Submission: The truth about Ephesians Chapter 5

Submission is one of those subjects that many people like to tip toe around. It often conjures up ideas of cringe worthy male chauvinism or maybe for you, it brings about the dark idea that women are to be seen and not heard. It's understandable that so many women like you and I have this type of reaction to the idea of submission because it has been distorted, misused and abused for centuries. Before digging into what is laid out for the wife and the husband in Ephesians 5:22-33 one must undo these distortions by putting this passage of scripture into context. By doing some ground work and taking a closer look at key elements of this passage you will find that submission is not as scary as it once seemed. In fact through proper understanding of the word we can embrace it as a way that imitates and honors our Lord. 

Ephesians chapters 4-6 must be understood as a continual unit

In Ephesians chapter 4-6, Paul has just finished a masterpiece of theological work, in which he describes the centrality of Christ in salvation and the unification between the Jews and the Gentiles. At the start of chapter 4 he turns his eye to the practical application and out working of living a Godly life. When we read about submission within this context you will find that the topic is part of Paul's exhortation to operate in godliness, specifically dealing with how we love.  With this scope in mind we find that submission doesn't come from a place of power and manipulation, yet biblical submission is derived from a life  that pleases God, one that is compassionate toward our fellow believers and subservient to our Lord God.  Ephesians 4:1-3 sets the tone for the type of compassion in which submission is rooted, "Ithereforethe prisoner for the Lordurge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentlenesswith patiencebearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." This is a very different starting point in comparison to the dictatorial crushing of the will that many associate with submission. 

Submission is rooted in our call to imitate the selfless love of Christ

Just as we read Ephesians chapter 5 as a part of the greater unit, we must read the principle text of Ephesians 5: 22-33 as a part of the entirety of Chapter five itself. It is important to remember that the scripture is written with continuity of thought, equipped with thesis statements, supporting arguments and so on. This same continuity is found in the body of of Ephesians chapter five and shines a light on the topic of submission when it's accounted for.  Chapter five  is often presented as three distinct portions: verses 1-14 highlight negative exhortations associated with living out one's faith followed by verse 15-21 which details what a life controlled by the spirit looks like, ending in verses 22-33 an exposition of the roles of the husband and wife. While our modern versions may provide heading and breaks to aid in readability, all three of these sections are interwoven and should be read as such. In fact when you view all three parts holistically Ephesians 5:1-2 (" Thereforebe imitators of God as dearly loved children  and live in lovejust as Christ also loved us and gave himself for usa sacrificial and fragrant offering" ) becomes the controlling command that gives shape to the portions that follow it. This has huge ramifications on the context of studying submission because we now find that the role of the man and the woman flow out of imitating Christ Himself!   When we act in submission to our husbands, and our husband act out of love for us we are in fact mirroring Christ's selflessness! What a joy it is to know that my role in marriage reflects and honors God this way! This is a far cry from a traditional understanding of submission that relegates women to the place of a second class citizen.

Submitting ourselves one to another (Ephesians 5:21) is a part of living a life controlled by the Spirit.

The ever famous passage of scripture Ephesians 5:15-21 shines a fresh light on the context of submission.  Here we learn that we should not be drunk with wine, rather we should be filled with the Spirit. Contrary to popular belief Paul is not admonishing the Ephesians to not drink, rather he is describing the way in which they should live under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Just as one is controlled by the alcohol they consume we too should be controlled by the Spirit in how we live. Paul then goes on the list several behaviors that result from being controlled by the Spirit. Ephesians 5:19-21 reads, "speaking to one another in psalmshymns,and spiritual songssinging and making music in your hearts to the Lord,20 always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." According to  verse 21 in the passage above, submitting ourselves one to another is actually part of being filled or controlled by the Holy Spirit! Paul is saying that submission is an out- working of living by the Spirit!

A quick review of Greek syntax may help identify why many of us are unaware of this correlation between submission and leading a Spirit filled life. Many versions present the word "Submit" from verse 21 as a command separate from the enumeration of Spirit- filled behavior that precedes it. However the Greek form that is used here is a Present Participle thus translated "submitting," thereby  rendering this verse a continuation of the sentence presented in verses 19-20. This is significant because structurally joins the exhortation of submission to the ways in which we lead a Spirit filled life. 

Mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) serves as the introduction to the conversation of spousal roles

It is important to note that Paul is addressing both the man and the woman to mutually submit to each other in Ephesians 5:21.  However this verse is rarely discussed by those who chose to distort God's Word because we find that submission, in the context of imitating Christ's sacrificial love, speaks to the responsibility of both the man and the woman. Both parties are expected to submit to each other, which is not a call for a power struggle, however it is a call to selflessness, a selflessness that would cause a man (or woman) to lay down his or her life for another.

Not only is Ephesians 5:21 rarely taught, yet mutual submission out of reverence for Christ is often divorced from the passages that speak specifically to marital roles. This does a disservice to the understanding of these roles. When the idea of mutual selflessness is left out of the equation it is easy to use submission to oppress women and ignore  male responsibility. Greek syntax again helps demonstrate the connectivity of verse 21 with verses 22-33. The use of the Present Middle Participle "submitting" (ὑποτασσόμενοι)  serves as the controlling verb that carries the remainder of chapter 5. Participles often control verbal content in Greek, this is emphasized in the structure of verse 22 which reads, "Wivessubmit to your husbands as to the Lord…" What goes undetected in the English translation is that verse 22 does not have a verb, rather it borrows from the participle (submitting) in verse 21, further showing the connectivity between the two thoughts. For example a wooden translation of the Greek would read- "wives unto your own husbands," leaving the reader to infer the verb "submitting" from the preceding verse. 

The connection between verse 21 and verse 22 is of even greater import because of the reason  for which we are to submit to one another- "out of reverence for Christ." It is out of respect for Christ's authority and His sacrifice that we follow His example of self denial. By imitating him  we are willing to esteem others as more important than ourselves. This idea of submission in reverence to Christ is carried over to the wife's role unto her husband. 

The wife is to submit to her husband as unto the Lord (Ephesians 5:22)

 Having better understood its context, we now approach the role of the wife from a much more gracious position. Submission is not about enslaving a woman to a man, rather it is the high calling of imitating Christ and living in such a way that is enabled by the Spirit, out of reverence for the Lord. It is a difficult task indeed but living in a sacrificial way always causes one to deny one's self and face difficulties.  

There are several points that must be highlighted concerning the exhortation to the wife in Ephesians 5:22-24.  The first, answers the question: does a woman have to submit to all men or does she submit only to her husband? One is a statement on societal organization and the other is confined to marriage. Again the Greek text is helpful in solving this problem because of its use of the possessive dative form coupled with the (αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ,)  adjective  (ἰδίοις), meaning one's own (this is rarely translated word for word rather the possessive is used to show individual ownership). This demonstrates that this call to submission is for the wife to fulfill in the context of her marriage with her own husband.

The wife receives this exhortation, "submit to your husbands, as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:21)  Paul is saying that in the same way we make ourselves subject to the Lord, we should also make ourselves subject under the authority of our husbands. He then goes on to demonstrate this point through the analogy of the Husband likened to Christ and the wife likened unto the church. Verse 23 gives us the motivation for our submission by clarifying Christ's position in the church as His body of which He is savior. Paul uses this analogy to demonstrate authority of the husband over the wife. This passage purposefully makes mention of Christ's role as savior to the church.  It is with great care and sacrifice that Christ operates as the authority of the church. Since we are exploring an analogous explanation it is acceptable to say that this type of care should shape how the husband operates in authority over his wife.

Paul now turns to the demonstration of how the wife should submit to the husband. Here the wife is compared to the church in verse 24 saying,  "But as the church submits to Christso also wives should submit to their husbands in everything." The manner in which the church submits to the Christ, which should be complete, heartfelt, and selfless, is the same manner in which a wife is to submit to her husband. 

There is some debate concerning the phrase "in everything" that ends verse 24. Dr. Thomas L. Constable aptly address this matter in his expository notes here, "(In everything) means in everything within the wife-husband relationship, the context within which the apostle was speaking. Paul probably did not mean in absolutely everything since the wife has a higher responsibility to obey the Lord. When she encounters conflicting authorities, the Lord, through His Word, telling her to do one thing and her husband telling her to do a contradictory thing, she should obey the Lord."

The husband is to love his wife just as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25)

It is interesting to note the disproportionate length of scripture given to exhort the woman concerning her role (3 verses total)  compared to that given to the man (9 verses total)  This is no accident! The responsibility of the husband to rightly love and lead his bride is far more emphasized then the wife's role of submission. This is not to say that submission is not important, yet it speaks to the degree of difficulty and the sensitivity that comes with the responsibility to lead like Christ. 

Paul continues with the same type of analogy used above where the husband is commanded to love his wife in the same way that Christ loves the church. In this analogy the standard that the Husband has to measure himself by is Christ's infallible love! Being commanded to love a wife as Christ loves the church is no small feat. Christ's love is unconditional, self-sacrificial, pure, holy and inexhaustible! My husband and I were chatting about the comparison of difficulty between what is expected of both.  The wife's model is the church yet the husband is to model himself after Christ. Christ gave himself as sacrifice without thought of the church's reciprocation. In other words, Christ died for a church filled with hostile people whose hearts had yet to soften towards Him. Even more so he gave of himself knowing that the church would time after time turn its back on Him. In that same way the husband's sacrificial love of his wife is not in dependent upon how good she is at submitting and respecting him. His love should not rely on reciprocity, as Christ's love never relied on reciprocity.

The comparison between Christ's love for the church and the love a husband has for his wife elevates the role of the husband far above any selfish claim of manipulation and power.  In fact it is in direct disagreement with the crude manner of ruling over one's wife that many people believe is their right based on this scripture. Therefore when men use this scripture to manipulate a woman they in fact make a mockery of the very scripture they hold in esteem. 

Ephesians 5:25b-27 then goes on to describe the manner in which Christ loves the church. "… and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkleor any such blemishbut holy and blameless." While many read this act of sanctification into the the relationship of the husband and wife, the mention of sanctification clarifies the purpose of Christ's sacrifice. The scripture goes on to say that it is "in this same way that husbands ought to love their wives" (Ephesians 5:28) In other words husbands are to love their wives with this same giving of himself and sacrifice for the betterment of his spouse. 

The comparisons of Christ and the church and the husband and the wife continue throughout verses 28-32 in the context of the body of Christ. We were already introduced to the parallel of Christ's headship over the Christian Body and the husband's headship over the wife in Ephesians 5:23. Now the husband is being exhorted to treat his wife as if she is his own body. I often wonder how the misuse of this text can persist when it is so clear that the man's responsibility toward's his wife is a supernatural love in which he cares for her as if she is his own body. Caring for one's own body includes nourishment, protection, and love, all of which are commanded from the man on behalf of his wife which is a way in which the husband imitates Christ.  

Paul closes this portion by reiterating the great exhortations given to both the man and woman in Ephesians 5:33 "Neverthelesseach one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himselfand the wife must respect her husband." Maybe this exposition has still left you a little uncomfortable with the idea of submission and headship, but I hope that you have been able to leave behind the layers of distortion we have been taught about marital roles and get a glimpse at God's precious heart for his people and his provision of order within the family, which when done right imitates Christ in his own loving sacrifice. 

I leave you with this story, from my own marriage: One day I was having a conversation with a single friend of mine concerning how we operate our finances in our home. I believe each family has to decide what is best for them concerning finances but in my family my husband manages our budget, pays the bills and so forth. Some may believe I have given over too much power to him as I am often unaware of when I get paid. We also have agreed upon discretionary money which means I cannot spend my money any way I want. As we joked about the "allowance" my husband gives me out of my own pay check she mentioned, "See this is why I'm not ready for marriage, I can't handle not being able to spend my way." While I can understand her point and I admit not being able to go in the store and pick up the next so and so if it doesn't fit my budget is not fun. Sometimes I forego something that I want because I want him to have something he wants. It's not easy, it involves discipline, and self sacrifice but one thing I've learned is that self sacrifice may hurt but when you put yourself in the hands of someone who has your best interest at heart what you get in return is far more valuable. I remember telling my  friend that although the way my husband manages our finances may seem extreme I really wanted it that way. As a single woman I tiered of having to manage every little thing on my own. If their was any financial strain or big decisions to make there was no one to share the load. Now I have unburdened myself under the care of another who now worries on my behalf!  In the end sacrificing some of my financial freedom has freed me up to thrive under my husband's loving care. 

Christen Jacobs is a wife and mother of 3. She earned her Masters in Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2014. She has served as the youth coordinator and small groups coordinator at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas Texas. She has a passion for exegetical teaching and has had the pleasure of speaking at various conferences and teaching Bible classes. Christen and her husband are inner-city missionaries who work to equip every member to sow seeds for the kingdom through helping individuals and churches respond to the great commission. Christen’s ministry passion is empowering women to be curious readers of the word of God. She also has a strong emphasis in engaging generational and cultural differences, as she has a background in missions traveling extensively in Asia, and Latin America. She enjoys writing her blog, cooking, dancing and cuddling up with her family and Netflix.