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Wives and Their Husbands

Category Articles
Date September 22, 2005

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 Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Eph. 5:22-24)

Submission is the link between this section and the previous verse. But a further subsection of Paul’s teaching begins here. How does it fit in to the overall structure of the letter?

The first words of the letter introduced us to the two spheres in which Christians live – the readers are simultaneously ‘in Christ’ and ‘at Ephesus’.

In the opening three chapters Paul has, for all practical purposes, been expounding what it means for us to be ‘in Christ’. On that foundation he has gone on to describe how the church and the individual believer are called to live in a way that ‘fits’ with the grace of God in the gospel.

The climax of this is the way in which believers not only ‘fit in’ with Christ but learn to ‘fit in’ with one another, willingly submitting to each other – not in the sense that there is no authority structure in the life of the church – but rather in personal relationships in the fellowship. Each member regards others as more important than himself or herself

Now Paul takes the application of the gospel a stage further, into the three most basic relationships the Christian has in society: (i) marriage and home life; (ii) parents, children and family life; (iii) daily occupation and working life.

He begins with marriage, the health of which is essential both to the church and to society in general.

For Paul, Christ is at the heart of Christian marriage. Written deeply into its meaning and significance lies a mystery that is ‘profound’ (verse 32): Christ and the church.

Paul has been unfolding this mystery already – how all things will be brought into final submission to Christ the King. He has decisively defeated the powers of darkness, raised the spiritually dead, and brought reconciliation to believing Jews and Gentiles. In these different ways ‘the mystery’, whose final manifestation still awaits us, has already been revealed. Now Paul adds another sphere in which it is made known in the present time – in the lives of Christians whose marriages display the relationship between Christ and the church. It is in this context that he spells out the biblical recipe for a truly healthy marriage relationship. He speaks first of the responsibility of wives to their husbands and then vice – versa.


Paul’s first exhortation Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord shocks our ‘politically correct’ culture. Yet widespread marital breakdown gives the lie to the contemporary self – confident rejection of the biblical teaching. Indeed, it reveals a deliberate blindness to God’s pattern for human life – the pattern for which we were created and in which we discover the original purpose and destiny of marriage being fulfilled.

There is no verb submit in the text of verse 22. It is borrowed from the previous sentence about mutual submission in verse 21. Thus, a more literal translation would read: ‘submitting to one another in reverence/fear of Christ … the wives to their own husbands in the Lord’. For that reason it is sometimes suggested that the overarching principle in this section is that of the mutual submission of believers. This mutual submission is then viewed as taking different forms, depending on whether one is a wife (‘submit’) or husband (‘love’), child or father, slave or husband. In this interpretation, every exhortation Paul gives amounts to an expression of this mutual submission.

Mutual submission is indeed our calling as Christians. But to regard that idea as the controlling element in interpreting what follows misreads the text – for three reasons:

(i) The same exhortation to wives appears in the parallel passage in Colossians 3:18. There the verb ‘submit’ is actually present in the statement but mutual submission is not mentioned in the broader context.

(ii) The model for the husband is Christ’s love for the church not his submission to the church. While Christ is God’s servant to the church, he never submits to it.

(iii) Ephesians 5:22 – 6:9 describe three contexts for relationships (marriage, family, household) in which submission is called for in one party but not in the other. These are forms of submission to God, not expressions of mutual submission to one another.

There is, of course, an appropriate mutual submission in marriage. The exhortation of 5:21 is to be obeyed by all Christians within the context of their mutual fellowship! But that is not the only aspect to the Christian life. Mutual submission no more obliterates the command in 5:22 than it rescinds the command of Hebrews 13:7 ‘Obey your leaders’!

Paul’s point here is that in expressing the mystery of Christ, wives and husbands give expression to different dimensions of the relationship between the Lord and his people. In the case of the husband, as we shall see, his calling is to love, care for, and protect his wife as Christ does the church. But the wife’s role in this domestic cameo of grace is to illustrate how the believer responds to Christ’s love with deep and joyful submission.

In this context, Paul’s counsel to the wife is focussed exclusively on her marriage relationship to her husband (the adjective own is emphatic here), not to men in general.

The calling is to submission. Our primary and absolute submission is to the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, in talking to believers, Paul urges wives to express that in their disposition towards and relationship with their husbands.

The reason for the submission is that the husband is the head of the wife (5:23). To be head in this context implies leadership (cf 1:22 of Christ).

Contrary to this, some writers have claimed that the word ‘head’ here carries the connotation of ‘source’ rather than of ‘authority’. However, earlier, when he is speaking of Christ as ‘head’, he is thinking of his lordship, not of him as source of creation. He is head in the sense of king, not in the sense of source.

There is logic to what Paul says here about Christian marriage. The reason a Christian wife submits to her own husband is because of the God-given role of leadership and authority given to him. He is head of his wife not because woman was created out of Adam’s rib (‘source’) but because God has constituted the relationship in this way, for his own purposes (cf. I Cor 11:3). It is not a matter of being bigger or stronger, but of the divine order and the divine mystery.

The scope of the submission is universal (verse 24: in all things). Conceivably there are situations where a wife should not obey her husband – if his leadership can be followed only by clear disobedience to God. (Acts 5:29 applies here too). But it is usually a danger sign when our first reaction to this exhortation is to find ways in which to restrict and limit it. Paul is encouraging glad, not reluctant, submission; wholeheartedness is the key. Indeed he takes this one stage further –

The manner of the submission is as to the Lord (verse 22; cf. I Pet. 3:6). Here we come to the heart of the matter. The reason for the obedience is that in the marriage relationship a gospel drama is being portrayed in a unique way through a human relationship. The wife is expressing in her love for her husband how a believer responds to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is central to the mystery of Christ and his church, which is disclosed in Christian marriage.

What does this submission mean? It is not the subjection of an inferior human being to a superior one. God has created marriage so that husband and wife might be one flesh (verse 31). Rather it is the kind of submission that the hand gives to the head when it stretches out its fingers to help someone in need. Neither head nor hand can operate independently of the other; the hand does not direct the head; the hand’s submission to the head involves service. So it is to be in a Christian marriage and home life.

Paul says that the wife’s submission is in everything. That is, after all, how believers are to submit to Christ. Illustrating the mystery is, therefore, not only a tremendous privilege for husbands and wives it is a challenge. Husbands and wives are sinners. The submission of a wife to her husband is not struggle-free.

Behind Paul’s teaching here lies an important strand of biblical teaching that runs from creation through the fall into salvation:

i.Creation. Man was created first, and then woman. Man was created as the image and glory of God; woman as the glory of man (cf. I Cor. 11:7-9), yet made to be one flesh with him (Gen. 2:23; cf. Eph. 5:29). There is equality of being, even a union between two people. But this is set within two different roles.

ii.Fall. In the original creation it would have been ‘natural’ for Eve to fulfil her unique role as helper to Adam. It was this that the serpent overturned. He tried to confuse her about what God had actually said (Gen. 3:lff). That was tantamount to denying what Adam her husband had told her. Eve listened to the voice of the serpent rather than the voice of her husband (and thus rather than to the voice of God). Adam appears to have been present but remained silent. He listened to the voice of his wife (Gen. 3:17) and thus also sinned by not listening to the voice of God.

The result of this is expressed in the words God spoke to Eve: ‘Your desire shall be for [or against] your husband, and [or but] he shall rule over you’ (Gen. 3:16b). The form of this statement suggests that the ‘desire’ in view is Eve’s desire to master Adam. The same language reappears in Genesis 4:7 with this nuance. Eve’s decision of the moment became the habit of a lifetime.

iii.Salvation. In Christ the fall is reversed. He obeyed where Adam failed; he took the divine judgment Adam deserved. The result is that, through the Spirit, he begins to restore and remake what was fractured and twisted at the fall. This is what is being worked out and exhibited in the relationship of a wife to her husband.

Marriage is not a recipe for the subjugation of a woman, but a blueprint for her true freedom in a healthy, loving relationship with her husband. Best of all, it means that in our marriage and home life the wonder, power, beauty, holiness and transformation of the gospel can be seen – not only by the rest of the family, but also by those who are not yet believers.

It is marvellous that the Lord has so constituted marriage that a Christian wife can illustrate the life of faith by her response to her husband. Such a wife expresses the evangelistic power of married love.

But by the same token we have the ability to mask the truth of the gospel by our resistance to the patterns of God’s Word. Therein lies the challenge to a Christian wife.

[Taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s new book Let’s Study Ephesians, Banner of Truth, pp.147-152.]

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