Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
[Ephesians 5:24, ESV]
I can just imagine the hordes of feminists getting out their pens and crossing this verse out of their Bibles. Not only does Paul say that wives are to submit to their husbands, but he explains exactly what he means: in everything. Can’t really build any loopholes out of that! The Greek is equally plain and incontrovertible; everything means everything!
So, we have a command from God to submit to our husbands in everything. Let me the first to say that I fail miserably at this! Everyday, probably: very time I’m lazy and spend time on my own pursuits and the housekeeping goes a bit awry, every time I get unjustly miffed at Seth for some little thing or another, every time he asks me to do something–or I know it would please him if I did something–and I don’t do it, I am failing to submit in everything. In short, this is a hard command to follow! It infiltrates every moment of our homeworking, every breath of our marriages, our finances, our families… that’s what everything means.
While the command is clear, I find myself asking two questions tonight:
Are there exceptions to “everything”?
What motivates me to such a massive calling?
These aren’t exegetical questions so much as heart questions, so my answers are not theological so much as personal, although I hope they’re scripturally sound!
Are there exceptions to “everything”?
I think this is sort of a trick question, really, although I suspect it’s the most often asked. The only exception that’s is biblical is, of course, when one’s husband is asking one to sin. Clearly, Christ is our Lord far and above the position of our husbands, and submitting to Him is both first and limitless. And since Christ is Lord of our husbands as well (whether Christian or not), I think it’s fair to say that biblical wifely submission in such a case is to obey God rather than man.
But once we get out of the area of direct sin, things are far less clear. What if our husbands want to teach something we think is theologically wrong to our children? Again, there are times when this would be clear–if our husbands forbid us to tell them about Christ, for instance–but what if it was a more minor point of theology, or even something that barely even touches on theology, like politics? Especially for those of us who tend to be more opinionated, it can be a deep struggle to have a disagreement even in such a small subject.
The most helpful thing to me in these situations is to remember that unsubmission should always be a very sorrowful concept. If we are choosing to act contrary to our husbands, and if we believe that we are doing so out of righteousness, then our hearts should ache unbearably! Our husbands are choosing sin, we’re being ideologically completely separated from them, we aren’t happy with them, they aren’t happy with us, and we’re losing the opportunity to move forward in Christ together. In other words, there is no room for gloating, unholy glee, rashness, or self-centered anger. If our hearts aren’t breaking with every act of disobedience, then we’re not being unsubmissive for the right reasons.
To bring this home a bit–I remember one time when I told Seth something along the lines of I think what you’re doing is wrong, in the sense of sin-wrong, and I’m not going to have any part of it. Which sounds really good doctrinally, except that I was saying it because I was frustrated and you’d have been searching my heart for a long time before you found a holy motive. So was I right? Absolutely not!
Secondly, I think that it’s important to remember that nothing should be important to us apart from God. All of our wants and desires–whether mundane, like a fondness for chocolate sundaes, or serious, like a burning desire for motherhood–all these things we are called to subordinate to God’s will. All these things we are called to abandon to God. Not to stop liking them, necessarily, but to order them in our minds so that if, in God’s sovereignty, they are denied us, we find it joy to forsake them for His sake.
In other words, while submitting to our husbands involves varying degrees of self-denial, it’s nothing more than we should already be prepared to do (joyously!) as Christians. The wants we’re talking about abandoning are nothing in comparison to the sweetness of obeying God. And submitting to our husbands is obeying God. This strikes very near to my own heart, honestly, because I often don’t consider things that far. If Seth asks me to do something, I tend to consider it as him asking me to do something, me giving up something I like for him, when really I need to view it as obedience to God.
What motivates me to such a massive calling?
Submission isn’t natural–check out Genesis 3:16–and submission in everything can sound downright unpalatable. So why do we do it? This is one of those areas of theology that must sound absolutely batty to nonbelievers; we give up “everything,” and what do we get in return? What motivates us? Moreover, when we feel unmotivated, how can we learn to enjoy submitting to our husbands?
There’s the obvious answer: heavenly reward. God will reward us for obeying Him. But I think it goes beyond that, and so it’s the here-and-now I want to focus on tonight. As I was studying to write this entry, I came across the following passage in John Gill’s commentary on the verse:
Her head, being wholly dependent upon him, and entirely resigned to him, and receiving all from him; from whom alone is all her expectation of provision, protection, comfort, and happiness; wherefore she has respect to all his commands, and esteems all his precepts concerning all things to be right; and yields a cheerful, voluntary, sincere, and hearty obedience to them; arising from a principle of love to him, and joined with honour, fear, and reverence of him.
To be less archaic, Gill is saying that since a wife is dependent upon her husband for “provision, protection, comfort, and happiness,” she must therefore do what he says, agree with his opinions and obey them, because she loves/honors/fears/reveres him.
As I read, I thought, hmm, Mr. Gill, that sounds rather akin to the philosophy that we should do good works in an attempt to “pay God back” saving us. Like a cosmic thank-you note from us to God. And since John Piper rather throroughly debunked that idea (excellent book, by the way), I’m not sure that I agree with Gill here. Or maybe I’m reading him more chauvinistically than he intended. But while there is a sense in which wives do subordinate themselves to their husbands out of thankfulness for their provision, I think that motivation alone falls far short.
The parallel Paul makes in this passage between Christ/Church and husband/wife is unspeakably valuable. As believers, why do we do good works? Because they please God. And why does that please us? Because our delight is the Lord; pleasing Him is the sweetest thing we know. And yet that very truth is one that we have to learn a bit as we grow in Christ. Sometimes our thick skulls forget that there is no higher pleasure. Sometimes we do the wrong thing in pursuit of something infinitely less grand. And sometimes we do the right thing trusting that it will bring us the most delight, even though we don’t yet know it experientially.
Very similarly, in the sphere of marriage, pleasing our husbands is the sweetest thing we know. Just as we were created human to worship and glorify God, we were created woman to be a helper to man (Genesis 2:18)! As wives, the height of our gender, our identity as female, is to submit to our husbands. The church is the Bride of Christ to submit to and glorify Him; wives are examples of that relationship. Therefore, if submission doesn’t bring us happiness, our worldview needs changed! As Christians, we sin because we forget that our joy is in pleasing the Lord; as wives, we balk at submission because we forget that our joy is in pleasing our husbands.
But how do we get that truth into our minds? What can we do if we don’t feel joy in submission? I’m sure there are many answers to this question, but I would like to propose two.
The first is this: earnest prayer that God would change our hearts. It sounds cliche, but truly, every step on the road to eternity teaches me more and more that God is sovereign, and that He delights in answering our prayers. When things seem hopeless–when we need a massive personality overhaul, for instance!–God is faithful.
The second is, very simply, to seek out and savor the joy when we do submit. Here’s an example: when everything’s going crazy and I really don’t feel like I have time to get dinner on the table, but I do it anyway, I’ve got to treasure Seth’s smile and appreciation; treasure his happiness more than I disliked the “inconveniences” of achieving it. Then the next day when the same thing happens again, I can anticipate that joy as I work towards it. The joy sweetens the work, until it becomes such a state of mind that the work begins to sweeten the joy.
How awesome the gift of submission becomes once we treasure and learn from it as God intended!