By Russ Ramsey
Here is a passage many find controversial. It is vital to read not only this text, but all Scripture, in context. We have to deal honestly with what it is saying and not saying. So let’s talk about this passage that uses the word “submit.” What is Paul teaching? What is he not saying?
To get our bearings, we must remember that in the verses immediately before this passage, Paul calls all believers to submit to one another out of love for Christ. Before he says a word about the intimate union of two individual people, he tells all believers that our posture toward one another should be self-emptying. If we read Paul’s words about marriage through the filter of trying to maintain our individual rights at all costs, we will not only misread this passage, but the entire gospel, which teaches us that there is no greater love than to lay down our lives for those we love (John 15:13).
The picture in Ephesians 5 is that marriage would be a relationship that sanctifies husbands and wives who would freely offer their lives for the Christlikeness of the other. It’s a dance. Submission is necessary in any dance. He cannot lead if she will not submit, and she cannot follow his steps if he will not lead. But in a dance, both people are doing the same thing together, and they’re doing it in step, in harmony, for the sake of the beauty they create as they’re moving together. So what does that dance look like in the context of marriage?
For a wife, what does it mean to “submit to your own husband as unto the Lord?” First, this is a Godward statement. “As unto the Lord” means that in marriage, the ultimate authority is not the husband but the Lord. If a husband leverages his power to control or abuse his wife in an ungodly way, he has violated the relationship, and she should not submit to his abuse. This passage assumes both people in the marriage desire to grow in unity and faith.
Second, it is an intimate statement. “Your own” means the submission Paul is talking about here is not every woman to every man, but specific to one couple. This passage calls a husband to love his wife in such a way that he becomes a sacrificial, humble, strong leader who wants nothing more than for his bride to become radiant, holy, secure, missional, and strong. Her call is to love him with a kind of affectionate depth she will not find in any other earthly relationship, but will overflow into and shape every other relationship she ever knows.
For a husband, this passage calls the man to love his wife in such a way that she becomes a radiant, holy ally in his life who will daily hold up the mirror to reflect his call to live and model the love, sacrifice, humility, and resolve of the sacrificial, self-emptying love of Christ. His call is to love her with a sort of intimate depth he will not find in any other earthly relationship, but will spill into and influence every other earthly relationship he ever knows.
This text is intimate. It tells husbands and wives to empty themselves for the sake of the other’s holiness, purity, and purpose in life. Marriage is a love story. It isn’t two people trying to find mutually exclusive happiness. It is two people seeking to find their joy in becoming one. It’s a dance. One leads, the other follows, but they’re both doing the same thing. And this, Paul says, is nothing less than a picture of Christ’s love for the Church.
Written by Russ Ramsey