Ephesians 5.22–24 reads: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
This is one of my least favorite passages in the Bible for several reasons: First, it seems to teach a hierarchical model of marriage that makes basically egalitarian husbands such as me very uncomfortable. Second, it is sometimes misinterpreted as tacit permission for husbands to bully their wives. And third, as a man and as a pastor, I feel uncomfortable telling wives that they need to be submissive to their husbands.
Whether or not Ephesians 5.22–24 is my favorite passage, it is still God’s Word to us (2 Timothy 3.16–17), so how should we interpret it? Here are a few guidelines:
- Do not interpret it away. Yesterday, I wrote about how we complexify the Bible’s simple moral commandments, rejecting black and white for hazy shades of gray. The temptation to do this here is strong, and it should be strongly resisted. Why? (a) Through Paul, God has spoken straightforwardly, and it is our duty to listen humbly. (b) If we interpret away the force of this passage to wives, then logically, we must do the same to Paul’s instructions to husbands in verses 25–33. But what those verses say about a husband’s responsibilities to his wife are revolutionary! If for no other reason than to retain what Paul says to husbands, we must listen to what he says to wives.
- Read these verses in their spiritual context. English translations of this passage hide the grammatical connection between verses 15–21 and verses 22–24. From verse 18, the passage reads: “And do not get drunk with wine…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another…, singing and making melody to the Lord…, giving thanks always and for everything to God…, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord….” In Greek, there is no verb in verse 22, so English translators rightly carry the one over from verse 21. But this means that if a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, he addresses, sings, gives thanks, and submits. In other words, submission is a general characteristic of all Spirit-filled Christians, including men. Wives submitting to their husbands is merely a specific example of this general principle at work in household relationships.
- This passage is about voluntary submission, not involuntary subordination. Paul directly addresses women in this passage, not men. He does not say, “Husbands, subordinate your wives to yourselves,” or “Husbands, bully your wives into submission.” AND NO MAN SHOULD READ THIS PASSAGE AS PERMISSION TO DO SO. Jesus is not a bully to the church. We husbands should not be bullies to our wives.
- And finally, read this passage together with Paul’s instructions to Christian husbands (verses 25–33). The relationship between Christ and the church is the proper model for husband-wife relationships. If husbands acted more like Christ, perhaps wives wouldn’t have such a problem acting more like the church.
I’ll say more about a husband’s responsibilities to his wife in the next Daily Word.