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Ephesians (2010)

Wives in Submission

Ephesians 5:15-33

Lesson audio


This lesson is one of the most difficult to understand that modern Christians will ever get. The reason is simple: our view of marriage and family life is radically different than that of the church for the last 2000 years. To understand this difference we must take it step-by-step. Let us review what we have learned so far:

·         First, all authority belongs to Christ. He makes this explicit in Matthew, but Paul here uses it continually throughout the letter to the Ephesians. Since Paul lived in a time when authority was understood and respected, he did not necessarily explain all about authority.

·         By that authority Christ created the church. That church has certain characteristics:

o   The church is united. In particular it is stated that we are all "one in Christ Jesus." There is no sense in the church that one of us is more valuable than another of us.

o   We do have, however, differing gifts, functions and responsibilities.

o   There is a common code of Christian conduct which applies to all of those gifts, functions and responsibilities.

o   The essence of that common code of conduct is the imitation of Christ.

Be Careful How You Walk

Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

(Ephesians 5:15-21 NASB)

(Some will argue that verse 21 belongs to the next section. Please note that it begins with a conjunction, "and." It is part and parcel of this section and should be read that way.")


Paul's argument here starts with the word, "therefore." He is referencing the background material above. What that means is that what he is about to say is a conclusion from the previous elements of his letter. In the middle of this section he will discuss husbands and wives rather briefly. This is one of the most controversial sections of Scripture, and it should be noted that the church in which your author belongs does not agree with him on the subject. The church to which he belongs teaches egalitarian marriage. In this author's opinion, that view is contrary to the Scriptures. When you bring this up with someone who is taught this view, however, you usually do not get the serious hearing. In short, they laugh. The author therefore begs the reader to be patient and to see whether or not there might actually be something to this point of view.

Be Careful

Paul now commends to us three elements of Christian conduct:

·         First, he begins with wisdom. It would have been normal for the Christian of the time to be familiar with the Proverbs of the Old Testament. Paul would assume that these people would know of this wisdom literature and would read it. It is a neglected art today; we believe in psychology, not wisdom.

·         Second, we are to "redeem the time.” Think of it as good time management; the idea is that you don't have an infinite amount of time on this planet, and you have things to do. Get them done.

·         Finally, the days are evil. The concept of evil has suffered greatly in the church as of late; we really don't like to talk about it. But it still exists — and the fact that the days of our time are in fact evil is still true. Everything is not coming up roses. Therefore, we have action to take.

Understand the Will of God

Paul counsels us here not to be drunk, but to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It's a very simple principle; you replace what is evil with what is good. One way to do this is in the singing of psalms and hymns. Those of us who are old enough to remember what hymns are, as opposed to choruses, will recall that they often taught a great deal of doctrine. This is an excellent way to memorize the points of doctrine which are necessary to the Christian life. As the subject of doctrine has lost its importance in the Christian churches, the use of hymns has become less and less necessary.

Perhaps most important of all is giving thanks. It is often difficult to be thankful for the troubles of life. Paul does not require us to drum up and the motion of thankfulness and gratitude; rather, to it knowledge that God has given us our circumstances and that we are to thank him for them. This is particularly true when we do not understand why he did so.

Be Subject

If there is a controversial point throughout this chapter, it is the concept of submission. Let me make two specific points:

·         Submission means exactly what it says. This is a correct translation of the Greek word; modern preachers to the contrary notwithstanding, it does not mean respect.

·         This submission is to each other. It is not at all unusual for to Christians to be in mutual submission to each other. To give the most common example, husband and wife are in submission to each other with regard to their bodies. A man is to regard his body as being his wife's; she is to regard her body as belonging to her husband. The two are one flesh.

Wives, Be Subject

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

(Ephesians 5:22-24 NASB)


May I begin with an example? Let me suppose that it's three o'clock in the morning. My dear lady, you are sleeping in your bed peacefully — and naked. Suddenly you hear the sound of someone chopping down your front door with a large ax. He runs into your bedroom grabs your naked body and drags you out of the house. What do you do?

You thank him profusely. He's a fireman, and your house was on fire.

Have you ever considered just what an act of submission this is? It is indeed extremely submissive behavior. It's the kind of thing that feminists should completely abhor. Yet we praise fireman for doing this — why? Because that's what we expect them to do; it's what we pay them to do; it's what we give them authority to do. I propose now to use the firemen as an example to explain to you the nature of authority — something which has been reviled in American society for 50 years.

The Elements of Authority

Let's take a look at authority in this context:

·         Authority is hierarchical. The fireman gets his authority from the fire department, which gets it from a city ordinance, which is enabled by a state law, by a government which is in place by the will of God. The firemen doesn't get his authority from himself.

·         Submission is merely the right response to righteous authority. If the fireman is behaving himself in accordance with his responsibilities and authority, it is your duty as a citizen to completely cooperate with him — even if that means being dragged out of your house naked at three o'clock in the morning. Submission does not mean that you are inferior to the firemen; it means that he has authority over you in the specific instance in question. Your right response is submission, by definition.

·         Submission, ultimately, is voluntary. We put those firemen in authority over us.

·         As a side note, authority is often a way to deal with the effects of sin. The most common example of this is the policeman. You can examine the Scripture, however, and find that one reason given for marriage is to deal with the man's lust — he is given authority so that his sin will be minimized.

·         Authority is given by responsibility (in the kingdom of God.) All of us are familiar with the boss who tells us that he has all of the authority and we have all of the responsibility. Most of us agree this is no way to run the office, but it's a very common way in which the office is run. The method in the kingdom of God is different. In the church, responsibility defines authority. That's why the firemen has such tremendous authority — it's because he has the tremendous responsibility of saving lives from fire. Notice that he cannot use this authority whenever he wants, but only when circumstances call for it. The same thing is true of authority in the kingdom; it is given for a purpose and must be exercised only for such purposes.

·         Authority in the kingdom is practiced in servant leadership. The ultimate example of this is Christ; but we can see it in the firemen as well. He does not drag you out of your house to lord it over you, but to save your life. His first question after doing so is probably, "are you all right?" His concern is for you, not for his own authority — if he does his job right.

·         Authority is given by God for the benefit of those in submission. In God’s case this is part of his character (love); in the fireman’s case we can see this clearly.


It is in this context that wives are told to submit to their husbands. They are to give the right response to his righteous authority. But we may see that this authority does not come from the husband himself, nor may he presume such authority, but he must obtain it from Christ. Therefore, he is obliged to follow Christ's rules and example in exercising his authority. He must do so in servant leadership, for example. The key question is: just what is the husband's authority? To answer that question, we must look at the husband's responsibility.

Husband's Responsibility

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

(Ephesians 5:25-33 NASB)

Baseline: Love Your Wife

Would you like to know just what this means? It is the secret to securing your wife's submission. Listen please to the words of Chrysostom:

Do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care for her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even though you undergo all this, you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way, then, as He honored her by putting at His feet one who turned her back on Him, who hated, rejected and disdained Him, as he accomplished this not with threats, or violence, or terror, or anything else like that, but through his untiring love; so also you should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one's partner for life, the mother of one's children, the source of one's every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience. What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

May I point out one thing? There is no sense in this thought that your wife must love you first. You have the responsibility to love her, husband. Even if she is not loving you, you are to love her. It is by love the Christian triumphs, not by force nor hatred nor anger.

Just what is the objective of loving your wife? It's quite clear: it is to sanctify your wife. Husband, you are the spiritual leader of your household. It is your responsibility to see that your wife is sanctified. You are responsible for her spiritual welfare. You might think this a vague and sort of fuzzy thing, but it is not. One of the best measures of spiritual welfare is your checkbook. If your life is that of giving and sharing, then at least some of your spiritual priorities on the right place. It doesn't matter who writes the checks; it doesn't matter who balances the budget. What matters is what the budget is used for — self gratification or the Lord's purposes?


There is a certain style to Christian leadership, particularly as it applies to husbands:

·         Self sacrifice is the basis of this style. It is servant leadership. If you are not willing to give yourself up for your wife, I would question whether or not you really love her.

·         Christ, you will recall, gave himself up for the church. You do this is therefore in imitation of Christ. If you want a working model of what to do, ask yourself what Jesus would do in this circumstance.

·         You must always remember that the two of you are one flesh. You are to love her like your own body.

Pastoral Technique

I once had it explained to me that the common idea of technicians that there exists a mental model of the equipment on which you are working is completely false. The psychologist who was teaching this course explained that I am nothing but a stimulus response mechanism — which of course is nothing but a mental model of the human being. The ancient church did not rely on psychology to deal with problems in marriage. They relied on the model of the church as being the bride of Christ. The husband represents Christ; the wife represents the church. That's the picture that they used first and foremost. It is surprising just how fruitful this technique is. It's also surprising how seldom it is used today.

The matter is very important. Paul tells us here that we left our parents to get married. For most of us, our parents were quite glad to see us get married — despite the fact that we were leaving their home and they were, in a sense, losing a child. It is this sense of importance of marriage which seems to be missing today. As one pastor put it, "if it doesn't work out, you can always get a divorce." It's as if marriage is a trivial, short term thing — when what God wants is a life long growing love.

Permit me to share a personal observation. When I discussed this with married couples, the usual beginning reaction is that the wife wants nothing to do with it, and the husband is willing to support that. Egalitarian marriage says that submission is wrong. That's what most Christians believe today, including the staff of this church. When I finish the discussion, the wife often tells me that this is exactly the kind of husband she wants. This is the man she thought she was marrying. I explained this to one woman in an e-mail correspondence, comparing the husband who misuses his authority to a tyrant, and the one who uses his authority correctly as a Prince. When she got the last e-mail, she replied with a simple sentence: "I want my Prince back." Unfortunately her husband did not want to return to being the Prince.

Perhaps it comes down to this: we have a choice. We can structure our marriages with the demand for "our rights." Or we can structure our marriage around the imitation of Christ. If you will recall, Christ came to this Earth and did not get his rights. Instead, he served. Husbands, take warning.

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