If there's one word people bristle at when it comes to marriage, it's submit. Yet that's exactly what Ephesians 5:22-24 calls wives to do.
Now, this text is often abused by couch potato tyrants who believe the Bible condones an overbearing attitude—but it does not. Submission is not oppression or slavery. In fact, it's an elevated, honorable role, given dignity by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself—and it's a part of life for every Christian (see Romans 13:1; Ephesians 6:1; Hebrews 13:17).
Just as we saw last week that Paul instructed husbands to love, here in Ephesians 5 he instructed wives to submit, revealing four attributes of biblical submission:
1. Submission is personal: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord" (v. 22). Submit is a military term that means to get in order under someone, but it's written in the Greek middle voice, meaning it's something you do yourself. You willingly and voluntarily relinquish your rights and yield yourself to another—in this case, wives to their husbands.
2. Submission is practical. In calling wives to submit, Paul was not suggesting that husbands are better (see Galatians 3:28) but that our roles differ and submission is functional. For instance, God the Father has authority over God the Son (see John 8:29; 1 Corinthians 11:3), but that doesn't mean the Son is any less divine than the Father. One simply relinquishes rights to another.
Interestingly, women are not told to obey their husbands, like children are told to obey their parents and slaves their masters later on in Ephesians (see 6:1, 5). Certainly submission might include obedience, but husbands cannot treat their wives like children or servants. They are partners together in the grace of life (see 1 Peter 3:7), and submission is not about the superiority of the male but about the functionality of the marriage.
3. Submission is purposeful: "The husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands" (vv. 23-24). The purpose of submission is twofold: First, it enables leadership. If nobody yields power and submits, nobody leads. And second, it points to Jesus. As Paul said in verse 32, "This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church." In other words, the purpose of marriage is to reveal how Christ and His church are one.
4. Submission is provisional. There are boundaries to it: "Let the wives be [subject] to their own husbands in everything" (v. 24). The context of in everything actually means in everything that is consistent with God's character (see vv. 21-22, 24; Acts 5:29; Colossians 3:18). In other words, Christ is the absolute authority in a marriage, not the husband.
To sum it up, husbands who lead their wives in a domineering, self-serving way miss what Jesus has done for the church, and wives who refuse to yield to their husband's leadership hide how the church should respond to Christ.
When it comes down to it, marriage is just not an easy thing to do. It's not easy to love as Christ loves, and it's not easy to submit as the church submits, because none of us are perfect. But I pray that at the end of the day, by God's grace, our marriage relationships would make Him look good, continually revealing His great love for His church.