The Lord is raising up a veritable army of holy women holding men accountable for abuse in the home, church, and society. Women such as Rachel Denhollander, Jennifer Greenberg, Diane Langberg, Naghmeh Panahi, and Julie Roys are telling their stories and/or those of others. In the process, they are shining light on leaders who are using their positions to take advantage of women or failing to protect them. In addition, they are helping the church see what is taking place and offering ways to address this matter.
One of the key principles from Scripture that they are addressing is that of submission. Christians wives, dutiful church members, and even godly elders can have a false understanding of this biblical concept and, as a result, a harmful environment is created. Perhaps a brief case study of what submission is not from a key place in Scripture is instructive.
In Ephesians 5:23, we have a relatively straightforward command. "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord." However, all manner of interpretations abound, creating a fog of misunderstanding that puts stumbling blocks - some of which are quite dangerous - before people. They grossly distort the beauty of submission. Here then are five statements that clarify what this verse does not mean to help remove these stumbling blocks.
"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. Appealing to the creation order and other texts such as 1 Timothy 2:8-15, some teach - or at least act - as if this directive includes all male and female relationships. All women are to view themselves as subordinate to all men in any given ecclesiastical or societal context.
Yet Paul is clearly addressing 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, submit to your wives."
Certain interpreters like to broaden this verse in the opposite direction from above. They take the description found in the previous verse, where Paul encouraged the Ephesians to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:22), and apply it in a manner that attempts to reverse the order. 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 takes the universal command in verse 22 and gives further direct commands for 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 to their husbands, that of the church submitting to Christ (Eph. 5:24), becomes blasphemous if reversed.
"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. In application of the gospel, 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 "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 is used to overpower other texts of Scripture on this subject. Over the years, I have become unfortunately 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. Too often, a man abuses a woman, then he and 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. What a lie! Actually, a woman speaking directly to her husband against abuse (Gal. 6:1), involving others in the church when he persists (Matt. 18:15-20), or going to civil authorities when a crime is committed (Rom. 13:1-4) is behaving in godly obedience to Christ.
Misusing this text in this fashion is nothing short of a tyrannical abuse of power. We can call it the "Amnon Syndrome" for how sexual abuse by this son of David against Tamar was treated. The king ignored the justice due to her and her family members told her to stay quiet. Yet remember where handling this situation in this manner led? Literally and grotesquely, this situation ended up being shouted out from the rooftops by another son of David. One way or another, the Lord exposes the sin of abuse.
Certainly the Lord is doing so in our own generation. Let us remove then these stumbling blocks and, by faith, remember what true submission actually looks like. In a godly marriage, it is seen when a husband sacrifices himself in love for his wife who willingly in respect follows him. What a beautiful picture of the gospel it is to be!
Note: This article is based on a lecture I regularly give in a pastoral theology course at RPTS.