It’s all about context, as it so often is. More than context, in fact. It’s about context and the well-meaning, not-the-whole-truth, section titles slipped into our sacred text.
“Rules For Christian Households.
Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife … ” (Ephesians 5:22ff)
It’s that section heading that’s the problem. It’s not what Paul wrote. It was added by someone on the way to the printer. On a horse, probably. It’s meant to help us but too often it controls how we understand the text.
Now that’s not to say that the section heading is intrinsically a bad thing. If you want to find the Parable of The Prodigal Son but can’t remember the reference then it helps to have it in italics at the head of a paragraph. Except, of course, when we come to read it properly. Jesus never gave the parable that title. He just told a story. It’s as much about the (F)father or the elder brother who’d been at home all that time, unaware of the father’s riches that had always been at his disposal. Thus in the case of the parable we don’t so much miss the point as shrink it.
So to submission in marriage, that the husband is the one who calls the shots, is the spiritual leader of the family. That’s how this understood in many Christian circles, especially evangelical ones. I believed it for a little while, because that’s what the text (and other texts) said, right?
Now’s not the time for word studies or extensive theological investigation – others on all sides of the argument have done that much better than I ever could do. Here’s the thing for me, though. The model is Jesus, right? So it says anyway, just the other side of some those pesky and artificial section divides I mentioned earlier. It’s not about marriage first; it’s about Jesus and then it’s about how our relationships can reflect Jesus to others.
The call is to submission out of reverence to Christ … then it’s applied for the original readers in three very particular ways, giving us a way of seeing how this might work in practice. What did Christ, the model and only worthy object of reverence, do? He tossed aside His rights, considered himself nothing, put His Father’s glory and my needs first despite not wanting to drink from the cup. To quote a passage my wife and I had read at our wedding, He:
made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2)
It seems to me that in taking texts like this and saying, this then is how marriage should be in all places at all times – wife submitting to husband – we’re missing the point. For the Ephesians it may not have been missing the point. That was a society whose very stability was built on men in charge, women subservient. So Christ’s people needed to be seen as contributing to society, not messing it up – but still different, still challenging it and calling society to be better. So the challenge was for husbands to actually love wives and not treat them as property; for wives to seek to bless their husband instead of silently resenting one who treated her like dirt. All sorts of change became possible if people did that. It was a radical kind of way of blessing society but also challenging it.
Things are different now. Society, it seems to me, does not depend on submission of wife to husband; or certainly not any of the ones that I’ve lived in. So we model ourselves on Christ in a different way. We do so by thinking about Jesus in a slightly different way.
I’m going to talk about Jesus here in a way which may offend you so that you can see what I’m getting at.
We might say that Jesus submitted to us. Not that we tell Him what to do; but that if we understand submission as it should be at its best – one laying aside needs for the sake of another – then that’s what He did. He gave up His right to be honoured and worshipped in order to be whipped and mocked. He gave up His right to be understood as truth in order to be gossiped about and executed on a trumped-up charge. So that we could be with Him. At a wedding feast.
So the challenge is for men, women, all of us. To give up what we consider to be our rights for the sake of the ones we’re in relationship with. Might I think, as a husband, of having a ‘right’ to sex with my wife. I suppose I might do (in the days of social media, I feel duty bound to point out the ‘I’ is not necessarily me, and I said ‘might’ not ‘do’). But what if my wife needs an early night? What if it’s better to talk or watch a movie together? I give up my ‘right’ and do what will build the relationship; not to get sex later in the week but because it’s good for the relationship. Because that’s what Jesus did. He gave up rights for the sake of relationship with Father and us, and in doing so gained greater honour, more worship. This, in marriage, is upholding society but still challenging it – liberating men and women alike, but challenging our all to easy fall-back position of rights with something all-together deeper.
Important point, here. Do not misread this, as this text is often misused, as an injunction to those who are being abused sexually, emotionally or physically to submit to that abuse. No. If you are being abused, get help and get out. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
This is about the give and take at the heart of all healthy relationships. Recast that as submission, and yes – husbands should submit to wives because Jesus submitted His right to honour for the sake of relationships with us – and in the end gained great honour. In that context, wives submit to husbands – it’s the mutual give and take that makes relationships. It’s not about positional leadership; it’s about making a relationship between two unique creations work.
Apply it to marriage, to parenting, churches, to politics, to workplaces, to sports, to paying taxes, to how you treat shop-workers or waiters or people who sleep outside. How might it look to submit to one another in those relationships out of reverence for the one who made Himself nothing?
That’s why I spell Him with a capital H.