The word submission conjures ugly images and even uglier reactions in our “liberated” modern culture. The concept of submission is now popularly associated with weakness, defeat, and oppression.
It is easily forgotten that Christ’s submission to His Father, “to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8), not only demonstrated an immense feat of human strength, but is also the blueprint for Christian living (cf. Philippians 2:1–11). And the family unit is one of the greatest proving grounds for believers to put that submission on display.
But how can we submit to one another in the context of a family while still recognizing the God-ordained roles of headship and authority? That is the subject Paul addressed in Ephesians 5:22–6:4. Since submission epitomizes the character of the person who is truly Spirit-filled, Paul outlined how mutual submission should work in a family.
He wrote under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, of course, so this was not merely the apostle’s private opinion (2 Peter 1:20–21). God Himself inspired the very words of the text (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul spoke here to wives, husbands, children, and parents, in that order. And the admonition to wives is simple, covering just three verses:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22–24)
It is important to remember that Paul did not begin by singling out and consigning wives to a second-rate status. There’s a sense in which everyone in the church must submit to everyone else as Paul clearly stated in the preceding verse. Ephesians 5:22 simply explains how wives ought to show their submission.
Also notice that Paul started and ended this short section by specifying whom wives should submit to: “their husbands” (Ephesians 5:24). “Their husband” suggests that the wife should willingly make herself subject to the husband who is her possession. Husbands and wives belong to each other, and thus have unique responsibilities to each other which they do not have to anyone else (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:3–4).
Women as a group are not made serfs to men in general, and men aren’t automatically elevated to a ruling class over all women. But Scripture calls each woman to submit in particular to her own husband’s headship. In other words, the family itself is the primary arena in which a godly woman is to cultivate and demonstrate the attitude of humility, service, and sacrifice called for in Ephesians 5:21.
Furthermore, the command is general and sweeping. It’s not limited to wives whose husbands are fulfilling their function. It’s not addressed only to wives with children, wives of church leaders, or even wives whose husbands are faithful believers. It’s categorical and unconditional: wives. Anyone who fits that classification is obligated to obey the command of this verse by submitting to her own husband.
What, precisely, does this command require? The Greek word for “subject” or submit (hupotasso) means “to line up under.” It has the idea of placing oneself in a rank lower than someone else. This is the very idea of humility, meekness, and lowliness of mind called for in Philippians 2:3: “Regard one another as more important than yourselves.” In no way does it imply inferiority—it speaks of a functional ranking, not an inferiority of essence.
This is a role that God Himself ordained for wives. In Genesis 3:16, God said to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” On the one hand, marriage is the perfect union of two people who become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). On the other hand, God has clearly ordained that the husband should be head in that relationship. Even nature seems to affirm the proper order. Men normally have the advantage of greater physical and emotional strength, while women usually have a more tenderhearted strength and character that equip them to be a support and encouragement—helpers suitable to their husbands.
I realize that the husband’s headship and the wife’s submission are not popular notions these days. Even in some Christian circles there are movements attempting to overthrow the biblical order and substitute something that is more politically correct. The world wants a more humanistic and egalitarian approach to society: a sexless, classless, artificial equality. Instead of rejecting that philosophy and upholding biblical principles, many in the church have fallen prey to the lies of our age.
But Scripture is both clear and consistent. Every time the Bible speaks about the role of the wife, the emphasis is exactly the same. This is not some chauvinistic private opinion of the apostle Paul, as some have suggested. Nor is it an unclear or ambiguous principle that’s only vaguely suggested in Scripture. Every Scripture that touches on the subject of the wife’s role says essentially the same thing. There is no getting around that biblical fact and, as we’ll see next time, Scripture continually gives clear responses to every major objection.