I have a distant relative who loves his church, loves his children and seems very sincere in his faith and his convictions, but he’s had two divorces in the past five years. He had always been a faithful husband and a hard-working provider, so he seemed genuinely shocked when two consecutive marriages dissolved because both women wanted a separation. Both divorces left him reeling and asking questions that seemed to have no clear answers.
It’s not my place to judge why either of these marriages ultimately ended, but I’m firmly convinced that one factor was his misunderstanding of the Biblical concept of “submission” in marriage.
In our years of doing marriage ministry, my wife Ashley and I have seen that one of the most controversial, misused and misunderstood marriage teachings in the Bible is on this issue of submission. Taken out of context, some men have used the Apostle Paul’s exhortation for wives to submit to their husbands as a license to enforce their will over their wives with an iron fist. Some have used this verse as a trump card to end every disagreement and to make sure his preferences always came before hers. Here is the Scripture:
“For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.” -Ephesians 5:22-24
I’m not saying this is what happened in my relative’s failed marriages, but I have heard him often refer to these submission passages with a feeling of righteous indignation when his wife would not see things his way. On more than one occasion, I would see a look of hopelessness, frustration or despair as he again quoted the passage leveraging the Bible verse as an authoritative tool to justify whatever demand he was making.
See where I’m going with this? Paul doesn’t mention anything about doing what one feels like doing in Ephesians 5. He simply tells wives to respect their husbands, and he tells husbands to love their wives. He offers these as wise choices and behaviors that lead to a Godly, thriving marriage.
It probably seemed to his family that the submission verse was the most important passage of Scripture to him when it came to how he wanted his household to run. In their own words, I’ve heard each of those two women express their heartache over never feeling truly loved or adored by him.
If the legalistic, chauvinistic, misogynistic application of this submission concept leads only to bullying, heartache and divorce, then we must be off base. That’s certainly not God’s vision for marriage, so it cannot be the correct interpretation of this concept. I want to humbly offer a new way of viewing this concept of submission.
In light of all the Bible teaches about love and marriage, I believe there are five important factors men need to understand about “submission.” In no particular order…
1. Submission in marriage always begins with MUTUAL submission to Christ.
This passage about how husbands and wives should act and interact in marriage begins with a call to mutual submission in Christ (Ephesians 5:21). He is the head of the marriage and ultimate leader and authority. If we are not submitting to His word and His will, we will never be able to live, lead or love the way God intended.
2. God is offended when his daughters are mistreated or bullied.
Men, did you know that one of the few behaviors the Bible lists as something that will actually hinder your prayers is being harsh with your wife? (see 1 Peter 3:7) The tone of your words will shape the tone of your marriage. God is giving us husbands a clear mandate to treat our wives with tenderness, respect, support and encouragement.
3. It’s never a husband’s job to “make” his wife submit.
This passage of Scripture never instructs the husband to enforce anything over his wife. In fact the Bible warns of gentiles (unbelievers) who lord authority over others. In Christ, leadership is about serving. Yes, husbands are given a unique mandate to lead and a responsibility to be accountable for the family, and while I believe a Godly wife should respect her husband and submit to him as the Bible instructs, how she ultimately chooses to (or not to) submit is something only God can enforce, reward or punish. Nowhere in Scripture is a husband told to enforce a behavior with his wife. That would create a parent-child dynamic instead of the equal partnership God intends for marriage.
4. Husbands are actually called to submit MORE than wives.
Our mission as husbands is to “…love your wife as Christ loved the church.”He gave his very life for us. He pursued us when we denied him, he loved us when we were unlovable, he gave his best when we couldn’t repay and he died to his own desires and preferences to give us life and then told us to love our wives with that same kind of love. That’s humbling, and doing the same requires a lot of submission on our parts.
5. Our marriage mission is not submission; it’s love.
In practical terms, I believe that this Christ-like love should compel husbands to daily lay down their own demands to willingly pursue the preferences of his wife. Let her pick the paint colors. Let her pick the restaurant. As Jesus washed his disciples feet, get some good lotion and massage her feet. Give her your very best; not your leftovers. Delight in seeing her smile knowing she has a husband who adores her.
Men, let’s do these things! You’ll be more content in your marriage and your wife will be as well. When there comes a rare crossroads in your marriage when you and your wife aren’t in complete agreement about which road to take, she will find it so much easier to submit (which is simply means she’s freely giving an invitation for your to lead), because she’ll know without a doubt she has a husband who is following the Lord and who would gladly give his life for her.