In many areas of life submission is a one-way street. Citizens must submit to the police, soldiers must submit to their commanding officers, and employees must submit to their employers. When that one-way street is violated, the violator usually loses. But in Scripture, submission among believers is a two-way street. And when that rule is violated, if affects everyone on the road.
While God’s Word commands submission within His design for the family, it’s a mutual submission between the husband and wife, one that seeks to put each other first (Philippians 2:3). That kind of submission is a far cry from the caricature of oppressive husbands and timid wives that the world mocks and despises.
And yet, it is obvious that the apostle Paul never imagined that the principle of mutual submission would completely overthrow the very idea of authority. If that was his intention, he would not have outlined the various roles in the family. Instead, he made it very clear that the husband is the head of the home and parents have a proper and essential role of authority over children.
Nonetheless, it is vital to notice that Paul began with the principle of mutual submission. That was his theme, and it was the fundamental principle that lay beneath everything else he said about the family. If you wanted one simple rule of thumb that would do more than anything else to ensure harmony and health in the family, it would be hard to think of anything more profound or more profitable than the simple command Paul used as a springboard into his extended discussion of family roles: “[Submit] to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
What Submission Isn’t
Wives have often borne the brunt of Ephesians 5, as if this passage were all about the wife’s subservience and the husband’s dominance in the home. I have heard of more than one home where an overzealous, authoritarian husband constantly held verse 22 (“Wives, be subject to your own husbands”) over the wife’s head. The verse might as well be carved into a baseball bat and hung over the kitchen sink.
But that kind of attitude is a violation of the whole spirit of the passage. It’s interesting to note that in the Greek text, the word for “submit” doesn’t even appear in verse 22. The idea is certainly implied, but the Greek expression is elliptical, omitting the word submission, and relying on the force of verse 21 to make the meaning clear. In other words, a literal translation of verses 21–22 would read something like this: “Submit to one another in the fear of God. Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
So keep in mind that Paul’s stress was first and foremost on the mutuality of submission. Everyone in the church is to submit to everyone else. The command to submit is not for wives only, but for husbands too. And verses 22–24 simply explain how wives are to submit to their husbands: with the same kind of respect and devotion that they owe to Christ.
But if that’s the command Scripture gives to wives, does the principle of mutual submission really mean that the husband must submit to the wife as well? It certainly does. Paul went on to say in verses 25–29 that the husband owes the wife the same kind of love and devotion Christ showed for the church: “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). There is no greater act of submission than to die for someone, and that is precisely what Christ did for the church. Since husbands are commanded to love their wives the way Christ loved the church, this requires the ultimate self-sacrifice of submission and service on the wife’s behalf.
This does not mean, of course, that the husband is supposed to abdicate his God-ordained role of leadership and authority in the home. What it does mean is that the way he must exercise his leadership is not by lording it over his wife and family, but by serving them and sacrificing himself for them with a Christlike humility. He is to support his wife by helping bear her burdens and shoulder all her cares, even if it means sacrificing his own desires to meet her needs. It’s a different kind of submission—not submission to her as an authority figure, but a loving willingness to sacrifice for her, serve her, and seek her good. In other words, the godly husband’s main aim must be to please his wife rather than merely doing his own will and demanding that she get in line.
Paul also went on to suggest that there’s even a true sense in which the godly father must submit to his own children. Again, the father must do this not by abdicating his parental authority, but rather through sacrificial, unselfish service rendered for his children. In other words, he patterns his leadership after the example of Christ, whose meekness the prophets foretold:
He will not quarrel, nor cry out; Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. A battered reed He will not break off, And a smoldering wick He will not put out, Until He leads justice to victory. (Matthew 12:19–20)
Here’s how Paul said a father ought to show submission to his own children: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Of course, Paul also commanded children to obey their parents and servants to obey their masters. But he never envisioned submission as a one-way street. Like parents, masters must also show respect and kindness to their servants (Ephesians 6:9).
In the end, everyone in the household has a duty to submit at some point and in some specific way to everyone else. Yes, wives must submit to the leadership of their husbands. But husbands also must bow to the needs of their wives. Certainly children need to obey their parents. But parents also have a duty to serve and sacrifice for their children. Of course servants need to yield to the authority of their masters. But masters also are commanded to treat their servants with dignity and respect—esteeming even the lowliest servant better than themselves.
In other words, Paul commanded each Christian to be an example of submission and service to all others. That simple principle is the key to harmony and happiness in the home. Domineering men who try to use Ephesians 5 as a club to keep their wives in a kind of servile submission have missed the whole point of the passage. Even if God has given you a position of leadership, you have a duty to take the role of a servant—because that is precisely what Christ did for us.
Our Lord was very clear in His teaching on this matter. Matthew 20:25–27 records how Jesus called the disciples together and taught them this very lesson:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.