I summarise a sermon by John Stott on Ephesians 5:22-33. It is available as an MP3 down here.
Historical – this teaching has often been used to justify oppression of women, but we cannot allow that fact to obscure its true and God-given meaning.
Cultural – our culture is very different from Paul’s, but we should accept the abiding truth of which this passage speaks, while accepting that cultural expressions of that truth will vary.
Political – Paul’s teaching would be considered ‘politically incorrect’ by many, but we cannot be ruled by contemporary social fashions.
Personal – I have never been married (says Stott)! But preachers will have to teach on a number of subjects of which they have no personal experience (including death!).
What does this passage teach about submission of wives to their husbands?
1. Submission is a universal Christian virtue
We are all to submit to one another. It is a Christlike virtue. It is a mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit (along with joy and thankfulness.
2. Submission is a recognition of the husband’s headship in responsible care
Headship does not mean ‘rule’. Gen 3:16 is often used to support this contention, but this text speaks of the results of the fall, whereas redemption is undoing the effects of the fall.
Headship does not mean ‘source’. The Gk word is sometimes used of the ‘source’ of a river, but there is no evidence that it is used in this sense of human relationships.
Headship does mean ‘responsible care’. The context refers to Christ’s headship as ‘Saviour’ of the church. It also refers to our own ‘head’ and its relationship to the body – feeding, caring, and so on. 1 Pet 3 teaches that the husband should honour and respect his wife because of her tenderness, sensitivity, and vulnerability. We recognise this even in our own day with separate sports competitions for men and women.
3. Submission is to be given to a lover
Paul does not say, “Wives submit, husbands rule;” but, “Wives submit, husbands love.” She submits not to an ogre, but to a lover. And a true lover will never abuse the trust implicit in submission. This is not an easy option for the husband. The model for this is the cross of Christ (‘just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’), showing that the essence husbandly love is sacrifice and service.
4. Submission is almost a synonym for ‘love’
For the essence of both is the giving up of oneself for another.
5. Submission is not incompatible with partnership
‘They are no longer two, but one’. But each has a different, but complementary, role and responsibility.
Husband and wives will both need to work at this. Husbands must stay close to the cross, which models his love for his wife. Wives will have to take the risk of giving herself up to her husband.
This sermon is presented in John Stott’s usual thoughtful, lucid, style. It contains much that is helpful and wise. I cannot help thinking, however, that he has slightly over-domesticated the biblical concept of ‘submission’. I certainly agree that it includes the notion of ‘responsible caring’. But the similar passage in 1 Peter 2:13-3:1-7 (which Stott quotes in part) puts the submission of wives to husbands under the rubric of submitting ‘to every authority instituted among men’ (1 Peter 2:13). To be sure, the submission of wives to husbands is, for Peter, going to look very different from the submission of, say, slaves to masters. But it is difficult to see how the notion of ‘authority’ can be excluded altogether.