Summary: Presents the roles of wives in a Christian marriage.
Ephesians 5:22-24 As to the Lord
5/25/08 D. Marion Clark
Last August, the day after my 28th wedding anniversary, I preached the passage of Ephesians 5:25-33, with the sermon title, “As Christ Loves the Church.” We studied how Christ shows love to his bride the church and considered what that means for husbands. I noted then that perhaps I would come back to the previous verses another time and address the responsibility of wives. So here we are. The matter of submission, which this passage presents, is a controversial subject in our society. And even for those of us willing to submit to Scripture, the matter of wives submitting to their husbands still presents difficulties in understanding how this is to be carried out. We are going to give our attention to these three brief verses that have led to so much controversy and uneasiness.
Let me alert you to my system. When I taught English literature in high school, I told my students that before they gave me their opinion about a particular poem, they had to first tell me what the author was actually saying. That is my intention here. We will examine what the text actually says; only then will I reflect on it. All we want to know, first, is what the Apostle Paul is communicating in these three verses. Once we understand his meaning, then we can move to understanding how it plays out in marriage.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Let’s look at this word “submit.” It means to place oneself in a subordinate position. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, “Originally it is a hierarchical term which stresses the relation to superiors.” It is commonly used to denote the relationship between officers and those under them. So then, the implication is that the submission is based not on superiority of character or power in one person over another, but on the position that each possesses in a given context. So, for example, an employee submits to a supervisor; a student submits to a teacher, an athlete to a coach, a citizen to police officer or a judge, a private to a sergeant and a sergeant to a captain, all because of the position that each holds.
Did you know that the term for “submit” does not even appear in this verse in the Greek manuscript, at least not for all manuscripts? There is actually no verb in verse 22. “Submit” appears in verse 21, where Christians are told to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Verse 22 then follows literally with “wives to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” No one disputes filling in the missing verb with “submit,” but verse 21 does lead some commentators to think that the whole passage of verses 22-33 should be seen as a teaching about how both wife and husband are to submit to one another. Certainly the phrase “one another” typically means to reciprocate. When Jesus told his disciples to love one another, he meant for Peter to love John and for John to love Peter. It is the context, however, that leads us to understanding Paul to be saying something like this: Submit to one another in reverence for Christ. Here is how submission works out in the home: wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves (servants in the home) to their masters. So then a wife is to submit – i.e. place herself in a subordinate position – to her husband who is appointed head of the marriage.
How do we get this? Verse 21 sets the teaching for the longer passage of 5:22-6:9. The passage considers relations in marriage, then between children and parents, and finally between slaves (domestic servants) and masters. We see then, that Paul is addressing submission within the institution of the home. Yes, submit to one another, but within prescribed relations. This harmonizes with Paul’s similar remarks in Colossians 3:18-41 and with Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2:13-3:7.
I would also say that submission is not the primary idea of verse 21 and the following passage. Understand, that Paul is not proposing any radical change in the order of these three relational structures. There was no question in Paul’s day as to whether wives should submit to their husbands, or children obey their parents, or slaves obey their masters. None of Paul’s readers would have been scratching their heads, puzzled over who is to submit to whom. The primary concept that Paul is conveying is the spirit in which everyone is to carry out their role, which is “out of reverence for Christ.” See how this idea carries forth:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v 22).
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (v 25).