I remember the first time someone told me to submit. I was in the cafeteria line at Bible college, having a theological debate with a male classmate, when he jokingly commanded me to submit to him. It may have been in jest, but that conversation launched a years-long journey into the concept of submission—how our culture perceives it and how God purposed it. And then when I got married I started asking, why should I submit to my spouse?
What does the Bible say about submission?
To help explain submission, I’ve been studying Ephesians, chapter 5. Ephesians is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, which was surrounded by a culture of chaos. As a port city on the coast of the Aegean Sea, Ephesus would have been the home to a mesh of cultures, ideologies, and traditions. While diversity and modern thought are good, Paul writes to Christians who are trying to work out their rich history of faith in a rapidly changing world. I assume many around them were asking if this Christian faith was relevant to the issues of the day. Sound familiar? But Paul writes to tell them and says—you exist in this cultural reality, but your life should mirror the truth of God’s kingdom. You live in a world that tells you to cheapen love and misuse submission, but following Jesus looks entirely different.
Paul starts by challenging them to pursue wisdom. He says, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is,” (Ephesians 5|17, ESV). Someone’s will is their deliberate desire or intention. You can’t know a person’s desire or intention unless you know them personally, so Paul is explaining that knowing Christ is the opposite of foolishness. And when we know Christ (not just know of Christ), we become filled with His Spirit.
Then Paul goes on to give examples of foolishness and examples of being filled with the Spirit: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5|18-20, ESV).
Who should submit?
Paul explains, in no uncertain terms, that a Spirit-filled person is marked by worship, gratitude, and submission. It’s so interesting to me that submission is on the list in Ephesians 5 because so many of us resist submission. But Paul is clearly saying that submission is the mark of a maturing, Spirit-filled Christian…men and women, adult and child, boss and employee, married and unmarried. Submitting to one another is integral to living in God’s kingdom.
Not power. Not prestige. Not being puffed up.
It makes sense though, right? If the Spirit of Christ is living in us, then that same Spirit will prompt us to do what Jesus did. Hebrews 5|7 says, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission,” (emphasis mine). When we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, we are compelled to be unified with Jesus in mind and action, which looks like worship, gratitude, and submission.
How does this apply to marriage?
Next, Paul is going to address married people directly, because in marriage relationships, we have unique opportunities to mirror the church’s relationship with Jesus in the way we relate to one another.
But first, context. While the church in Ephesus may have been full of solid believers, remember—Paul is trying to remind them of kingdom truths that are counterintuitive to the culture swarming around them. In the Greco Roman world at that time, many Jewish men were known to wake up in the morning and pray, “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, slave, or a woman.” So, because of this attitude, the biblical provision for divorce laid out in Deuteronomy 24 had been distorted to include virtually any offense or disfavor in the eyes of the husband. In response, women felt taken advantage of. So, as women gained some social and legal freedoms, they began to shirk their family responsibilities in favor of an archaic feminism.
Paul’s words for husbands and wives are a redemptive correction of all the cultural brokenness circling the Church in Ephesus…
He starts by addressing wives specifically. He writes in Ephesians 5|22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord,” (emphasis mine). For wives–our submission flows out of a response to what Jesus did for us.
Next up, Paul writes to husbands in verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband is to love his wife because Jesus first loved us. For husbands–your sacrificial love flows out of a response to what Jesus did for us.
Invest in your marriage
Why we choose to submit: What Jesus did for us
But what did Jesus do? What are we responding to? None of this submission talk matters unless we get this part straight…
God made us to be with Him–to love Him and walk in His way. But we wanted our own way, so our sin and rebellion caused death and separation. Even though we were the enemies, Jesus took our punishment so we could come back to God. He took our death, our separation from the Father, all so we could be with Him again.
That’s the love our submission is responding to. When we “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v20), we show respect and adoration for what Jesus did for us.
What marriage should look like
Paul is explaining that, for both husbands and wives, marriage was never meant to be a race to get more; it was always meant to be a race to give more. This relationship wasn’t supposed to be 50/50; it was supposed to be two people giving up, pouring out, and laying down their lives. Because when we do, we demonstrate Christ’s love for the Church.
Marriage was designed to paint a picture of how our relationship with Jesus is supposed to look. That way, we can look to Jesus’ sacrifice, submitting to Him, and as His Spirit fills us up, our submission to others will be a reverent response to all Christ has done for us.
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