And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.
-Ephesians 5:18-33 (CSB)
“Wives, submit”, is not a stand-alone verse
I came across an article by Cheryl Schatz, about Ephesians 5:22, where she mentioned that the word commonly translated as ‘submit’ is missing is some of the Greek manuscripts (1). Sure enough, many translations have a footnote that states this. For example, the CSB and the ISV translations.
Wives, submit[a] to your husbands as to the Lord.
a. 5:22 Other mss omit submit
Wives, submit yourselves[a] to your husbands as to the Lord.
a. Ephesians 5:22 Other mss. lack submit yourselves
I also looked up the verse in The Passion Translation, which was interesting:
“For wives, this means being supportive[j] to your husbands like you are tenderly devoted to our Lord.”
footnote: j. The Greek word for “submit,” or “supportive,” is not found in v. 22. It is literally “Wives, with your husbands.”
The ESV, NIV, NKJV, and NLT do not have this footnote.
If you open up the Greek NT, and they put the literal words underneath the Greek words, the literal English is:
Submitting yourselves to one another in reverence of Christ, wives to their own husbands, as to the Lord.
I opened up my Markus Barth commentary on Ephesians (2)(3)
Here is Barth’s translation of the whole Ephesians passage:
In particular do not get drunk with wine- that is profligacy- but be filled with the Spirit. Talk to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and play to the Lord from your heart. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ give thanks always and for everything to God the Father. Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another –[e.g.] wives to husbands as to the Lord. For [only] in the same way that the Messiah is the head of the church –he, the savior of his body– is the husband the head of the wife. The difference notwithstanding , just as the church subordinate herself [only] to the Messiah, so wives to your husbands–in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as [we confess], The Messiah has loved the church and has given himself to her to make her holy by [his] word and clean her by the bath in water, to present to himself the church resplendent free from spot or wrinkle or any such thing so that she be holy and blameless. In the same manner also husbands owe it [to God and man] to love their wives for they are their bodies. In loving his wife a man loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh, but he provides and cares for it–just as the Messiah for the church because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This passage has an eminent secret meaning: I, for one, interpret it [as relating] to Christ and the church. In any case, one by one, each one of you must love his wife as himself, and the wife . . . may she fear her husband.
-Ephesians 5:18-33 (Markus Barth, Ephesians: A New Translation, With Intro. and Commentary, 1974)
When we get to verses 21 and 22, Barth uses the [e.g.] to say “for example”, that is implied: Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another –[e.g.] wives to husbands as to the Lord.
The (implied) and literal reading is “subordinate yourselves to one another (for example) wives to (their own) husbands as to the Lord.”
If you search for articles, talks, and sermons on Ephesians 5:21 and 22, not very many people bring this out. You probably already know that the verse numbers have been added by the translators. When you read verse 22 as saying, “wives to husbands as to the Lord”, you know this verse number splits a sentence, and you know you need to read it with the preceding verse, to understand the “what”. which is “submit to one another.” Instead, the translators write, “wives submit”.
This is what the Young’s Literal Translation says for Ephesians 5:22:
“The wives! to your own husbands subject yourselves, as to the Lord,”
Here is what The Voice translation does with this verse. Italics are added by the translators:
“Wives, it should be no different with your husbands. Submit to them as you do to the Lord,”
“The verse in Greek reads literally: “Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.” The verb “to submit” is absent and can only be read into the sentence because of the intimate connection between the two verses. Ephesians 5:21 is therefore transitional, both belonging to what precedes and setting the agenda for what follows.”
Subordination is first for everyone
One of the ways I have thought about it is that if we do not submit or subordinate ourselves to God and to Christ, and then one to another, how can we possibly talk about subordination in marriage?
And think about how Jesus subordinates himself to the Father and we subordinate ourselves to Jesus.
Another thought is that wives have difficulty being subordinate when their husbands are not very loving.
And the command for the husbands is to love their wives, as Christ loved the church. It’s a taller order for the husbands.
But neither the wife nor the husband’s obedience, subordination, and serving love is dependent on the actions of their spouse. The source or dependency is Christ. Even if the spouse is not a believer, the believing spouses actions are no different.
It is very important to know that subordination is not exclusive to a wife towards her husband. We all are subordinate to one another. Prophets to prophets, is one example:
And the prophets’ spirits are subject to the prophets. (1 Cor. 14:32)
Husbands are subordinate to their wives, with their wives, before wives are subordinate to their husbands: submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Eph 5:21)
Think of all the ways that Jesus is subordinate to his bride, while he is still her bridegroom and the head of her. The church is not the boss of Jesus, even if we act like it, but he goes along with us, because of his love.
The larger context of Christ and his bride
Paul talks about submission here, in Ephesians 5, in the context of the church and Christ. If the church is accustomed to not being submitted to Christ, then how can we imagine being submitted in our marriages? If submission is a negative thing that we want to run from, how do we reconcile that with the reality that the church is the bride of Christ, who is subordinate to her bridegroom?
Paul is certainly putting Christian marriage on a higher plain in his remarks that men and women in marriage are like Christ is with His bride, the church. What I am saying is that you might be scared of submission or not know the dimensions of the love Paul is presenting, if you do not see it or can not identify it in the church and with Christ towards the church.
If we don’t know Christ this way, do not see it; them we first need that expanded before we can extrapolate that over into marriage. What I am saying is that if you are not married to Jesus, if you are not living in the experience of being the church that is his bride, then you will have no basis for understanding what Paul is saying here about marriage.
If your Christian life is not about being the bride of Christ, if you only know about it and even believe it in theory or principal, but not in practice, then you will not be able to understand Paul’s teaching here. Men and women first have to be the bride of Christ before they can take and practice Christ in their marriages.
If you are not experiencing the Christian life as being part of the bride of Christ, you ought to be humbled by the void in your life and ask God to fulfill that dimension of what it is to be the bride of Christ, long before you try to understand and somehow implement subordination in your life and then in your marriage.
Positive fear is respect
It is interesting to me that the word ‘fear’ starts and ends the passage: Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another + In any case, one by one, each one of you must love his wife as himself, and the wife . . . may she fear her husband. (Barth’s translation)
We fear Christ and Christian wives should fear their husbands, in the same way or in the same spirit. That is to say, not a fear of punishment, but fear, as in respect and honor.
The CSB says: submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. + the wife is to respect her husband.
What does it mean? And, why did Paul say it?
This fear is not the afraid fear or fear having to do with punishment or injury, but reverence, respect, or honor. The context informs us of this interpretation.
If you do not fear Christ, respect and honor him; then you will not be able to subordinate yourselves to one another. If you do not respect Christ, then you can not have a Christian marriage. If you do not revere him, you can not revere your spouse. So, that is the first thing to get straight, before we even begin talking about submission, headship, and love in marriage. You can’t build that house without this foundation.
One of the things to think about in marriage is respect for the husband. The wife may have trouble respecting him. Does she have a problem with being disrespectful, or is he dishonorable? Does he do things or not do things that make it hard to respect him?
If she does not respect him or if he is dishonorable, it makes things harder; but not impossible. Subordination is not dependent on the other person. We are only empowered to be subordinate through Christ. That is the secret of how you can be subordinate to an unbelieving or selfish spouse.
The big message of Ephesians
The preceding four chapters build up to what Paul talks about in Ephesians 5. We need to read through the whole letter, to get the context, of what Paul is talking about here.
Ask the question, what is the whole of Ephesians about? Here is an answer from John Stott: “The letter focuses on what God did through the historical work of Jesus Christ and does through his Spirit today, in order to build his new society in the midst of the old.” (John R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, p. 24)
New society. The church is a new society. Others have called the church a new humanity. God’s new society or new humanity, “is accomplished by the Son and applied by the Spirit.” (Winn Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure, p. 259) The book of Ephesians is about understanding the purpose of God in the Church, in an individual’s life lived out in the church (Griffin, p. 258), and Ephesians is one of Paul’s greatest books (Barth, p. 3).
“The primary purpose of Paul (in Ephesians) was to instruct those believers about what was involved in their commitment to Christ and his church. Christianity was not something that one could achieve; it was something that God had done on one’s behalf… …The new humanity- the church- is the focal point for where the purpose of God is lived out.” (Griffin, pp. 258-59)
Membership of Christ’s body and living in Christ
What Christ is for the church, informs what we are to one another. We are his body, a metaphor which Paul uses nine times in Ephesians. Becoming a member of the church is something God does to make us part of Christ’s body.
You want to know about church membership? Here is is:
I have been born anew, I have been saved by Jesus, and I have put my faith in him; and so God has made me a member of the body of Christ, world-wide, for all time and eternity.
Individual churches are different, but they are all a part of the same body. The NT is saying that all true Christians are members of Christ’s body, that he is the head of and in charge of.
God is the source and center of the body of Christ, which we are the members of, which is the church.
The source of the church is Christ, no matter what kind of church. The source is what is most important. By the same token, we can only have the new society or humanity that Christ gives us, through Christ. You can say you are conservative, liberal, egalitarian, complementarian, progressive, old-fashioned; and the list goes on and on. But, these names or schools do not get you to the new humanity. Only Christ does. You can say you are one of these and fight and argue for it, but what about the living Christ in your life? That’s what I care about.
If you have the living Christ in you or rather you are now in him, and living his life, then you are positioned to begin living in submission and reverence, and working out how the husband is to be the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church.
This is how The Voice translations gives us Ephesians 5:21-24.
And the Spirit makes it possible to submit humbly to one another out of respect for the Anointed. Wives, it should be no different with your husbands. Submit to them as you do to the Lord, for God has given husbands a sacred duty to lead as the Anointed leads the church and serves as the head. (The church is His body; He is her savior.)
If we, individually and corporately, are not practicing or living out our lives under Christ’s headship, how on earth can we even start to understand how a husband is the head of his wife? If we are running from Christ’s headship, how can husbands ever be heads of their wives, like Christ? And how could women possibly live under their husband’s headship, if Christ is not head of her?
To me this is the key to understanding Christian marriage.
Submission is very scary when you don’t have the living Christ in your marriage.
Subordination is part of Spirit-filled living
Let’s look at how these statements about subordination fit into the larger context of the passage in Ephesians five:
“Subordinate yourselves.” In the Greek text of Eph. 5:18-21, five successive participles are attached to the imperative, “be filled with Spirit.” Think of Paul saying to us, “it is imperative that you be filled with the Spirit”.
And Paul gives five ways being Spirit-filled is lived out:
Be filled with the Spirit:
- Talk to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
- and play to the Lord from your heart.
- In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ give thanks always and for everything to God the Father.
- Because you fear Christ, subordinate yourselves to one another –[e.g.] wives to husbands as to the Lord.
That was Barth’s translation.
Here is the CEB translation:
be filled with the Spirit in the following ways:
- speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs;
- and make music to the Lord in your hearts;
- always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;
- and submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord.
And here is how the CSB has it:
be filled by the Spirit:
- speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,
- and making music with your heart to the Lord,
- giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
- submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. Wives, submit[a] to your husbands as to the Lord,
[a] Other mss omit submit)
How taking a text out of context leads to misunderstanding
We have misunderstood the phrase, “Wives, submit to your husbands”, because we have made it belong to it’s following verses, when it should more so be understood as relating to the preceding verses.
This is the way we have heard it, and read it:
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. (He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything.) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word.
But this is how it really should be heard and read:
And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word.
“Wives submit”, is not a stand alone statement, but a following statement to, “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ”. And Paul clarifies that wives submit to husbands in the way that the church submits to Christ: “as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church”. And this submitting that is as and like how the church submits to Christ, is part of the Spirit-filled life. “Wives, submit”, is not the topic or subject, but an example of what Spirit-filled living, in Christ produces.
We have said, taught, and preached: “Let’s talk about Christian marriage. Wives need to submit to their husbands and husbands are the head, but they also need to love their wives how Christ loves his bride, the church.” Sometimes there is debate or discussion about headship and submission and somebody might say that if a husband is nothing like Christ, then how or should the wife submit. We debate, if head means ‘source’ or ‘leader’ (4).
Christ is head of the church. It is silly to say that head means source, but not leader here. The evangelical church has been very interested in leadership. It would be absurd, to teach Christ, as the foundation of our faith and our definition of leadership, to just be our source. It would also be absurd to have a squad or group engaged in an effort, be it military, athletics, or business and define the head of the group as their source.
Wives don’t have to be afraid of their husband’s headship, because it is patterned after and is only rooted in Christ. It is understandable that if we don’t have Christ as our head individually and collectively, we are naturally going to buck at our spouse functioning in headship over us.
There was a lady pastor, in my area, who was the top leader, senior pastor of her and her husband’s church. They were not co-pastors. On the church’s website, it clearly stated this, that indeed, she was the leader. But then it said who she was married to, and it gave her husband’s first name, and that he was, “the boss of her”.
This blurb, in a nutshell, answered the concerns anyone might have had about a woman leading a church. She was the leader of their church and he was her leader in the home. In fact, he understood God’s call for them, to start a church of which she would be the leader, before she did.
The big command is “be filled with the Spirit”
But, this discussion solely on marriage, misses the larger picture of what Paul has written. The imperative command is, “be filled with the Spirit”. Being Spirit filled is not an option, for ‘holy rollers’ only, but for every Christian. By definition, a Christian is Spirit-filled. We are all charismatic.
It is unfortunate that we have divided ourselves, in the church, by the Spirit-filled label. Charismatic is also not a good differentiator. Something like ‘ecstatic’ might be better, because all Christians are Spirit-filled and charismatic. The Christ life without the Spirit is absurd and not functional.
Being Spirit-filled is not just about speaking in tongues. Paul lists five things:
- Talking to others in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
- Play (make music) to the Lord from (in/with) your heart.
- In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ give thanks always and for everything to God the Father
- Because you fear (respect) Christ, subordinate (submit) yourselves to one another. For example, wives to husbands as to the Lord.
We can surmise that first, the call to Spirit-filled living is the alternative lifestyle to drunkeness, because in Ephesus, they either had alcoholism or practiced alcohol inebriation as a part of their religions.
And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit. (CSB)
Wives submitting to their husbands is not the point or focus, of the passage, but an example of subordination, one to another, in Spirit-filled living, which all Christians are called to. And that example is also the transition from vss. 18-22 into vss 23-33.
Now, let’s talk about what subordination means.
The fallen state of marriage is described in Genesis 3:16b, “Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you.”
The NET Bible translates it this way, “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.”
Christ takes that and changes it into the new creation. In Christ, the fall of mankind is redeemed, including marriage. This is the first point, that Christian marriage is not just a sweetened fallen marriage, but new creation marriage that finds its reference and roots in Christ.
Marriage is restored back to God’s original intention, in Christ. We may not be all the way there, but that is where we are going. Any arguing about what subordination means must have as it’s framework the new creation wrought by God through Christ, that comes to bear on Christian marriage.
Consequently, when Paul mentions headship and subordination, he is not at all talking about it from a fallen, worldly framework. Rather, he has in mind Christ and the Church, in the new creation.
NT subordination, one to another, is about freedom and order:
- Jesus subordinated himself to the Father: “When everything is subject to Christ, then the Son himself will also be subject to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28)
- And the child Jesus submitted to his parents: “Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51)
- And in the church, we subordinate ourselves to one another: “And the prophets’ spirits are subject to the prophets.” (1 Cor. 14:32)
- All believers are commanded to be subordinate to God, says James: “But he gives greater grace. Therefore he says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:6-7)
- And the mystery author of Hebrews says: “Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live?” (Heb. 12:9)
Subordination is patterned after and is only in Christ
Jesus and his relationship to Father is the framework for our relationship to Jesus and then to one another, including family relationships. There is nothing harsh or brutal about Jesus relationship to his father. It is all about love and honor.
Paul paints a picture for us, in Philippians 2, of what subordination is all about and what it means:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be exploited.
Instead he emptied himself
by assuming the form of a servant,
taking on the likeness of humanity.
And when he had come as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
and every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose.
There it is. You can not be subordinate in the church or in your marriage outside of Christ. Our subordinate relationships are modeled after Christ.
The idea of subordination is, “You go first”. It is letting others be in line, in front of you. In the church, there is always a, “You go first”, and then the reply of, “No, you go first”. It could be with speaking, with walking, with the buffet line, or letting someone do something before you.
Today, God is subordinate in the church. He loves the people who misrepresent him. He loves people who are a mixture of right and wrong. What I mean is that God does not walk away or refuse to play with imperfect people.
Broadly two kinds of subordination that are different
There are broadly two kinds of subordination in the New Testament (Barth p. 709). 1 Corinthians 15:28 says, “When everything is subject to Christ.”, Ephesians 1:22 says, “And he subjected everything under his feet and appointed him as head over everything for the church”, Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God”, and Hebrews 2:8 says, “and subjected everything under his feet. For in subjecting everything to him, he left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him”, and finally Luke 10:17 says, “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
The Greek scholars tell us that these verses have the active verb for “subordinate”, that illustrates hierarchy, unconditional power over; and rank, order, or status. But, when ‘subordinate’ is in the middle or passive indicatives, participles or imperatives; it describes a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden. He (Paul) expects this kind of subordination only of Christ and of persons who are “in Christ”. (Barth, p. 710)
Church staff insubordination?
I asked a pastor, one time, what happened to a number of pastors who had been on staff, but, one by one, suddenly disappeared. And he told me, “they were fired for insubordination”. I was shocked. Insubordination was not a word I was familiar with, and I had been fond of these pastors. Their sudden disappearance was a sad thing and this backstory was disillusioning for me.
How does the insubordination of a staff member who gets dismissed fit into subordination in the NT? If a member of the body of Christ is not subordinate, do they get fired? No, because subordination in the body, in Christ, is voluntary. Same thing with husbands and wives. But if there is not subordination among Christians or in a marriage, because it is voluntary, what then? Then you have people who identify as believers, but they don’t live as so; and the ones without subordination in their marriage simply don’t have a Christian (Christ-ian) marriage. In other words, “in-Christ” means subordination to one another, and in this case, through being Spirit filled.
Back to those pastors who were fired, who went from leading, being up front on microphones, and carrying out the ministry of that church, under the leadership of the pastors above them, in a leadership hierarchy. They were fired for insubordination and suddenly went from visible and honored to obscurity.
Although they and their supervisor pastors are both called with us all, to live out Ephesians 5, their story of insubordination and dismissal is not at all an application of Ephesians 5. This boggled my mind and grieved me at the time and still does. I had idealized those pastors, because I only saw a know them from ‘on the stage’.
Insubordination among Christian brothers and sisters
If you have ever led a home group and had a disruptive person, like a goat that keeps ramming itself into others harmfully, and you have asked them to stop and they don’t, there will come a time when you will possibly ask them to leave. Somebody that missed the group for a couple weeks comes back and says, “what happened to sammy?”, and you say, “I had to ask them to leave”. They ask you why and you tell them why.
Years ago, I read a book called, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23. In one section, the author wrote about a sheep that was out of control and keeps doing bad things to the other sheep, that the shepherd had to deal with, for the sake of the others.
Back when I was a green-horn pastor, I led a group, where a lady was very verbally abusive to the others and I said nothing. I was just shocked. Later in time, one of the participants told me that they had wished that I had exercised authority over the verbal abuser and told her to stop and leave, but she knew that I was totally new at this, and she forgave me.
I asked the pastor who told me that insubordination was the cause for firing all these pastors, “what do you mean”, and he said, “they didn’t follow orders.” When you and I have a job, we have to follow orders; and if we keep not following orders, we will get fired.
The playing field of staffing a church is different than being brothers and sisters in Christ. We say we are brothers and sisters, but then fire you. Is that Jesus shaped leadership, or do you have to bring back Moses?
The explanation is that the hierarchical leadership model really is not in the New Testament. We don’t see Paul or Peter or others dismissing people from ministry teams for insubordination. But, we do see conflicts; like Paul with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Paul and Barnabas parted ways painfully over an interpersonal issue. Paul very well could have said, “Mark is being insubordinate, and I will not have it!”
We are all equals and Christ is the boss. And leadership is relational. There are many conflicts in relationships, but we never fire our brothers or sisters. We always reconcile and in the rare instance when we can not, we part ways, with grace, and are always open to future reconciliation.
It is something different when our divergent assignments from the Lord cause us to part ways. Sometimes that breaking up is hard to do, but the Lord is calling us in different directions. And sometimes we just disagree, neither is bad or good; but we see it differently and both love Christ; and we part ways.
“There ain’t no good guys, there ain’t no bad guys. There’s just you and me, and we both disagree.”
Subordination is a hard word, a hard thing, even a bad thing; if you only think of it as me over you or as winner over loser. That is not at all what subordination is about “in-Christ”.
The big picture context of Ephesians is the new creation in Christ, where we all are his bride, his community, and his army. A wedding party, a community, or an army all have order. They are not just a crowd. Willing, cooperating subordination is orderly.
Think about a group of individuals, each gifted in unique ways, on a journey and a mission together. Sometimes they are in a circle, sometimes in a line, and sometimes single-file. The leader is a role that one person fills and then a different one may fill it at a different time. And the leader may lead by going first or by going last, depending on the task at hand. And this dance happens through mutual subordination that is in-Christ and always joyfully voluntary.
Subordination as a lifestyle
The subordination in Christian life is different than the submission of the powers to Christ and our subordination to the laws of governments. One-another subordination is out of love for and in and through a person, Christ.
Subordination here is voluntary, cooperative, and enthusiastic, for those who are in Christ and filled with the Spirit. Only people who have faith, hope, love, and fear of the Lord can be subordinate, in Christ. We are set free in Christ to be humble, gentle, bear with one another, and keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-3).
Subordination, in Christ, is voluntary and “among equals”. The equality of the husband and wife, is restored, in Christ. In the fallen state, we have the proclamation: “Your desire will be for your husband,yet he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16) The painful hierarchy is from the fall.
In Christ, subordination in marriage is redeemed from blind obedience to voluntary subordination.
The context here tells us the story. The saints are equipped (ch. 4) to grow up into Christ as his body. And there is an order about it, like a wedding procession. We are all in that procession, as Christ’s bride.
Marriage is yoked together in Christ
We have that line, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”, that we say at weddings, taken from Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9. This means that the two are brought under one yoke, together. In Philippians 4:3, Paul called an unnamed person his ‘true partner’, ‘true companion’, or ‘true yokefellow’. In The Passion Translation, Brian Simmons has these words as, “my dear friend and burden-bearer”.
The commonality is in the yoking. This person was yoked to Paul, voluntarily, for the sake of Christ and others, for Jesus ministry and church. Joined together means yoked together. This means work together. It is about order rather than giving orders.
I have a friend, who got married before me who said, “marriage is like a three legged race”. And it is true. To be joined together, we have to be yoked together.
Eschatological expectation, missionary passion, and an obligation to Christ
Why would Paul use such a word, subordinate, that has military connotations, in his teaching on marriage? Because of eschatology, mission, and spiritual warfare.
Order and coordination is required for all three, for married couples. The time is short, we are living in the end times, and Christ is soon to come again. It’s like, “all hands on deck!”, from Paul’s time through our time.
And we have a responsibility to be on mission and be missionaries where we live. We have to coordinate and cooperate in our married lives, to be evangelical.
And spiritual warfare, with human persecution, requires the husband and wife to stand together in unison against the forces or people who oppose Jesus. We can’t just be doing our own separate things, and meeting up for leisure and recreation occasionally. But we are born into a war and must fight together, now that we are married.
If we have no eschatological expectation, no missionary passion birthed by an obligation to Christ, and no awareness of spiritual warfare or being in a battle; then subordination makes no sense and we want to throw it out or find a different way to frame marriage. If we are just consumers and citizens of earth, who are going to heaven someday, who are animated by individualism; why would we want to subordinate ourselves to other believers or to our spouse?
In that context, subordination seems archaic. We must find a way to reinterpret Paul for modern times. The same people also have to reinterpret Jesus too, or just ignore most of his words, saying they were only for first century Jews.
Our homes are supposed to be our primary missionary outpost, where evangelism, discipleship, healing, fellowship, and deliverance happens; with tremendous hospitality. All Christians and all Christian homes are meant to be hospitable, for the gospel.
Our conduct in the most private spheres of our marriages creates a platform from which we minister with our lives. A husband or wife who resents this and wants to do his or her own selfish thing is simply out of line. They are insubordinate, voluntarily so; because subordination is voluntary and according to the Spirit and Christ.
Freedom and dignity
Subordination is from a place of freedom and dignity. Same with husband headship. He is free and she is free. It is not slavery or undignified coercion but free to be dignified. It is about honor and order.
The husband is a child, a brother, and a husband and a father
The husband is subordinated to others, including his own wife. Think about a group of adult Christians together, all subordinate to one another, because they are filled with the Spirit and in Christ. Jesus always was subordinate to his father and even to other people. This subordination is not about being walked on or in slavery to, but is done enthusiastically, in and with love; or is doesn’t work.
All those Christians together are subordinate to one another. Now, if you did not already, add children to the picture, teens to tots. They are filled with the Spirit too and are being subordinate. The men who are married, are subordinate towards everyone, other men, other women, and all the kids; and it is mutual, and this includes their own wives.
When they get home, nothing has changed; but it is of note that the wife subordinates herself to her husband, just like they both did, back there, with the church gathered. It is like there is a task to be done, but it is dead serious, like a military operation, and the two must coordinate. One goes first, and the timing or goals must align. And that is where the wife voluntarily, because she is Spirit-filled and in Christ, subordinates herself to her husband.
The husband is not suddenly insubordinate to his wife and kids, when they get home. It is just that in the family, their subordination comes under his subordination; while he fulfills the tall order of loving his wife, sacrificially, pretty much laying down his life for her.
Freedom and responsibility
Christ liberates us to the freedom to live this way. It is not patriarchy or bondage, but freedom and harmony, unity and oneness.
Christian marriage is founded upon responsibility to Christ, of whom they both spouses are loved and whom they both fear. They are responsible to Christ, to one another, and to the task of being Christians in their lives. And the only basis for a wife subordinating herself, to be subordinate to her husband, is the order of God’s kingdom.
Subordination is voluntary and is done as one who is a dignified and a respected member of the bridal procession and a kingdom servant.
Christian marriage, final notes and summary:
- Christian marriage has its basis in Christ and grace.
- Christian marriage is a reflection of the whole church’s subordination to Christ.
- A husband’s love is to be a reflection of Christ’s much greater love.
- In her subordination to her husband, a wife serves Christ.
- She’s not bypassing her husband, but serving him as she serves Christ.
- A husband’s genuine love for Christ is reflected in his love for his wife.
- He can’t say he loves Christ and not be loving to his wife.
- The wife’s subordination to her husband in everything (5:24) need not compete with her devotion to Christ.
- She has one husband and one Christ.
- She is “in Christ”, “fears Christ”, while being subordinate to her husband.
- Women who feel incapable of this subordination to a man in marriage, should not marry or remarry (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 25-40).
- Wives “go first” in being subordinate, and the husbands follow, with loving their wives as Christ loves the church.
- Husbands “go first” in loving their wives, and the wives follow with fearing (respecting) their own husbands.
- The final word in Ephesians 5, is that husbands are to love their own wives, garnering her respect (honoring fear).
- The subordination of the wife to her own husband is not equated here with obedience.
- Children to parents and slaves to masters are to be obedient, but not wives to husbands.
- Peter, however, does tell wives to obey their husbands (1 Peter 3:6).
- Paul lays out order, rather than hierarchy.
- Paul’s idea of subordination here is akin to yielding or recognizing (recognition).
- Jesus’ dignified subordination to the Father is our first example.
- The person who voluntarily yields to and serves another is dignified and free.
- Eph. 5 does not support blind obedience or the breaking of the wife’s will.
- We have instead a picture of people respecting order, in freedom and equality, under the crucified Servant-Messiah, where we joyfully renounce our rights and instead exercise our new right to imitate Christ.
- Marital subordination is all about freedom and not subjugation.
1. Cheryl’s blog posts on Ephesians 5:22.
2. Scot McKnight: “I like Markus Barth and have ever since college when I spent gobs of time working on Ephesians 4. His was one of the early Anchor Bible commentaries and he managed to find one volume inadequate..”
3.I was introduced to Markus Barth, by Dave Black, who posted a link to Barth’s lectures on baptism from 1970, that greatly helped me in forming my understanding of baptism: linked here by Matthew Montoni.
4. See Wayne Grudem, “Does kephale(‘Head’) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature? A survey of 2,336 Examples,” Trinity Journal 6NS (1985):38-59; idem. “The Meaning of kephale: A Response to Recent Studies,” Trinity Journal 11NS (1990):3-72; and idem, “The Meaning of kephale (‘head’): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44:1 (March 2001):25-65.