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If you spend any time in the Christian world you are bound to come up against the doctrine of the submissive wife.
Some of its greatest proponents are themselves women. Hard to argue against that right?
The problem I see, however, is that this doctrine has run wild. It has come to be interpreted as a husband having complete dominion and control over his wife. I vehemently disagree.
The Doctrine of the Submissive Wife
The doctrine as presented in Ephesians 5:22-25 (KJV) reads:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”
Sounds pretty straightforward doesn’t it? Men get to be the boss and women must obey. Taken out of context, as it usually is, it is easy to come to that conclusion.
Who Were the Ephesians?
Paul was writing to people who had recently rejected the gods and idols of their past and taken on them the name of Christ. They are his words of advice for staying clean and pure as new followers of Christ.
In addition this letter has been translated from its original language, and the words Paul used may not have had a direct translation. After studying many commentaries on the subject of submission most scholars agree that it means placing the needs (needs, not wants) of others above ourselves. It means that we support and sustain one another in the work of bringing all men to Christ.
The Ephesians were mainly worshipers of Artemis, a female goddess of the hunt, childbirth, and wild animals. In Ephesus she was mainly worshipped as the goddess of fertility. The worship rituals were erotic and the temple employed “holy” prostitutes. The ancient Ephesians in Paul’s time were hedonistic and the women were not modest followers in Christ.
Now we don’t know the exact climate of the city, but if modern times can teach us anything it is that in this environment women will probably fall victim to the false teaching that being sexually liberated is ideal and to be free from the control of men one must use that sexuality to control men. They control the men in their lives, or at least believe they do, through their sexuality.
With all that context let’s back up to the beginning of the chapter:
“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;
Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.
For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
According to these verses Paul clearly states that the unrighteous have no part in the kingdom of God. He then goes on to say “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” So the first instruction he gave to them was to stay away from and correct those who do not follow patterns of righteousness.
Then in verse 21, directly before telling wives to submit to husbands he says “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”
BEFORE Paul tells the wives to submit to their husbands he tells them all to submit to EACH OTHER when it comes to recognizing truth and renouncing evil. This means that every Christian, man or woman, has a duty to stand for righteousness and put the needs of others above their own selfish desires.
Instruction to Wives
He then states the patriarchal hierarchy as we’ve already read. Keep in mind that this was the norm for the world at this time that the Ephesians did not hold to. Due to their cultish worship of Artemis in immoral ways it is likely that Paul believed the subjection of the wives to their husbands was crucial to bringing them more in line with God’s law.
We may not fully understand why God organized his church as a patriarchy, we only know that he did. This does not, however, put the woman below the man in value or importance.
Remember the previously mentions definition of submission? Submission is “placing the needs of others above ourselves”.
What are our husbands true needs?
Does he need sex whenever he desires or does he need to benefit from self-control and respecting his wife?
Does he need to watch a show with inappropriate content or does he need to keep his mind clean?
Does he need to be waited on hand and foot or does he need to be blessed by serving others?
Does he need to play video games or does he need to strengthen his family ties?
When we are truly putting our husbands NEEDS first the number one thing he needs from us is supporting and encouraging him in his walk with Christ.
Instruction to Husbands
Most people who love to quote these verses about wives being submissive fail to carry on with the rest of the chapter, so let’s continue reading in verse 25:
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.
For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:
Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.”
It clearly states that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. Such love is not born of power and control, but caring and compassion and a desire to serve. A woman would be happy to “submit” herself to such a man because he would treat her as an equal partner.
When a man loves God with his whole heart, and strives to follow him, his love for his wife becomes as pure as Christ’s love for the church. Christ was willing to endure unimaginable pain and suffering before giving his life for us.
Husbands do you love your wife enough to suffer for her?
Do you love her enough to sacrifice for her?
Do you love her enough to lay down your life to save her?
Can this kind of true love and a feeling of superiority or dominion over your wife coexist?
The Greatest Commandment
Matthew 22 says:
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The GREATEST law is to love the Lord. All other laws come secondary to the law of loving the Lord and following him.
If a wife chooses to follow God, even if it is against the will of her husband, she will always be blessed.
Love others is the second commandment. If a man chooses to exercise unrighteous dominion over one of God’s beloved daughters he will be cursed.
If the husband does not hold up his end of the bargain in loving her and God, and the wife chooses not to submit to his unrighteous dominion, HE has the greater sin. She has chosen to follow the greatest commandment while he has chosen to neglect it in favor of his own pride and desire to control.
God Loves His Daughters
When I recently shared this viewpoint I was stopped in my tracks when one woman commented “Husbands and wives are not equal partners in the eyes of God. The husband is the head. The woman is his help meet. There is an ordained hierarchy.”
This viewpoint breaks my heart. Christ showed time and time again that he loved and valued the women in his life. He treated them with respect and dignity in a time when that was not required or expected. In fact it was a woman who was the first to see the resurrected Lord.
As it states in “The Family A Proclamation to the World“:
“By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”
While men and women have been given different roles within marriage this does not demote the wife to submissive servant that must cater to her husband’s every whim.
God has told us to cleave to one another, yoke ourselves together, become one flesh. Would he say this if we were not equal? If men really were better or more valuable than women in God’s eyes why would be ask them to lower themselves to become one with an inferior creature?
God asks us to become one because we are equal. Different yes, but our value is the same in God’s eyes.
Applying the Doctrine
Learning the doctrine is the easy part. Applying it is often a bit harder.
Take a look at your life. Are there ways in which this doctrine has been misapplied in your marriage?
Men have you exercised unrighteous dominion over your wife and used this scripture to justify it?
Wives have you failed to follow God’s commandments and blamed it on your husband’s instructions?
God often asks each of us to apply doctrine differently. To some wives he may give the instruction to allow their husband to have his way in a certain matter and be patient while God works on his heart. To others he may say for them to leave an abusive situation where their husband has no desire to follow Christ. We each have to seek out personal revelation on God’s plan for our lives.
As with all commentary on the scripture I am but a mortal being with a mortal understanding. The only people with 100% truth are the father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I would encourage each of you to go to your father in prayer and seek for his confirmation of what is true with this doctrine, and how you can best personally apply it in your life.
This post is a result of me using the 4 KEYS of scripture study which you can read about here.