Submission? What’s That?

Ephesians 5:21-24


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Submission? What’s that? It is not a word that people use every day. Maybe parents use it when they are talking to their children. But when it comes to adults, submission is almost a curse word. We want to rule the roost, be king of the hill (though that’s difficult in North Dakota!). Our culture shouts at us all day long, “It’s all about you!” My good friend Dr. Ligon Duncan once saw a lady in a car, and on the back of that car was a bumper sticker that said that: “It’s all about you.” Dr. Duncan said (not to the lady, only in his mind), “Bless the hearts of all those who have to interact with you!” We live in an age of political correctness. There is hardly any passage of Scripture less politically correct than this one. The idea that we need to submit to an authority over us is more repugnant to our minds than almost anything else. So, we have to choose which voice will govern us: will we submit to the words of our culture? Or will we submit to the words of our God? God never tells us anything for our harm. This passage is not written down for our harm. It is written for our good. One other thing I should mention. Husbands, feel free to elbow your wives in the ribs today. However, you should remember that it will be your turn next week, and the following week. With the measure you use to elbow your wives in the ribs, so it will be measured out to you, and maybe with a little interest thrown in there for good measure!

The first command that Paul gives us is to submit to one another. Now, right here we have a problem. If we are to submit to one another, then aren’t husbands supposed to submit to their wives? Why doesn’t Paul say that? The reason he doesn’t say that is that submission looks different for the wife as opposed to the husband. The grammar of the passage suggests that wives submitting to their husbands, and husbands loving their wives is the way in which we submit to one another. See, our culture misinterprets the passage. They argue that mutual submission means that there is no difference in role in the family. But that is not what Paul says. He tells us that we are to submit to one another. And then he goes on to tell us what that looks like. And for wives, that submission is submission to their husbands. Now, there are several very important qualifying statements here to which we should pay close attention. First of all, Paul does not say that all women are to submit to all men. Rather, Paul says that a woman should submit to her own husband.

Secondly, Paul tells us that women are to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord. He goes on to say that a husband is the head of the household, the spiritual leader. In other words, there is a parallel here. The relationship of Christ and His church is parallel to the relationship of a husband and wife. This does not mean that the husband somehow becomes a surrogate Christ with an absolute, dictatorial authority. It means that the husband also is under the authority of Christ, and that in that very submission of a women to her husband, she is submitting also to Christ.

Thirdly, wives are to submit to their husbands in all things (verse 24). That could very well be the most difficult thing in the whole passage. What does Paul mean? He means that our attitude should not be seeking to find every which way this command does not apply. Our sinful hearts want to find exceptions, loopholes to rules like this. “Well, he hasn’t loved me enough today. Therefore, I’m not going to submit to him.” Or, “That’s a really stupid idea of his. I’m not going to go along with it.” This raises a rather crucial point. You see, Paul has likened the marriage relationship to the relationship of Christ and His church. It is comparatively easy to submit to someone like Jesus Christ. He is a loving Savior who always understands our needs, and gently bears us in His arms. And He never sins. Your husband, on the other hand, is a sinner, as are we all. It is difficult in the extreme to submit to someone who sins. But Paul knew this. He knew that all husbands are sinners except Christ, the Husband of the Church. Paul is not asking wives to submit if their husbands are asking them to sin. Again, we are to obey God rather than men, if what men are asking us to do is sinful. However, the majority of instances where submission is difficult do not involve a husband asking his wife to sin.

Well, if that is what Paul is saying, then how does it work out? What does submission look like? Well, let’s first say what submission is not. Submission is not losing all your independence as a separate thinker. A smart husband listens carefully to the advice and counsel of his wife. If you are to be a helper that is fit for him, as Genesis tells us, then you are to give him good advice. The very fact that you are a distinct person from him is what often makes your advice helpful, since your husband has a limited perspective. He does not see things the same way you do on all points. But submission means that the ultimate decision rests with him. Again, a smart husband will delegate many responsibilities to his wife, trusting her to make wise decisions. Ultimately, however, the husband is responsible for the direction of the household. Submission does not mean inferiority of gifts or value. In terms of salvation or human worth, we are all equal in the sight of God. But equality in those areas does not rule out differences in role.

Here are some practical questions that wives need to be asking themselves: “Do I respect him?” The very last verse of this chapter has respect as a direct command to wives. You are to respect your husband. There are several temptations here that are prevalent. One is to disrespect your husband in private. You tear him down in front of the kids, and simply don’t take the same direction that he has outlined for the family. This is very disrespectful. Disrespect can manifest in thought, word, and deed. Here is maybe the most important question any wife can ask about how she is submitting to her husband: what do I say about him in public? When I am with other people, what do I say about him? I have seen many failures in this area right in our own two churches, where wives cut down their husbands in public. And then, these women turn right around and ask why it is that their husbands are not being tender to them. For some reason, it is socially acceptable to lampoon, make fun of, and cut down the husband even in public, but that husband has to remain gentle and loving the whole time. Do you want tenderness from your husband? Then respect him in private and in public, with your thoughts, words, and deeds. The problem here is often a lack of grace and forgiveness. Women will often expect perfection out of their husbands, and refuse to forgive them when they fall short. Women often think that because of all that they have had to give up in becoming married, that their husbands are under a perpetual debt to them, such that a woman can say anything or do anything she wants to out of spite, and the husband is supposed be as docile as a lamb. To put it gently, this is not biblical submission.

The submission of wives to their husbands has no conditions attached. Paul does not leave nearly as many loopholes as wives typically want to have. If the husband asks you to sin, you are not to submit. That is the only loophole. Our sinful hearts make us want to say, “I’ll only do my part if my husband does his part…first!” No, you do your part first, and pray to God that your husband will do what he is supposed to do. Your submission is to be like your love: unconditional.

It is appropriate to give one word to husbands at this point. You need to realize how difficult it often is for your wife to submit to a sinner like you. So, the natural thing to tell you is that you need to make it easy for her to submit. If you love her, and sacrifice for her, as Paul tells you to do, and if you don’t clobber her over the head with the “submission 2X4,” then you are much more likely to see godly submission from your wife. Your job is to make it easy, not difficult, for her to submit to you. You are to look as much like Christ as you possibly can.

One final word to those who are not married, or who are widowed. You may think this passage does not apply to you. However, it does. We all submit to Christ as our Bridegroom. We are all together the Bride of Christ to Christ. We all have a Husband to whom we are to submit, and that Husband is Christ. Christ Himself knows what this submission is like, for He Himself submitted to the will of His Father. And that was difficult. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked that the cup pass from Him, for He knew how bitter that cup would be. And yet, He still said, “Your will be done, Father.” It is only as we consider Jesus Christ that all this talk about submission has its proper context. It is only as we consider Christ that this all fits together. For it is in Christ that we find grace when we rebel, yet later repent. It is in Him that we find strength to do what God has called us to do. He saved us from our sins of rebellion. Therefore we are to submit to Him as the church.

1 Comment

  1. Joann Longton said,

    January 19, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    I am glad you mention the unmarried.
    I have a question that I have pondered for sometime that I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts on.
    I am 51, and have never (yet) married. My father became a Christian in his 50’s and now lives hundreds of miles away. He was never properly discipled, and wound up in alot of name-it-claim it churches.
    When I was 19, my mother who was an alcoholic wanted me to move out ( I was a good and respectful daughter, however, in her selfishness, she felt at 19 I needed to start my own life) My father who is passive, allowed her to have her way, so I have had to make my way in the world as a single woman ever since. I was saved at 18, and God has always taken care of me. However, my question is—am I still to be in subjection to my father at this point in my life, or am I allowed to live completely apart from that, since he no longer wanted me under his roof as a young woman. Isn’t that a kind of spiritual abandonment? Many years ago, the Lord comforted me with Psalm 27:10: “When my father and mother reject me, the Lord will take me up…”
    I have always felt that meant I was to consider myself only under the Lord now–to be administered by the discipline and counsel of the church session. (I am a member of the PCA). One other thought–what should it look like for the church to have oversight over single women in my–and other such circumstances? Shouldn’t single women become part of the household of one of the elders (or other godly fsamily in the church) for mutual edification and accountability? How should the single woman’s rel;ationship to the church properly be being fleshed out–or should she just be left out there alone, merely attending meetings when they are available? This is a serious matter. In biblical times, women were always a member of someone’s household–as a covering. Never left alone. In the NT, those who were truely alone, were covered by the church–but what did that look like? Because that should be our model today. We need to better conform to the practices of scripture in this area, and not the world around us.

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