What Does Submission & Headship Really Look Like?

Sep 26, 2016
Brent Barnett

Ephesians 5:21-33
 21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. 22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23 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. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:
30 For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. 31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

Commonly when this passage is taught on, the teaching begins with verse 22. I think it is important to start with verse 21 to get the right perspective. The command in verse 21 is that all believers subject themselves to others. What Paul is saying is that we must put the interests and welfare of the other person ahead of our own. We are to give them preference because Christ did so, even giving up His life for those who were ungrateful and undeserving. Thus, we are to surrender our selfish ambitions in exchange for the service of other believers. Marriage is a great opportunity for this to occur. Both husband and wife in light of the example of Christ are to honor the needs of one another ahead of their own. That clearly rules out any kind of tyrannical, abusive leadership or any kind of a male superiority complex. When humility is the default way of being, a power struggle for the right to rule over the other is a non-issue. As a result of the curse, a power struggle between all people and particularly in marriage is normal. But for the believer who has been reborn in Christ, the curse does not have to dictate behavior. Thus, believers are able to let love rule rather than self. 

That said, Paul still goes on to explain that there are roles in marriage. Neither the man or woman is superior in terms of value or worth. Neither role is better or worse than the other. Man and woman are created differently and to complement one another. God clearly says that woman was created for man’s sake (1 Corinthians 11:9). This, as we have already said, obviously does not mean that she exists to fulfill his every whim and desire as his slave or sidekick. It means that she has a different role, purpose, and calling when it comes to marriage.  In marriage and the home, God says that she is supposed to submit and subject herself to her own husband, not to other husbands. 

Just what does this subjection look like? Verse 22 says that it is as to the Lord. Subjection is thus how she honors God. Verse 24 says she is to be subject in everything. From small things to big decisions, the husband is the final authority and ultimately responsible for the direction and state of the family. She is to be subject as the (eternal) church is subject to Christ. Christ won our hearts by demonstrating His love toward us. A wife doesn’t choose to marry her husband because he forces her to do so. She does it because she is captured by his love and affection for her. She feels safe and loved by him. Why wouldn’t she want to journey though life with him? The safest and happiest place to be is in the strong and loving arms of Christ. The safest and best place to be for a wife is in the arms of her loving husband. Titus 2:5 and Colossians 3:18 show that this command to be subject is not an unimportant, accidental insertion into the Word of God in that it is repeated. For the sake of the Word and for the Lord, wives must submit. 

Christ loves the (eternal) church and beautifies it, cleanses it, nourishes it, and cherishes it. In the same way, the husbands are to treat their wives. They are to love them as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it. There is no greater love than what Christ did in giving His life for ours. That sacrificial mentality is how the husband leads His wife. He is looking for ways to allow, enable, and empower his wife to be able to use her spiritual gifts to serve others. He is looking for ways to encourage her in prayer and to strengthen her in sound doctrine as best as he can. Perhaps he lets her instruct him in sound doctrine. He defends her publicly and declares his love for her whenever he can. He protects her and watches over her. He shares with her how God is leading him, and she prays along with him, advising him and supporting him as God leads her. He gives authority to her discipline of the children, backing her commands to them. He instructs the children and trains them to respect their mother. He understands that the wife is the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7), and he treats her as such, living with her in an understanding way. She might be smarter, of greater physical endurance, or of a greater Biblical understanding, but he still is able to make her melt and feel safe just by putting his arm around her or by speaking a kind, gentle word over the phone. She is not the weaker or weakest link, but a more fragile vessel as a rose is delicate. She needs caressing, affection, a listening ear, and gentle words. She is physically weaker, generally, and that needs to be respected. But the emphasis of treating her as a weaker vessel is that the husband does not treat her like a he might another man, trying to run over her or show his superiority. He treats her as an equal who doesn’t respond to threats and physical intimidation but to gentleness and affection. 

The wife’s call is to respect her husband and be subject to him, letting him lead and take initiative. She is not to be ordering him around, nagging him, or making him feel like she is the boss. A man needs respect for who he is and what he does. If he does not feel respected, he will have a tough time being the leader, initiator, romancer, and protector that she deep-down wants him to be. The husband must love his wife and not become embittered toward her. He must address the issues if he feels that she is disrespecting him. He must not let a dividing wall get put up between him and her. He needs to take initiative and lead in the process of working things out. 

God’s design is for two equally valuable people to harmonize with one another. The headship of the husband does not mean that the wife never thinks, decides, or leads. Sometimes she will have to, particularly around the home when the husband is gone. It means that the wife defers the final authority and responsibility to her husband. He is the stronger vessel, the one who deals with the tough people, the one who makes her feel safe, and the one who leads the family in the right way. Those are not her callings. Her calling is to enable and encourage the husband to do so. If you want a bad marriage, let the wife be the strong one in terms of initiative, confidence, and willingness to make the tough decisions. God has called men to do this, and we must accept our responsibility and step up to the plate, loving our wives, seeking the Lord, and leading our family in His ways. We can’t pull an Adam and tell God that our wives made us who we were and forced us to do what we did. We need to watch over our wives, being the protector and the one whose arms she knows will always embrace her with constant love and devotion. These are arms that enable her to be who God made her to be in terms of her calling and role. 

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