The next key concept that we should consider is submission. Verse 21 states that all Christians are to submit to one another. In the following verses Paul gives examples of this principle in practice, in marriage, between parents and children, and between masters and slaves. The subject in each case is clearly submission to one another.
Paul, having so stated once, does not need to restate the command to submit in each paragraph to make it true. Slaves must submit to masters, but masters must also submit to slaves. For example, in verse 6:9 when Paul commands masters to treat their slaves as the slaves are commanded to treat their masters (“in the same way”), he is explaining how the general command to mutually submit is to be fulfilled by masters toward slaves.
Paul first addresses how wives are to submit to their husbands. Wives are to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord.” Osburn, in Women in the Church 2, p. 156, points out that the verb “submit” does not appear in 5:22, but is implied from the verb in 5:21 (“Submit to one another”). Therefore, it is very unlikely that Paul meant wives to submit to husbands in a way much different from the mutual submission commanded in the preceding verse.
Otherwise, this would appear to make husbands dictators. After all, the church is compelled to do all that Christ commands. And yet there are immediate and obvious limitations. For example, when was the last time that Jesus uttered a new command to the church? It’s been nearly 2000 years!
(Matt. 11:30) “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
While the church has been given some very general instructions, most decisions that the church must make are left to the Christians’ discretion. How much should the budget be? Which programs receive how much money? Do we build a new building? Who should be appointed to head a committee? Who should be our preacher? Should we even hire a preacher?
The day-to-day grist of church activity is simply not dictated by our Savior, although the principles certainly are. But there are many different ways to comply with the principles in a given situation. As we will discuss in much more detail regarding Galatians 3:28, Jesus has given us but one command: “love your neighbor” and our relationship with Christ is one of freedom, not subservience.
But Paul does not leave husbands to speculate on what he means. And we cannot press the analogy farther than Paul suggests that we should. He tells husbands that while they are “heads” of their wives as Christ is head of the church, they must love their wives as Christ loves the church. The “headship” of Christ includes the burden of sacrifice. Husbands must give up their lives as Jesus did. Adam gave up a rib. Christian husbands give up everything.
Paul refers specifically to the Genesis 2 account, that husbands and wives become one flesh. In Christianity, husbands and wives are to be restored to the relationship that they had before the curse was pronounced. They must become one flesh. Husbands don’t have dominion; they sacrifice. They give up their quest for control by giving up their lives. And plainly the reference to husbands (and not wives!) leaving their fathers and mothers means that husbands must do the most giving up. But this only makes sense. Due to Eve’s curse, husbands have the most to give up!
Many authors conclude from this passage that husbands and wives are “equal” or that they are “partners.” Unlike most authors on the subject of marriage, I can talk authoritatively of partnership (in the Greek, the word for partnership, koinonia, is also translated fellowship or sharing).
As a practicing attorney, I have worked as an employee, been (and am) an employer, and have partners. Some of my employees have been my friends. But I would never consider asking my wife to be to me as my employees are to me. The subordinate relationship of an employee to employer creates barriers and an emotional distance that cannot be bridged by any amount of friendship and love. The relationship imposes limitations on sharing and giving that are insurmountable. No one will deny this who has been both an owner and an employee.
Likewise, I would never want to be on the subordinate side of such a relationship. I must say that I never enjoyed being an employee. Being in an inferior relationship to someone else goes against my independent personality and imposes inhibitions that would destroy a marriage.
But being a partner is very much like a marriage. In fact, my partners and I advise new partners entering the law firm that becoming a partner is like getting married, except that you’ll spend more time at the office with us than with your husband or wife! The comparison is based more on experience than any scripture, but Ephesians 5 bears the conclusion out.
But partnership is often misunderstood. It is not equality. It is mutual sharing and mutual submission. There is no “boss,” but the partnership works quite well with an orderly chain of command anyway. The system is a meritocracy. The partner with the ability to handle employees handles employees. The partner with the ability to work hard and generate revenues does so. The partner with the ability to deal with our bank does so.
Who is the boss? It depends on what the problem is. The other partners are often required to participate in a decision, but there is not time in the day to participate in them all. And when all the partners must participate, they do so under the leadership of the partner who has the most experience or skill as to the matter under consideration.
The same is true in marriage. Who decides what’s for supper? Who decides what the children are to wear? Who decides what bills to pay? Who decides when the kitchen is clean enough? To hear some traditionalistic authors tell it, the husband decides everything but may in his benevolent discretion delegate some of this authority to his subservient wife. That is simply not what Ephesians 5 says. The husband gives up his dominion and becomes one with his wife. Decisions are not made by domination or even consensus or agreement. They are made in the most biblical of all ways, based on to whom God has given gifts.
As radical as this may seem to some readers, it is nothing new or strange at all. It is how healthy marriages work. Any marriage that works differently is seriously dysfunctional. Frankly, we are very fortunate that most Christians base their marriages on their love and respect for one another — and what works — and not on the theorizing of our theologians.
And this explains very nicely Paul’s command that husbands present their wives “holy and blameless.” Remember that Paul explicitly refers back to the Genesis 2 account of Adam and Eve before their sin as the ideal for Christian marriage. Any marriage that is based on dominion of one spouse over the other is a corrupt marriage, suffering from the corruption that all Creation suffers from — sin!
Christians are called to leave the corruption of the sinful world, and our marriages are included. If we do not do so, we take the holiest of all human relationships and make it wicked. The husband, therefore, is called on to give up his dominion and become one flesh, to rid his marriage of sin, and to present his wife unsullied from the curse of Eve — a task at which Adam notably failed!
Moreover, just as stated in Genesis 3, if the husband demands domination, then he makes his wife a sinner, because her desire will be to rule the husband. Women deeply resent male domination. Consider the wide-ranging sympathy that many women feel for Lorena Bobbitt, for the many battered wives who have killed their husbands, and for the many other women who have taken cruel vengeance on their domineering husbands! A husband may well be able to dominate his wife and even destroy her self-esteem, but the relationship will never be a happy one, even if commanded by the preacher from the pulpit.
Christ’s example of submission
But there is more. We can learn much more about husbands and wives from those passages that tell us what Jesus did for the church. Paul plainly states that men are to be unto their wives as Christ is unto the church. Paul tells us plainly which aspect of Christ’s relationship with the church he has in mind. It is the sacrifice of Christ. We cannot add to Paul by suggesting that Paul also had the Lordship of Christ in mind. Paul just doesn’t say that.
The better we understand our Savior, the better we will understand how husbands are to relate to their wives.
(Phil. 2:1-11) If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This familiar passage is obviously parallel to Paul’s exhortation to husbands in Ephesians 5. Although this passage is about Christ and the church, we can learn much about husbands and wives by taking the same passage and applying the lessons to husbands just as Paul instructs us in Ephesians.
Paul begins with instructions on Christian unity. He then explains that Christ Himself is the best example of the attitude that we should have. Thus, when we emulate Christ, we are fulfilling the command to unity. Equivalently, the command of unity, being a command to be like Christ in His sacrificial life, is also a description of how husbands should treat their wives.
Pursuing Paul’s analogy, we find that Paul first says that Christ and the church (metaphorically, husbands and wives) should be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and in purpose. The emphasis on unity fits perfectly the principle of “one flesh.”
Paul then instructs husbands and wives to have no selfish ambition or vain conceit. Selfishness is plainly the opposite of the one flesh that spouses are called to. Indeed, Paul says that husbands and wives should each consider the other better than himself or herself.
This is the answer to the old question of who should be the boss. The answer is that the wife should consider the husband better than her — but the husband must consider the wife better than himself! Neither can claim superiority.
But there is a very important limitation. While wives and husbands must look to the interests of the other, they are each commanded to also look to their own interests. Neither husbands nor wives are commanded to be doormats or to be consumed by the ego and personality of the other spouse. Each has rights as an individual and is entitled to insist on them. Both spouses are entitled to insist on a full measure of self-esteem and personhood.
Paul then uses Jesus as the ultimate example of how Christians should live. Christ chose to give up His superior position. He decided that his superior role was not something to be “grasped,” meaning literally, to be “greedily clung to.” Instead, Jesus chose to take on the form of a servant.
Just so, in the world, husbands can, by force of their greater physical size and strength and by leaning on a male-biased culture, dominate their wives. And yet husbands are called to give up their “natural” dominance and take on the role of a servant. If Jesus could do it, then we husbands are not too good to do so.
Paul then explains the consequence of Jesus’ taking on the form of a servant — crucifixion! And this is very same point made by Paul in Ephesians 5. Jesus was willing to die for the church. Husbands must die for their wives. His point is in the nature of Romans 12:1, which tells Christians to offer themselves to Jesus as living sacrifices. Husbands must do the same for their wives.
Another relevant passage is also familiar, but the application to husbands is perhaps unconventional. Nonetheless, in Ephesians 5 Paul tells husbands to emulate Christ’s servanthood, and John 13 gives us an excellent lesson in this.
(John 13:1-5) It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
The most interesting point is found in the second sentence of the second paragraph in the word “so.” We naturally conclude that Jesus knew that He was ruler of the universe, and despite this, he chose to wash His disciples’ feet. But that’s not right! The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus did what he did “despite” who He is. He washed their feet (including the feet of Judas Iscariot!) because He rules the universe! How amazing!
The application is this: the greater a husband thinks that he is, the stronger, the more intelligent, the more stable, or the more mature, the more he has a duty to become his wife’s servant. Husbands, if you are perfect, so perfect that God would give you the entire universe as your private kingdom, you would be just the sort of person who would volunteer to wash Judas Iscariot’s feet. Thus, we husbands are caught in a perfect trap. The more we think that we’re entitled to dominate, the more plain is our duty to serve.
Some would argue that the foregoing interpretation fails to properly take into account the command that women submit to their husbands. But I have no dispute with Paul’s teaching at all. Rather, my disagreement is with those who fail to take into account the command that a husband must “give himself up” for his wife as Christ gave Himself up for the church.
We too readily read over this command and falsely assume that husbands are to be like Christ as Kings and Lawgivers. This shallow interpretation is not only contradictory to Ephesians 5, but it also misunderstands the nature of our Savior. Jesus did not come to earth, take the form of a servant, and give Himself up to become a lawgiver — He did these things to free us from law:
(John 8:32) “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
(Rom. 8:1-2) Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
(Gal. 5:1) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
(Heb. 2:14-15) Since the children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil-and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Nothing in Ephesians 5 even remotely suggests that the role of husbands is to dominate their wives. Our role is to free our wives from the dominion of sin — to present them “holy and blameless,” unspotted from the curse on the Creation.