It’s true. You can pick your jaw up off the floor now.
Or to say it another way, I want to love my husband. I want to put him above myself. When you put it that way, I bet even many of the most avid feminists would agree.
Lets start at the beginning. There are a couple of specific verses in Ephesians 5 that get used a lot in the ‘Woman’s Role’ debate within Evangelical Christianity.
One side of the debate, the egalitarians, champion Ephesians 5:21:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
On the other side we have the complimentarians, who champion Ephesians 5:22:
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
When we read the two different verses, many of us get 2 different ideas about the word ‘submit’. When we read vs 22- ‘Wives submit to your husbands’, we often infer ‘obedience’ of some type. (Some, depending on their personal background, may even start to go into a legit panic attack at the mention of the word ‘submit’ because of the associations with abuse and oppression.) Yet vs 21- ‘Submit to one another’ does not take on the connotation of ‘obey’. I mean, what would that look like anyways? Everyone obeying everyone? Sounds like a recipe for chaos. So we instinctually understand ‘submit’ differently here.
The irony here is that the word submit shows up twice here in our English translations… but only once here in the Greek. It reads something like this:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord.
One Greek word- hypotassomenoi (a form of hupotasso)- used to refer to both wives submitting to their husbands and everyone submitting to each other. The word indicates ‘be subject to’, ‘cooperate with’, ‘to voluntarily yield to’, or ‘to defer to’ and is used around the New Testament in various ways. In this particular passage, I would say it is nearly impossible that it should mean ‘obey’ as, like I said, we could not possibly all obey each other. Also note that submission is something we do to ourselves- not something someone else does to another. A husband isn’t told to ‘make his wife submit’. You can only ‘submit yourself’ because it is a voluntary action.
The English word here is actually quite profound and useful in it’s own right- think about it- ‘sub-mission’. We could say that submitting ourselves is to ‘to voluntarily come under the mission of another’. And THAT, my friends, is how I want to be towards my husband.
Some of you are tensing up. You are thinking- ‘You want to come under his mission? What about yours!? Someone needs to look out for number one!’ Look, I’m not saying he SHOULDN’T ‘come under my mission’. This is not an either/or situation. I actually think that is very much what husbands are commanded to do in the following verses, just with different wording. Regardless, my job is to love my husband (and to love others), not make him (and them) love me. That is a major part of following Jesus.
It always helps to look at how these individual ‘commands’ jive with the Greatest Commands- ‘Love God and love each other’. The Great Commands are the basis for all the commands. They are the very basis of the Christian life. Love helps us understand the meaning and purpose behind all the other instructions (Gal 5:14, Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 13:8-10). The command to love is, in a very significant way, our plumb line. When looked at in this framework, these verses flow so very well and naturally into the rest of the passage here about marriage- ‘Love each other, defer to each other, come under each other, sacrifice for each other- as you do for Christ and He does for you.’ Suddenly it becomes a lot less complicated and loaded.
As a side note, this also helps us frame how to act in unhealthy relationships– is it loving to enable abuse? No, it is not. Love, our overarching guideline, demands that we do the best for others, not that we enable them to do something wrong.
There are numerous other aspects to address in Ephesians 5:21-33- namely how Paul is scandalizing and transforming the Roman Household Codes, as well as what the whole head/body thing is about. As a side note, authority/leadership is never once explicitly mentioned here. We have traditionally inferred ‘authority’ from ‘head’ but the passage itself does not say that and there is reason to believe that there is a reason for this. It’s worth looking into in Men and Women in the Church, by Dr Sarah Sumner if it is a topic of value to you.