Submission and headship

Warning! This is a long post, but bear with me – it’s important.

There are few verses in Scripture that cause more trouble than Ephesians 5:22: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. Be honest, what is your gut reaction when you read this verse?

I guess a number of images come to mind – a domineering Victorian master of the house demanding his meals on time, a timid wife kept at home not daring to question her husband’s decisions, even perhaps situations of abuse. And, yes, we might point out the end of the sentence to show this isn’t what Paul meant. But it’s the first few words of this verse that people read and react against. So how do we respond?

One common response is to deny that these verses have much relevance today, Paul was writing 2000 years ago to a very different culture where the institution of marriage was very different. We have moved on in today’s society. We now have full equality between the sexes, and any talk of submission and headship reflects, frankly, the attitude of unreconstructed cavemen. Of course the problem when you start taking a pair of scissors of Scripture is knowing where to stop, and once you take this approach, what else might you jettison? Besides which, can we dismiss this idea of headship so easily? Paul goes on to say in the next verse: For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. I hope no-one would deny that Christ is the head of the church. But it would seem rather difficult to delete the idea of the husband being the head of the wife when in the same sentence Paul talks about Christ being the head of the church.

Of course no-one can disagree that we live in a different culture from the one in which Paul was operating. But this means, then, that we ought to work rather harder at translating what he is actually saying, rather than either to dismiss his words, or apply them in the way we think they ought to read. As I’ve pointed out before, the word “submit” does not appear in this verse, and despite the way our Bibles lay out this passage, Eph 5:22 does not begin a new thought in Paul’s teaching.

If we want to make sense of this verse, we have to realise that everything Paul writes in Eph 5:18-22 comes from his command in verse 18 to be filled with the Spirit. It is because we are filled with the Spirit Paul urges everyone in the church to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ and in the next breath wives, to your husbands as to the Lord. That translation instantly puts a new slant on the verse, doesn’t it? Paul isn’t imposing a blanket injunction on all wives everywhere to act as doormats to their husbands. He is writing to wives in the church as part of the whole-church process of discipleship to reflect Christlike submission. But the focus is on Christ and His Lordship rather than on the submission.

We also have to recognise that so often we get what Paul is trying to say the wrong way round. We think by wives submitting to their husbands as to the Lord, and the husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church (5:25) our marriages then provide an illustration of what it means for the church to submit to the Lord and the Lord to love the church. Actually it is Christ and His relationship with the church that comes first, and our marriages are to provide a reflection of this relationship.

Look carefully at what Paul says in verses 24-25: Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. He puts the relationship of Christ and His church before the relationship between husband and wife.

And the awesome thought struck me this morning as I read these verses. We do not understand what Paul is saying here because we have such a poor grasp of the way Christ loved His church. We have only the faintest notion of what love drove Christ to offer His very life for a bunch of rebellious, confused sinners. We do not understand the purposes of God to make us God’s people and members of His household (Eph 2:19) and the instrument by which the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:10-11). Our view of Christ’s love and His purposes tends to be individualistic. We think of the church as a human institution. We see our mission in worldly terms. And because we do not understand the relationship between Christ and His church we have no idea what headship really means.

And that is why we then have such huge problems with the issue of submission. As I reflected again on Eph 5:24 how true is it of the visible church that it really submits to Christ? It would easy of course to point the finger at other parts of Christ’s body especially after all the dramatic and tumultuous events of this week, but this vision Paul presents of Christ and His church should deeply challenge all of us. When was submission to Christ last on the PCC agenda? Discussed at synod? Talked about in our homegroups? Of course, we may say it’s there implicitly, but so often we make plans and then ask to Christ to bless them. If Paul’s vision here does not drive us to a deep wrestling in prayer and proper humility, then nothing will.

We need to recover this passage and proclaim its message for the very health and well-being of our church.

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