting to each other in the fear of the Lord (Eph 5:21). The passage expects an attitude of mutual submission from every Spirit-filled believer toward all other believers.

The problem is that such mutual submission is difficult to conceptualize—in Paul’s day no less than in ours. Rather than attempting to explain the concept, however, Paul chooses to illustrate it. He pictures submission in three pairs of relationships. Each pair involves an order of authority. Paul shows what submission looks like for each member in each pair.

For wives, mutual submission looks like submitting to their own husbands as to the Lord (Eph 5:22‑24)—and the change in wording is significant. For husbands, mutual submission looks like loving their wives as their own bodies and as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25‑33). For children, mutual submission looks like obeying parents and honoring father and mother (Eph 6:1‑3). For fathers, mutual submission looks like not provoking their children to wrath but rearing them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4). For slaves, mutual submission looks like obeying their masters sincerely (Eph 6:5-8). For masters, mutual submission looks like treating slaves humanely and kindly (Eph 6:9).

I think that Burk is wrong to say that Eph 5:21 does not teach mutual submission. I also believe that egalitarians are wrong when they assume that mutual submission obviates authority structures. The most straightforward reading of Eph 5:21‑6:10 is that God does require mutual submission, but that mutual submission is fully compatible with the exercise of authority. As Paul illustrates, rightly mutual submission will manifest itself differently on each side of a relationship that involves ordered authority.

Don Johnson's picture

I think the term "mutual submission" is unhelpful, and perhaps one could say unbiblical. The way it is used often (if not always) emasculates men in their God given roles. It is interesting that it is usually only applied in marriage, whereas Paul goes on to teach about parents/children and masters/slaves. While Christians in each of these roles have an obligation to think of the needs of the others in the relationship, the order of the relationship is never subverted. Except in marriage.

so I agree with Bauder to some extent on this, but I still wish Christians would stop talking about "mutual submission". It just muddies the waters

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Jay's picture

I think Susan does a good job of explaining most of the reactions that I've seen to this concept when she wrote this:

I can't think about this topic without remembering women who were/are dealing with the abuse of 'submission' by their husbands (and sometimes Christian men in general). I've known many women whose husbands were manipulative, demeaning, considered their wives to be their personal slaves, even to the point of using violence. My own husband is a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, and during relapses, I have to walk a very fine line between submission and protecting myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

I know that this is a problem that I keep seeing as well.  Teaching wives to submit to their husbands works well and doesn't need to be explained when children grow up in stable nuclear Christian families.  It's what we teach to kids and women from horribly dysfunctional backgrounds (or relationships) that is where this gets difficult.  Someone is writing a book titled "The Life-Saving Divorce", and those are the people that are really, really struggling with the idea of submission and complementarianism.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Paul Henebury's picture

I sympathize with Susan and pray that God will bless her patience above what she asks or thinks, but no woman should submit to a husband who tells her to sin, or makes her complicit in his sin through distorting God's commands.

As for "mutual submission", that is one meaning and fits Eph. 5:21.  It does not fit Eph. 5:22 where Paul has turned from the general to the particular. 

Some of these comments seem to be arguing with the passage instead of believing it.  When we try to "right wrongs" by lessening the force of biblical commands we always end up making more problems than we solve.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Bert Perry's picture

My take in wifely submission--really like any submission--is that it does not extend to someone deliberately injuring the other or asking them to sin.  And in that light, I would tend to suggest that in situations like Susan describes, church assistance and/or (for church members) church discipline ought to come into play.  The big thing you've got to watch is that there seems in many places to be something of a bias towards believing the man over the woman--and I write this as the son of a man who abused my mom and others, and who knows of situations where even police almost instinctively believed my dad over that of a woman sporting fresh new shiners.

Wish I were making this up, and I'm not trying to accuse, but multiple police officers personally apologized to my mom because they recognized that when I was a kid, they really didn't know how to deal with domestic abuse.  So it is a possible/likely bias that we ought to be aware of.

(I don't mean to derail this discussion, but since Susan brought up issues of safety, I figured it was relevant)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Burk presents a slippery-slope argument (mutual submission = men cannot lead) that is silly and unnecessary. As some have noted, Eph 5:22ff explains how, precisely, Christians can submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Wives must submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord. The husband is the head of the marriage covenant. The text is clear and the implications straightforward.

Husbands

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ...

Christ loved the church in a selfless way. The church didn't deserve His love, but He chose to give it anyway. Thus, husband's love for their wives should be sacrificial. She doesn't have to "deserve" your love. You must give it, especially when she doesn't "deserve" it. This is the love Christ had for the sinners who comprise His church. 

28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Love your wife as much as you love yourself. Husbands must be the kind of companions their wives need them to be. This is the kind of "submission" I referred to in my earlier post. This kind of mutual selflessness in the marriage covenant doesn't have to frustrate a husband's responsibility to lead. If a husband habitually stomps around and screams, "I'm in charge around here, doggone it!" then ladies - you've married a loser and a blowhard. 

Discussions about children (6:1-4) and slaves and masters (6:5-9) then follow, with obvious implications for submission to authority. 

Problem

The hard part is that what leadership looks like is different with different people. You can't impose a top-down approach here. You have a principle that's pretty clear, but it'll look different in practice depending on the couple. You know this yourself; think of bosses you've worked for.

I haven't read enough material from CBMW to understand what angle they're coming from, but I suspect they (and some pastors) have a hagiographic concept of the ideal "male leadership model" that doesn't always fit reality - and perhaps never did. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Jay's picture

I suspect they (and some pastors) have a hagiographic concept of the ideal "male leadership model" that doesn't always fit reality - and perhaps never did.

Given a lot of what I'm seeing pass as 'good leadership' from many Christian leaders (*cough* SBC and TGC *cough*) and some of the stuff I've read/learned from CBMW in particular, I think it's time for me to personally review what they've been putting out with a more critical eye.  I found their books and things helpful when I was younger, but there are real holes in their ministry / theology that need to be addressed or people will go exactly the way that Tyler said they will.  How they approach dealing with problem of abuse is a giant gaping hole, for starters. I've seen several men head into a model that in every form and appearance is much more of a dictatorial / authoritarian leadership style than anything described in Scripture, and they've used CBMW materials (and others) to support it.

It's also worth nothing that some of the people I've seen that were supporting CBMW are not heading in a direction of "biblical patriarchy", which I would be concerned about if it were in my circles.  Fortunately, it hasn't made it's way to me yet as far as I know.  That nonsense seems to be driven by Doug Wilson, which is really all I need to know at this point.

If I remember right, CBMW got it's start by opposing third wave feminism several decades ago and has shifted its emphasis and scope since then.  If that was their initial raison d' etre, it may have slanted how they handle gender and relationships in general.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

The term "mutual" doesn't have to be confusing. The passages we are discussing require submission from the church, the husband, and the wife. That's mutual.

But I agree with Mr. Burk that many teachings about 'mutual submission' are wrong-headed, and that this passage is teaching about a God-designed authority structure dating back to the Garden.

However, there are many descriptions in the Bible of the flow of authority, and they aren't always so linear. Church leadership has a measure of accountability to its membership. Husbands and wives are still brothers and sisters in Christ, and in that sense are accountable to each other.

So what does it mean, as Tyler mentions, to be in authority, or to lead? We see instances from Abraham to David to Jesus to Paul of men listening to the counsel of women. (I won't mention Deborah, 'cause that's cheating.) Were they being wimpy or weak, or abdicating their authority? Of course not.

On a side note, I think it's interesting that Naaman was healed because he took the offhand comment of a little slave girl seriously. And he wasn't freaked out about obeying the advice of a child--he lost it because Elisha didn't do a Penn and Teller, but told him to go wash in the river. Hilarious.

Anyway, Ephesians 5 starts off with the principle of following God's example and walking with each other in love. So what was Christ's example? Humble servant leadership, leading by example, nurturing and cherishing his followers.

So if a guy wants to talk about submission, it's "You first." Because that's the Biblical pattern. And no amount of pushing wives to be submissive is going to successfully get past that first gate, because if the husband is not at least attempting to model submission to God and the church, then he has no business uttering a single syllable about his role as spiritual leader in the home and demanding submission from anyone, including the dog.

Eph. 5:21-33 is a whole slew of verses about the husband's role in the home, bookended with 'wives be submissive'. Geewhizwhillakers, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of sermons I've heard on verses 25-32, but I would have to borrow fingers and toes from just about everyone I've ever met to number the messages I've heard about wives submitting to husbands. Now ain't that a kicker.

All that said, I think we still need to acknowledge that there are always boundaries when it comes to how earthly authority interacts with personal responsibility. Because God ordained organizational, relational, and personal authority/responsibility, and they are all valid, and these spheres of authority interact quite often and sometimes overlap.

For instance--I think we all believe in the authority of the church and its elders, but no one here would submit to a church elder who wanted to dictate your career path, your diet and exercise, or your finances. We believe that there is a line between church authority and our private lives that the church has no right to cross unless there is . . . let's call it reasonable cause to believe that someone seriously immoral is going on.

And if you as a church member believe something untoward is going on in your church's leadership, you have a responsibility to follow Scriptural protocols and hold leadership accountable to follow them.

That's mutual, and it's not mutiny or disrespect, because the one we are supposed to respect above all others is God. And we are told that we will be able to come boldly before the throne of judgment when we've loved others as God loved us (1 John 4:17) which is the theme of Ephesians 5.

I believe talking about submission as a zero sum game is one of the reasons predators are so successful in finding victims in churches, because the congregation, especially women and children, have been told for many years that submission means "Sit down and shut up and do what you're told," and dozens upon dozens of women who love the Lord and want to do what's right actually check their God-given brain at the door and follow along with the most heinous acts you've ever heard of. Because authority.

Which is why I personally advocate treating this principle with an abundance of carefulness, and not a "That's what it says so deal with it sister" attitude.

Don Johnson's picture

what use is a term you have to explain so carefully?

if it requires explanation and qualification it might be better to come up with different terminology. 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Paul Henebury's picture

Eph.5:22-33 (not 21-33) is not about leadership.  It's about submission and love.  The man is commanded to love his wife and the woman is commanded to submit to her husband (in all things right).  Ancient cultures were not the modern West.  And even though women's roles are greatly elevated in the Bible it still says what it says.  Paul doesn't say, "Wives, submit to your husband the same way you submit to everyone else."  Peter gives an example in Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6).  I bring up that uncomfortable verse because it illustrates what Paul means in Eph. 5.  Mutual submission it ain't.  

Again, I hear what Susan is saying, and if she were a member of my church her pain would be taken very seriously.  She definitely would not be told to sit down and shut up, or any other pat line she gives as examples.  Who but an utter fool not qualified for the pastorate would say such a stupid thing?...I know, but that's why I don't think many men are called to the pastorate (but that's another subject).  

Love serves, but it does not necessarily submit.  Christ never submitted to the Church.  He is the Lord.  But He served the Church; that is different.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Again, I hear what Susan is saying, and if she were a member of my church her pain would be taken very seriously.  She definitely would not be told to sit down and shut up, or any other pat line she gives as examples.  Who but an utter fool not qualified for the pastorate would say such a stupid thing?...I know, but that's why I don't think many men are called to the pastorate (but that's another subject).  

As many downsides as there are to the internet, one of the upsides is that it has allowed people to 'compare notes', as it were. Many an utter fool (or predator, in my unvarnished opinion) has used the unqualified term of "submission" to manipulate, dominate, and control. They were able to do so because they could isolate their congregations and men could isolate their women and children. Now that so many channels of communication have been opened, people have been realizing how deep and wide is the abuse of this passage. So they are looking for a solution, an antidote, an inoculation. And they came up with 'mutual submission'. I get it.

So yes, this passage is saying "The man is commanded to love his wife and the woman is commanded to submit to her husband (in all things right)." So if a husband requires the the wife to follow him, and he himself is not following Christ, and then she is found to be 'unsubmissive', well then, didn't he just reap what he sowed?

In a nutshell, I'm saying that this conversation shouldn't happen without examining the husband's role as leader, and what it means to love his wife properly so that she is able to follow his example in submitting to him as he submits to Christ. I don't think it's a solid hermeneutical practice to extract the wife's responsibility from Eph. 5 and not give as much attention to the other principles and conditions given, because it's all inextricably intertwined.

I believe we also need to take into consideration that a woman will also give account of herself to God, and she has a relationship with Christ of her own. Which means a wife may need to use her own discretion as to what is and is not a valid use of the husband's authority, because, as Paster Henebury points out, "The man is commanded to love his wife and the woman is commanded to submit to her husband (in all things right)."

So who decides when and how a wife submits, and when the husband is in the right? I think that entails a wife using spiritual discernment, and indicates an element of accountability of the husband to the wife. As a matter of fact, isn't it her duty, as she loves and honors her husband, to help him be the best version of himself that he can be? Isn't there something 'mutually submissive' about that?

I mentioned that my husband is a recovering alcoholic. The good years have outnumbered the bad, and relapses have become fewer and farther between, and shorter in duration. These experiences have forced me to deal nearly every day of the last 34 years with what it means to be submissive to God and to a husband. Part of my submission to Ken is knowing what he wants in his heart of hearts, even when his behavior isn't consistent with that. He doesn't want to be an abusive drunk, He wants to be a good man, and to help people--he is one of the most generous people I've ever met. He is happiest when he is faithful to read his Bible and attend church. His love and care for me blossoms when he is right with God.

I sometimes of my role as his kite string, so to speak, and even if I have to nail my feet to the floor, I love him with all my heart, and I will hang on. I believe that when I make sure he gets the help he needs in whatever form that takes, I am exercising submission, both to him, and to God.

"Christ never submitted to the Church.  He is the Lord.  But He served the Church; that is different." And every analogy breaks down at some point, because the husband is not lord over the wife in the exact same way as Christ is the Lord over the church. The wife will not stand at the judgment to answer to her husband, he is not the source of her salvation, she does not pray to him or worship him, etc. So we should be very, very careful about playing that card to describe a husband's relationship to his wife. 

I think a husband who loves his wife as described in this passage is rarely, if ever, going to have worry about her about submitting to him. To put a finer point on it, the more men talk about this passage to the exclusion of the part they are supposed to play, the more I believe they weaken their argument. 

Paul Henebury's picture

Since he is the head of the wife.  

Yes, there are all sorts of issues that require wisdom, but that doesn't change the basic rule for either spouse.  Further, although there is a "reap what you sow" side to this, the passage does not say e.g., "husbands, love your wives only if they submit to you."

Susan and I obviously attend very different churches, as I never hear (or have heard) any preacher just preach Eph. 5:22 without speaking also to the men on Eph. 5:25.  She says,

" I think a husband who loves his wife as described in this passage is rarely, if ever, going to have worry about her about submitting to him."

Well, that is not my experience in many years of marriage counseling.  In fact there is a book by Laura Doyle called 'The Surrendered Wife' that addresses wives on that very issue (and it's not a Christian book).  Genesis 3:16b indicates that the wife will find it difficult to be submissive.  It's not for nothing that slogans such as "happy wife, happy life" are bandied around.  I have talked with many wives who thought that they were respecting their husbands while paying no attention to whether their husbands felt respected.  A husband who doesn't feel respected by his wife is surely more likely to be unloving.

In fact, few commentators notice the order here.  Paul addresses the wife first.    

"To put a finer point on it, the more men talk about this passage to the exclusion of the part they are supposed to play, the more I believe they weaken their argument."

True, but I have rarely encountered men like this.  Do they exist?  Very definitely.  But again, what pastor worth his salt would believe them? 

I am very sorry to hear Susan's story, and I do not discount her experiences of bad men who abuse Eph. 5:22.        

 

To put a finer point on it, the more men talk about this passage to the exclusion of the part they are supposed to play, the more I believe they weaken their argument. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Jay's picture

the passage does not say e.g., "husbands, love your wives only if they submit to you."

I know someone who has explicitly said and believes that exact thing.  He deliberately phrased it that way and acts in accordance with it.

It's exactly why how we teach this principle matters, brothers.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Maybe what we need to do to cross this bridge of understanding is do more to define what leadership in the home looks like.

Is it requiring dinner on the table at a certain time?
Is it teaching and modeling the fruits of the Spirit?
Should husbands take punitive action if the wife fails to comply with his wishes?
What is and isn't an appropriate use of authority in the home?

Susan and I obviously attend very different churches, as I never hear (or have heard) any preacher just preach Eph. 5:22 without speaking also to the men on Eph. 5:25. 

What I am describing isn't a problem in the church/ministries my husband and I are involved in now. But I can say without equivocation that in every church and 'revival' I have attended in my 40+ years of attending church, I have not heard a message on Eph. 5 that spent any significant amount of time expanding on the husband's leadership role. I have always heard how the wife should submit, from looking pretty and having dinner on the table when the husband gets home, to pleasing him in the bedroom. And shame, shame on the woman who doesn't maintain her pre-marriage figure, even after 2 or more kids. The husband's leadership in the home was always addressed in relation to how the wife should show submission, not on what is and isn't a true Biblical use of authority, or what it means for the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church. Or even that his wife has a first name, and it probably isn't "Woman" or "Rib".

As a matter of fact, I heard on more than one occasion that even when a husband asks his wife to do something she believes is wrong or even harmful to her or the children, that she should do it anyway, because God will take care of her and honor her submission, and if the husband is wrong, God will chastise the husband. The example of Sarah and Abraham were often trotted out for that one.

Some of the worst marital advice I have ever heard came from women whose husbands were in the ministry, by the way. And what an amazing coincidence--their husbands eventually were revealed to be extremely domineering, some abusive, and a couple of them were sexually abusing their daughters. 

To be clear, the misuse of Scripture never negates the doctrine or principle to be applied. I'm not at all advocating Eph. 5 teaches a mutual submission in the sense that a husband submits to the wife in the same way that a wife submits to the husband. But--there is an element of accountability to each other and to God that must be dealt with in order to properly apply this passage every day in real life.

dmyers's picture

To reinforce Paul's point, Susan R is simply wrong to say (in her first comment above) that the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands is conditioned on whether their husbands display Christ-like love.  Neither instruction is conditioned on one spouse's perception of how well the other spouse is complying with the instruction.  I'm sure Susan would agree that the husband's obligation to love his wife as Christ loved the church isn't called off if she doesn't submit to his satisfaction.  Likewise, the wife's obligation to submit isn't called off if he doesn't love her to her satisfaction.  Remember, this isn't the only passage addressing spouses' obligations to each other.  Peter insists that even women who are married to unbelieving husbands (who by definition will, on average, fail to embody Christ-like love even more often than Christian husbands do) are to submit to them -- 1 Peter 3:1-7.  In fact, 1 Peter 3 pretty much puts to bed the egalitarian approach to Ephesians 5, as well as the ostensibly complementarian complaint, "He doesn't love me right!"

Susan has walked a very difficult road, as have other women whose husbands' actions are outside the scope of either Ephesians 5 or 1 Peter 3.  I do not minimize that at all, and I agree with everyone else commenting that submission does not include physical abuse or being forced into sin.  But many Christian husbands have also walked a difficult road, usually ending in an unwanted divorce, with wives who refused to be led, regardless of how well or how well-intentioned.  And probably every single one of them has heard from his wife before and during the divorce that he didn't love her as Christ loves the church so she had no further obligation to him.  

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

dmyers wrote:
 To reinforce Paul's point, Susan R is simply wrong to say (in her first comment above) that the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands is conditioned on whether their husbands display Christ-like love.  Neither instruction is conditioned on one spouse's perception of how well the other spouse is complying with the instruction. . . And probably every single one of them has heard from his wife before and during the divorce that he didn't love her as Christ loves the church so she had no further obligation to him.  

That's not what I said, on any planet. I believe we must address this passage as a whole, and not extract the wife's role, as if she is a lily pad floating on the pond of marriage all by herself. The husband and wife relationship is symbiotic, and you shouldn't address one without addressing the other, especially since the husband's role is to lead. If all things hinge on leadership, then the focus of any discussion on the submission of the wife should spend significant time addressing how the husband's leadership impacts her submission. Just as the wife can't say that because her husband doesn't love her as Christ loves the church she is under no obligation to submit, the husband doesn't get to say "If she was a better follower, I'd be a better leader."

dmyers's picture

Susan, your first comment was actually titled "Conditions."  In that comment, you said, "IMO, the expectation (and condition, from my POV) is that the husband will obey Christ and love his wife as himself."  If you're retracting your insistence that the wife's submission is conditioned on the husband's Christ-like love, then we're in agreement.  But I didn't put words in your mouth.

The rest of your most recent comment I (generally) agree with, as would any Christian man I've ever encountered.  I'm not sure what you mean when you talk about "all things hing[ing] on leadership," since we're agreeing (I think) that the wife's submission doesn't hinge on the perfection of the husband's leadership, and vice versa.  I agree that the whole passage should be discussed with more or less equal time on both spouses' obligations, but that would include discussion of how, from a human standpoint, the wife's submission or lack of it impacts (your word) his leadership.  Met with frequent if not constant pushback, criticism, complaining, and the ultimate weapon of sexual refusal, most Christian husbands will naturally (if not rightly) withdraw.  It is too frequently the case that a Christian wife demands leadership from her husband, as long as it's the leadership she wants in the specific manner she wants it -- i.e., the way she would do it.  And if she doesn't get that, well then he's not being Christ-like enough and she's not obligated to submit (or to have sex with him except on her terms).

I do think it's interesting -- though I'm not attempting to make any hard and fast argument from it because I haven't studied it enough -- that in both Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3, the apostles address the wife's obligation first.  Perhaps that ordering by itself calls into question any notion that the wife's submission is conditioned on the husband's leadership?

As to your comment titled, "Submitting to what?," the answer is:  the wife is submitting to God in submitting to her husband.  The earthly, flawed husband is never the ultimate person being submitted to.  Just as we're all told to do our work for the Lord and not just for our earthly employers.

Hope that helps.

Jim's picture

Observation on submission - 44 years of marriage:

  • I am a godly man who leads my home (I'm regarded to meet 1 Tim 3 qualifications)
  • Obviously I am far from perfect (I sin daily)
  • I do not abuse substances nor have I ever abused my wife
  • I lead my wife in daily Bible study and prayer
  • I have a godly (Prov 31-style) wife
  • I delegate the much to my wife - vast majority of shopping (so I don't have her on the proverbial "short lease")
  • Almost all (I cannot think of an example otherwise) major decisions are jointly made (large purchases, cars, houses, et cetera)
  • You could ask my wife - submission ain't easy!  Truth be told - Ephesians 5:25 ain't either!
Jay's picture

Here's a simpler passage that may be more helpful than arguments over who submits to who:

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

-Colossians 3:18-19

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

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