As you work today, you are reflecting the image of God, the first and best worker.
I know this will sound unsettling to some Life for Leaders readers. That’s why I entitled this piece “A Shocking Statement about Authority in Marriage.” I find what we read in Ephesians 5 and the parallel passage in 1 Corinthians 7 to be shocking. It shocks me to realize that in such a strongly patriarchal culture, the New Testament envisions marriage as a matter of mutual authority and submission. And it shocks me, given my preference for running my own life (including my marriage) as I wish— that I need to be submitted to my brothers and sisters in Christ, including my wife. This is not an easy thing for me, I admit. But this, I believe, is what Scripture calls me to do. No matter whether you see things in this way or not, I ask that you join me in seeking God’s truth from Scripture, even when it’s hard to figure out, and even when it challenges our assumptions about how to live. If we’re never shocked by Scripture, chances are we’re not paying close attention to it.
Though the evidence from other passages in Ephesians is persuasive, I still want to look very closely at the text of Ephesians 5 to see what it actually says about what the husband should do as the head of his wife. We get a hint of this in verse 23, where Christ as the head of the church is its Savior. Verse 25 makes clear the implications of verse 23. There, husbands are to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). When Ephesians talks about Christ as the head of the church, the emphasis is upon his sacrificial love and care for the church (see also Ephesians 5:29). Nothing is said about his Lordship over the church in this context, though this is a core truth of our faith (see Ephesians 4:5). Therefore, husbands, living out their Christ-like headship, are told to love their wives. They are not instructed in this passage to exercise authority. Rather, they are told to love in the sacrificial, self-giving way of Christ.
I expect readers of this devotion will respond in a wide variety of ways to its title, “Submission in Marriage.” Some will be curious. Some will be hopeful. Others might be upset or worried because this topic has been the source of much pain for many people. Few verses in Scripture elicit such powerful and diverse responses as Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”
We might paraphrase phobos as “awestruck reverence and deep respect” for Christ. The more we are overwhelmed by the grandeur of Christ, the more we will submit ourselves fully to him as his servants. This act of reverent submission to Christ will prime our souls to submit to each other. When we are on our knees together before our Lord, we’ll find it easier to remain on our knees in submission and service to one another. Our humility before our Lord will carry over into humility before each other.
With God’s help, you can “scale the walls” set before you today.
Submission, therefore, involves choosing a posture of humility that leads one to serve others. If I’m in a community of mutual submission, I don’t just wait until a brother or sister gives me an order to follow so I can submit. Rather, I seek out opportunities to serve humbly, to lower myself before other members of the church by serving them as a slave. Thus, I follow my Master who stooped as a slave to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13).
Yet, no matter whether we speak of submitting or following leadership, Ephesians 5:21 can still be puzzling. How can we submit to one another? How can we follow the leadership of one another? Picture the intersection I’ve just mentioned. We’d have quite a mess if all the drivers and all the pedestrians started to be leaders, giving directions that the others were supposed to follow. Chaos would ensue. The order of the intersection depends on having one person in charge and everyone else following directions. Does Ephesians 5:21 commend a hopelessly confused corporate life, in which everyone is leading and everyone is following all the time, such that the church and the family flounders?
Because we don’t tend to speak of submission or subordination very much in common speech today, the use of the verb “submit” can feel odd, antique, or unsettling. We might not understand what it means to submit to someone, not to mention how to submit to one another. Or we might recoil from the notion of submission, fearing that it leads to unhealthy domination or even violence in relationships. Too often the language of submission has been used by some to keep others in bondage to abuse and harassment. So we’re understandably wary about the language of submission.
If Paul had written, “Submit to those in authority out of reverence for Christ,” his audience wouldn’t have been surprised or disturbed. But in verse 22 Paul urges believers to submit to each other! What does this mean? How is mutual submission even possible? Doesn’t somebody have to be in charge in a relationship or an organization if it’s going to function well? If everyone is submitting to everyone else, how will we get anything done? The whole notion of mutual submission would have felt exceptionally disruptive to the first recipients of Ephesians.