This past week my church looked at Ephesians 5:21-33, a controversial passage where God gives us a window into His good and perfect plan for marriage. It’s unfortunate that I have to use the word ‘controversial’ in there, but the reality is that this passage – wielding provocative concepts like headship and submission – is both counter-cultural and (to exacerbate the issue) widely misunderstood, even in Christian circles.
Marriage is a gift from God. And since He’s the one who designed the thing, I reckon He’s got a pretty good idea of how marriage works best. So if we want our marriages to work well, wouldn’t it make sense that we look to the one who designed it in the first place?
But people have big problems with this. Isn’t the Bible’s teaching on marriage outdated? Isn’t it sexist and patriarchal? These kind of claims come not only from a rejection of biblical values in our society, but also a complete misunderstanding of what the Bible actually teaches on marriage. All too often it’s not the actual teaching of the Bible that people reject, but rather a straw man that they’ve set up to stand in its place.
So let’s take a brief look at what the Bible really teaches about marriage in Ephesians 5.
Husbands, Love Your Wives (Eph 5:25)
We’ll deal with husbands first, because the Bible’s teaching here is a bit less controversial, and we’ll only properly understand the wives part after we grapple with this. In Ephesians 5, husbands are told, “love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). Hey, that seems pretty good, right?
Men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And how did Christ love the church? He died for her. He gave Himself up, put her good before His own, and gave Himself over to unbearable torment and suffering because He loved her and put her first. Men, that is how you are meant to love your wives.
This means that everything you do is to be for her benefit, that she might grow in godliness. Everything you do and every decision you make is to have this as your priority, and your own preferences are to be set aside. This is no walk in the park. This doesn’t come easy. But that’s the model that Christ has laid down for us.
(If you want some concrete examples of what this looks like, see this follow-up post).
To summarise, the Bible teaches that husbands are to lovingly and self-sacrificially lay down their own interests, desires, even their lives, for the good of their wives. It’s a beautiful picture. And it is in this context that a woman is to lovingly submit to her husband.
Wives, Submit to Your Husbands (Eph 5:22)
Now, hold on here. Maybe you were following along nicely up until now, and then I ruined everything by dropping the S-bomb. Submit has become a dirty word in our society, unfortunately. But this stems from a total misunderstanding of what the word means in the way that the Bible uses it here.
To submit does not mean blindly obey. It does not mean be passive. It does not mean be subservient. It does not connote any kind of inequality. These are all ideas that are completely foreign to the Bible’s teaching on men and women, yet in recent decades these connotations have become pervasive.
If husbands are to act as the head of the family and take the lead in modelling self-sacrificial love, then to submit to that headship is to support and encourage the head in that role (and yes, we need a lot of help and support!). When a wife submits to her husband, she seeks to honour and respect him in his role as head of the family.
Just as Christ is the model for husbands in putting their wives first, so Christ is the model for wives in putting their husbands first. Christ “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6), but instead humbled himself to become a human. Jesus is equal with God, yet He willingly humbled Himself and submitted to the Father’s plan (John 10:18). As Christ submitted to God the Father, so wives submit to their husbands.
We can see this parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:3, where we’re told that “…the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” Now, some would decry such a statement as horribly patriarchal and enforcing sexist inequality. But is this verse actually saying that men and women aren’t equal? Notice that the verse also says “the head of Christ is God”. And if God is the head of Christ (as man is the head of woman), then ‘headship’ cannot possibly mean inequality – because how could Christ be unequal with God? The Bible is clear that Jesus is equal to God (John 10:30).
Biblical headship & submission never means inequality. The Bible doesn’t teach inequality, but rather equality with a difference in roles.
Husbands are the heads of their families, which means they take the lead in self-sacrificial love, and they put the good of their wives (and children) ahead of their own. Wives submit to their husbands out of reverence for Christ, and support and encourage their husbands in that capacity.
God’s Gift to Us
This topic is a soaring mountain peak, and it can’t be climbed in a short blog post like this. We’ve only just made it into base camp, at best. There may well be a million questions in your mind, but there’s only so much one blog post can do.
Maybe you’re still not convinced about headship and submission. That’s totally okay. Take your time, think it through, comment below, or shoot me a message. There are some great resources out there to help you think through (Tim Keller’s Meaning of Marriage is probably the best I’ve read recently, if you’re in Perth, I’d love to lend you a copy!).
God designed marriage, and He knows what He’s doing. In the Bible he’s given us a window into the purpose of marriage and the way it works best. The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not a straightjacket – it’s a gift! Now, you don’t have to draw from the biblical headship/submission pattern of marriage. You can choose to ignore that gift if you like. Many people do.
But why deprive yourself? God’s pattern for marriage has indeed been a wonderful gift to Alex and I in our marriage. He hasn’t given us the Bible to restrict us in our marriages, but rather to give us true freedom. Why not take another look for yourself?
See follow-up posts: