I’ve often struggled over verses in Scripture that tell wives to submit to their husbands. Even when I was single, I would read those words and feel as though I was being told I was inferior to men. I could argue with myself and say that wasn’t consistent with the rest of Scripture, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around why those verses were there when Jesus seemed to find just as much value in women as He did men.
Over time, I have come up with various theories as to why wives are told to submit to their husbands in the passages about marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 and I Peter 3:1-6. In the past, I have argued that those passages were referring to the needs of their spouse that were not typically a natural inclination. For example, I would have said that women are more inclined to love than to show respect and men were more inclined to show respect than to love. Therefore, those passages must have been a reminder to love our spouses in a way that is not always natural. There may be something to that argument, but as I have read Ephesians 5 more closely, I believe that line of thinking still misses some of the point.
When reading about submission, I think part of the struggle women have occurs because we often stop after the first part of the passage in Ephesians 5:22-24(ESV):
Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
If that is all we read, it’s no wonder we would be frustrated. Those verses alone can sound as though we are supposed to let our husbands tell us what to do just because we are born as women. However, I think it is equally important to read the next part of the passage in verses 25-30:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands, should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
I would like to point out a couple of things worth noticing. First, the wife is called to submit, and the husband is called to love in such a way that he is willing to give himself up. Earlier in the chapter, all Christians are instructed to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v.2),” and to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ (v.21).” Both submission and sacrifice are supposed to be part of how we regularly treat everyone we encounter, regardless of whether of whether we are a man or a woman.
Next, I would like to look at what it means to submit and to sacrifice. Dictionary.com defines submit as “to give over or yield to the power or authority of another,” and sacrifice as “to surrender or give up, or permit injury or disadvantage to, for the sake of something else.” To look further at the meaning sacrifice, we can look at Dictionary.com’s definition of the word surrender– “to yield (something) to the possession or power of another.” In order to submit or to sacrifice we must give something up. Sure, the type of sacrifice may look different for a wife than it does for a husband, but I think we often miss the point that both spouses are called to sacrifice for the other.
When a husband loves his wife using the example of Christ’s sacrifice, he is not exercising power over his wife as the image may come to mind when we think of submission. It is easier to submit to someone who is making sacrifices for you than someone who is abusing power. There are far too many women in abusive relationships, and that is another topic for another time. However, in a healthy marriage, both parties are sacrificing for the needs of the other person.
I would also like to point back to Ephesians 5:26 and 27 which state the result of the sacrificial love of Christ that husbands should model. Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice “that he might sanctify [the church], having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Through Christ’s sacrifice, His bride, the church, was made holy. It is interesting that this is included in a discussion of a husband’s love for his wife. When Christ’s love is modeled, it brings good out of the other person. A husband may be able to bring out the best in his wife through his sacrifice for her.
The passage as a whole is pointing to sacrifice. Jesus was the perfect model of sacrifice, and both husbands and wives are called to follow in his example, both in and outside of marriage. When we look at the relationship of Christ and the church, Jesus did not belittle the church, but instead He showed how much He valued it by devoting his ministry to the church and ultimately giving up his life for it. When we think of a husband’s love in those terms of Christ’s love, I think it is much easier to come to grapple with the word submit.