I’ll begin here with studying the passage in Ephesians 5:21-33, which inspired the name of this blog.
*All quotes(except from the Bible) come from “Paul, Women & Wives” by Craig S. Keener.
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” – Ephesians 5:21-33, NIV
Is submission uniquely a wife’s responsibility?
Let me be clear and say that I do believe a wife should submit to her husband. As believers, we are to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ(Eph 5:21), and this includes a wife submitting to her husband.
“When Paul calls on wives to submit, his words, even taken in their strongest possible sense, do not call wives to further subjugation. At their strongest, his words merely fail to challenge the prevailing structures of authority in society, perhaps because challenging authority structures was not his purpose in this letter and would have accomplished little in his situation except to increase the persecution of Christians…”[p.159, emphasis mine.]
In other words, “The submission of wives was standard in ancient culture. Roman law gave men binding authority over their wives and unmarried daughters.”[p.165] Telling wives to submit to their husbands would not have stood out to anyone in Paul’s day; it was standard practice, assumed by everyone. Wives’ submission to their husbands is not a Christian idea. It was a reality in the culture in which Ephesians was written. Fortunately, we no longer live in a culture that requires wives to submit to their husbands by law. We should be grateful to live in a time period in which women are not the property of their husbands, and are protected by the law equally to men. As women, we have personal freedom that women in Paul’s day couldn’t imagine, and this is a very good thing.
What is unique is that Paul says a wife must to submit as unto the Lord(as a believer, without bitterness against her husband, and with a greater purpose) and that husbands need to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Considering verse 21, how are husbands somehow released from submitting in marriage? This part of the passage is not taught to husbands, because submission is seen as the wife’s responsibility in marriage. Yet we see in verse 21 that submission is for all believers, including husbands.
What does it mean for the husband to be the “head” of his wife?
It is taught that since this passage says that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, then the husband is the boss, because Christ is the boss. Now I’m not arguing against Christ’s Lordship, He is Lord over all. But in the context of this passage, Paul is not talking about “who’s the boss”. “Indeed, Christ’s love is explicitly defined in this passage in terms of self-sacrificial service, not in terms of his authority(Eph.5:25-27).” [p.167]
What is the husband’s position as “head” of his wife? He is to love her, give himself up for her, and love her as his own body.
There is nothing in this passage about husbands leading and making decisions for their wives. This is not a passage about “who’s in charge”. It’s about oneness. Not only are the words “leadership” and “decision-making” not there, the very concept of having the husband make the decisions in marriage doesn’t make sense. Can we really have “oneness” in marriage when one partner has to obey the other, or when one person has the final say in all the decisions? It is unjust and unfair that in the name of Christ, who spoke against the concept of worldly authority(Matt.20:25-28), complementarians have turned the beautiful concept of the marriage covenant into a hierarchy.
Paul is talking about a profound mystery, in which husband and wife come together as one flesh. And as believers, we are called the Bride of Christ, and one day our engagement to him will be realized, and we will be with him forever in eternity. When a man and woman come together in marriage, they become one and are to reflect this relationship between Christ and the Church as we live our lives together in “one flesh” unity.
Highlighting submission as uniquely a wife’s role can become idolatry. It constantly relates her life as a believer with how successful she is at being submissive. Then when her idol comes crumbling down, the woman is a failure because she wasn’t submissive enough.
It is my conclusion that overemphasizing a wife’s submission to her husband’s leadership is a misunderstanding of Ephesians 5:21-33. The beauty of “one flesh” imagery is compromised when complementarians attempt to define roles in marriage that are not Biblical.