A high percentage of churches today say that wives are not to submit to their husbands. I remember hearing a DTS graduate preach on Eph 5:22-33. He said that in Eph 5:21 the words “submitting to one another in the fear of God” meant that there should be what he called mutual submission in marriage. That position is called the egalitarian position. It means equal footing between the husband and wife in decision making.
Yet Eph 5:21 is not talking about husbands and wives submitting to one another. Paul makes it clear that he is talking about situations in which believers are to submit to other believers. Paul gives three examples: wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22-33); children are to submit to their parents (Eph 6:1-4); and servants are to submit to their masters (Eph 6:5-9). Husbands are not to submit to their wives. Parents are not to submit to their children. Masters are not to submit to their servants. Yes, all believers are to love one another. But love and submission are not identical.
More on this in a moment.
In Eph 5:23, Paul says, “For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church…” The word translated head is kephalē. BDAG says that “in the case of human beings, to denote superior rank.” In the military, a lieutenant does not have authority over his commanding officer, his captain. The officer of superior rank makes the final decision. The lower ranked officer can and should give his input. But the final decision is made by the one who is his kephalē. The same is true with the husband-and-wife relationship. That is crystal clear when Paul goes on to say, “as also Christ is the head of the church.”
Let’s say that a husband is convinced that it is best for the family to attend a Bible church. But his wife believes it is best for the family to attend a Roman Catholic church. Who makes the decision? If the husband believed that God holds him accountable for his family as its head, then if he submitted to his wife in this matter, he would be going against his own conscience since he is convinced that the Bible church is best for his family.
What would mutual submission look like there? Maybe the family picks something in between, like an Episcopalian church. Or maybe they can’t decide on a church they both agree upon. Then what happens?
God has given the husband the final decision. Many Evangelicals today reverse that and say that in cases where the husband and wife can’t agree, the husband should submit to his wife’s opinion.
But lots of decisions are either yes or no decisions. Let’s say that the husband is an officer in the Army and the family is required to move every two years, often to foreign countries. What if the wife wants him to quit and settle down, but he is convinced that this is the best job for him and the family? Who makes the decision if both are in charge?
Of course, submission to one’s husband does not mean putting up with abuse. If a husband beats his wife, she is morally obligated to contact the police and get help for him and her and their kids.i It is not good for him or for them if she puts up with abuse. He needs to repent.
The same would apply if a husband was spending nearly all of the family’s money on alcohol or other drugs. By working and bringing in money, the wife would actually be enabling the husband’s sinful behavior. In such a case she would be wise to take the kids and move in with family or friends until her husband repented.
Love obviously is central to the decision-making process for the husband. Since he loves his wife and kids, he makes decisions that are best for her and them. But if what he is convinced is best is not what she thinks is best, then he listens to her concerns and ultimately makes what he believes is the best decision. The loving wife goes along with his decision even if she is not yet convinced it is the best course of action.ii
I was faced with a situation where the loving course of action was costly for me. I was hired to teach Greek and Bible at Multnomah School of the Bible (now Multnomah University).iii After just three months in Portland, Sharon was miserable. She lost weight and was not sleeping well. I decided then and there that if she did not get to feeling better, we would leave Oregon and head back to Texas after my one-year contract was up. I decided that was best for us.
I did not submit to Sharon on that occasion. I submitted to the Lord. It was clear to me by the start of the second semester that Sharon really could not handle well the darkness and rain in Portland. Trying to stay another year would have jeopardized her health. I gave up my teaching position at Multnomah School of the Bible at the end of the school year and went full time with the new ministry I had recently started, Grace Evangelical Society. I’m so glad I did. In hindsight, the Lord used Sharon’s ill health to move us to a ministry in which we could have far greater impact.
Loving husbands often sacrifice for their wives and children. But they should only do so if they are convinced that this action is the best. If a man goes along with his wife’s desire, knowing it is a bad idea, then he is responsible before the Lord for that decision.
Let’s say you inherited $10 million from your parents when you were thirty years old. You had just married the year before. Your wife now wants you to quit your job as a pastor and spend the rest of your life vacationing with her around the world. If you budgeted wisely, you would never have to work again. But would that be wise? How much treasure would you two be laying up in heaven if you vacationed all the time? Not much. Your wife would not be asking you to sin. But she would be asking you to minimize your, and her, service for Christ.
For a husband to shirk his responsibility and to make his wife the head of the family is a rejection of Scripture. For the husband and wife to do nothing unless they both agree also nullifies the commandments of God.
This egalitarian tradition, though well meaning, contradicts the command of the Lord.
i There are no verses in the Bible that give the husband the right to beat his wife. On the contrary, there are many verses which command the husband to love and care for his wife. While there is no verse that specifically tells a wife what to do if her husband is abusive, there are principles from Scripture that suggest the need to contact the police and to separate until he repents, as I have suggested. See, for example, Deut 22:10; Exod 21:26; Mal 2:14-15; Matt 24:43; Rom 13:1-7; Eph 5:29; 1 Tim 2:15. For more details see this article, “A Biblical Response to the Abused Wife,” by Renee Malina.
ii The exception is that the wife cannot submit to her husband if he asks her to do something that is sinful. Say the husband decided that they should experiment with cocaine at a party with friends. She would refuse such a decision since it is directly contrary to the Bible. But unless the husband’s decision is directly contrary to the Word of God, the wife should submit out of respect both for her husband and for the Lord.
iii Ironically, a major reason I was hired was because Sharon convinced the chairman of the Bible department 1) that I really wanted to teach there and 2) that she would love Portland and its beautiful greenery. I was out of town interviewing at a seminary for a faculty position when the chairman called. Her words with him on that call were instrumental in us going to Portland. Sharon did not want to move to the West Coast. But she thought she had to do it in order for me to have the job I wanted. She lovingly sacrificed for me in going there in the first place.