What Wifely Submission Does Not Mean
Though the Scriptures are perspicuous, or clear, the human heart is not. For it is "more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). Consequently, even the most direct and simple parts of the Bible, under the interpretation of men being guided by heart passions, can become confusing.
A case in point is the relatively straightforward command found in Ephesians 5:23, "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord." All manner of interpretations abound, creating a fog of misunderstanding that puts stumbling blocks - some of which are quite dangerous - to obedience to this directive. In an attempt to let this verse shine with its Spirit-inspired brightness and remove such stumbling blocks, here are five statements clarifying what this verse does not mean.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands" does not mean "All women are to submit to all men."
In certain patriarchal circles, this imperative in Ephesians 5:23 is broadened, with appeals to the creation order and other texts such as 1 Timothy 2:8-15, to include all male and female relationships. Every woman is called to be submissive to every man in any given ecclesiastical and even societal context.
Yet Paul is addressing clearly the marital relationship by using the terms husbands and wives. Furthermore, note the possessive. "Wives, submit to your own husbands." This command is specific to a woman's unique marital relationship.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands" does not mean "Husbands, make your wives submit."
The command here is directed to the wives, not the husbands. A husband is not to use this verse to force his wife's submission. This verse does not give him the right to manipulate or try to guilt his wife. For the calling of the gospel itself to follow Christ is a Spirit-filled one, where the heart and will of a person are to be addressed persuasively so they freely desire to obey God. Similarly, a wife is to offer her submission freely, not under the forced coercion of her husband.
If a husband wants to encourage his wife in this direction, then he has a command of his own to that end in the same neighborhood of this verse. Paul gives it to him three times in the passage where this verse is found. Husbands are to love their wives like Christ loves the church, like they do their own bodies, and like they love themselves (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33). It is a rare case indeed when a Christian man is living this way and his wife does not respond with a willing submission.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands" does not mean "Husbands, submit to your wives."
Certain egalitarian interpreters like to take the description found in the previous verse, where Paul encouraged the Ephesians to be "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:22), and apply it in a manner that can reverse the order as above. In other words, they see Paul giving the church a universal command to submit to one another, then following it with examples such as wives submitting to their husbands as an instance of this universal command but not a limit on its application. Thus, they would say that, yes, a wife should submit to her husband, but because we are to submit to one another this would also mean a husband should do the same for his wife.
However, this way of reading this text simply does not stand under close scrutiny. Paul is taking the universal command in verse 22 and simply giving further direct commands as its application in the following verses. Not only are wives to submit to husbands, but children to parents (Eph. 6:1) and servants to masters (Eph. 6:5). Those latter examples would deny any earthly authority and make Scripture nonsensical if reversed (i.e. parents submitting to children). Furthermore, the parallel analogy Paul gives in support of wives submitting, that of the church submitting to Christ (Eph. 5:24), becomes blasphemous if reversed.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands" does not mean "Submission is only for women or is a female quality."
Another false view is that men never have to submit to anyone. Like a trump card, this text overpowers other texts of Scripture on this subject. Over the years, I have sadly become well-acquainted with a number of men who became so blinded by a sense of male superiority that they believed they did not have to submit to anyone. Men such as this, though they may tout many orthodox Christian beliefs, are typically anti-governmental and do not submit to church authority.
The Bible teaches many contexts in which men are to be submissive. Clearly in this text, Paul, in calling husbands to love their wives in a Christ-like manner, is also calling them to submit to Christ, who is their head (1 Cor. 11:3). Men are to obey their church leaders (Heb. 13:17) as well as governmental ones (Rom. 13:1). Christ's submission to his Father in his earthly ministry, as he subjected himself to his parents even as a young man (Luke 2:51) and did such things as pay taxes (Matt. 17:24-27), is a model all men are to follow.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands" does not mean "Women, accept abuse without question or intervention."
Tragically, this text has been used by men in their homes and even church leaders with those under their charge to seek to gag women who have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually abused. As recent events in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have shown, a man abuses a woman, then he and often others in authority teach the woman she is just to forgive and forget the incident even when the man has not repented of his actions. They will tell a woman that if she speaks further about the abuse she is not being godly and submissive. Using this text in this fashion is a tyrannical abuse of power. For it ultimately leads to the "Amnon Syndrome" we are seeing in these movements - a sexual sin by one son of David where the woman was pushed aside and made to stay quiet led literally and grotesquely to it being shouted out on the rooftops by another son of David.
One thing to remind the church, and especially its women, is that the principles of dealing with sin outlined in Matthew 18 do not stop at the door of a home or even at a pulpit. If a husband is being abusive, a youth leader is seeking sex with young girls, or a pastor counseling a hurting woman takes advantage of her, those women should go to others in the church and confront the man with his sin. Though often she will have to wade through confusion, denials, and even lies, she should trust that the Lord will use the corrective nature of church discipline to prevail.
Let us remove these stumbling blocks and, by faith, remember that a godly marriage where a husband sacrifices in love to a wife that willingly follows him is a beautiful picture of the gospel itself.