Summary: All Christian believers are to submit to one another. When wives voluntarily submit and husbands lovingly and sacrificially lead, we are reminded of Christ's special relationship with his church.
The Power of Submission
I heard once that “marriage is when a man and woman become as one. The trouble starts when they try to decide which one.” A fellow wrote Readers Digest, “I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror one evening admiring my reflection, when I posed this question to my wife of 30 years: ‘Will you still love me when I’m old, fat, and balding?’ She answered, ‘I do.’”
Today’s passage starts a series of instructions in various relationships, to include Christian to Christian, husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and servants. The part on husbands and wives carries a lot of baggage in our day and time. Too often it has been used by domineering men to keep their woman under control. And that is a shame and a sad picture of the state of relationships this side of Eden. Ephesians 5:21-33 really has nothing to do with control, and it has everything to do with oneness, with unity, with the power of submission. Paul uses a chiastic writing style common to his time to drill down his point. It’s in the form of the letter “X”. He starts with wives, then on to husbands, then to the center of the X: Christ and the church. Then he returns to husbands and ends with wives. Out of this, we’ll see that his main point, the middle of the X, is this amazing unity Christ has with his church, and all of our earthly relationships need to pattern after that. So I’ve got three primary truths from the passage. First,
1. We build healthy relationships through mutual submission
If there is any doubt as to whether we’re talking about power and control or not, just start with the first verse of the section, which puts it all in context. Verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This verse is not talking to wives. It’s not talking to husbands. It’s talking to all Christian brothers and sisters.
The Greek word for “submit” is “hupotasso.” It’s actually a military term, and means “to arrange in order under,” as a person subjects themselves under the authority of someone with higher rank. In our English Bibles, it’s interpreted with words like "subordinate," "obey," "subject to," and "submit." While the word could be used to describe compulsion, against one’s will, that is not the context here. If Jesus is our model, then we see this kind of submission as strictly voluntary. It’s by choice. Jesus chose to lay down his life for us. He prayed, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”
We’re still working with our son on driving skills, and one of the most important rules of the road is learning to yield the right-of-way. We take it for granted as seasoned drivers, but for a relatively new driver, it takes a lot of thought. Who gets to go first at the four-way stop? How do I navigate that yield sign?
Healthy relationships require some yielding, some submission, some give and take. Whether it’s a friendship or a committee meeting, a marriage or a relationship with another family member, all relationships require healthy submission. The only problem is, our natural fallen state is one of self-centeredness. But the good news is, this verse is a continuation of last week’s sermon. The way we do this verse is by being filled with the Spirit. We talked last week about how some things are going to happen when you open yourself up to being filled with God’s Spirit: you’re going to speak psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; you’re going to make music in your hearts; you’re going to be thankful in all circumstances; and now, you’re going to submit in all your relationships: all byproducts of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells us to submit “out of reverence for Christ.” Putting others first is actually an act of worship. When you put another person first, that’s when you are most like Jesus. Our Lord stepped out of the glories of heaven to come and serve, not to be served, and to offer his life as a ransom for many. If Jesus submits for us, are we not to submit for each other?
Now we get to the contentious verse, as we consider how mutual submission plays out in a healthy marriage. #2...
2. We see mutual submission in marriage as wives voluntarily submit and husbands sacrificially love.
It’s amazing how many men have misused verses 22-24 to exert control over their wives when these same husbands conveniently gloss over their own responsibilities in verses 25-33. (It may be indicative of our male ego that God uses three verses for the ladies and nine verses for the gentlemen!) I have never seen a wife having trouble submitting to her husband when that same husband is sacrificially loving her in the way Christ loves his church. How does Christ love the church? He died for it. Jesus died for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). In other words, Jesus loves you unconditionally. And he intercedes for you before the Father in heaven. Jesus feeds and cares for us, his sheep, with every good gift from heaven above. He prepares a place for us in glory. He sends a comforter to be with us until then. And he is preparing us—the body of Christ—to be his radiant bride in the last days. Husbands, try doing all those things for your wife and it might make it a little easier for her to submit to your leadership.