Ephesians 5:21-24 is probably one of the most misunderstood and most misapplied texts in the Bible. It’s even worse because it holds the key to making a marriage work. As we saw last week, God has given to us an enormously beautiful gift. He gave us something to solve for loneliness, something to give joyful expression to our sexuality, something to safely bring new people into the world, something to show the world how the gospel is supposed to work, and we think that something so profound, so foundational to God’s created order is operated…intuitively.
We in our extreme self-confidence believe that we just “know” how marriage is supposed to work, that we can justfeelour way through it. Oh, is that right? We were dead in our trespasses and sins, totally insensitive to the things of God and at war with others around us five minutes ago,yetwe believe that in this case, with our marriages, we actually know best, better than God, really. That is a tragedy because the answer is right here, right here where our culture has convinced us to wince when we read.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Ok, obviously you are putting a lot of weight on this section of scripture. Are you saying that it is all the modern wife’s fault for failing marriages? Are you saying that a marriage stands and falls with the wife?” No, not exclusively; husbands misunderstand these verses, too. Men have misused these verses to demand to be served like tyrants in the past, but these verses have been misunderstood the other way today. C.S. Lewis once said, “The sternest feminist need not grudge my sex the crown offered to it either in the Pagan or in the Christian mystery. For the one is of paper and the other of thorns. The real danger is not that husbands may grasp the latter too eagerly; but that they will allow or compel their wives to usurp it.” (The Four Loves). In other words, these days the problem isn’t mainly that husbands take their leading role too seriously, but it is that husbands are far too easily satisfied to let their wives be in charge of everything while they retire to their own pursuits outside of the family.Passivityis a far greater problem these days than authoritarianism. That’s not to say it doesn’t still happen; it does, and we are going to deal with that today as well. But if I were to poll the average wife today, I doubt that I would hear, “You know, he is just too active in decision making. I get home and the man has planned dinner out for the next week without even asking me what I wanted.” I don’t hear that complaint in my office. Wives tend not to drop by to say that they have too much to submit to.
Ultimately, what these complaints point to is a misunderstanding, not of marriageper se, but a misunderstanding of the gospel. The passage that is before us is actually pretty easy to understand. There is nothing particularly complicated about the wording, the grammar, or the logic. What makes this passage so hard is that we don’t understand how the gospel fits into it. And because we don’t, we make this passage MUCH harder than it has to be. It is only when we understand the gospel do we understand what it means to submit and why, and what it means to be a person that is a delight to submit to. The gospel needs to transform both members of the marriage if this passage is going to work as God intends. For a wife to be able to submit her will to her husband requires humility and a grasp of the reality that you have heaven to look forward to. Yes, your husband’s budget may mean less travel, but you will one day be a part of the New Heavens and the New Earth to explore. And to the husbands, it takes humility to recognize that you don’t know everything intuitively, and that if you are going to love your wife like Christ loves the Church, you will need to know how to be self-sacrificing. Maybe it requires fewer golf clubs and more travel for your wife. If you are going to love her well, then you need to consult her. You need to ask (but more on that next week!).
We are going to be looking at two points today: Wives are called to be submissive to their husband’s leadership in the Lord and Biblical headship and submission require the gospel.
Wives are called to be submissive to their husband’s leadership in the Lord We begin in verse 21, which is a continuation of how we are supposed to behave in the world. Unlike the world, our sexuality and all other actions are not supposed to be darkness like the rest of the world, but are supposed to be light. Paul now gets super practical about what this looks like by addressing the smallest unit of society possible, the family. Yes, it is one thing to know how you are supposed to behave at work, but it is quite another thing to know how you are supposed to behave with your family. These are the folks who are watching you the closest to see if the gospel you proclaim is real. Paul begins by giving a general introduction of submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Now I used to think that this verse was referring to the fact that in some ways husband submit to wives as wives submit to them. The spirit of that idea is heading in the right direction, but that is not the best way to think of it. In the passages that follow, we don’t see commands for parents to submit to children, or for masters to obey their slaves. If Paul was saying that we all submit to each other equally, then there will be no clear idea as to who is in charge, and it would mess up the gospel picture marriage is trying to paint. Paul is very clear on who is in the leadership role in each of those relationships: husband over wives, parents over children (though this is a different word for obeying), and masters over slaves (or to put it in modern terms, bosses over employees). Children are to obey their fathers, but fathers are not supposed to exasperate their children. Wives are supposed to submit to their husbands, BUT husbands are supposed to love their wives like Christ did. Christ doesn’t submit to His Church. He didn’t go to the cross because the Church commanded Him to, He went to the cross because He loved the Church. See the difference? By doing it this way, the line of authority is clear, but abuses to that authority are tempered by love. So Paul begins to write down God’s direction for the family, and he starts with wives. Wives are to submit to their own husbands, as to the Lord. It is critical to note here the word “own” husbands. This is not a statement that all women have to submit to all men on the basis of gender. The qualifier for submission is marriage. Wives, there are only two guys you submit to, your husband and Jesus (and yes, Jesus outranks your husband, but we’ll get to that in a moment). When you submit to your husband, it is as if you are submitting to Christ. That does not mean that your husband will get everything perfect or that your husband himself is perfect like Jesus is, but it is merely saying that obedience to him is obedience to the Lord (Bock).
Now, why is Paul telling wives to do this? Is this just patriarchy that Paul has assumed? Is Paul a prisoner of his time and is blindly following the Roman family structure? Is it because women are just lesser creatures than men? No. Remember God’s Word is written by God. God was not influenced by Rome. God was there in Genesis 1 where male AND female were created in God’s image. We can see this because Paul explains where he gets this concept from in verse 23. He says that husbands are the head of the wife AS Jesus is the head of the Church. This is further explained in verse 24 where Jesus is the savior and provider for the Church, and the Church submits to Christ. There are two responsibilities here. Wives are to submit, and husbands are to lead like Christ does. We will look at what that entails for husbands next week (and let me tell you, it’s a lot), but we are going to stay focused on wives for now.
Ok, so we know that there is to be submission, but how far does this extend? Do wives submit only when it makes sense? Do wives submit only when he has earned to right to lead? Well, at the end of verse 24, it says that wives submit in all things. In the background of course as we have already said doesn’t include sin, and I think that Thielman is right to add that this would not include things that are harmful or silly (CITE). We saw that two weeks ago. We don’t partner with darkness. But aside from that, yeah, wives are submit in everything else.
Ok, but does that mean that hubby has to make absolutely every decision? Does Biblical headship mean micromanaging? No. Abby doesn’t have to consult me on what cereal we buy. She’s the one who picked out the curtains. Jesus is the same way with us. Jesus doesn’t tell you what color of socks to put on. He gives us general guidelines of how we should present ourselves to the world that help us make reasonable decisions from there. I think that is how husbands should lead their wives. What this requires of husbands is interaction with God’s Word, evaluating how that addresses his family’s situation, and marking a clear course towards what God wants. This may include, but won’t be limited to, what family worship looks like, what a budget looks like, what discipline for the children looks like, and so on. Now, some areas of life will be wise and natural to let your wife handle. If you are a carpenter and your wife is a CPA, it’d be a great idea to let her do the taxes. If your wife is a chef, and you’ve burnt fruit in the toaster, then it’s probably in your family’s interest to have her do the cooking (but you should help where you can!).
BUT hear me, men. Let her teach you how to help in those areas. Learn how she likes the food cooked. Yes, she’s better at it than you are, and that’s ok, but, as long as it is Biblical, love her the way she wants to be loved. Biblical submission requires a grasp of the gospel.
What about when the husband isn’t a Christian, though? While that answer isn’t given here, there is another place where that exact question is addressed, and it is in 1 Peter 3. We are going to back up to chapter 2:24, because I want you to see that Peter grounds this in the gospel just like Paul does even though the husband in this case is not motivated by Christ’s work. The command still is to submit, but now the motivation is different. Here, the motive is to win her husband to Christ. The idea would be that the husband will see what a difference Christ makes in his wife and be motivated to investigate further into who Christ is. We’ve seen this in our own church that people tend to stick around after they see the warm welcome that they get from people here. In the same way when a wife is respectful and honoring because of what she is learning at church, there are few things more motivating than that. Now, to be clear, this is for those who already find themselves in this sort of marriage. Entering INTO a marriage with the purpose of evangelism is neither Biblical or wise, but if one finds herself in such a marriage, this is the approach still.
What about when a husband demands something sinful? Well, it is here that submission ends. Your ultimate authority is to Jesus. Jesus is the one telling you to be submissive to your husband, but when your husband is opposing Jesus in what he is telling you, then it is your directive to graciously explain why you simply can’t do that. This also applies if your husband is doing something sinful to you. Submission does not include enduring abuses, verbal or physical. In that case, wives should not allow their husbands to continue sinning against them and God by doing those things. If that is happening to you, come and see us. I promise you that you aren’t alone in that.
So what is our takeaway from this? Marriage is a God-given institution that is not lived out intuitively. While it is easy to believe that we are in exceptional circumstances, God’s vision for marriage is the best by definition. We can’t let our culture influence how we understand the Bible. Therefore, wives, for the sake of the gospel, submit to your husbands, and you will be obeying the Lord. This is a role that God has assigned to you, and is yours to obey. This is not your husband’s job to control you into this. Your husband is not your dad. It is yours to voluntarily submit to.
A quick word to husbands: if you find yourself having to resort to pulling the headship card all the time with your wife, it might be time to examine how you are leading. If you are unable to convince a responsible adult of your plans for the family constantly, it might be time to improve your thinking or your communication. Most of the people that practice marriage in this way can only think of a handful of examples where they really pulled the headship card, and in those cases, it was for the wives benefit. Finally, as I said at the beginning, marriage like this requires the gospel. If you think of yourself as deserving your wife’s submission, then you don’t understand what God has saved you from. And wives, if you think that you are too good to submit to and serve someone else, then you don’t understand how much you have been served by Christ. I won’t pretend that this is an easy thing to do, but I am saying that when we focus on how little we deserve anything and how merciful God has been to us in Christ, we will both lead with humility and love and submit in humility and love.
Bock, Darrell, Ephesians, Tyndale
Thielman, Frank, Ephesians, Baker
CS Lewis Quote: https://restlesspilgrim.net/blog/2018/03/06/the-four-loves-c5/