Last week my husband’s small group discussed Ephesians 5 and they had a fascinating discussion about submission that I want to share with you today. The whole conversation began after reading verse 22–Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord–after which one of the group members asked the following insightful question:
“Is there ever a circumstance in which a woman should disobey this command?”
By this, he was asking whether a woman should submit to her husband even if he asks her to do something sinful or if he is abusing her.
I particularly like the wording of his question because it reveals a gaping hole in the way I have traditionally taught this passage. While Scripture does teach wives to submit to their husbands, it is also clear that a woman should not sin by bringing a third party into the bedroom, nor should she permit her husband to beat her or force himself upon her sexually. That said, I simply threw out Ephesians 5:22 if any of the above circumstances applied. Unfortunately in doing so, my interpretation implied a rather low view of Scripture–I essentially concluded that some Biblical commands trump this one.
Scripture, however, does not work that way. It does not contradict itself. Nor should any passage be interpreted in such a way that would either lead us to sin should we adhere to it perfectly, or simply be discarded at times.
With this in mind, there has to be a slightly more nuanced way of interpreting this passage, and my husband pointed out something that was very helpful to me. The context of this immediate passage begins in verse 15. Because a lot of Bible interpretations divide the paragraph up between verse 15 and verse 22, it doesn’t appear that the two are connected but they are. Verse 15 marks a major transition in Paul’s argument, which is followed by a series of commands, including verse 22.
And what does verse 15 say? “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.” The command to submit appears underneath this larger command to be wise. My husband therefore suggested that verse 15 should serve as the dominating paradigm of interpretation for the entire passage. In other words, the big picture of Paul’s message is to live wisely, in such a way that is conducive towards unity and a powerful witness. And one way that wives can do that is by honoring and respecting their husbands through the act of submission.
As humans, we like our teachings to be black and white. It’s easier that way. However this more nuanced approach to submission is necessary. By reading the passage within the larger context, women are advised to submit to their husbands, but they are also given the freedom to not submit when it is unwise to do so, without disobeying Scripture or flat-out contradicting Paul.
Does this give women license to submit when it convenient but resist their husbands when it’s not? Of course not. Submission is wise because it encourages your husband as a leader, even as he makes mistakes along the way. It also testifies to the relationship of sacrificial love and profound trust between Christ and the church. You should seek to model this relationship whenever possible. However, if your husband asks you to engage in a behavior that is a blatant contradiction of other parts of Scripture and will cause spiritual or physical harm to yourself, then it is clearly unwise to submit. To submit in such circumstances is to violate the heart of Paul’s message, as well as the heart of God.
Finally, this perspective reminds us that how we treat our husbands is not only in our hands, but a matter on which we’ll be held accountable. Wives are not to submit to their husbands simply because Scripture commands us to blindly obey, but because we are seeking to be women of wisdom. Submission is just one of the many ways that we can exercise wisdom in our marriages and our lives.