Do I really have to submit to my spouse?

Monday 22nd May, 2023

If you’re a Christian and you’re following the example of Jesus then yes, yes you do. Moreover you should want to.

Submission is a dirty word in our culture, misused by abusers, sexualised by the porn industry and generally misunderstood. But Jesus submitted and God wants us to do so too, in our everyday lives, in all our relationships and especially in our marriages. This doesn’t mean being abused or degraded though, let’s unpack that section in Ephesians 5 and talk about what submission means for all of us.

Who submits to whom?
There is a misconception amongst some in church, and even in wider society, that submission is determined by our gender. It is not. It is determined by our faith. The instructions to husbands and wives begins in Ephesians 5:21 which says “submit to one another”
Got that fellas? To one another– we all submit. Submission is mutual. If you are married to someone of the same sex, you have to submit to them too. Submit to one another.

Submission for wives
Paul deals with what submission looks like for wives in verses 22-24. Paul reiterates the creation narrative which tells us that men and women are made of the same substance, his words “man is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the church” use the greek word “Kephale” which can refer to the head in terms of a leadership role or the head in terms of the source of something, such as the head of a river. Paul’s comparison to Christ, the source of the church, and his later reference to the creation narrative in verse 31 would suggest he is most likely pointing out that man is the source of woman, that we came from his rib and are therefore made of the same substance. So we can submit to our husbands without fear that doing so makes us inferior to them, because we are not, we are “one flesh”

Jesus had treated women as equals, Paul reiterated that men and women were equal, and in the early church Christian women enjoyed a new status of equality with men, reading scripture, preaching and teaching. They may have believed that their equal status meant they are no longer required to submit to their husbands. Likewise, today, as feminists, women may think that our equal status means we do not need to submit. Paul is clear that this is not the case, in fact, now that we are equal we can choose to submit rather than simply being subjugated, and this is far more powerful. We all have to submit to one another, strong, empowered, emancipated women included!

Although Paul gives the reason that wives should submit he does not give any further details on how they should do this. This is likely to be because they already knew and were already doing it. It would be unheard of for a 1st century woman, either jew or gentile, not to submit to her husband. Essentially Paul is saying “as you were ladies, carry on!” **


Submission for husbands
After his quick two verse encouragement to the women to carry on submitting to their husbands, Paul turns his attention to the men. Paul spends eight verses explaining to husbands that they too need to submit and, importantly, what that submission looks like. Paul’s disproportionate amount of instructions should give us a clue as to which spouse he felt needed this message the most.

So what does submission look like for husbands? How does a man submit himself to his wife? In verse 25 Paul answers this question “as Christ loved the church.” How did Christ love the church? Philippians 2: 6-11 spells this out for us: Although Christ had divine authority and privileges “he took the humble position of a slave… he humbled himself…and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Jesus gave up all his authority and made himself like a slave. Society has given men power, in Paul’s time men had complete authority and control over their wives, this may not be the case now, but men still have power that women don’t have. Have you given all that up? Have you laid your power at your wife’s feet? Are you like a slave to your wife?

This isn’t about being prepared to die for your wife, let’s face it, that’s easy to say since you’re very unlikely to be called on ever to do it, it’s about relinquishing any claim to authority over your wife. You do that because Jesus was prepared to relinquish his authority over you, even though it resulted in his death. Submitting to your wife is unlikely to lead to your death, so you really have no excuse not to follow Jesus’ example!

The next few verses tell us what we already know about Jesus’ reasons for giving up his authority over mankind: it was in order to reconcile us to God. God humbled himself, became one of us, even though he didn’t have to, so that we could have a relationship with him. If you want a good relationship with your wife, you need to let go of any ideas of wielding power over her, of controlling her, because that’s not relationship. Instead, if you love and empower your wife, as Christ loved and empowered the church, she will love you because she chooses to, not because she needs you. Now doesn’t that sound like a healthier relationship? Wouldn’t you rather be loved for being you, rather than simply for your status as “husband”?

Paul continues that a man should love his wife in the way he loves his own body. Again, this harkens back to the notion of ‘one flesh.’ You and your wife are made of the same substance, moreover, you have chosen to join together in partnership. You are interdependent, your wife’s suffering is your suffering, her health is your health. Remember the passage about being unequally yolked? This is what it’s about.
Imagine a cart being pulled by two oxen, if one oxen is well cared for, nourished and strong yet the other is tired, malnourished and weak how effective will they be? Not only will they not manage their journey, but the stronger ox will end up taking more strain. Marriage is the same, you bear one another’s burdens. You cannot do that if you are not equals, and if one of you is a “leader” and the other “a follower” then you are not equals.

Paul finishes by reiterating the verse in Genesis that says “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh” This is the second time this verse is repeated in the New Testament, the previous time being by Jesus in the book of Matthew when he was asked whether it was okay for a man to divorce his wife (leaving her destitute) because he was bored of her. Each time this verse is applied, it is to men, not to women to tell them they have to stay with abusive men, not to gay people to tell them they can’t get married, but to men, to instruct them on how they are to treat women. Straight men, pay attention!

It was customary in ancient times, that when a man and woman got married, the woman would leave her mother and father and enter into the husband’s household, her position in his household would be above the slaves, but usually beneath his parents. Genesis turns this on its head, instead, a man should leave his mother and father to start a new household with his wife, his equal, the flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. He should no longer defer to his parents, but should put his wife first. And essentially, that’s what submission is, putting the other first. Men, submit to your wives.

**[note that even if Paul was referring to the husband in terms of a leadership role this would have been a factual statement, men were the head of the household in those days, Paul did not ever try to overturn the social order, but that doesn’t mean it was morally right, he later tells slaves to obey their masters without condemning slavery, that doesn’t mean we believe that slavery is God’s will]