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Marriage: A Mutually Submissive Relationship?
© 09.26.2015 By D. Eric Williams


In expounding on Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus, it is common to connect verse twenty-one of chapter five to the preceding material. Often, the verse is considered an enlargement on verse two and a summary of the teaching in the whole of verses one to twenty. I won't argue to the contrary simply because I believe Paul's argument is cumulative. In other words, verse twenty-one does sum up the foregoing section, but as such, it serves as a bridge to the following.

This means Paul is discussing the character of the mutually submissive lifestyle in verses one to twenty-one of Ephesians five and then provides role specific guidance in verses twenty-two to thirty-three. He isn't saying wives are required to submit to their husbands while husbands are free from submission to their wives. Instead, he is illustrating the nature of submission for each party.

To illustrate this idea, I've paraphrased a composite of verses twenty-one, twenty-two and twenty-five with an eye on the Greek variants. Thus, submit yourselves to one another in fear (for instance, women to your own husbands - in everything) as to the Lord, with husbands submitting by loving your wives just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.

Now, in some manuscripts, the word hupotassesthe (submit) is omitted from verse twenty-two. This is the variation I've followed in my paraphrase above. With submit removed from verse twenty-two, the notion of submission is supplied by verse twenty-one. With this reading, the principal of mutual submission is stressed throughout the entire section.

Paul does not require wives to assume the position of a slave. Instead, he is calls for (mutual) loyalty, respect, service and submission. It is interesting that many women are adept at multi-tasking and the submission required of wives plays to this strength. It is a submission summarized under the multifaceted heading "everything."

On the other hand, husbands submit to their wives in a very specific fashion: they become servants according to the example of Jesus Christ. It is a comprehensive self-sacrificial service model no doubt, but with an eye to the typical masculine distaste for details, the husband finds his marching orders summed up under a single head: "Jesus."1

Yet, if we take a moment to consider these two categories, we realize they cover the same ground. Granted, there are many differences in application due to the different roles of husbands and wives. But both submission groups can be further summarized by saying that husbands and wives are to submit to one another by doing what most benefits the other. And beneficial action in the kingdom of God is always defined by the Bible. So, if you want to know what submitting in everything looks like for a wife, get to know the Bible. Likewise, if you want to know what self-sacrificing submission looks like for a husband, read God's word.

"I understand how the role of the wife in submission" you say, "and some of the activities of the husband are clearly a form of submission - but how can leadership be a form of submission?" Well, to do the Christ like thing even at cost to self is to submit to the other. To forgo one's own desire. To give up something in order to model Christ or to make time to exercise leadership in Bible study and so on. Christ like leadership is not fun, it doesn't gratify the ego of the natural man nor does it elevate a man in the eyes of the world. Truly, the man who lives and leads in the self-sacrificial manner of Jesus Christ will be ridiculed by the world. He will put his ego to death and he will find joy in pleasing his Lord rather than join the world's eternal quest for "fun."

Thus, "the wife should submit to her husband in his role as head of the family (Ephesians 5:22-24; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1,5-6), but this is balanced by the requirement that the husband should submit to his wife (Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:7). The husband should exercise self-sacrificing love for his wife (Ephesians 5:25-29; Colosians 3:19), but this is balanced by the requirement that the wife should exercise self-sacrificing love for her husband (Ephesians 5:1-2). Each gives for the sake of the other. The relationship between them is patterned on the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:24-25,32)." (Bridgeway Bible Dictionary)

The message is, partial submission is unacceptable - on the part of husband or wife. The wife is to submit in all things (all things pertaining to her role as wife) and the husband is to love comprehensively as Christ does. We might summarize by saying, a wife washes dishes and a husband washes feet.

1. This does not exclude wives or women in general from the responsibility of imitating Jesus

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