A friend is anticipating the arrival of his baby girl next month and the prospect of (very) imminent fatherhood has led him to ponder what it means to be the leader in his family. I personally am ecstatic to see a man take seriously his role as husband and father (-to-be). Impending parenthood doesn’t elicit this pattern of thought in every man, but for many Christians it does because they want to follow the Biblical family model that is outlined in the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, particularly verses 21 through 33:
†21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives and Husbands
†22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
†25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30for we are members of his body. 31"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
I’ve often heard much about the role of the man as head of the household, immitating Christ in being prepared to love his wife and lay down his life for her. I wanted to proffer some thoughts about what it feels like being the wife, of how we should consider the exhortation to submit to our husbands. Every time this passage is read in church I’m always reminded that the single sentence of verse 21, though it has been categorised outside the section entitled, Wives and Husbands, in the Greek is actually grouped with this larger paragraph about the husband and wife relationship. This I believe is critical to understanding this passage and the submission of wives to husbands and husbands to wives.
The main objection to this model given by some women is their call to submit to their husbands, while the husbands are called simply to love their wives; submission is viewed as an inferior calling, perhaps concommitant with loss of self identity. I wanted to begin by considering the word submission. The first entry in the dictionary for the descriptor submit is, to yield to the power or authority of another. The connotations of the adjective submit for many people involve the forcing of one persons will onto anothers, the involuntary submission of one person following coercion; submission is perceived as being the response of a weak individual rather than that of a person with stronger character. This leads women to believe they are the weaker of the two in a marriage relationship, with no power of influence or decision, and that they are ‘under the ruling thumb’ of their husband. I would suggest that to submit in a godly way to ones husband is not only an indicator of a woman of strength, of secure self-identity and godly character, but is the proper response of a wife to her husband.
As a quick sideline I just wanted to emphasise a really important point. The text says,
†22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
†Wives are called to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. This means our response to our husbands is to be similar to our submission to Christ. That also then means that if our husbands make requests of us or treat us in ways that are not Christlike, then we are under no obligation to submit to them. Another important point to highlight is verse 21: though this is grouped outside the main body of the text entitled, Wives and Husbands, the calling to mutually submit to one another is the key to all relationships described in the sections that follow (wives and husbands, children and parents, etc). The husbands are called to imitate Christ and love their wives sacrificially and in doing so also submit to their wives. Marriage is designed by God to symbolise the relationship Christ has with His church, with the husband representing Christ and the wife representing the church. In the same way that Christ is proactive in his relationship with us (He takes the initiative and His actions are independent of our behaviour and attitude to Him), so the husband is called to be proactive in loving his wife. In the way that the church is reactive to the sacrifice of Christ, so the wife is called to respond positively to the leadership of her husband in her family. If the husbands aren’t mirroring the sacrificial nature of Christ in the treatment of their wives and decision-making aspects of their marriage, then the wife is not compelled to submit in the same way.
But what does submission to ones husband look like? I’ve just got a few thoughts on this. I see submission not as a passive behaviour but an active one. In knowing that my husband is head of our family, I want to verbally and physically encourage him in that role. I want to give him opportunities to lead our family. I want to affirm him in his position of leadership. I want to support him in the decisions that we make together. I will challenge him when I don’t agree with something that he has done, to enable him to consider aspects that maybe he hasn’t thought of before; if I see in him some sinful behaviour, I want to highlight it lovingly and sensitively so that I can encourage him in holiness. If we’re making a decision for our family, I expect him to discuss it with me, and I will talk with him and challenge him if I have any reservations about moving forward in that decision. I do believe the final decision comes down to the husband in the family, but if he is the godly husband described in Ephesians 5, then he will have considered it carefully and discussed it with his wife and will make the decision based on what is best for his family. To sum up in the words of John Piper,
Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.
This model of marriage, therefore, only works if both husband and wife mutually submit to one another (Eph. 5:21) and both are in submission to Christ (Eph. 5:22-33). The calling of a wife to submit to her husband is not an inferior calling, it does not indicate an inequality of status, but instead reflects a difference in role that has pervading spiritual significance. The adage that behind every powerful (married) man is a more powerful woman I think is true – wives have the power by their words and actions to either support or to undermine their husbands role as head of the household. When we take our roles seriously and mutually submit to one another, the world sees modelled the beautiful relationship of Christ and His church, which has the power to create loving, stable families and communities that with God’s help can change the world!