Five Myths about Submission

Ephesians 5

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
June 2019

We are studying the Book of Ephesians.  We are in the fifth chapter.  Today, we come to one of the most important passages on marriage in the entire Bible.   It is one of the most famous passages on marriage in Scripture.

It tells us what a Christian marriage should look like.  Every married couple should study this chapter.  In fact, every single person should study this chapter was well.  This chapter tells you some qualities to look for in a potential spouse.

Ben Franklin has a famous quote about marriage.  He said, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterwards.”  We do the opposite today.  Our eyes are half shut before marriage and wife open after marriage.

Some women read what Paul says about submission and say, “I could never do this.  How could I submit to my husband?  He is a complete jerk.  He wants to control everything I do.” When I take one look at their husband, I realize that they are not wrong.  Plenty of women are married to jerks.  They are married to complete idiots.  My question is, “Why did they marry the fools in the first place?”

That is where good pre-marital counseling comes in, so young people, not only know what marriage is all about but what Christian marriage is all about.    A Christian marriage is radically different than a secular marriage or a worldly marriage.  What’s the difference?

In the world, marriage is about two people who meet each other, fall in love and get married.  A Christian marriage is not just about meeting the right person.  It’s not just about falling in love.  It is not just about sparks flying and it’s not just about romance.

It is a picture of the relationship of Christ and the church.  It is an illustration of Christ and the church.  Some have called this a gospel-centered marriage.  The role of the wife is to be a picture of the church.  The role of the husband is to be a picture of Christ.  Does your marriage reflect that relationship?  The Apostle Paul said that it should.  Paul had a high view of marriage.

Last week, we looked at the topic of filling with the Spirit.  For the next several weeks, we will look at the Spirit-filled marriage.  What does a Spirit-filled marriage look like?  What does a Spirit-filed wife look like?  What does a Spirit-filled husband look like?  How many Christians actually do completely what Paul says in Ephesians 5?  How many husbands actually do what Paul says in Ephesians 5?  How many wives do it?  Very few.

We are in the practical section of Ephesians which deals with the family and the home.  Paul gives instructions to four groups of people here.  He gives instructions to wives (Ephesians 5:22-24).  He gives instructions to husbands (Ephesians 5:25-33).  He gives instructions to children (Ephesians 6:1-4) and he gives instructions to slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9).  Notice that wives are first on the list.

If he thought that husbands were superior to women, we would have expected the order: husbands, wives, children and slaves.  Instead, he put the wives first.  Paul apparently believed in “Ladies First.”  We are only going to looking at three verses today but let’s read five verses to see what God is saying to the wives and what he is saying to the husbands.

22 Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:22-25 ESV).

What is the duty of wives?  It is one word – SUBMIT.  That’s it.  God speaks to wives in only a few places in the Bible.  Their primary command here in Ephesians 5 is to submit.  What is the duty of husbands?  It also is one word – LOVE.  We will look at the role of husbands next week.

There is a famous book on marriage called Love and Respect. The premise of the book is that the one thing husbands need that wives need to give them is respect.  The one thing that wives need that husbands are to give them is love.

That is true.  In fact, the last verse of the chapter even mentions respect but that is not the focus of the passage.  The two jobs of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22-29 are not love and respect but LOVE and SUBMIT.  If that were the title of the book, no one would have bought it.

Our topic for today is submission.  It is a huge topic.  Today, we are going to go deep.  This topic raises all kinds of questions.  Some of them are difficult questions.  What does submission mean?  What does it not mean?  When would it be right for a wife to submit to her husband?  When would it be wrong to do so?  We are going to be dealing with some mature subject matter.

This passage will challenge you.  It may make you uncomfortable.  It may go against everything you have been taught.  It may challenge the way you understand the marriage relationship.

This passage is counter-cultural.  It is radical.  It is unpopular.  Many women do not like it, especially feminists.  One preacher called Ephesians 5:22 “the most hated verse in the Bible.”[1]  Feminists HATE this passage, because it talks about male headship and female submission.  It says that the husband is the head of the wife.  They don’t like that idea.  It says that the wife is to submit to the husband and they don’t like that either. 

The world hates this passage and will attack anyone who even believes in it.  Candace Cameron Bure, the famous Christian actress from Full House, mentioned submitting to her husband in an interview and she was ridiculed and mocked by the media.

Is Submission Biblical?

The sad fact is that some in the church don’t like this chapter either.  Many Christian women don’t believe in submission.  These are not my words.  They are not Paul’s words.  They are God’s words.  They are found all throughout the NT.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22 ESV)[2]

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:24 ESV)

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Colossians 3:18 ESV)

Train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:4-5 ESV)

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives (I Peter 3:1 NIV)

This is a clear teaching of Scripture, repeated many times by two different writers of the NT.  In fact, I Peter 3 says that Christian women should even submit to their non-Christian husbands, not just Christians.

Paul tells us WHY they should do it, because the husband is the head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23).

He tells us HOW they should do it.  They should do it “as is fitting to the Lord” (Colossians 3:18).  They should do it “as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).  They are not do it unto their husbands but unto the Lord.  They are also to do it “in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21).

Is it easy to do?  No.  If you submit to someone else, you give up what you want to do and do what someone else wants to do.  You may not agree with it or even like it, but you give up what you want to do.  That is not natural.  It is supernatural.  It requires Holy Spirit filling.

Does it mean that wives can’t make any decisions?  No.  Some decisions they delegate to their wives (e.g., checkbook).  Many decisions they do not even care about.  Other decisions are important to them.

Five Myths about Submission

These are five myths or five lies about submission that many people believe.  They are very common.  Some are found in the church and are believed by Christians and some of them are in the world.

1. The first myth is that biblical submission is mutual

Many people believe in something called “mutual submission.”  Many Christians believe in it.  It is based on Ephesians 5:21. Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (ESV)Based on this doctrine, husbands submit to wives.  Wives submit to husbands.  You submit to me.  I submit to you.  Everyone submits to everyone.  It is really common.  A lot of people believe it.  Is it true?  No.

If every person submitted to every other person, there would be no leader.  There would be no head.  It makes complete nonsense in the context. As John Gerstner once said, “That is not only ridiculous, it is blasphemous.”[3]

If you carry the analogy through the argument is ad absurdum.  Parents should submit to children.  Children could tell parents what to do and what the rules are.  Masters would have to submit to slaves.  Rulers would have to submit to their subjects.  Teachers should submit to students.  If they decided not to have a test that day, there would be none, and Christ would have to obey the church.

2. The second myth is that biblical submission is absolute.

Submission to human authorities is never absolute.  Submission to government is not absolute.  the Apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  Daniel broke some laws in the OT on purpose.  A wife is not obligated to do anything a husband asks him to do.

Ephesians 5:22 does say, “wives should submit IN EVERYTHING to their husbands” (ESV).  Wives are to submit to their husbands in every area they are NOT to submit to their husbands at all times.

  • If a husband wants his wife to rob a bank, should she do it?
  • If a husband wants his wife to get an abortion, should she do it?
  • If a husband wants his wife to view pornography with him, should she do it? No
  • If a husband wants his wife to engage in group sex, should she do it?
  • If a husband wants his wife to engage in a wife swap, should she do it? No
  • If a husband wants the two of them to have an open marriage, should she agree to it? No

If your husband asks you to sin (commit adultery, cheat on your taxes), you should not do it.  You say that does not happen in Christian marriages.  It happened to believer’s marriages in the Bible.  There were wives in the Bible who were asked by their husbands to do bad things.

Sarah submitted to Abraham when he told her to lie to the Egyptians.  She did that, not once but twice.  Sapphira submitted to her husband when she lied to the Apostles.

This was wrong.  Husbands are not Christ.  Submission is unto the Lord.  If it involves something that you could not do unto the Lord, you should not do it.

Does a wife have to submit to an abusive husband?  No, an abusive husband is not only breaking God’s laws, he is breaking man’s laws.  He is committing a crime.  If it a real case of abuse, the authorities should be called and the wife should go to a safe place.  That is one of the reasons that God institute government, to protect people from evil (Romans 13:4).[4]

3. The third myth is that biblical submission encourages abuse

Doesn’t this passage just encourage an abuse husband?  What does this passage say to battered women?  What if there is domestic violence in the home?

Some religions encourage this.  In Islam, this is allowed.  A Michigan mosque leader says “wife beating” is allowed.  It is a way to remind a woman she “misbehaved.”[5]  This is encouraged in Islam but it is not encouraged in Christianity.

Husbands are NOT told to “control” or “govern” their wives.  Some people in the ancient world said that (e.g., Plutarch).  Husbands are NOT told In Ephesians 5 to make them submit. That’s the way some men have read it, but the command is actually addressed to the women.  It is NOT addressed to the men.

The Greek word for “submit” is ὑποτάσσω.  It is in the middle voice in Ephesians 5:21 (ὑποτασσόμενοι) and Ephesians 5:24 (ὑποτάσσεται). It means to place yourself or rank yourself under authority.  It is the wife voluntarily placing herself under the authority of her own husband.  It is a military term.

Furthermore, husbands are told to “love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28).  They are told to love their wives “as Christ loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25).  Husbands who love their wives like Christ will not beat them and batter them.

Finally, Paul specifically commands husbands NOT to be harsh with their wives (Colossians 3:19).  That is right in the context of the submission command.  Paul is not encouraging abuse at all.

It is true that Ephesians 5 has been used to justify violence against women.  It has been used to justify abuse but that is just using the Bible to justify sin.  People do that all of the time.  They use the Bible to justify all kinds of sins (e.g., homosexuality).

4. The fourth myth is that biblical submission degrades women

Does the Bible oppress women?  Is it a sexist and misogynist book?  Does it teach that women are inferior to men?  Was Paul a male chauvinist?  No.

This is an easy question to answer.  Ephesians 5 says, “Wives submit to your husbands” but it does NOT say “Women submit to men.”  All men are not in authority over all women.  The Bible actually teaches gender equality and so does Paul.

The Bible teaches that men and women are equal in CREATION. Both are created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV).  God gave them both dominion over the earth.  Both were told to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28)

It teaches that they are equal in SALVATION.  Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Both are fellow heirs of the grace of life (I Peter 3:7). In the body of Christ, everyone is equal.

If men and women and equal, why are husbands the head and why do wives have to submit to husbands?  Why are husbands never told to submit to wives?  Submission has nothing to do with intelligence.  It has nothing to do with giftedness.  It has nothing to do with spirituality.  Husbands and wives are equal before God but have different roles in the home.

Many think that submission by definition implies inferiority.  It doesn’t.  Jesus practiced all kinds of submission while He was on earth.  His entire life was a life of submission.

He submitted to the will of the Father to come to the earth.  He said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38 ESV).”  Jesus was equal to the Father and yet He submitted to Him.  Jesus submitted to his parents when he was a teenager (Luke 2:51).  He was greater than his parents, but he still submitted to them because they were his parents.

He submitted to human government.  He submitted to the Romans.  He did not start a revolution against Rome.  He submitted to execution.  He submitted to all of the scourging and the crucifixion on a cross, when He could have stopped the entire thing.  He submitted to things that were painful and unpleasant.  Submission is a character of Jesus.  When you submit, you act like Jesus.

Doesn’t the fact that “the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:23) imply the wife is inferior to the husband?  No.  Jesus also had a head and that did not make him inferior.  His head was God and yet Jesus is not inferior to God.  He is equal to God.  Paul also said that “The head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (I Corinthians 11:3).

Authority is not bad.  Paul says that everyone has a head.  Men have a head.  Women have a head and Christ has a head.  The head of man is Christ.  The head of the woman is the man[6] and the head of Christ is God.

Ephesians 5 does teach male headship and female submission but even in Ephesians 5, there is a hint of equality.  Paul  says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31 ESV).

That is a quotation from Genesis 2:24. Paul says that we are members of one body (Ephesians 5:30).  There is complete unity in the body of Christ.  Everyone is equal.

Even though there is a head in the marriage relationship, marriage is also a one-flesh union between to equals.  Even though there is a hierarchy in marriage (headship), there is also a oneness in marriage.  There is a difference of roles in marriage but there is also an equality in marriage.

5. The fifth myth is that biblical submission is just for women

Many think that submission is the one thing that women have to do that no one else has to do.  Submission is the woman’s job.  That is not true.  Every believer is under submission to someone.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2 ESV)

Who is supposed to be subject to every authority established by God?  EVERY PERSON.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (I Peter 2:13-15 ESV)

Then, in the next chapter, Peter says, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands” (I Peter 3:1 ESV).  We do not just have to submit to secular government but also to law enforcement, church leaders (elders, pastors), to our employers and to Christ Himself.  Everyone submits to someone at some level or another.

[1] https://stmatthewbt.org/2018/08/25/the-most-hated-verse-in-the-bible-ephesians-522-33/

[2] Feminists point out that the word “submit” is not in the Greek text in Ephesians 5:22 but that is misleading. Some Greek texts do not have the word “submit” in it (UBS) but other text do have it (MT).  Even if it is not found there, all scholars agree that it is implied by Ephesians 5:21.  Furthermore, Colossians 3:18, a parallel passage, does have the Greek word “submit” (ὑποτάσσεσθε) in it.

[3] This is from a spoken recording of John Gerstner from thirty years ago.  Unfortunately, I do not remember the specific message it came from.

[4] John Piper says, “A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries.”

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/clarifying-words-on-wife-abuse

[5] https://www.foxnews.com/us/michigan-mosque-leader-explains-wife-beating-as-a-means-to-remind-the-woman-that-she-misbehaved.  See also https://www.foxnews.com/world/husband-can-hit-wife-children-if-no-marks-left-uae-says.

[6] Eve was created from Adam’s body.  She was made from his side.  As Paul put it, “woman was made from man” (I Corinthians 11:12 ESV).

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