When Sarah Ferguson married Prince Andrew in July of 1986, at that great Royal Wedding, there was a little clip that got played in the newsreels over and over again
after that wedding. And it was not the clip of the carriage coming up to Westminster Abbey or the processional with the forever long train of the wedding gown.

It was the moment Fergie said the wedding vows. She was supposed to say – ‘I promise to love, honour and obey…’ And she repeated the words, but when she got to the word ‘obey’ – she gave a smirk which was clearly caught on camera, by which she probably meant – I will just say the word but I don’t believe it. I mean, why are we saying this out of tradition. Nobody practices these things  anymore.

You see, when we say or hear the words – love, honour and obey – at a wedding, and when we talk about submission, we just don’t have to look at royal weddings – just think of your friends in school, in uni or colleagues at work –
how many don’t want those kind of words in their weddings anymore?
Our culture, especially among the young, scorns at the idea of submission.

As a result, many wives and Christian wives are really torn in tension when
it comes to their role when in marriage. They don’t know what it really means
to submit. They don’t know if submitting is really the right thing to do, anymore.

So what is a Christian wife supposed to do? When is she suppose to submit even if she does submit? And to what extend? Where does she draw the line?  The plain answer of Scripture is that a Christian wife is to submit. The Bible clearly says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” However just shouting that to a woman or shovelling it down her throat is not going to cut it.

The complexities of our age and time require us to examine Scriptures like the one we just read with extreme care to make sure our answers to this question of a wife’ submission are not derived merely from personal opinion or defined by our background or culture.

I hope to help us to see from scripture what the Bible really means when it talks about a wife’s submission and I like to use this outline for that:

The Wife’s Duty
The Wife’s Dignity
The Wife’s Desire

(1) The Wife’s Duty

The text is very clear – the duty of the Christian wife is to submit to the headship of her husband.

Allow me to give you the context.
Ephesians 5:21 “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Here it says that everyone is equal; everyone submit to everyone. But it changes tone real quickly in verse 22. Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”

There is suddenly a shift from everybody submitting to everybody to the wife being singled out to submit to the husband. Why is sudden shift and looks like an unfair shift, right?  

To understand what is happening here, we need to start looking from verse 18. Verse 18 sets the theme to what Paul is saying the verses that follow. Ephesians 5:18 "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit"

Paul is basically saying that the Christian is to be characterized by the things of the Spirit and not just be overwhelmed by the things of the world like being filled with wine. So don’t let the things of the world like wine control you; instead be controlled by the things of the Spirit.

And then he begins to define what it means to be filled with the things of the Spirit. And here are 4 things that is described next. To be filled with the Spirit is
Addressing one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs – verse 19
Singing – making melody in the heart; worship – verse 19b
Giving thanks – verse 20
In verse 21 – submitting to one another.

Following this,  Paul identifies three groups of people in the next verses –
3 pairs in this submission process:
first pair – husbands and wives;
2nd pair – children and fathers,
and the last pair – slaves and masters.

So does that phrase in verse 21 – submit to one another mean everybody submit to everybody or does it mean in the church, you are to be submitting to whom you should be submitting? Is Paul saying everyone submit to everyone or does he mean submit properly to the relationship you are in.

If you look at his examples, it is obvious. Obviously, fathers are not to submit to their children or masters to their slaves. And Paul never says that.

So there is never a removal of authority in the submission process. But there is a reorientation of authority.

So fathers, are to use their authority for the good of their children.
You do not provoke us them to anger.
And children are to submit to their fathers.  And while masters are not submitted to their slaves, they are to treat their slaves with honour. They are to use their authority
for the good of their slaves.

So when you look at these verses, whether it is the husband-wife pair or the father-children pair or the master-slave pair, the undergirding virtue in these submission relationship is sacrifice – that those who have authority use their authority not selfishly but sacrificially; not abdicating authority but using that authority for the good and the flourishing of another.

So you have the authorities – the husband, the father, the boss – but who is it to benefit? The other person. You abdicate your authority, you damage the other person.
If the parent were to say to your child – I won’t exercise authority over you anymore – just do whatever you like – that will quickly damage the kids. But to use the same authority selfishly will also damage the kids.  So Paul says, use your authority but sacrificially for the good of the other.

So from the context, you know that it is the wife’s duty to submit to her husband even as it is the duty of children to submit to their parents and for employees to submit to their bosses. Now with that, let me give you a biblical definition of submission.
Submission, biblically means to arrange one’s gift for the good of another person.
The Greek word for submission is ‘hupotasso’. It literally means ‘to arrange under.’

The way our world think of a wife’s submission is that she leaves her brain at the door of the church as she walks up the aisles to say my wedding vows and go into marriage.

But the Bible’s way of thinking is this – all that God has given to me as a wife I am to express – my intelligence, the skills, the ability, the talents, the gifts – all these I bring to a marriage and as the husband is to use his authority for the good of another, all these gifts I bring into the marriage is not to be suppressed but to be expressed for the good of my husband and my family.And it’s my duty and honour as a wife to do that.

Therefore, looking at Eph 5:22 again.
Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”

What does this mean? Again following last week’s pattern. Like headship, submission does not mean nothing. You cannot ignore or trivialize God’s desire for wives to submit to their husbands.

Ephesians 5:24 “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

Paul says, this is serious. Of all the things he could tell the wife to do in a marriage, he says you summit. And he says, you are to submit as to the Lord. And the example he gives is in the way the church submits to Christ. And the scope of that submission
is in everything. So it’s not just in certain things but in everything. You bring all that you have been graced with, gifted it to serve the good of your husband and family.
This is the wife’s highest call and duty.

Well, if you think you can pass this over because it is just here that Paul says this.
You are wrong. Well, just here in this passage he mentions submission 3 times.
And if you think he just mentions, it in just one book, Ephesians, well no. He mentions it in 5 books (1Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1Timothy, Titus). And not just Paul, Peter also mentions the same thing in his book. If you think, oh well, it’s just in the New Testament. Actually no, it is mentioned in the Old Testament too.

God is serious about his call for wife’s to submit. It is their duty.

When Peter talks about it, he takes it all the way to Abraham but when Paul talks about the relationship between husbands and wives, he goes all the way to Adam.

So what the apostles are doing is not specific to a culture. They are saying it’s not just applicable to one city; one culture, one letter, or one time. It’s for all time and in everything. It’s that serious.

Submission, therefore, has to mean something. And it’s a wife’s call and duty
to explore ways to utilise her gifts for the good of the husband and family.

#2 The Wife’s Dignity

Now, because we live is a world that feels women should have equal rights as a man, even the thought that a wife is to utilise her gifts in support of the husband can sound like she is made second to him; like as though she exists only for him. Feminism says once you make women subservient to men, you devalue them; you actually rob the dignity that God gives to them.  

And because we live in an age of feminism, spousal abuse, two-income households,
equal opportunity laws, and gender-neutral political playing fields, it is hard to accept what the scripture says that it is a wife’s duty to submit, to give herself for the good of the husband.

Someone said – That’s what I tell my dog to do – submit! And its true.
When you as a dog owner give your dog a command like ‘Belly up’, then you expect the dog to drop everything that he feels, his instincts and his excitement and do what you say, That’s the reaction our culture has to the word ‘submit’.
It sounds demeaning.

Listen, it is of course demeaning if the husband suppresses the wife’s her giftings and tells his wife she cannot go out to work because of his own insecurity but she must be a stay home mom and she can only spend with the money he gives to her and she has no access to their bank accounts and she can only teach the kids what he tells her to teach. That puts a cap on her gifts and talents and potential as a wife. She is not able
to  use your gifts for anyone’s good. And that is not biblical submission. That’s oppression. That’s demeaning the wife  and robbing her of glory. And the wife is then free not to submit.

Paul says the wife is to submit to the husband as the church submits to Christ.
And the church submission to Christ never includes participation in evil.
Where a husband demands makes unholy or ungodly demands on the wife, she is free not to submit. A husband has no right to require of his wife what is contrary to God,
and she has no obligation to obey what forces her, him, or their family against God’s will. Submission never requires a wife to sin. She is to submit to her husband only as she would submit to God. The requirement to submit to one’s husband never takes precedence over the requirement to submit to God.

Therefore a wife’s dignity is never to be compromised in her duty to submit.

Now, in case you think – why are only wife’s singled out for submission in the Bible?
That is not the case. In the Bible the requirements of submission are not limited to women.

There are various other places where the word submission appears.

The word submission is used in relation to the church and Jesus. The church does not honour Christ by suppressing the gifts God provides. Rather, God calls the church to arrange all her energies and abilities under the grand purpose of glorifying the Saviour. To do less would not be submission; it would be disobedience.

For instance, the gifts of music God gives the church are not to be suppressed but fully expressed in praising him. To mute the church’s music would be to deny God his due glory. The church submits to Christ without losing her dignity.

Or look at 1Peter 5:5
1Peter 5:5  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

So for guys, men – what does that word mean there?
In what way do you submit to the elders of the church? Does it mean you check your brain at the door when you are talking to an older man? Like, whatever the elder man says, just do it, with no questions asked. No.  What it means is you are to humbly honour the structures God has put in place in the church. But it is not failing to be who you are.You submit to the elders without compromising your dignity.

Now biblically submission can mean challenging someone at times.
The point is you challenge them without disrespecting them or dishonouring them for to challenge arrogantly is pride and God opposes the proud.

“The fact that a wife wants to honour her husband’s leadership  does not mean she will sit in mute silence. Questioning his reasoning or acquainting him with his error is not evidence of a rebellious spirit, but rather of love. Refusing to support his moral folly is not sin. A Christian wife can stand with Christ against her husband with a humble, loving spirit which indicates her longing to honour his headship.” Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ

So in a marriage relationship, it’s not submission to let your husband  go unchallenged into his addictions. If your husband is addicted to porn or to gambling or to alcohol, submission is not to remain silent.
It is not submission to let your husband make unethical business deals and stand around and do nothing to challenge him. It is not submission to let your husband decide on a particular move for you as a couple or family that will lead to a future that will not bring both shalom and flourishing to the marriage and the family.

John Stott in his book,  God’s New Society said: “If a husband abuses his authority or abandons his spiritual obligations, then the duty of a wife committed to her husband’s good is no longer conscientiously to submit, but conscientiously to refuse to do so.”

Submission is the arrangement of one’s gift got the good of another and that may actually mean you may need to challenge your husband but not without disrespect or dishonouring them, but with the gifts and the mind that God has given to you. And again the wife does not do this for her sake but for the husband’s sake, for his good. And for God’s glory.  In so doing, she does not compromise her dignity in her duty to submit to her husband. So what is submission again? Putting it another way:
Submission is pouring oneself into the sanctification and completion of another.

The wife, when she is able to bring into the relationship her intellect, her skills, her talents and gifts and her spiritual discernment to sanctify and complete the husband;
that is to make him more holy, in that place she is going to feel her own dignity and value.

The biblical model of submission actually seeks to dignify Christian women by saying – You take all that is yours, don’t supress them but express them to sanctify your husband and to complete him and to bring shalom and spiritual flourishing to your family, all to the glory of God.

So each wife must determine how she can best bring the glory of God into her marriage. The Bible does not specify who drives the car, who pays the monthly bills, whether the wife should be a stay home mum or hold a job outside. Nowhere does the Bible say who should take out the garbage or carry groceries from the car or who should do the marketing or wash the dishes or make the bed.

There is a remarkable absence of prescriptions for the daily operations of marriage. But there is one thing the Bible does say about husband-wife relationship and it is what we have been talking about – husbands, use your authority to make your wife glorious and radiant and wives, arrange your gifts under your husbands’ headship
to sanctify him and to complete him; for his good and God’s glory. Do this dutifully without compromising your dignity.

#3  The Wife’s Desires

Every wife desires to love her husband and be loved by him. How does a wife deepen her love for her husband? When a wife invest her life in supporting and affirming her spouse, her love for him will deepen. A wife who supports her husband through a crisis at work, teaches her children to honour his authority, or yields to his decision during a family impasse because she trust in his walk with God, that wife is growing deeply in her love for her husband.

The scriptures uses one word for all that – respect! You see every woman who respects her husband loves her husband deeply. And every woman who respects her husband’s submits to him willingly.

Ephesians 5:33  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

When you read these verses, it looks like God is dealing with each gender at their point of weakness. Husbands love your wife as yourself. Because your default fallen nature as the husband is to love yourself first and use your authority and strength
to serve yourself in the marriage.

And the wife is to respect your husband because while you may not have equal authority and strength as your husband; your default fallen nature is to take control of him by disrespecting him.

This usually shows up in a conflict between husband and wife. Usually in a conflict, a man will try to control a woman by his strength and authority – he may shout, he may bang at a table, break a chair or even hit the wife. And you know how the wife tries to control the man? By demeaning him. By becoming sarcastic. By taunting his  ego. By getting cynical. These are the  control mechanism for a woman and it always work
when the man is disrespected.

Women are very clever in using a demeaning look, a cutting remark, an accusation, or an embarrassing reminder to diminish a man so he becomes less sure of himself and more controllable. Insecure men react to their sense of being diminished by becoming
more dominating. This in turn gives a wife more opportunity to needle and shame, which subsequently triggers more abuse. Then the marriage becomes a daily tug-of-war for power.

So a wife’s method of control is to diminish the man’s ego and the husband’s method of control is to dominate her.

Both responses are very damaging and unbiblical because husbands are not supposed to dominate; they are to use their authority for the wife’s good. And wives are not to disrespect their husbands. Without giving your husband that respect, he cannot be what he needs to be. And where there is no respect, you cannot love your husband or be loved by him.

Its humbling for a man to say to his wife that for the way God has made him as a man he actually needs her respect. He cannot be what God intends him to be if he doesn’t have the wife’s respect.

There have been times in my life and ministry where I knew I didn’t have the support of too many people, especially in 2001 when there was a major crisis in the church. I knew that with many people I was losing their respect for me.  But I also knew that my wife was unwavering in her belief in me and in her respect for me.  She never once used the situation I was in to demean me or to doubt my calling. And that was
such a strength for me.  I felt like it really didn’t matter if the world didn’t think anything of me as long as I had the respect and trust of my wife! And her gifts
of steadfastness and steadiness towards me got me up on my feet again to be the man I needed to be. And I knew at that time that if I didn’t have her respect, I got virtually nothing. Or the reverse could be true as well – that if I didn’t have her respect, I would have sought for it elsewhere.

Ladies, I want you to see this.  Did you realize that your husband, the man God created, His beloved, that God has wired him such that it is you who can give him strength, just by you respecting him and honouring him and pouring your life with all your gifts and strength into his life. How beautiful is that. And how valuable that makes you to be. And how dignifying that is to your womanhood.

Many wives don’t realise that their husbands need their respect. Husbands often  don’t appear to need anything. But wives, this is the husband’s great need – your respect for him empowers him. You may think your husband gets all the affirmation he needs from his job or his office or his achievements and success but what he really needs is you affirming him; you respecting him. Once you make it your goal to affirm your husband and show him respect, your marriage will take a whole new turn.

Now what if you are married to a man who is a problem? What if he doesn’t deserve the respect? For what its worth, verse 33 is very helpful with that question.

Ephesians 5:33b  …and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

The same Greek word ‘respect’ in verse 33 also appears in verse 21.
Ephesians 5:21  submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

It is translated in verse 21 as reverence. You could translate verse 33, let the wife see that she reverences her husband.

And every wife knows her husband doesn’t deserve that.  We understand how and why we are to honour our Saviour. But why would Paul say a wife should reverence her husband when no man is worthy of such regard?

I tell you why. It is because the Bible regards headship as a holy office in the home.
And therefore no should slight what the Bible says we should revere. The wife has holy reverential obligations when it comes to her attitudes and action towards her husband.

Also, the apostle uses the word reverence to underscore that the husband as the spiritual head of the home must give account to God for the spiritual nurture of his family. It is so holy an office, on that Great Day, every husband must account to how
he has led his wife and family.   Therefore, the wife must revere the seriousness of the husband’s office. The holiness and gravity of his obligations to led the wife and the family into glory are so awesome that they require honour, even though he carries them out imperfectly.

So any wife who despises her husband’s headship, despises the God who had given him that office.  At the end of the day, God will judge him so now the wife is called to respect him.

Let me close with this story.
Ann Judson married Adoniram in 1812, when she was 23 and two weeks later they embarked on their mission trip to India and the following year, they movd on to Burma.

In those days, when tensions arose between England and the local authorities, missionaries were often thrown into prison. Adoniram was thrown in a cell
so crowded that some prisoners had to sleep standing. They were deprived of sanitation and water. One time he was hung from the thumbs.

And Adoniram survived on words from his wife. Ann would visit him in prison, enduring the jeers the guards which made the other wives afraid to go see their husbands in prison.  And with her eyes she poured love through the prison bars and refreshed his soul with these words.  “Do not give up, Adoniram.  God will give us the victory.”  When hope died in others, those oft-repeated words kept Adoniram alive.

Then suddenly the visits stopped.  For days and then months  Ann failed to appear and Adoniram didn’t know why she stopped coming. . Once the anticipation of her visits
kept him alive; but now concern for her drove Adoniram to survive each day. When there was a change of government Adoniram was released, and he began a desperate search for Ann. Adoniram soon learned that Ann was dying. As he approached
her government-assigned tent, Adoniram met a woman so filthy that he did not at first recognize her as his wife. Ann’s body had shrunken by  disease and malnutrition. She had lost all her hair and she laid immobile.

But seeing her husband, she said one more time to him: “Do not give up, Adoniram. God will give us the victory.”

Adoniram Judson took his dying wife’s words of encouragement as a charge
from God and millions in Burma  came to the Lord as a result. Ann Judson died at the age of 36 but she died pouring her life, her gifts, her graces to serve the good of her husband. She fulfilled her duty as a wife;  she did it with great dignity because nothing is more valuable to a woman than to see God use her to strengthen her man and she did it with deep love  for her husband that came from  her reverential respect of his calling and his leadership in her life.

May this be true of the wives  here.

Guna Raman

Guna Raman is the CEO of City to City Asia Pacific (CTCAP). He served as the senior pastor of Agape Baptist Church in Singapore for 30 years (1990-2019) before transitioning to lead CTCAP.

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