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‘Submission’ May Not Mean What You Think It Means

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Shown from behind, a couple dressed for cool weather holding hands and walking down the beach.

One Scripture verse keeps couples at odds even though its intent is to teach unity. If you consider the context, culture and language in the book of Ephesians, you can better understand this verse.

Every once in a while, a couple comes to marriage counseling with some theological baggage they need to unpack. One section of Scripture in particular seems to keep couples at odds with each other even though its intent is to teach them to live in unity.

That passage is Ephesians 5:15-33.
Before I dive into the message this passage has for married couples, I want to give you some background about the context, the culture and the language used in the book of Ephesians.

The context

To gain a clear understanding of what the apostle Paul means in Ephesians 5, we need to appreciate the main message of the book. Chapters 1-3 describe the church as a body. Chapters 4-6 tell believers how they are to live because they are members of the body. Two key themes of the book are (1) the unity of the church and (2) Christ came to sacrifice himself to redeem and unite the body of believers.

The culture

Women in general didn’t have political power during the era the New Testament was written. Women — both Roman and Jewish — were under the authority of men. By the first century, a woman’s place in society had markedly declined from the status described in Proverbs 31. Jewish women couldn’t testify in court, couldn’t pray publicly, weren’t taught to read and were even discouraged from going to the marketplace.

Additionally, the new role for the husband suggested in Ephesians 5:25 — “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” — is so radically different from the former concepts of male leadership that the first-century readers must have been near shock. To model Christ’s sacrificial example meant that a husband must hold back nothing — not even his very life — in his dedication to his bride.

Paul’s words elevated the status women in the culture of the time it was written. The idea suggested in verse 21 that a husband and wife should be subject to each other was most likely astonishing to the men who first heard it.

The language

In most Bibles, verse 22 is separated from the previous text by a new paragraph and often a subhead. To fully understand Ephesians 5:22, however, the context of the preceding verses is key, and verses 22-24 shouldn’t be separated because they are thematically connected to 21:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is … submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (vv. 15-17, 21-24)

In verses 21, 22 and 24, the word submit was obviously not to be interpreted obey, for in the next chapter both children (6:1) and bondservants (6:5) are told to “obey,” and a different Greek word is used. Had Paul intended the same meaning, he would most certainly have used the same word. Paul likely did not see submission and obedience as synonymous.

The tone of this passage suggests a sense of equality with wife and husband subject to each other and equally subject to Christ. This interpretation does not require accepting that men and women are identical in form and function, but that they complement each other as they join together to become one in the eyes of God. (See Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31.)

Many Bible scholars suggest that the head-body metaphor in Ephesians 5:23 does not show a power hierarchy but rather the inseparable union of husband and wife. This interpretation is also much more consistent with the overall call to unity that is a theme throughout Ephesians. Ephesians 5:23 can then be understood that as Christ (the head) brings to completion the church (the body) as a unified whole, the husband also brings to completion the union of husband and wife as they become one flesh in the eyes of God.

Ephesians 5 begins to look far more liberating to women than many men have chosen to believe and gives men far more responsibility for the well-being of the relationship than many men have been willing to accept.

The profound mystery for couples

The next part of Ephesians 5 talks in detail about the husband’s role, to figure out how to “walk” (v. 15) according to 5:28-32:

Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

The primary message here is that in marriage, as in all human relationships, the body of Christian believers is to be unified with Christ for the purpose of doing God’s will (v. 17). Following that path requires submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. His example of leadership (headship) was to humble himself and serve the needs of others, rather than claim His rightful place on the throne and have others serve Him (Mark 10:45).

Instead of sparking controversy and division between spouses, Ephesians 5:15-33 can unify couples as they conform to Christ’s image.

Evaluate your relationship in light of verses 15-16 — “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Draw together, intentionally valuing your spouse’s spiritual sensitivities and wisdom. Lean on your husband’s or wife’s discernment to help keep you from being led astray because all are vulnerable to sin. A husband and wife working together are much less likely to be deceived and are more likely to attain the end goal: becoming more like Christ.

Robert S. Paul, licensed professional counselor, is vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. He is the director and creator of the Hope Restored marriage intensive counseling program and is a co-author of The DNA of Relationships for Couples.

Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.

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