Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Ephesians 5:22-24
This is one of the most maligned passages of scripture in the New Testament Bible. Many have tried to elide it from scripture because of confusion and/or rebellion. This is a passage that, by definition, cannot be understood by the carnal mind. Since carnality is the ever growing pandemic in the Christian church, it is inevitable that this scripture will be misapplied and misunderstood at best, and in many cases intentionally twisted for the ruin of souls.
This carnality insinuates itself in subtle ways. The immediate carnal response is to demand that the following verse “Husbands love your wives as Christ has loved the church” must be dealt with simultaneously. In reality, such a plea soon deteriorates into a ploy to study the next verse to the exclusion of those sited for this study. In fact, the majority of the church would like to believe, and may in fact believe, that the fifth chapter of Ephesians skips from verse 21: “Submitting yourselves one to another…” to verse 25: “Husbands love your wives…”
The other equally carnal application of this verse tends toward a Sufi, Wahabbi or Shi’ia (Islamic) view of women. And, while Ephesus was a community located on the Turkish peninsula and Paul was a native of Tarsis another community of displaced Jews located on the southern cost of Turkey, such a view is unbalanced and lacks the moderation Paul preaches in the other Epistles. Such a view demands women to assume the role of passive automaton or robot.
Either view is prompted from a desire to patronize women, treating them as irresponsible children who are not only relieved from responsibility but are to be either held in reign or appeased. The first of these approaches stems from the growing antichristian feminism and the latter perverts the concept of Biblical submission. In either case, the result is to forsake “the natural use of the woman” as was warned would be the trend in the last days. This causes this small, generally misunderstood passage to become key to Godly worship.
So let’s examine this passage. The common mistake made by both groups is to approach the passage with an eye for the men who may read the passage. Ironically, no great concern is expressed for the effect of women reading Eph 5:26. The common expectation is that a man reading will justifiably or unjustifiably read the passage and begin to demand that his wife become his servant and view her as his chattel or personal property. This is considered his due by one camp and as a horrific abuse of a woman’s person by the other.
What both camps fail to recognize is that the passage is not directed to men. The first sentence addresses the passage quite effectively. “Wives, submit yourselves.” This is not a blanket statement to all women. The same author tells us, “there are now no more … male nor female”. So then, it can’t be intended as a general statement with the goal of causing women to become a lower caste to men. (Obviously women cannot be allowed to assume a superior caste either.) This instruction is directed specifically to women who have married a man and the instruction limits the submission to a woman’s “own husband”.
What then can this submission entail? Submission certainly evokes definitions that are based on the world history of feudalism and slavery. The pictures of bondage and physical torture in a sexual context blend with pictures of black slaves being raped by white owners in the American Southeast. The history runs to noble warriors raping and getting unwanted bastard children on the daughters of poor serfs who are prevented from protecting those women on penalty of death.
These images cloud our understanding and make woman fearful of, or resigned to, a life of indignity and drudgery. These same images make sane men uncomfortable to the point, themselves, of pretending this passage out of existence. Healthy men are generally unattracted to a passive woman who sets aside her intellect and will in order to be submitted. Healthy men are generally attracted to a vibrant, active and youthful mind almost as much as to an attractive body and pretty face. This is what often leads to the fabled midlife crisis. A man tries to recapture his own youth by dating and bedding a much younger woman with the sort of youthful exuberance he is not experiencing in his spouse. A side effect of the age difference is that the younger woman will often fall into the role of Godly submission, instinctively. She will cater to the older man in ways women his own age feel too reticent or superior engage in. This perverted illusion of the God ordained paradigm for marriage, buried in the reality of adultery, is so seductive that few men have the will to entirely resist it.
This issue of submission carries into the bedroom as well. Clearly, the Bible tells us that a married person does not have ownership over his or her body. A Christian alternative to the Feminist pro-choice mantra would be, “My body Your choice!” Because the Bible clearly commands that the married person is the sexual object and property of the spouse, most people who are aware of this tend to overlook the fact that the commands creating this state are gender neutral. This means that a man is a “sex object” for his wife just as surely as she is for him.
Given that Submission of a wife to her husband and his ownership of her body (California Law would define it is as an anatomical gift) is absolute, doesn’t this in fact describe sexual and practical slavery? Isn’t it Biblical to expect that a woman must serve her husband passively and silently not complaining or resisting? After all, Onesimus was forced to return to his owner.
These are the common arguments, but once again these are carnal and overly simplistic readings. Let’s look at the least read clause in the entire passage. “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” This is the third time he has repeated this same concept in the space of three sentences. Yet most readers have gotten tired and ceased to see it as a practical instruction by the time they get to this line. If they actually read it, they are probably a member of that minority that overly mysticize and warp the instruction into some theological or metaphysical philosophy.
Granted, the passage obviously links the rite of marriage with the ecclesiology or study of the organization and role of the church. This is another of Paul’s prose poems, where he assumes that one pregnant point of theology is so obvious that he skims over it and uses it as a proof for another unrelated point. Yes, Paul is demonstrating that the role of the church in relation to Jesus is a direct analog to the role of a wife in relation to her own husband, and not to any other man. However, the author skims close to the edge of suggesting that a husband occupies the role of Saviour and intercessor for his wife. The leads the woman reading it to understand that any scripture illustrating the role the church plays in relation to Jesus, is her rightful role in relation to her husband. The ecclesiology becomes a road map for “wifely” behavior and submission.
This is a relationship that is well documented in other passages, by this and other authors. So the proper way to understand the submission that is indicated here is to look at the role of the church in relation to Christ as documented. The church is called to be a dynamic and aggressive servant. Passages everywhere reveal a role that requires the church to be intuitive in anticipating and meeting the needs of Christ — to be a repository of trust, praise, worship and active eager service with a desire to please and even exceed Christ’s expectations. A passive, flaccid church is rebuked by James, who says simply, “Show me your faith without works and I’ll show you my faith by my works.” Jesus says of the church, “God loves a cheerful giver.” The verses go on and on describing a role of the church as cheerful active excited lover and servant, anxious to not only please but anticipate and delight.
This is the role of a Godly wife as expressed in this scripture. The image is not a drudge, scullion and concubine – grudgingly or helplessly acceding to her husband’s wishes, needs and desires – but a cheerful anxious servant and sexual partner anxious to please and delight, anticipating her husbands desires and exceeding his needs. However, she must also be willing to persistently seek her own needs and desires by prayerful request. To quote Christ for the benefit of married women, “You have not because you ask not. Come boldly before the throne of your spouse and ask as a beloved.” To draw an analogy from the world, she is to be his groupie placing him on the pedestal of Rock Superstar and Monarch.
But remember, this is an instruction to a Wife not to men. It’s not a husband’s job to force or cajole a wife to be his groupie, or to request the solution to her needs. Just as the church must assume this role by choice and by faith that overcomes disappointment and disillusionment in the face of perceived failure in Christ, a woman must learn to overlook her husband’s human frailty and failing, to the extent necessary to be his committed groupie for life. In fact, the attitude and behavior a woman assumes in relating to her own husband is a public expression of her relationship with God. If she is verbally abusive, uses sex or humiliation to manipulate her husband, or threatens to leave him in order to control his behavior – she is exposing the fact that she treats God with similar impudence in her prayer life and in her Christian walk. If she won’t serve her own husband eagerly, proactively exceeding his desires – she doesn’t serve God either. This is not because her husband is God, but rather that the same corners of her soul that poison her relationship to her husband poison her relationship to God in the person of Jesus. The one is a microcosm of the other and the two relationships will always be in tandem.
The converse analogy is just as valid in that the role of a Godly wife is a perfect picture of the role of a consecrated church. If the church is selfish, demanding and focused only on her own needs and desires to the exclusion of Christ’s needs, that church is rebellious and in danger of being divorced from Christ. If the church is nagging and judgmental toward Jesus, the church will surely be scolded and will certainly not receive his best and most attentive affection. If the church is moody and melancholic, that church will surely tire and exasperate Jesus to the point that he will distance himself and be less than intimate. A church that entertains other religions and gods and who sells herself for money will be booted out as a whore. The marriage killer issues are equally effective salvation killers.
God loves a cheerful giver, and Jesus demands a faithful and devoted church. This is the reason that marriage is a critical issue for the church and why the church is a critical issue for Christian marriage. The two are inextricably entwined.
It is my prayer that this simple message reaches those who have engaged in or counseled rebellion in a woman to the destructions of her soul. God bless you as you seek him honestly and spiritually.