What About Submission in Marriage?

Series: Preacher: Date: October 4, 2015 Scripture Reference: Ephesians 5:21-33

This morning we’re wrapping up a series of sermons the purpose of which has been to answer to a very important question, namely: “What does the Bible teach about MEN and WOMEN?” In this last sermon we are NARROWING the focus a bit to deal with the Bible’s teachings when it comes to submission in MARRIAGE.

And to help prime our mental pumps for that subject I thought we would start with a little POP QUIZ so here it is:“What does ‘headship’ in marriage mean?” I mean, the New Testament talks about husbands being the HEAD of their wives. What exactly does that mean? This is a multiple choice quiz so I’m going to give you three choices to pick from. You don’t have to raise your hands. Just vote internally. So, “What does ‘headship’ in marriage mean?”

  • Option number one: headship means the husband should retain TOTAL control. His wife should obey his every whim and desire.
  • Option number two: The husband should retain MAJORITY control. Maybe not total control, but majority control.
  • Finally, Option number three: The husband should retain the REMOTE control.

All kidding aside, what is it that has informed the way YOU think when it comes to headship? What is the SOURCE of your views on how a marriage relationship should work? My guess is that for many of us, we just absorbed that kind of thing from the way we grew up.

And—I can look back and see this in my parent’s marriage.  I remember when we first moved to Dover my mom and dad had a huge argument and it concerned who was to do what in the home. You see, mom was raised in a neighborhood in a small city—Florence, Alabama—and she was taught that husbands and wives SHARED in household chores. So—she expected my dad to help with laundry and dishes, etc. and my brothers and I were to do the same.  Well, Dad was raised on a farm in the backwoods of Mississippi and he was taught that husbands and sons did all the work OUTSIDE of the house—taking care of livestock, planting, harvesting, etc.  while mothers and daughters did all the work INISDE the house. That was the division of labor. That was the line. Well that didn’t work in a house in a neighborhood sitting on less than an eighth of an acre. I mean, there just wasn’t that much OUTSIDE work to do with a small front yard and an even smaller back yard. So—in spite of dad trying to dictate a ruling as HEAD, mom won that one—and in addition to mowing the lawn once a week—Dad learned to help out INSIDE the house and I was expected to do the same.

Well, of course the BEST place to learn what Biblical headship in marriage means—is not from our family traditions or from what our culture teaches—but from the BIBLE. So—as we’ve done in the other sermons of this series, let’s turn to God’s Word for an answer to this question and, since this is the LAST sermon in this series, let’s begin with a REVIEW. In the first week of this study I reminded you that according to the Bible God made male and female in His image.  They were given EQUAL dignity and status—sharing CO-DOMINION over creation. Remember, God said to both Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase and fill the earth and rule over it.” God didn’t say that man was to rule over woman—or vice versa. They would be a husband and wife team. They would have children—but in God’s original plan, He did not divide them up into separate spheres of responsibility. Nowhere in the opening chapters of Genesis does God say that the man is primarily in charge of working and caring for creation and the woman should restrict herself to marriage and family. I mean, in spite of my dad’s experience, God never says that man should work in the garden and woman should work in the house. No—prior to the fall they were PARTNERS—EQUALLY responsible for dominion over creation and for marriage and family.

Now take look back at Genesis 2:23. When the man first sees the woman, he says, “This now is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”  We see here that in essence Adam responds to Eve’s creation with the first LOVE POEM and this tells us that God’s intent is for marriage to be an experience of great joy and delight.  Adam also says, “She should be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.”   In other words, he recognized Eve was not just another creature like the ones that had been paraded before him up to this point. No—like Adam—Eve was created in the image of God.

Okay, before we look at verse 24, let me give you a little background information. Usually if two people are going to get together, the LOWER STATUS one will leave their post or place to come to the place of the one with the HIGHER STATUS.  That’s generally the way it is, even in our day, for appointments and so on. For example, I’m sure Donald Trump calls his employees to his office—not the other way around.  With that in mind, notice what the text says, “For this reason, a MAN will leave his father and mother and be united, or cling or cleave to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” If God’s ORIGINAL plan were for the husband to RULE over the wife, then I think we would expect for the writer of Genesis to say something along the lines of, “A woman shall be the one LEAVING. She shall leave her father’s authority and pass now under her husband’s authority.” And that’s not a far-fetched expectation because when God inspired Moses to write Genesis—in the culture of Moses’ day—fathers chose whom their daughters would marry. There was no such thing as dating or picking your spouse on e-harmony. No—the dad just said, “Daughter, I’ve picked out your husband. Pack your things.”  So it is indeed COUNTER cultural for the Bible to say “A MAN shall leave his parents and cleave or cling to his wife, and the two shall become one.”

And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the woman is more important.  My point is simply that the most likely reading of this verse is that the two shall come together as EQUALS and become ONE flesh. This equal footing deal would enable them to know the greatest intimacy possible. You can disagree with me and I’ll still dance at your wedding but I believe the best reading of Genesis, specifically these first two chapters before the Fall—indicates God’s intention from the beginning was that marriage should be a joy-filled PARTNERSHIP between a husband a wife who EQUALLY bear the image of God—and are equally charged with co-dominion over creation.

Of course when Adam and Eve sinned—all that changed.  Not only was their unity—their relationship with God—broken. The oneness between man and woman was as well. And we see the damage of this right away.  I mean, within moments of the fall the equal partnership between Adam and Eve dissolves into competitive BLAMING. “It was the Serpent’s fault!” “It was Eve’s fault!” “It was YOUR fault God. After all You gave me this woman!”

Let me stop at this point and ask—how many of you married people out there have ever blamed your spouse for something? Let’s have a show of hands.  Thanks for your honesty!   Okay let’s go a bit further—no need to raise hands this time but how many of you find yourself at times wanting to be RIGHT in an argument with your spouse? How many of you ever feel like you have this need to prove your spouse is wrong? I’m guessing all “mental hands” are raised!  This reminds me of an episode of the hit sitcom Mad About You where the couple were thinking of investing in a virtual reality machine. The wife tried it out and the virtual reality she chose was her husband coming to her saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault.” The wife played this reality over and over and over again. Well, all this competitive blaming started right here in Genesis 3.

And—in just a couple chapters things go even further downhill—fast. Genesis 4:19 tells us that Lamech married two women—POLYGAMY starts in just six generations.  Of course there’s no oneness in that. I mean, from the one flesh that God intended it now becomes possible for men to collect wives like cattle. Then in Moses’ day we see men casting their wives aside for any reason—and because of this hardness in men’s hearts God told them to at least give the women a writ of divorce. Down through the ages we see the oneness between man and woman that God intended continue to deteriorate.  As I said last week, in our day we see a culture where women disrespect men—where men are pictured as fools.  I mean, it’s obvious that the unity God designed men and women to enjoy still suffers from the effects of the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

Well, Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin—including the way sin affected the oneness and community husbands and wives were supposed to enjoy. That brings us to this morning’s message because today I want us focus on learning how to make our making our marriages more like God originally intended. And there are a great many passages that contain God’s guidance when it comes to marriage and headship but today I want us to look at the fifth chapter of Ephesians verses 21-33. Follow along with me as I read from the New American Standard Version.

21 – Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ,

22 – Wives being subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.

23 – For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church,  He Himself being the Savior of the body.

24 – But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

25 – Husbands love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her;

26 – that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water through the Word,

27 – that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.

28 – So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his own wife loves himself; 

29 – for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church,

30 – because we are members of His body.

31 – For this cause a man shall leave His father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife;

and the two shall become one flesh.

32 – This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

33 – Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself, and let the wife see to it that she respects her husband.

Now before we go any farther, I want to point out that this particular text can be very difficult to understand. In fact, these verses in Ephesians 5 have caused so much disagreement that many pastors steer clear of it all together, fearing the conflict it may cause in their churches. I once saw a cartoon in a preaching magazine that showed a preacher who had prepared his pulpit area like one of those concrete bunker machine gun nests in WWII. The cartoon showed him peering through the narrow slit in the pulpit/bunker and the caption had him saying, “Today my text is Ephesians 5:22, ‘Wives SUBMIT to your husbands.’” The cartoonist was inspired to illustrate his sermon like this because that little six-letter word—SUBMIT—is indeed one of the most disliked, and divisive words in the Bible.

But I don’t want us here at Redland to steer clear of it—because I believe we HAVE to come to a proper understanding of this troublesome word if our marriages are to bring us the joy God intends.  In fact, I believe most of the problems in marriage can be traced to one thing: POWER. The majority of arguments between husbands and wives have to do with disagreements over WHO is in charge of WHAT in the relationship. And, more often than not husbands and wives don’t resolve this issue properly—and when they don’t a POWER IMBALANCE develops in their marriage.

Now, let’s stop and think for a moment about what happens when power and authority in a marriage relationship is out-of-whack.

First—what does the person who holds the greatest power and authority in a relationship usually do? Well, they LORD IT OVER THE OTHER PERSON. If it’s a husband he tends to attempt to control his wife.  He uses HER to make HIS life easier. Our seminary church would often go to a nearby river for a church wide canoe trip. On our first such trip I noticed that whenever we got to a place in the river where the water was low and the canoes got stuck in the mud or hung up on the rocks our pastor would stay seated in the canoe and order his wife to get out and pull the boat free. And she did it every time. I remember thinking two things.  First, I thought, “Why is Bill doing that to Ethyl? He should get out of the boat—not her.” But close on the heels of that first thought, I would wonder, “How can I get Sue to do that, so my feet don’t get wet?” My sinful, selfish self, wanted that kind of authority—for my own benefit. And I imagine a lot of other husbands on that trip were thinking the same thing.

The fact is many people interpret this text in Ephesians to SUPPORT this kind of relationship. Pastors who do so say things like: “The husband should make all the important decisions in the relationship.” Or “The husband should go out to earn the family’s daily bread and the wife should stay home and bake it.”

Okay, let’s look at the OTHER side of this power imbalanced relationship. What does the person holding LESS power or authority tend to do?  Well when wives are subjugated forcefully to the authority of their husbands they often REBEL or RESIST. They find some way to make their domineering husband’s lives miserable.  And that’s the way it almost always is. When people ABUSE their authority—those who suffer look for a way to get even.

This reminds me of a story I read about some men in our military who were stationed in Korea during the Korean War. While there they hired a Korean boy to cook and clean for them. Being a bunch of jokesters these guys soon took advantage of the boy’s seeming naiveté. They pulled all kinds of pranks on him. They’d smear Vaseline on stove handles so that when he’d turn the stove on in the morning he’d get grease all over his fingers. They’d put little water buckets over the doors so that he’d get deluged when he came in a room. They’d even nail his shoes to the floor during the night and then laugh when he fell flat on his face the next morning. And, day after day that little guy took the brunt of their practical jokes without saying anything.

Finally the men felt guilty about what they were doing so they sat down with the young Korean and said, “Look, we know these pranks aren’t funny anymore, and we’re sorry. We’re never going to take advantage of you again.” This seemed too good to be true to the houseboy and he replied, “No more sticky on the stove?” “Nope.” “No more water on the door?” “Nope.” “No more nail shoes to the floor?” “Nope.” The boy thought for a moment and then with a smile he said, “Okay, then no more spit in the soup!”

Well here in his letter to the Ephesians Paul offers us a solution to these problems that come with POWER IMBALANCES in marriage. He reminds us of God’s original plan for marriage—which contains a way for husbands and wives to move beyond sinful power struggles by embracing a PROPER understanding of Biblical SUBMISSION. Now, as I said, this is a concept that is often misunderstood and my goal is to give us a clearer understanding of what Paul is saying by pointing out 5 things about Biblical submission—five basic things that will help us to comprehend and practice this important concept in our own marriages.

(1) First of all Paul says that Biblical submission is PERSONAL.

In other words it is a philosophy that you choose to live by yourself.  It’s not something that is coerced. I mean, Paul doesn’t say, “Husbands, tell or make your wives to submit to your headship.” No—instead, Paul speaks to husbands and wives INDIVIDUALLY and asks each to work on their own attitudes. He says, “submit YOURSELF.” So, TRUE Biblical submission comes from the person DOING the submitting—not from the person BEING SUBMITTED TO! Submission is not something that is DEMANDED.  It is something that is GIVEN. Even JESUS does not DEMAND that we submit to Him.  Of course we should always do that—but he leaves the decision as to whether or not to do so up to us.

(2) Second—Biblical submission is COMPREHENSIVE.

In verse 24 Paul says, “As the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in EVERYTHING.” The principle here is that submission is an “EVERYTHING THING.” In other words, no part of the marriage relationship is to be considered private property. You can’t have ONENESS without this principle. There can be no secrets—no off limits bank accounts—submission is comprehensive.

(3) And then third—and this is KEY—Paul tells us that submission is MUTUAL.

Many times spouses fail to apply this text to their marriages properly because they begin at verse 22 instead of verse 21 where Paul plainly says to BOTH husband and wife, “Submit to ONE ANOTHER in the fear of Christ,” You see, these verses teach us that the answer to the power imbalance question—you know, “WHO IS IN CHARGE, HUSBAND OR WIFE?”—is really neither. No—the correct answer to this question is JESUS!  He is the boss! He is the HEAD of any marriage just as He is the Head of the church! And Paul is saying that a marriage doesn’t have much of a chance of lasting unless BOTH spouses believe this and SUBMIT to Jesus’ authority—Jesus’ headship—in their part of the relationship.

Paul goes on to explain how this works by first addressing the wife and then the husband.

a. Look with me now at verses 22-24 and let’s see what he says to WIVES.

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, His body, of which He is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

Okay—look at your Bibles. And make a note if it’s not already in your particular translation. Write this sentence in the margin: “The word, ‘submit’ in verse 22 is not in the Greek text.  It is supplied in verse 21.”  So literally verses 21 & 22 say, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ—wives to your husbands as to the Lord.” I point this out because I think the clear principle in this text is this. Wives are to relate to—submit to—their husbands in light of their relationship to Jesus. They are to treat their husbands as Jesus would want them to treat them.  I mean, a godly wife should constantly be asking herself, “What would Jesus do?” Here’s a rough—but I think accurate—paraphrase of what Paul is saying in verse 24: “As the church is constantly asking ‘what would Jesus want us to do’ in everything, wives should also be constantly asking, ‘what would Jesus have me do’ when it comes to relating to my husband.”

Now, think about this for a minute husbands—present and future! Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have a wife who always treats you the way Jesus would want her to—whose love for you reflects her love for Jesus?! Maybe like me you don’t have to imagine—and if you don’t surely you would testify to the fact that no man can be treated better than one whose wife only relates to him in this way! By the way the movie, War Room does an excellent job of showing this principle. It’s a great movie—I recommend it HIGHLY.

b. Okay, what does Paul say to the HUSBAND about HIS role in mutual submission?

He says that men should treat their wives in the same Christlike way but he even spells it out more clearly for us. For example, in verse 25 he says, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”  Now guys, that’s a nice, poetic way of saying, “Jesus chose to submit Himself to the whip, the thorns and the nails for our benefit.  That’s the example for you husbands to follow.”  In short, Paul boldly says here that we men are to have a SACRIFICIAL love for our wives.  Their needs are always to come before our own—even if it is costly for us to satisfy those needs.  In fact, it means we are to be willing to lay down our very lives for our help-mates.

A few years ago I read the true historical account of one of the Generals of Cyrus—ruler of ancient Persia, who learned that his wife had been accused of treachery and had been condemned to die. He responded by rushing to the palace where he burst into the throne room and threw himself on the floor before the king. Then he cried out, “Oh my lord Cyrus, take my life instead of hers. Let me die in her place.” Well Cyrus, who by all historical accounts was a noble and extremely sensitive man, was touched by this act of selflessness and said, “Love like that must not be spoiled by death.” Then he gave the husband and wife back to each other and let the wife go free. As they walked away the husband said to his wife, “Did you notice how kindly the king looked at us when he gave you the pardon?” The wife replied, “I had no eyes for the king.  I saw only the man who was willing to die in my place.” Okay, everybody sigh!  You didn’t know a sermon could be a chick-flic did you!?  Seriously, this is the kind of love husbands are to have for their wives—a sacrificial love.

Of course, most of us men will never have to put our love to this extreme of a test but we do have countless lesser ways to do so each and every day. I mean, we have plenty of opportunities to show our love as we learn to die to SELF daily and put our wives’ needs first. For example we can TALK to our wives and LISTEN to them—when we’d rather watch the game. We can bring them coffee in the mornings made the way they like it—before we get our own “wake-me-up” cup. We can take them shopping when we’d rather have a root canal. We can put their financial needs above our financial wants. I’m sure the wives out there can think of other examples of this kind of selflessness.

But ladies can YOU imagine how wonderful it would be to have a husband who was always putting you first—who was constantly dying to self to make sure your needs are met—a man who is following Jesus’ example as the gentle Shepherd Who lays down His life for His sheep?

In the movie, War Room, there’s a scene where the husband massages and washes his wife’s feet after she comes home from work. He’s literally obeying Jesus’ command given to the disciples to wash one another’s feet. Wives wouldn’t you like to have a husband like that?

Now—I think I can read your minds at this point—because many of you are thinking, “This all sounds nice—but somebody has to be in charge for decisions to be made. I mean, someone has to rule or there will be chaos and disorder in marriage. Someone has to make the final call in decisions—and I vote for me.”

Well—ideally—when both spouses are submitting to Jesus that kind of ruler-ship is not necessary. I believe when both spouses are looking to Jesus they can have a relationship like Adam and Eve had BEFORE the fall. They will embrace CO-DOMINION—MUTUAL DECISION MAKING. But of course—there comes a time when someone does have to make a call—and I believe the Bible teaches that in those times it should be the husband. But it should never be a dictatorial “call.” It should be selfless-sacrificial type call.  And if that call turns out to be the wrong decision—the wife should show her respect for her husband—by NOT blaming him—but rather by respecting his servant leadership—trusting that He did his best. But, MOST of the time this is not necessary. Ideally husband and wife make JOINT decisions.

Dr. Gilbert Belziekien wrote a book entitled, Beyond Sex Roles.  In it he gives some great BIBLICAL principles when it comes to marital decision making.

a. First he says, learn to DEFER to one another. In other words, when husbands and wives can’t decide—take turns letting the other have his or her way. Of course he’s talking about the everyday decisions—like what to have for dinner—or what movie to get from Redbox or where to go on vacation—or what to do with an unexpected financial windfall.

b. Second, give greater weight to the partner that has stronger expertise or giftedness in that particular area. If the husband is a plumber and the wife has her CPA—yield to her in difficult financial decisions and let him deal with how best to fix clogged drains.

c. Third, in decision making give consideration to whether a decision affects one spouse more than it does the other. This is seen in a decision like whether or not to move to take a new job—or how best to care for an elderly parent. I’m thinking of that college president who retired early—at the height of his career—in order to take care of his wife who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He gave up his career because it was best for her.

d. Fourth, learn to compromise.  By the way, do you know that in a relationship, anytime one person loses, the relationship always loses but compromise is a win-win deal. We see this fleshed out in Acts 6 when there was that dispute between the Hebrew and the Greek widows as to who were getting the best of the food. Instead of saying, “Well, Jesus was a Jew so we’ll go with the Hebrews” the apostles set up the office of deacon. It was the deacon’s job to make sure widows were treated equally—a win-win all around!

e. Finally, pray together and wait for guidance.  Prayer helps develop our oneness as a couple better than ANYTHING as we go TOGETHER to our LORD and then follow His leading. After all He is the HEAD! Now—in those rare times when the husband has to make a call in a decision as head it should only after a lot of JOINT prayer and discussion so that in essence it is still a JOINT decision.

(4) Well, this leads to the fourth thing I want to point out when it comes to true Biblical Submission.  It is BENEFICIAL!

It’s good for us! Anyone who is in a marriage where this attitude is embraced has it made! And this is important for us to note because many people over the years have thought of Biblical submission as a terrible doctrine—when nothing could be farther from the truth—because it embraces a truly Christlike love that “does not demand its own way.”  (1 Corinthians 13)

Genuine, Biblical submission does not lead spouses to extract service or to manipulate.  Instead it leads them to cherish the other spouse. It is a love that constantly, even sacrificially, works to satisfy the needs of the other. Husbands and wives who practice it, obey the command that is found in Philippians 2:4 where it says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” By the way, let me just stop and ask, “Husbands do you KNOW your wife’s interests? Are you familiar with her needs as a person? Do you know their dreams—their hopes?”  And wives, what about you? “Do you understand your husband’s needs? Do you know his interests? His favorite things?  His fears—His aspirations?” We can’t practice Biblical submission to each other if we don’t KNOW each other. You can’t have the ONENESS we all yearn for without this mutual knowledge. I mean, Paul says that wives who SUBMIT in this sense respect their husbands in spite of their flaws.  They believe in them and “root” for them and do all they can to make sure they succeed in life. And a husband who submits to his wife, CHERISHES her as he does his own body. He will encourage and enable his wife to become the unique person God made her to be. My point is this—a marriage where both spouses practice true Biblical submission is a wonderful, satisfying, benefiting marriage. Life doesn’t get any better than this!

(5) And then finally Paul says that Biblical submission is SPIRITUAL.

It is vital that we understand this because it is really impossible for a husband and a wife to submit to one another—and daily practice a sacrificial love and mutual respect—ON THEIR OWN POWER. If a husband is to love like Jesus, he must have personally experienced the love of Jesus. If a wife it to treat her husband as Jesus would want her to she must know Jesus and have submitted to His Lordship herself. They each need Jesus living in and through them—they each need to be acknowledging Him as LORD—in order for them to practice true Biblical submission. This is what Paul is saying here in verse 21. Husbands and wives are to “submit to one another—OUT OF REVERENCE FOR CHRIST.”

In fact the word “submit” here in verse 21 is not a command.  The command is back in verse 18 where it says, “Be filled with the Spirit.” In other words, SUBMITTING to one another is an expression of being filled with the Spirit of God. The text should read, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” You see, if you are a disciple of Jesus, yielding to His lordship, then when a problem comes you’ll let Him take the lead—you’ll submit to what He would want you to do.

And you know, it IS impossible to submit like this on your own strength.  We have to draw on God’s power. So, as I have often told you, in marriage as God intends there are not two partners but three—and Jesus is the third—the head.

In his book, A Marriage After God’s Own Heart David Clarke says, “On your own marriage is impossible.  It’s not just really…really difficult—not just a tremendous challenge. It’s impossible.  You see, marriage is a never-ending series of conflicts, misunderstandings, and mind-boggling missed connections. Now for the good news: Even with all our differences, marriage can work beautifully when we keep God at the center of the relationship.”

So—Biblical submission is: personal, comprehensive, mutual, beneficial, and spiritual. That’s what God’s blueprint calls for when it comes to building a marriage—a home—one that brings us joy instead of sorrow—peace instead of stress.

Let us pray.

Website design and development by Red Letter Design.