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Submission When It Is Not Easy

Category Articles
Date January 30, 2009

Wives, be subject to your own husbands. (Ephesians 5:22).

There is perhaps no one biblical command more misunderstood, maligned, or mocked in our culture. This is true for at least two reasons. First, none of us like to be told what to do. It’s in our DNA. Don’t you silently become irritated when officials verbally push you around at the security check points in airports? Most wives instinctively hesitate at obeying this command. Second, there can be no doubt that women have been abused throughout world history and many women in the late 1960’s had had enough.

When Paul is commanding wives to submit to their own husbands it is important to note that the Greek text does not have the word submit in it. It is supplied by verse 21 where we are told to submit to one another in the fear of Christ. Incidentally, this cannot mean that men and women in marriage are mutually to submit to each other. That’s because the Greek word means to stand under. It cannot mean anything else. The context also argues against mutual submission. Verse 21 is a hinge verse, building upon the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit, something we sincerely need if wives are to submit to their husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters (see Ephesians 6:1-9). Paul in verse 21 is arguing that in whatever subordinate relationship we find ourselves, we are to submit, to stand under the one in authority over us.

For a woman to submit to her husband does not mean she is a doormat, a chattel, inferior, or second class. It does not mean she forfeits her personality. It does not mean she cannot challenge her husband on issues in the family. It does not mean her opinion does not matter. A wise husband will be like a good manager who cares for his subordinates, who does not micromanage, who knows what they do best and gives them the freedom to do it. To submit in marriage means that a wife embraces her subordinate position, that she is a helper to her husband, that she is to help him become a better man, father, and husband. The Greek papayrai at the time used upotasso (to stand under) to refer to an appendix at the end, or under the main body of the book. What does a book appendix do? It further explains, completes, makes relevant the body of the book. What a beautiful picture of a wife’s role to complete, make better her own husband by obeying him in all he asks her to do, except of course anything contrary to the Word of God!

But what if the husband is an unbeliever and cares nothing about his role to love his wife sacrificially, relationally, incarnationally, effectually, and instructionally? What if he fails miserably, even as a believer, to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her? What if her husband abdicates his responsibilities? What if he dominates or controls his wife? What if she is agitated as he lords his authority over her? What then? You will note that Paul’s command of submission is not linked with the husband’s execution of his duties. She is to obey, even if he does not love her as he ought. This, of course, is exceedingly difficult.

Women, are you in a marriage where submission seems impossible? What are you to do? Consider the case of Sarah whose husband Abraham, on two different occasions, told her to tell kings that she was his sister, thus protecting himself from murder (he feared being murdered by Abimelech, for example, who might take Sarah to be his). Peter tells us that God blessed Sarah for calling her husband ‘lord.’ In other words, Sarah is exalted as a positive example of biblical submission because she trusted God to care for her when her husband would not. So, you must first place yourself in the hands of an all-loving, kind, and generous God who does all things well.

But there is much more that you can do. You must run to Christ for refuge in a difficult marriage. I have three metaphors in mind. First, in Joshua 20 we read of God setting aside seven cities of refuge for those who had killed another by accident. In the culture of the day, a family sought to avenge the death of a loved one by killing the one who killed the relative. God provided a remedy by declaring that anyone who could make it to a city of refuge was free from death. If you are a married woman with a husband who is neglecting his responsibilities, or worse, one who belittles or controls you, then run to Jesus, the city of refuge, crying out to him. Call upon him in a day of trouble and he will deliver you so that you may glorify him. Second, if your husband fails to love you as he ought (and certainly no husband does it altogether correctly) then you must run to the lover of your soul, the One who loves you with his everlasting love. In Song of Solomon 4 (a metaphor of Christ’s love for his bride) the groom says to his bride,

Your eyes are like two doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats coming down from Mt. Gilead. Your teeth are like freshly shorn ewes, coming up from their washing. Your temples are like pomegranates. Your neck is like the tower of David. Your breasts are like twin fawns of a gazelle.

What a beautiful picture of a husband passionately in love with his wife! How much greater is Christ’s love for you. No matter how wonderful, or not-so-wonderful your husband is, your Lord Jesus, the lover of your soul, the One who shed his blood for you, the One who is your eternal groom, loves you passionately. You must always find your greatest delight in him. I don’t mean to belittle a very difficult situation in which you may find yourself; but Christ is what you need, now and always. And the third metaphor is found in Luke 7 where the immoral woman comes to Jesus who is reclining at table with Simon the Pharisee. She breaks an alabaster vial of perfume, falls at Jesus’ feet weeping, and bathes his dirty feet with her hair and tears. When Simon silently scoffs, saying, ‘If he knew who she was, then he would not allow such behaviour,’ Jesus tells the parable of one who is forgiven a huge debt and one who is forgiven a much smaller one. He asks, ‘Which one do you think loves the most?’

If you are in Christ, then you ought to identify with the immoral woman. Granted, you may not have done what she did, but you nonetheless were godless. You were estranged from God. Your sins made a separation between you and your God so that he did not hear you. He hid his face from you. But you were forgiven this great debt by his shed blood at Calvary. Can you not love him with all your being? Can you not trust him with your difficult marriage? Can you not run to Jesus for refuge and grace in time of need? Can you not lay in the bosom, as it were, of Jesus, the lover of your soul? Can you not give yourself totally to Jesus, breaking the alabaster vial, your greatest treasure of hopes, and pour it out to him?

Rev. Allen M. Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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