Paul states in Ephesians 5:21, "Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ."
Within the context of the letter, Paul has commanded the believers to "walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called" (4:1), and the ways that this plays out in conduct and relationships within the Body of Christ. The relationship of believers with one another is a reflection of their relationship with the Lord and a picture of love to a lost world. God uses the Church in order to reveal His love, and marriage is a particularly beautiful picture of His love. As a husband and wife submit to one another in Christ, God manifests His love in and through their relationship providing a picture of the love of Christ for the Church.
Having looked at the role of a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church in 5:25, as well as how all believers, both men and woman, are told by Paul in chapter 5:21 to be subject to one another in the fear of Christ, we look back at the wife's role.
Paul states in 5:22, "Wives be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord," and in 5:24, "But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything."
These verses have been twisted to mean many different unbiblical things. Men have used these verses to demand unbiblical activity from their wives. Wives have used these verses to blame their husbands for their own unbiblical activity. The world has used these verses to twist the idea of submission into some otherworldly view of tyranny. Many marriages have been rent apart due to the unyielding attitude and lack of Christ's love from both husbands and wives.
In what Paul has told husbands, that they are to "love their wives as Christ loved the church" (5:25), the idea that the wives' submission is to a tyrant who is walking in a manner unworthy of Christ and His calling is absurd. Furthermore the idea that submission is a "feel-good proposition" that a wife has the ability to choose to walk in or not depending on her agreement with her husband is also absurd.
Paul makes it clear in 5:23 that "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ also is the head of the church." The husband is the leader of the marriage. The wife is to submit herself to her husband and follow his lead. This is clear as Paul gives Christ Himself as the picture of headship to the Church. Just as Christ is the head of the church, the leader, the church is to follow the leadership and submit to the headship of Christ.
The word "submit" (hupotasso: from hupo, meaning under and tasso, means to line up or place in order-present middle imperative) in this context means to willingly make the decision to line up under the authority of another. Can you imagine if the Church decided that there was more than one leader besides Christ? Or what if the Church were to decide not to follow the Lord? What happens if a wife decides to "submit" herself to others? To other things, ideas? What if a wife decides she is the leader? The confusion in not following the commands of the Lord through the apostle Paul is devastating. Just as the Church is to walk by faith, and in so doing to line up under the leadership of the Lord Himself, so to, a wife is to willingly choose to line up under the headship, the leadership, of her husband.
What if a husband becomes tyrannical, abusive, ungodly in his demands and leadership? Is a wife is to line up under every and or any man? Clearly not! A wife is to subject to her "own husband." Furthermore, the idea of submission here is all in the context of following Christ. If a husband begins to demand that a wife is to do anything contrary to Christ and what it means to walk in wisdom, in the filling of the Spirit, ultimately in the love of Christ, a wife is NOT told to submit in that case. The last four words of 5:22 make this clear..."as to the Lord."
A wife is to submit willingly to her husband "as to the Lord." As the husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church, the wife is to submit to her own husband as the church submits to Christ. The beautiful relationship between Christ and the Church is reflected within the spousal relationship of a husband and wife. All of this is within the greater context of believers and their walk with the Lord as a result of being saved by Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit.
The direct context of chapter 5 is clearly for believers to be walking in wisdom (5:15) and being filled with the Spirit (5:18). When believers are filled with the Spirit,ultimately there is the submitting to one another. Within the context of a marriage, we see the submitting of the husband to his wife's need and the wife to her husband's lead. What beautiful picture of sacrifice, love and trust is presented in this!
As believers are we submitting to the Lord? Are we walking by faith and "in a manner worthy of the calling with which [we] have been called" today? Are we being filled with the Spirit and empowered by Him? As believing husbands and wives, is the Lord's love being reflected through our marriages? Are we following Christ in every area of our lives?
Erik Christensen is senior pastor of Hoffmantown Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.