I was an undergraduate at Cambridge when I first encountered Ephesians 5:22. I’d come from an academically driven, equality-oriented, single-sex high-school; I was now studying in a majority-male college; and I was repulsed. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.” You’ve got to be kidding me.
I had three major problems with this verse:
The first was that wives should submit. I knew women were just as competent as men – often more so. If there was wisdom in asymmetrical decision-making in marriage, surely it should depend on who was more competent in that area: sometimes the husband, sometimes the wife!
The second was the idea that wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord. It’s one thing submitting to Jesus Christ, the self-sacrificing king of the universe. It’s quite another to offer that kind of submission to a fallible, sinful, man.
The third – which perhaps grieved me most – was how harmful this verse was to my witness. I was offering my friends a radical narrative of power inversion, in which the creator God laid down his life, in which the poor out-classed the rich, in which outcasts became family. The gospel was a consuming fire of love-across-difference to burn up racial injustice and socioeconomic exploitation. And yet here was this horrifying verse promoting the subjugation of women. Jesus had elevated women to an equal status with men. Paul, it seemed, had pushed them back down. This verse ruined my witness.
I tried really hard to explain Ephesians 5:22 away. I tried arguing that in the Greek, the word translated “submit” only appears in the previous verse, “Submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21), so the rest of the passage must be applying submission as much to husbands as wives. But this didn’t stick: the roles for husbands and wives described in the following verses seemed simply to be different. And the command to submit wasn't just in Ephesians 5: it was also in Colossians 3:18 and 1 Peter 3:1. It seemed like I was cornered.
Then I turned my attention to the command to husbands. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). How did Christ love the church? By dying on the cross; by giving himself, naked and bleeding, to suffer for her; by putting her needs above his own; by giving everything for her. I asked myself how I would feel if this was the command to wives: Wives, love your husbands to the point of death, putting his needs above yours, and sacrificing yourself for him?
Wives, submit to your husbands is often critiqued as a mandate for spousal abuse. Tragically, it has sometimes been used that way. But the command to husbands makes this reading impossible. How much more easily could an abuser twist a verse calling his wife to suffer for him, to give herself up for him, to die for him? And yet that is the command to Christian husbands - not just in Ephesians 5 (where the command comes three times in v.25, 28, and 33), but also in Colossians 3:19. The only variation on this theme is in 1 Peter 3:1, where husbands are called to empathize with and to honor their wives.
If the gospel is true, none of us come to the table with rights. The only way in is flat on your face. If I want to hold onto my fundamental right to self-determination, I must reject the message of Jesus, because he calls me to submit completely to him: to deny myself and take up my cross and follow him (Luke 9:23).
Then the penny really dropped. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church. This model is not about any individual wife and husband: it’s about Jesus and the church. God created sex and marriage to give us a glimpse of his intimacy with us. Our roles in this great marriage are not interchangeable: Jesus gives himself for us, we submit to him.
Three more problems
So, much to my surprise, the three problems I had when I first read Ephesians 5:22 were resolved. But I’m left with 3 more problems when I hear this passage taught.
1. Attempts at psychological grounding
Hoping to uphold the goodness of God’s commands, Christians sometimes try to ground these verses in gendered psychology: women are natural followers, while men are natural leaders; men need respect, while women need love, etc. I’ve heard the claim that women are more naturally submissive, but I’ve never heard anyone argue that men are naturally more loving.
Conversely, I’ve heard pastors suggest that we are given commands that correspond to what we’re naturally bad at: women are good at love, men are good at respect, so the calls are reversed. But to say human history suggests that men naturally respect women is to stick your head in the sand with a blindfold on and earplugs for good measure!
At best, these claims about gender are generalizations, analogous to the claim that men are taller than women, but far less verifiable. At worst, they cause needless offense to believers and non-believers, who are understandably tired of gender stereotypes. They also invite exceptions: if these commands are given because wives are naturally more submissive, and I find that I’m a more natural leader than my husband, does that mean that we can switch roles?
If we look closely, however, we’ll see that these claims nowhere to be found in the text: Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not on gendered psychology but on Christ-centered theology.
2. Attempts to justify “traditional” gender roles
Ephesians 5 sticks like a burr in our 21st century, western ears. But we must not misread it as justifying “traditional” gender roles, which have often amounted to wives orienting themselves around the needs of their husband. The text does not say that the husband is the head of the family and thus the one whose needs come first, whose career must be prioritized, whose comfort is paramount. In fact, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of traditional gender roles. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the brutal axe of the gospel. This is no return to Victorian values or 1950s norms.
3. Attempts to obey
My final problem when I hear Ephesians 5 taught is the worst of all: it’s the problem of not living up to it. I’ve been married for a decade and I’m not naturally submissive. I’m naturally leadership-oriented, I hold a Ph.D. and a seminary degree, and I’m the trained debater of the family. Thank God, I married a man who is man enough to handle this. And yet it is a daily challenge for me to remember what I’m called to in this drama, and to notice opportunities to submit to my husband as to the Lord – not because I’m naturally more or less submissive, or because he is naturally more or less loving, but because Jesus submitted to the cross for me.
My marriage is not ultimately about me and my husband, any more than the play Romeo and Juliet is about the actors playing the title roles. It’s about Jesus and his church.
Ephesians 5:22 used to repulse me. Now it convicts me, and calls me toward Jesus: the true husband who satisfies our needs, the one man who deserves our submission.
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