To submit or not to submit, that is the question

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A passage of Scripture that has created much controversy in Christian communities is Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”

During our 30-plus years of ministry, we’ve encountered various church members who’ve struggled to interpret this passage. One was a church member who was physically abusive toward his wife. When challenged, he used this scriptural instruction to justify his abuse. On another occasion, a young, soon-to-be-married man visited our home and asked us about the authority structures in our home: “Who has the final say?” When we explained that our marriage did not operate by the principle of one having authority over the other, he insisted that a husband should have the final word. Later, during our seminary teaching years, we would sometimes hear this sentiment among our students, who insisted that marriage was unworkable unless someone was responsible for making the final decision.

This view was also reflected in an inter-denominational group of conservative Christians we befriended while serving in the Pacific. Their inability to follow this instruction sometimes caused these sincere Christians genuine anguish. We would return from our social gatherings grateful for our Adventist worldview; grateful that a founding leader of our denomination was a woman, something unthinkable for our friends. Little did we know that, in the not-too-distant future, the Adventist Church would become embroiled in its own discussions regarding the roles of women in marriage and church life.

So what does it mean for a wife to submit to her husband? And what should the extent of that submission be? Because each of us interprets this passage through the lens of our culture, upbringing and education, we sometimes miss what Paul is actually trying to say.

To unpack the meaning of this passage, we must consider its context. To do this, we need to begin in Ephesians 5:1,2, where Paul states the following: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Thus, Paul begins by calling us to imitate God and Christ. This is not a new idea. Already in the Old Testament, the Hebrews were continually called to imitate God. For example, in Leviticus 19:2 we find these words: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But in Ephesians 5:1,2 we find a new reason for Christians to imitate God: His love for humanity. There are three Greek words that are translated into English as “love”: eros, fileo and agape. In this passage, God’s agape, the highest form of love, is to be our reason for imitating Him. But there is more. 

In Ephesians 5:2, Paul reminds us that God’s agape love is marked by giving and self-sacrifice. It was agape love that caused Christ to “give Himself up” (paredoken heauton) for us. Whenever these two Greek words are used to describe what Christ did for humanity, it is an indication that the author is describing the highest form of sacrifice God could have made, His death on the cross. A similar concept is conveyed in Philippians 2:8: “[Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross.” It is this kind of love—humble and submissive—that we are called to imitate in our relationships. And it is these verses (Ephesians 5:1,2) that provide the broader context for the rest of the chapter.

Furthermore, Ephesians 5:22 is part of a broader discussion of marriage, which begins in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” How do we know that this discussion begins in verse 21? In the original Greek, the oldest and most reliable manuscripts omit the word “submit” in verse 22, and the verse simply reads: “Wives, to your own husbands.” Thus, the English verb submit in verse 22 is borrowed from verse 21. This is an indication that the context for the discussion of the marital relationship (vv 22-33) is mutual submission, as outlined in verse 21.

Importantly, this mutual submission finds its foundation in “reverence for Christ” (v 21). This phrase indicates that we are not dealing with a “submission” that can be demanded, just as God the Father did not demand the submission of God the Son. Rather, we submit to our spouses, mutually and voluntarily, because this reflects the mutual and voluntary submission that exists within the Godhead, and particularly Christ’s submission in voluntarily carrying our sins to the cross. 

The principle of mutual submission, grounded in agape love and reflected in the Godhead, provides an example for all Christian relationships. This is why the New Testament writers described themselves as “servant” (diakonos) and “slave” (doulos). In this, they were following in the footsteps of Jesus, who also used these two words to describe Himself and His mission (Mark 10:43-45). Accordingly, Paul exhorted the early Christians to also follow Jesus’ example: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God . . . made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a slave (doulos)” (Philippians 2:5-7). Similarly, in Galatians 5:13, Paul implored: “through love, slave (doulos) for one another”.

Having established that all Christian relationships are to be grounded in mutual submission (v 21), Paul goes on to explore the way in which this principle applies to relationships between husbands and wives:

“Wives [submit]1 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 Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives submit in everything to their husbands” (vv 22-24). 

In this complex and theologically rich passage, most people tend to focus primarily on the words, “wives [submit] to your husbands”. Some readers filter these words through the lens of contemporary culture, and so view Paul’s injunction as too restrictive and thus irrelevant. Others give it unbiblical overtones of “authority over”,2 and so expect Christian wives to place themselves under the authority of their husbands. However, a careful reading of this passage reveals that Paul’s message was breathtakingly countercultural.

The first thing to note is that when Paul wrote of wives’ submission, he said nothing that surprised his readers, as this was a deeply ingrained aspect of ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish social and familial conventions. However, Paul’s insistence that wives were to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” (v 22) introduced a radical new concept, as it implied a voluntary submission. Furthermore, Paul addressed these verses to wives rather than husbands, which was revolutionary and countercultural in the first century AD—a more culturally appropriate way for Paul to communicate would have been to address husbands, who would then have conveyed the message to their wives. The fact that Paul addressed wives directly was a further indication that submission could not be demanded, but rather, was to be voluntary. Thus, in stark contrast to the practice of ancient Greco-Roman men, Christian husbands were not to claim authority over their wives, as the first allegiance of a Christian wife was to Christ.

It is in verse 25, however, that Paul turns every Greco-Roman convention on its head: “Husbands, love (agape) your wives, as Christ loved (agape) the church and gave himself up for her.” The words “gave himself up” for her echo vv 1,2, where Paul had urged all Christians to love as Christ loved and “gave himself up”. In other words, husbands are exhorted to love their wives in the same way Christ loves—sacrificially. There is no instruction here for husbands to rule over their wives; rather, they are urged to love (agape) her, as Christ loved (agape) the church. By invoking the submission of Christ, who was “in very nature God” (Philippians 2:6) and yet took on the role of a servant, Paul overturned the traditional understanding of marital submission and instead offered a model of radically Christ-centred, mutual submission. Accordingly, when Christ is the exemplar for both husband and wife, Christian marriage can be a witness to the love of Christ and His sacrifice for His bride.

So, what does “mutual submission” mean in our marriage? It means that we submit to one another in our gifting—sometimes this is according to what are considered traditional gender roles, but at other times it’s not (Romans 2:6–8; 1 Corinthians 7:7). It means that, when facing decisions on which we disagree, there’s never a “final word” from either of us. Rather, we take time to discuss together until we reach consensus—or at least a compromise we can both live with (Colossians 3:12). It means that, in pursuing our individual hopes and dreams, we consider not just our own interests, but also the interests of the other (Philippians 2:4). We don’t always live this out perfectly; however, we continue to fix our eyes on Jesus, our model for loving well.

Drs Edyta and Darius Jankiewicz serve at the South Pacific Division as associate ministerial secretary (women in ministry) and field, ministerial secretary and Spirit of Prophecy coordinator.

1. As pointed out earlier, in original Greek the word “submit” does not occur in verse 22 as it is borrowed from verse 21, thus linking the two verses.
2. Mark 10:43-45 shows Jesus’explicit rejection of the concept of “authority over” other believers.
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