A Good Command With a Bad Reputation

This morning we look at a passage that to be honest, I have been hesitant to approach. These words of Paul to wives are among the most hated words in Scripture in the minds of women. The reason for the hatred is twofold. First, sadly, this text has all too often been used by men to subject and diminish women. It has engendered some of the very attitudes that women have worked so hard to overcome. Second, the text has been woefully misunderstood and Paul has been shamefully slandered and dismissed.

I believe if we read these words in context, we will see that God is encouraging both husbands and wives to give themselves in service and love to each other. Let’s read the text with a little more context. Paul writes,

21 And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.

25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. (Eph. 5:21-25 NLT)

We cannot understand what Paul is saying to wives unless we understand the context of what Paul is saying. The overarching principle is in verse 21: we are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Paul is going to illustrate this principle as it relates to wives, then husbands, then children, then parents, then how it relates in the workforce. In other words, this isn’t about Paul “picking on” wives. He is applying this principle in all our most important relationships-the same mindset is being commanded for both the husband and the wife!

Paul is Not Picking on Women

Paul tells women to submit to their husbands as a way of submitting to the Lord. In truth, the word “submit” is not even in the verse! The word is implied from verse 21. So the text really says, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ; Wives to your husbands as to the Lord (then later). . . husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.

Women have worked hard for equality in our world. Personally, I feel it is shameful that women were considered as mere possessions by people. Even in the Bible we see women treated as less significant than men.  However, I believe what we see is the effect of sin rather than the creative intent of God. Men and women were originally designed to “complete” each other. I believe God has been trying to move us back to that viewpoint.

Throughout the Old Testament when God dealt with women He treated them with honor. He heard the prayers of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. He honored Tamar, protected Rahab in Jericho (and placed her in the family line of Jesus). He called Deborah as one of the leaders of Israel in the book of Judges. He put both Ruth and Esther in the spotlight as women of faith. In a very male-dominated society God upheld the value of women.

When Jesus came on the scene He treated women as equals. He raised their status in the world. Mary and Elizabeth held prominent positions in the birth of Christ. Jesus talked to a woman in Samaria in John 4 that most people (even other women) avoided. He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery. He praised the woman who anointed Him. Mary and Martha were prominent in his life. Women were at the cross and Jesus appeared first to a woman at His Resurrection. Priscilla was a woman who was prominent in the early church. Rather than subject women, the Church sought to revolutionize the role of women.

Many have called Paul a woman hater because of his words. However, Paul is the same man who wrote these revolutionary words in Galatians 3:28

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (NLT)

The teaching of the church is that we are all equal recipients of God’s grace. That doesn’t mean we are all the same but we are all equal. So this command is not about “keeping women in their place.”

What is Paul’s Instruction to Wives?

Before we examine what the word “submit” means let’s look at the “qualifiers”. First, wives are to submit to their husbands. This is not about women submitting to all men. This is not a statement about a woman’s value in the workplace or in society in general (I don’t believe it is not about a woman’s value in the home either). This is a very narrow command.

Second, wives are told to do this as a way of showing honor to the Lord. In other words, this is a voluntary act of obedience. This is not about inherent worth, this is about religious devotion.

Again, we must remember that the word “submit” here is from verse 21. What we saw in verse 21 is summed up well by Tim Keller,

Paul is assuming if you’re going to have a good marriage (verse 21), he’s assuming you have a Spirit-created ability to be unselfish in the way in which you live. Stated negatively, this verse means the main problem in any marriage is self-centeredness. That’s what kills marriage. That’s what the heart of every marriage problem always is. That’s the most basic problem you have.[1]

Some have suggested (and I think wisely) that one of the problems in the new church was that women (caught up in the freedom that comes from grace) were rebelling against their husbands. I think the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that tells women to be silent in the church has to do with the fact that with this new freedom the women were interrupting the service with their questions and comments. Paul told them to ask their questions to their husband (who at that time had more spiritual training) at home.

Rather than being combative in the home Paul I believe is saying, “Entrust yourself to your husbands, give yourself to them.  Rather than straining for independence, rather than trying to gain your rights and position . . . devote yourself to your mate. Instead of competing, work with and build up your spouse.”

In Galatians Paul said,

don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. Gal. 5:13 NLT)

I believe Paul’s entire argument here is for couples to approach marriage as a time of giving of oneself to each other with a selfless and servant mentality. (I happen to believe he is telling men the same thing in a different way.)

Different Roles in Marriage

People find Paul’s words to be inflammatory when he says,

For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything. (NLT)

This phrase “the husband being the head of his wife” is a difficult one. Women react because what they hear Paul saying is: “Husbands are the boss of their wives and the home just as Christ is the boss of the church”. I do not believe that is what Paul is saying even though I find the phrase a bit illusive.

We need to understand first that there are inherent differences between men and women. These differences are hardwired into us.

  • The brains of men and women are physically different.
  • Because of the differences men tend to get the gist of an issue very quickly women tend to see the details. If you ask most husbands if they liked what you were wearing yesterday most of them would be in trouble because all we remember is that you were wearing clothes (we would have noticed if you hadn’t been). Women generally notice the details.
  • Women tend to want to cooperate. They want to network and build teams. Woman naturally are better at negotiating. Men want to compete and win. If a man feels he is no longer in a position to win he will withdraw. He will take his ball and go home. (There is an interesting insight there ladies).

We are different by design. If we go back to Genesis we see that God designed men and women for different purposes. Adam was told to name the animals and work the ground. Eve was assigned to be Adam’s helpmate. It seems God wanted husbands to take responsibility in the home and to lead. The wife was to encourage him in that area.

Before you react, ladies stop for a minute. What is one of the greatest problems in the home today? It is that dad is absent or disengaged. He goes to work, comes home, cuts the grass, perhaps grills out on the grill, and he feels he has done his part. Meanwhile, mom has gone to work, shopped on the way home, cooked dinner, bathed the kids, helped them with their homework, cleaned the house, managed the household calendar and then drops into bed exhausted. It has been my observation that most wives would like to have a husband who truly leads the family. They want someone who is engaged and involved. God wants husbands to be that way too. He encourages wives to help their husbands remain engaged. The best way to get men involved is to give them responsibility and to encourage them in the work that they are doing.

Let’s make this more concrete. Men are competitive. Generally speaking, if they feel that they cannot be successful, they will disengage and throw themselves into some area where they do feel they can be successful. In other words, nagging and beating a man up because he is not doing things right will not encourage him, it will push him away! A man responds when he feels he is doing something right. You encourage Him by pointing out the good things he is doing! He responds when he believes his spouse views him as competent.

Let me give you a silly example. When our kids were born I made it a point to give them a bath when they got home. I wanted to help change the first diapers. This was not only because I love my children, I know me. If I waited to do these things, I would feel incompetent (compared to my wife), and therefore would avoid doing these things.

Encourage your husband! Notice when he does things correctly. Ask him for help (rather than demand that help). Be his cheerleader (the cheerleader outfit is optional). We need each other.

A Christian View of Marriage

There are still some people who rebel at this teaching. The reason is that we view marriage as a contest or a battle for control.

The Bible presents a view of marriage that is different from the view of marriage we largely see in the world around us. Marriage for many today is “just a piece of paper”. They see marriage as a contract between two people. Marriage is a negotiation. In the world’s eyes we contract with another person and commit ourselves to a mutually satisfying relationship. When, or if, it stops becoming mutually satisfying, we may regrettably divorce.

A contract marriage carries with it a list of expectations. Some of these are stated (I will mow the lawn, you cook the meals) but many others are implied (or assumed!). The result is that we live our married lives feeling that the other person is not “living up to their end” of the bargain. We always overinflate our contribution and we diminish the contribution of our spouse. The result is contention, frustration, and dissatisfaction. This is where we are getting in trouble! We are spending all our time focusing on what our spouse is supposed to be doing for us!

The Biblical model for marriage is different. It is the idea of a covenant or promise. It starts with the idea of mutual submission. We do not look at marriage in terms of what we will GET (though most of us begin marriage this way), we learn to look at marriage in terms of what we can GIVE.

Here’s the difference. In most wedding vows what people are really saying is this. “I take you to be my husband/wife in sickness and health, joy and sorrow, youth and old age . . . as long as it is still pleasant, satisfying and comfortable! If it is not, all deals are off!!!”

Marriage God’s way is when we say, “I promise to be tender to you. I promise to be loving. I promise to be faithful. I promise to cherish you. And I promise to do all these things regardless of how I feel or what I perceive as your contribution to things. Christian marriage or covenantal love is defined in terms of commitment and a desire to meet the needs and encourage the growth of the other person.

Christian marriage is not easy. There are struggles in every marriage. Tim Keller helps us with a great illustration,

Here’s a bridge, and there are all sorts of structural defects in the bridge, but you can’t see them. They’re hairline fractures. Nobody can really see them. A great big five-ton Mack truck comes over the bridge. When it gets on the bridge, it shows up all the structural defects because it strains the bridge and suddenly you can see where all the mistakes and the flaws are.

The truck doesn’t create the flaws. It doesn’t create the weakness. It reveals the weakness. When you get married, your spouse is this great big Mack truck coming right through your heart. Before you were married, other people tried to tell you about those defects. Your parents tried to tell you. Your roommates tried to tell you. You weren’t in covenant with them. You could write it off. You weren’t so intimate and so close that it really created problems for you: your selfishness, your fear, your pride, your bitterness, your worry.

You were never, even with your parents, in such an intimate relationship that those differences created problems for you. On top of that, if they told you about them too much, you could always leave. There was no covenant. There was no commitment. There was no vow. When you get married, it brings out the worst in you. When you get married, you will find being in that close of quarters, those sins, those structural flaws, will be brought out.

The real mistake people make, almost always, is you feel like the conflict marriage has brought you into is a conflict with your spouse. Not a bit! The power of marriage is that marriage brings you into a confrontation not with your spouse; it’s with yourself. Marriage forces you to look in the mirror. Marriage gets you by the scruff of the neck, pushes your face in the mirror, and says, “Look at these things!”[2]

Let me say a word to wives on behalf of your husband: We love you and we need you. We need your help and we need your encouragement. By nature we will deny that we need any help. We are geared to be independent. However, underneath all the bravado, we know we need help in developing intimacy. What Paul is saying, I believe is this: Wives, stop fighting and competing with your husband and instead encourage him and help him to be a good husband and father in your home. Your husband wants this! He wants you to be proud of him. He wants you to feel secure and safe in your relationship. He wants to be a dad that his children can count on. However, he often feels that he is failing and doesn’t know what to do. In those cases he will more than likely withdraw! The way to keep that from happening is by letting him know that you love, appreciate, and respect him. He needs to know that you are glad he is your husband.

And a word to husbands: be back in your seat next week! Do not walk away from here with the idea that are the King and your wife is the slave. That is NOT what Paul is teaching! We need to hear the whole counsel of God! Believe me . . . when you hear what God has to say to husbands, you will realize that marriage is a partnership unlike anything the world knows or can understand. You wife needs you to be a significant part of the family. She needs you to love her and cherish her. She needs to know that you are committed to her.

So let’s work at this. God intended marriage to be the best of relationships. For that to happen we have to stop competing with each other and instead learn what it means to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

[1] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

[2] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

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