This post is for the dudes. No girls allowed.
More specifically, this is post is for any Christian dudes who are or who ever want to be married.
Let me start by giving you a pop quiz. According to Ephesians 5, what is the husband’s responsibility toward his wife? Let me give you a hint. It starts with an “L.” Let me give you another hint. It’s not “lead.” I know, I know, that’s like the easiest pop quiz in the world. Why even bother, right?
Because this is really, really important. Because, if your Christian upbringing was anything like mine, you know what the text says, but you also know what the text really means. See, if your Christian upbringing was anything like mine, you know that the text says husbands are supposed to love their wives, but you know that the text really means that husbands are supposed to lead their wives.
Except it doesn’t.
You see, growing up, nearly every time I heard someone teach this text, an overwhelming emphasis was placed on the wife’s responsibility to “submit” to her husband, who the text says is her “head.” The implication, then, was that if the husband was the head, and the wife’s job was to submit, then naturally the husband’s job was to lead and to make decisions. Makes sense, right? And since leadership was such an important responsibility, it was really important for the wife to submit to his leadership and decision-making. Of course, it was taught, the husband’s leadership should be loving and he should listen to and consider his wife’s input, but ultimately the final decision is his and she needs to respect that authority.
There are both exegetical and practical problems with this line of teaching, especially as it is presented in many Christian contexts.
From a practical standpoint, marriage problems are often blamed on a wife who is “not submissive enough” to her husband. In extreme scenarios, this line of teaching can and does lead to domestic abuse. There are, even now, “Christian” organizations propagating the abhorrent teaching that husbands can and should discipline their wives when they fail to submit! Even in less extreme scenarios, this line teaching can lead to unhealthy, unhelpful, and unnecessarily burdensome relational dynamics in the home.
“But wait a second Thomas, lots of good things and good ideas get misused and abused by some people, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, Ephesians 5 does say that the husband is the head and the wife is supposed to submit to him, doesn’t it?”
That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked.
You’re absolutely right; good things can be abused and misused. And you’re absolutely right; Ephesians 5 does say that the husband is the head and that the wife is supposed to submit to him. It says so right in Ephesians 5:22-24.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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.
But before you say, “I told you so,” let me ask you a question – what about verse 21?
You see, too often when this concept taught, the teacher flies right past Ephesians 5:21, despite the fact that this verse sets the context for the entire passage. Here’s what Ephesians 5:21 says:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Mutual submission. The entire context is about mutual submission. As a matter of fact, the word “submit” doesn’t even appear in verse 22, it is implied as a continuation of verse 21.
Here’s another question: to whom are verses 22-24 addressed?
Hint: Look at the very first word.
They are addressed to the wives. Not you. So mind your own business already. Your wife’s submission is not your responsibility. Let me say that again. Your wife’s submission is not your responsibility.
What does Ephesians 5 say is ourresponsibility as husbands? Let’s take a look at Ephesians 5:25-28.
Husbands, love your wives, just 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 other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Husbands are commanded to love their wives, and not just with any kind of love, but with the same kind of self-sacrificial love that Christ has for his church. What does that kind of love look like? It looks like death. It looks like loving someone so much you are willing to die for them and for all of their shortcomings and mistakes and rebellion. It looks like self-denial to the extreme in service of others. And here’s the kicker, Christ didn’t only love and die for the people who submitted to him. As Paul tells us in Romans 5:6-10, Christ loved us and died for us while we were ungodly and sinners and rebellious, enemies of God. In other words, the husband is to give himself up in self-sacrificial love for his wife whether she ever submits to him or not.
Now, go back and read Ephesians 5:25-28 again. What do those verses say about “leadership” or decision-making? That’s right. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Nil.
“But Thomas, what about headship. Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife.”
Yep. He sure does. First, let me point out that some really smart scholars have argued that the word Greek word translated “head” here in Ephesians 5 would be better translated as “source.” That is, by the way, a legitimate translation of the Greek word. I’m not sure that it should be translated “source,” but it definitely could be, and that would mean that this passage doesn’t say anything about at all about authority. But, even if “head” does mean authority or leader, that still doesn’t mean that husbands get to boss around their wives. How do I know? Because Jesus himself had this to say about leadership in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
See, leadership and authority in the Kingdom of God don’t look anything like leadership and authority in the world. Leadership and authority in the Kingdom of God looks like self-denying, self-sacrificial service. For far too long, far too many Christians have imported worldly ideas of authority into a text that says nothing of the sort. Furthermore, far too many Christian men seem to want the authority of Ephesians 5 without the self-sacrifice of Ephesians 5.
In hindsight, I realize I have a lot to be thankful for because, even though I had been taught wrongly, I had a father who modeled and continues to model the right way. Looking back on my own marriage, however, I am so ashamed of some of the things that I said and some of the attitudes I had toward my wife in the early years as a result of this kind of teaching. I can only imagine how much worse I would have been had it not been for the example my dad set for me. Only by the grace of God and the patience of Gabrielle was I able to become aware of how wrong I had been and begin to learn to do things differently, but I still have a long way to go.
tl;dr: Mutual submission is the context of this entire passage. The wife’s submission is not the husband’s responsibility. The husband’s responsibility is to give himself up in self-sacrificial love for his wife whether she ever submits to him or not. For far too long, far too many Christians have imported worldly ideas of authority into a text that says nothing of the sort. Furthermore, far too many Christian men seem to want the authority of Ephesians 5 without the self-sacrifice of Ephesians 5.