The Challenge of Ephesians 5:21-33

by Alicia Hernon

“Submit to each other out of reverence to Christ…wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord….the husband is the head of his wife…husbands love your wives…he who loves his wife loves himself…each one of you should love his wife as himself and the wife should respect her husband.”

Recently I was at a wedding where this reading was proclaimed. I was caught up in the beauty of it until I started to wonder how those in the congregation might be taking it. The passage is powerful, and a woman of any depth is challenged to reconcile it with her beliefs and her life. I’m sure there were many different responses. Some women refuse to accept what the Lord says on many subjects, including this one, and therefore dismiss it; some believe that the Lord meant no more than that a wife should be devoted to her husband, not that she should actually bend her will to his. On the other end of the spectrum, some women may use this verse as an excuse to never confront their husbands on issues that are truly of importance to them. Others actually believe God meant what He said and are not threatened by it.

I firmly believe that this question of submission is a very important one for women to come to grips with, for in this passage and those following God is setting up a framework of order for the family and, therefore, society.   When this framework is ignored, or destroyed by womanly pride, chaos is the result. More personally, if wives misunderstand or disobey this teaching, how can they expect to be in harmony with God or with their husbands?

The real question is, of course, what did the Lord mean in this passage? I by no means have the authority or the knowledge to tell the seeker the mind of God, but I would like to point out how application of one aspect of this passage fits very well with the general makeup of men and women which can help them work together towards the goal of heaven.  

The Holy Father points out that we understand a wife’s submission only when we understand the principle of “mutual submission.”   In his encyclical On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, he writes: “...All the reasons in favor of the ‘subjection’ of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a ‘mutual subjection’ of both ‘out of reverence for Christ.’”

For husbands and wives to truly discover the richness of God’s plan for marriage, and for my article to not be misunderstood, it must be noted that “mutual submission” is the cornerstone of the family order. For husband and wife both to grow they must submit to each other, though I believe this submission means something different to the husband than it does to the wife. In this article I will only expound on a wife’s submission to her husband, though how a husband submits to his wife is equally important.

I have found in my marriage, as most do, that many decisions a couple makes involve a compromise. But what about the times when no compromise can be reached? I propose that these are the times that a wife should bend her will to that of her husband, knowing that leading the family is a task that the Lord has assigned to him, not one that the husband has necessarily chosen for himself.

By saying that the husband is the head of his wife, God is giving him an important and daunting responsibility. Not only must he make decisions in these situations, but he is accountable to God for their outcome. He is the one with the work to do and he bears the responsibility if something goes wrong. Ultimately, the husband is to lead his family to heaven. I do not envy my husband this pressure!

Is this some kind of insult to a woman’s intelligence or analytical ability? Are her ideas inferior? Is she less valuable in the relationship? Of course not! God has simply not made women to be the heads of their families; He has given husbands a special grace for that role that He has not given to wives. Instead, women have a different, equally important role to play.  

As I said, being a leader can be a difficult task, and it is one which some men have given up because of their own weakness or because of a lack of support from their wives who may try to be the leader themselves.   For a man to successfully complete the task God has given him, he needs his wife behind him.

Submission also is a way for women to be truly fulfilled in their marriages. Many women are looking for a knight in shining armor who will come and sweep them away, promising protection and love all of their days.   Deep down that’s honestly what many want, and there is nothing wrong with this.   The problem is, all the knights are men in their forties who have been married twenty years.   How did they get like that?   When men get married, many are overwhelmed, or soon are, with the realization that they need to take care of this woman, emotionally, financially, and so on—not to mention any children that come along.   They are frightened, and don’t feel like knights in shining armor, even though they would like to be. What can transform a man is a woman who says with confidence, “I know you can do it. I trust you. If you think this is what we should do, I believe you.” Even if he fails, even if he is totally wrong, he will learn, if his wife communicates to him that she still trusts him, in spite of his failures.   Only then will his fear become confidence, for there is nothing that is more motivating to a man than a woman who believes in him.

On the opposite end, what happens when a woman doesn’t communicate confidence in her husband? Or even speaks to him as to a child—telling him what to do, instead of offering suggestions?   Many women may be asking, “What about if I know my ideas are right, and he just won’t listen? What if we go down together?” First of all, it is better to be wrong together than right alone. Failures can bring unity to the family if the husband and wife stand as one. Secondly, if he doesn’t listen and fails, the realization of how valuable his wife’s insights are may encourage him to listen better the next time. Thirdly, how is a man ever going to believe that his wife has confidence in him unless he sees her take that risk and go against her own instincts to follow him? Most women have the personality and the power to make their husbands submit to them and follow their ideas instead if his own. Doing this is one of the most destructive things a wife can do. Her husband will never learn, or gain the confidence he needs to lead the family.   Lastly, since submission to one’s husband is a command from God, He will bless a wife’s obedience no matter what the outcome of the specific situation is.

These are some ways submission is beneficial to a man, but how does it fit into God’s plan for women?   I believe the whole aspect of submission in marriage is more of an attitude than an action, and it is the way women are called to submit to the Lord.   In daily actions husbands and wives serve the family together; they work as a team, interchanging roles sometimes as needed. But in the heart of every wife should be the utmost admiration and respect for the man with whom she is spending her life.   She should look up to him, admire him, encourage him.   She should realize that her will is not her own. As a Christian, her will should be the Lord’s will. In marriage this is practically lived out by bending to her husband’s will. In this way, a husband is a wife’s means of salvation.

Also, the purpose of authority in our lives is protection, not limitation.   Within the protection of a husband’s love and care, a woman can be free to operate in her own sphere without the pressure of being ultimately responsible for all the decisions made in the family. She takes part in them, but the responsibility doesn’t lie on her shoulders, but on those of her husband. Submission also frees a woman from the temptation to be competitive with her husband instead of a complement to him.

On the other hand, the call to submission is a challenge to some women in the opposite way, for it means that she cannot draw into herself and refuse to share her insights and thoughts with her husband.   “To submit” also means to put forth or offer, as one submits a report or an application. Wives are required by God to give their insights to their husbands. It is wrong to blindly go along with whatever a husband may decide without giving input.   This is just as dangerous as overriding the husband’s God-given authority. God placed men and women together because they think differently, they see things differently, and both views are needed in the family; to lack one is a great detriment, and a husband should not be forced by his wife’s silence to lead the family alone.

One thing that women seem to forget when being challenged by Eph 5:21 is that the Lord is referring to husbands and wives, not men and women.   I am not required to be submissive to any man on the basis of his masculinity, except for my husband.   Misunderstanding on this point has led to distortions, for it is not the role of male and female that gives men responsibility for the women in their lives, it is instead the role of husband and wife.   What makes a person a husband or wife is the commitment to each other and to God that they made on their wedding day.   That is a covenant between the two that has been made after literally months of discernment.   This covenant and grace should calm the fears of domination or of overwhelming responsibility. Submission and responsibility are lived out in an atmosphere of love and respect where each is seeking the good of the other.

The Scriptures tell us “regard each one as better than yourselves.” So each of us should see ourselves as the lowly one, regarding everyone we meet as being better than us in some way. How much more in the married relationship should this be true. The wife should be looking up to her husband, admiring him, respecting his word, assuming that he is right before questioning his decisions. And the husband should see his wife as a source of wisdom and encouragement, realizing that she sees life in a way that he never could on his own, and he is honored to be by her side. Seeing her in this light he is humbled by the thought that she would be submitting to him. What a beautiful relationship this would be, and it is to this that God calls each married couple.

Alicia (Doman ‘94) and Michael Hernon (‘94) live in Steubenville where Michael works as Assistant Director of Financial Aid for FUS. Their third child was born on March 22.