Love is Submission
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 2 7and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus regarding Christian marriage and family life. In case you didn’t know, the Church in Ephusus was an ancient Greek city located in modern day Turkey, which at the time was under Roman rule. These passages can be challenging when we fail to understand the context under which Paul writes. At the time both Greek and Roman cultures had very different models of family life and marriage than we do today.
Greek women were very much housewives, and not in the stereotypical fashion we have today. They were often confined to the house, they could never go out on their own without their husbands, they couldn’t conduct business, or make purchases. The Greek expected his wife to run his home, to care for his legitimate children, but he found his pleasure and his companionship elsewhere. Wives served only the purpose of being household slaves, and producing legitimate heirs for inheritance. Husbands used their wives for procreation and nothing else. Their sexual needs and desires were met by other women and prostitutes.
William Barclay writes, “The Greek respectable woman was brought up in such a way that companionship and fellowship in marriage was impossible.” Socrates said: "Is there anyone to whom you entrust more serious matters than to your wife--and is there anyone to whom you talk less?" In that time in Greece there was no system of divorce, so a woman couldn’t choose to leave her husband if he was unfaithful (by our standards) or if he was abusive in any way
Rome had it’s own distinct problems as well. Sexual promiscuity was incredibly rampant. Men and women, both married and not, would have sex with multiple different people. And unlike in Greece, the Romans had a system of divorce that was often used too liberally. It was not uncommon for women to have a history of husbands in the double digits. A story is told of man who has on his 23rd marriage, all the while his new wife was on her 25th marriage.In Rome women were often aged by the amount of husbands they had rather than the amount of years they’d lived.
So Paul is writing this to a Greek church under Roman rule trying to give godly counsel on marriage and relationships to a society and world that had completely obliterated God’s established marital covenants. He writes, “Submit to one another in reverence to Christ”
Submission is Love
When Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments He summarizes it into one thought: Love God, Love People. The root thought of His summary is love. You cannot obey God’s commandments without love. The Big Ten (that's what I call the Ten Commandments) hinge on loving God, and loving others. So when God ever instructs, or counsels us on any matter or subject the preface behind every ideology is love.
I’m sure that there are more than a few people here who take issue with some of these verses, or who may take issue with the concept of submission in this type of context, but what we need to understand before we even begin to unpack these verses is that you cannot have godly submission without love. To submit to one another is to love one another and even more importantly, to submit to one another is to love God. But just to be clear, I am not talking about surrendering your personality, will, individuality, or letting yourself be bullied, trampled and taken for granted.
Paul asks everyone (before we even get to wives and husbands he addresses everyone) and instructs us to submit to one another in reverence to Christ. This means that we are careful to look out for each other’s interests. This means we care for each other as ourselves. This means we don’t put our own opinions, beliefs, and desires in competition with others when it means ruining relationships. The type of submission that Paul talks about isn’t the kind of winner-loser submission, or the conqueror-conquered kind of submission. The kind of submission that Paul talks about is the submission where our love for one another saturates every action and interaction. Where our concern is what’s best for everyone, not just what’s best for me. Where our concern is with the happiness and well-being of others
Submission means that we put aside the selfishness in our hearts, the kind that is more concerned with me being right, or me getting my way, or me getting what I want, especially at the expense of hurting, abusing, or putting someone else down. We cannot claim to love one another while wanting what’s best for only ourselves. Love is submission and submission is love.
Submission is Mutual
I cannot stress enough that the negative perception we carry with the word “submission” is not at all intended when Paul writes these verses. Because “to love someone” is to submit to them, then Paul can, without hesitation say, “wives, submit yourselves to your husbands.” Paul says, 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Once we understand that submission is mutual we can then find no problem with Paul’s advice. In order to properly understand what he says to wives we have to first understand that Paul fully intends submission to be mutual. In the same breath he says “wives submit yourselves to your husbands” he also says “husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Were you aware that Christ submitted to humanity in order to fully love and embrace His people?
Christ submitted Himself to ridicule, torture, anguish, disgrace, shame, and death by the cruelest of means, all out of love for the church. Jesus didn’t consider His own personal comfort and desires in contradiction with the needs of the church. We know Jesus didn’t want to be suffer the way He did, that’s why in the garden of Gethsemane he asked God to take the cup away from him. But we also know that even though his body was afraid of the suffering He was about to experience Jesus was more concerned with the eternal well-being of His church than He was with His own life. Submission, under the context that Paul gives is MUTUAL.
Have you heard the old adage? "You can either be right or you can be married. I know it’s a little funny in its facetiousness but there is some truth to it. Being married means being wrong sometimes, it means not always getting your way. Marriage means that while you don’t lose your individuality, your selfish ambitions and desire are put aside for the sake of the unity you share with your spouse. Paul can advise wives to submit themselves to their husbands because He is also advising husbands to love their wives with the selfless and sacrificial love that Jesus had for the church. The submission MUST be mutual.
Matt Chandler in his book “The Mingling of Souls” recounts a story of before their marriage. Matt and Lauren were fighting and they were have a recurring fight so often he turned to his mentor David. He was worried and asked him if he should even marry Lauren. He said “should I marry a woman I still get into fights with? Shouldn’t we be beyond this? We’re not even married yet, and we’re already fighting.” David said something very important. He said, “brother, you are going to fight with someone for the rest of your life. Do you want it to be Lauren?” Even godly marriages will have conflict but conflict doesn’t mean you throw away a relationship. Conflict doesn’t excuse you from submitting to each other.
I don’t believe in “soul mates.” The entire concept to me is utter nonsense. I believe in something far more romantic. I believe in choice. The conscious effort and choice to be with someone no matter how much they annoy you, pester you, or frustrate you or get on your nerves. The choice to submit my individual needs, wants and desires, for a unified vision and goal. The choice to put the “I” aside for the greater “we” Submission is mutual. But you need to understand that submission isn’t absolute; it isn’t unconditional.
Submission is Conditional
These verse has been twisted and turned and morphed to represent an idea Paul never intended to represent. Our misogynistic and patriarchal society has taken these verses and interpreted them as biblical evidence for husbands to control their wives. This is not what Paul is writing about. Paul does not in any way, shape, or form condone wives to submit themselves to abusive husbands whether it’s physical, sexual, verbal, mental or spiritual abuse. Paul does not mean that wives have no say in personal, business, or spiritual matters. Paul does not mean that a wife has to obey or listen to her husband without question. Abuse, control, and sinfulness are NEVER, EVER condoned by the Bible, and these verses are no different.
When Paul talks about submission, especially when he says wives submit yourselves to your husbands, he attaches conditions to the act of submission. He says, 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Paul gives 5 different conditions a husband must meet before there is submission.
1. It must be sacrificial love
A love that, like the love Jesus had for church, is willing to give itself completely in order to protect and serve her. Jesus never won the Church through threats or fear, He won the Church through His own sacrifice. Christ loved the Church, not that the Church might do things for him, but that he might do things for the Church.
2. It must be a purifying love
Greek brides were washed in the rivers of a god or goddess before they were married. And Paul writes to that custom to be washed in the river of God, to be cleansed before marriage. His love towards you should purify you and, protect and maintain the image of God in you. Any love which drags a person down is false. Any love which coarsens instead of refining the character, which uses deceit, which weakens the moral fibre, is not love. Real love is the great purifier of life.
3. It must be a caring love
A man must love his wife as he loves his own body. There is something deeply broken when you look at your spouse as a someone who simply cooks, cleans, takes care of the children, and satisfies your sexual needs. Real love loves not to extract service, nor to ensure that its own physical comfort is attended to, it cherishes the one it loves.
4. It is an unbreakable love
Paul quotes Genesis in verse 31 when he says, 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” The love is unbreakable, because he sees her as part of his own flesh and blood. He would no more leave her than he would tear apart his own body. This is an incredible ideal in the Roman world where men and women changed spouses as often as they changed clothes.
5. The whole relationship is in God
We submit to each other (to other godly people) out of our love for Christ. In Christian marriage there are not two partners, but three—and the third partner is Christ.
The submission Paul calls wives to commit to is conditional on their husbands loving them like Christ loved the church and reflecting the character of God. While submission may be a hard step for us to take, I believe that an even greater and more difficult step Paul is asking us to take is to fully reflect the character of God to one another. I find it far easier to just give in to someone than I do to actually reflect Jesus in any and every situation.
Men, if your wives are human they are going to make mistakes. They are going to annoy you and get on your nerves but that doesn’t excuse you from your responsibility to submit yourselves to each other. Women, if your husbands are human they are going to make mistakes. They are going to annoy you and get on your nerves but that doesn’t excuse you from your responsibility to submit yourselves to each other. Of course I am not talking about staying in an unhealthy, sinful or abusive relationship. The Bible does not condone spousal abuse of any form. But so long as our relationship is a godly relationship we are called to put our selves aside and submit to one another in Christ.
Submission is the Gospel
To submit to one another in godly relationships, despite our flaws and imperfections is a demonstration of the gospel. The gospel is the story of God’s unconditional love for us; where He sacrifices His own life to save, redeem, and restore our relationship with Him. It is the story of God never forcing His love on us, but instead giving everything up all for the sake of relationship. He didn’t care how deeply flawed we were; He didn’t care how often we screwed up; He didn’t care how prone we were to be selfish, His primary concern was our eternal well-being. In the same way, to submit to one another is to demonstrate the gospel because it is the giving of our selves to someone else for the sake of relationship.
Marriage was never meant to be merely an earthly institution. Marriage was created in the light of eternity, as symbol of the deep unity and connection God longs to have with us. This is why Christian marriage is so much more important than just not spending your life alone. Our marriages paint a picture to the world of what God is like in flesh and blood. How we love each other is a symbol of how God loves us.
Just like the earthly sanctuary was a shadow of the heavenly sanctuary and the sacrifice of Jesus, so too earthly marriage is a shadow of the heavenly marriage that is relationship with Jesus. This is why submission is the gospel, and why sex is the gospel as well. It is two broken people, giving themselves wholly and completely to one another in matrimony, baring before each other the true nakedness that is the vulnerability of all that we are, mind, body and soul, before our spouse.
Matt Chandler writes, “Intimacy is hard for broken people. We need Jesus. We need his help. But when you’ve gotten closer and closer to the incredible reality that God chose you, forgave you, and approved of you despite your sin, all because of Jesus Christ, that grace is satisfying and empowering, and it can be carried over into your marriage. It can be carried over in the way you respond to your spouse, confident and free because of Christ’s work in your life. It can be carried over in the way you forgive your spouse’s sins and overlook his or her imperfections, as a way of sharing what God has given you. In this way, sex can be about the gospel. If Jesus wanted the broken version of you, can you find the strength to want your broken spouse? In Christ, it is possible—it just has to be worked and fought for.”
Christian marriage is the most precious relationship in life, whose only parallel is the relationship between Christ and the Church. There are many things Paul could have used to describe marriage, but the only description worthy of comparing to the relationship that two godly people have in marriage is that of the love between Christ and His Church. We submit to God first, and then because the love of God flows freely through us, we can then submit to our spouses. Wives to their husbands and husbands to their wives.
We cannot love without submitting to one another. True love doesn’t bulldoze its way through life, it tenderly embraces the other, and works towards the benefit of the whole instead of the individual.
Good and godly relationships are never a one-way street. God calls husbands to submit to their wives just as plainly as He calls wives to submit to their husbands. Submitting to one another is an easy task when you God is the centre of your relationship. You can trust that if your spouse (and I use this word to mean both husbands and wives equally), if your spouse submits to God first then there is no place that they will lead you that won’t be for your own benefit and enjoyment. If God is truly leading your husband or your wife, then wherever they lead you is where God wants you both to be.
We cannot disrespect, mistreat, or abuse our spouse and expect them to submit themselves to us. Godly submission never occurs under the context of force or fear. Godly submission can only occur when there is mutual respect, and deep love and care for one another. When Paul writes for women to submit themselves to their husbands it can be a difficult thing, but it becomes easier to do when we understand that Paul writes that husbands should fully reflect the loving character of God.
I am sure no woman would have a problem letting her husband lead when he cares for your every need, when he thinks of your needs and feelings when making every decision, when he considers you an equal partner in the relationship. And likewise, I am sure no man would have a problem letting his wife lead when she cares for your every need, when she thinks of your needs and feelings when making every decision, when she considers you an equal partner in the relationship.
It is the gospel because it is the self-less giving of oneself to another despite their sins, their mistakes, and their imperfections. Marriage serves to demonstrate to others the nature of God, the love of God, the self-sacrificing character of God. We submit to God first, and then because the love of God flows freely through us, we can then submit to our spouses. Sex is Holy, Sex is Sacred, Sex is about the Gospel. Marriage is Holy, Marriage is Sacred, Marriage is about the Gospel.
God I pray that you would help me to treat others with the dignity and respect that they deserve, as your children. Help me to submit first to you then to others, knowing that my submission is my act of love, putting away my selfishness and working for peace in my relationships. Help me to realize that relationships aren't a one way street, that it's not all about what I want, or what I need. Help me to love as I am loved. Help me to be a good spouse (husband or wife, present or future). A spouse who seeks You first, always. A spouse who treats my partner as an equal to be respected and considered. Help me to see your gospel in my relationships and transform my mind to reflect your love. AMEN