Christian Marriage and the ‘Submission’ Debate

What does this Bible passage mean — and why does it cause so much discord?

There is an intimate and mysterious description in Genesis 2 about the creation of woman.

While Adam was sleeping, God used one of Adam’s ribs to form Eve. When Adam awoke, he saw Eve and said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” Genesis 2:24 says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is an example of what God intended the bond of marriage to be: one flesh.

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

Thousands of years later, Paul wrote instructions for Christian marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33. It is a debated and often divisive passage that easily sows seeds of resentment and is often interpreted as chauvinistic, sexist — or domineering.

However, when taken into context, Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, guides couples in a beautiful exchange of what marriage symbolizes when empowered by the love of Jesus Christ. There is an ebb and flow between husband and wife that demonstrates Christ’s own love and sacrifice for the church.

Says Ephesians 5:21-33: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of His body.”

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Related: The Key to Successful Marriage: It’s in the Bible

The passage continues, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — yet we are talking about Christ and the church. However, each husband must love his wife as he loves himself, and each wife must respect her husband.

The passage clearly begins with “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” and then goes on to charge wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives.

There is no “if he, then she,” but instead a simultaneous offering of one another to one another. If a couple is engaged in this communion of service, there is no room for dominance or oppression. At the same time, there is no need for rebellion or dissent. Instead, there is a unity of love for one another through Jesus Christ.

 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, said in his 2008 sermon entitled “The Truth about the ‘S’ Word”: “Even though we are to submit to one another, submission works itself out in different ways. For a wife to put the interest of her husband above her own means that she follows his leadership. For a husband to put the interest of his wife above his own means for him to sacrificially love her and to meet her needs.”

Marriage is a representation of Christ’s own relationship and union to the Body of Christ or the church. Christ loved the church with sacrificial love, ultimately giving His own life for His followers. With salvation comes not only trust in who Jesus is as savior, but submission to Him as Lord.

Related: Marriage: Part of God’s Timeless Wisdom

There is a call to deny oneself, one’s own desires and ambitions, in exchange for the provision, salvation, and sovereignty of Christ. Loving Christ means submission to His will and leadership — not because He forces capitulation, but because the response to His infinite love is naturally yielding to the Good Shepherd and placing trust in His guidance. Therefore, submission is planted in love and love harvests submission.

They go hand-in-hand, a cause and effect cycle.

World-renowned evangelist Billy Graham has said: “In Ephesians 5:23 it says that ‘the husband is the head of the wife.’ Now being the head does not imply superiority. But it means the role that you have in life. The Scripture says: ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church’ (Ephesians 5:25, RSV). How did Christ love the church? He loved the church so much that He died on the cross for all of those who were going to become members of His body, the church, and He gave Himself up for the church that He might sanctify her and present her to Himself in splendor (see verses 26, 27). Now headship is seen in His care of the church, His sacrificial love for the church, His desire for her to grow into the fullness of her splendor.”

As often misinterpreted, God’s instructions are not a denial of self for the purpose of punishment, but to draw people closer to Himself. The requirement of the husband is love — sacrificial love — to care for his wife by honoring her spiritual development. He loves his wife and treats her as his own body because the two have become one flesh within their covenant of marriage. The wife respects her husband because they are bonded together in Christ, ultimately submitting to His will. Together, as one, they demonstrate the perfect transformative power of God’s love.

Katie Nations is a wife of 15 years and a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

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