Some may think it unwise to raise the subject of “submission” in marriage, much less to commend it as the essential virtue for happiness between husband and wife. And, yet, commend I do. Nay, I urge it. Indeed, you dismiss the divinely revealed truth of submissiveness in the marital union at your own peril and to certain regret.

But we must be careful to warn the reader: that uneasy shifting in our emotional pews upon hearing the word uttered in a lectionary reading, the embarrassment we might occasionally feel when we hear a preacher broach the unpopular, if not impolite and certainly politically incorrect subject, and the apparently unkind if not anachronistic command of St. Paul that ignites the furnace each morning in feminist studies departments in their ivy-covered converted university tool sheds, is likely not—I repeat, not—anything at all to do with the actual teaching.

Intrigued? Or, maybe skeptical? Even a bit perturbed? The author unhesitatingly grants you that privilege. But will you not give me a hearing, if not, for anything else, than to mock my perceived smugness? You say, “I have heard it all before from the likes of you. And another thing: Do you, Sir, dare to raise such an antiquated and painful topic when the social media posts are still on fire with lurid revelations of Hollywood producers and corporate titans gone wild with abuse of power?” Then read what is put forward on “submission” in marriage, if not to copy and paste on a satisfyingly nasty tweet. Only read. Only give me a hearing—No!—only give the Sacred Text its due.

The Reading of Scripture

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5.1,15,21-33 ESV).

Submission in the Bible

One of the most difficult words in the world today is the word, “submit.” Perhaps, it is a difficult word because we are a very proud, self-reliant people who want to control our own destinies. The concept of submission strikes many of us as weak or giving away our freedom.

I remember an English minister who was ministering in the United States tell how he felt that he simply could not relate to the spirit of Americans.[1] He could not put his finger on it. But something was missing. One weekend, he was with his wife rummaging through antique stores in rural Pennsylvania when he found his answer in the strangest place. Behind a bunch of cluttered antique stuff, was a sign, which dated back from before the American Revolution. The sign once hung in a store, like a modern-day bumper sticker, to encourage the Colonists. And the sign read, “We will have no king to rule over us.” The spirit, which inspired that sign, he said, was the difference he had been missing. In England, the concept of a sovereign ruling over one’s life was a concept easier to grasp. But he had missed a fallen condition of our culture here: the American spirit is not easily given to submission. That is good when you are dealing with tyrannical monarchs five thousand miles away. It is good when we are at war and need that spirit. It is not as good when you are preaching to self-reliant Americans about submitting their lives to the Sovereign King of Kings.

And it is not good for marriage. In marriage, we are to submit to each other. And submission is not only counter-cultural, but submission is also a complete reversal of human condition, which says “me first.” It is, in fact, a supernatural command that says, “Me last.” But as we must see, this supernatural attitude of submission in marriage is only understood when we come to know God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

I want to give you four brief truths about what submission is according to what God teaches us in Ephesians chapter five.

Submission is a response to God’s love for us.

In Ephesians 5.1, we read, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The Christian wife responds in submission to her husband out of what Christ has done for her. The Christian husband loves his wife with Christ-like love because he has known that love in his own life.

Perhaps you remember the beautiful short story by O’Henry entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” O’Henry tells the story of a young, very poor, couple who lived in New York City during the turn of the century. They wanted so deeply to give a wonderful gift to one another, but, alas, they had no money. So the young man went out and sold his only valuable possession, his watch, to buy a barrette for his wife’s beautiful long hair. You can imagine the surprise on his face when on Christmas morning he discovered that she had cut her hair and sold it to buy a chain for his watch. Of course, in the end, they had lost what they valued greatly, to show what they cherish most: their love for each other.

And that is submission. When we have received God’s love in our lives, we want to respond to God’s love by submitting to each other. This is not submission out of coercion, but submission out of knowing how Jesus submitted to the Father’s will for us.

There is another truth about submission in Ephesians five: Submission is not only a response to God’s love for us…

Submission is a reflection of our love for God.

Paul says in verse 2 of Ephesians 5 that such submission is a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Such language points to the Old Testament system of offerings made to God by priests. Marriage, then, that is modeled after the love of God for us in Christ, is an act of worship to God.

I read this week, a poem, a sort of hymn, written by a man to God for the gift of his wife. It goes like this:

“O God, my wife is still the miracle of my life. She knows my hands and she knows my heart; she performs magic with my dreams. She is female joy giving birth to life. She graces this paradise like a priestess making ritual of the common life of marriage. She is love; she is the mother of our children. She is home. Thank you, God, for the miracle of my wife.”[2]

Submission happens spontaneously when we come to see marriage as God’s miracle. But it also must happen intentionally. And when we see that we reflect our love back to the God who gave us our wives and our husbands. This is more beautiful than we ever imagined.

I wonder who would take the hand of your wife today and hold it and turn to her for one moment right now and let her know with your eyes that you love her? Do that right now, please.

Thank you. According to God’s Word, we just worshipped God as we loved our wives.

Now we are ready for the third truth about submission in Ephesians chapter five:

Submission is a release of our lives to each other.

This Scriptural teaching shows that marriage is a total giving of our lives to each other. This is not one submitting and another not. It is a free offering of our lives to another person. For we read:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (vv. 22-25)

The wife is not her own. She belongs to her husband. She lives to cherish him, to uplift him. And husbands, Paul says, must love the wife as his own body. He is to nourish her and take care of her, as his own flesh. Indeed, Paul goes on to show how, indeed, in marriage, God creates a one-flesh relationship. This is total giving of our lives to another person.

Such submission requires total vulnerability; total cost; total love.

I read about such love in this personal account:

“A salesman stopped one day at a doughnut shop in Texas. The salesman mindlessly ordered coffee, his thoughts still suspended at the argument at the door. He and his wife were in that rut where the harder you spin the wheels the deeper you go. Seated at a table near him was what looked like a young farm couple. He was wearing overalls, a Stetson parked on top of the cracking, pink linoleum table. The young woman next to him had a plain wedding band on her delicate finger. She wore a printed cotton dress. The soft crimson cotton was dotted with tiny yellow flowers. The salesman thought the colors in her dress looked like the red and golden glow of the setting-sun-sky starting to paint the Texas horizon outside. After finishing his coffee and doughnut, he got up to pay the bill. He watched as the cowboy happen to also hop up out of his chair, a sudden screeching of the metal chair on the concrete floor annoying the salesman. The farmer stood in front of the table looking at the girl in the cotton dress. He smiled and she returned the warm gesture, but with lips the shade of her crimson cotton dress. He leaned into her. She put her arms around his neck, and he lifted her up. The scene began to tell a story in a story. The young farm wife was wearing a full body-brace. He lifted the pretty prairie flower out of her chair and held her with an effortless smile. She was royalty to him. He was a lord to her. The cowboy backed out of the front door while gently holding his fragile queen. He swiveled on his boot heels, her print dress catching a breeze, a glimpse of petite feminine ankles trapped in iron and leather braces. But the metallic clanging of the emblems of her disease could not disfigure the radiant display. The young man walked to the pickup truck with the girl’s soft hands wrapped around a sun-baked, prematurely leathery neck. As the ranch hand carefully positioned his bride into the passenger-side of the 1970s-Chevrolet truck, everyone in the shop watched without the slightest movement. The unintended audience were frozen in speechless wonder until a waitress, dishrag intuitively, compulsively wiping an empty coffee mug broke the sacred silence. She spoke reverently. With eyes fixed on the parable in the truck, she whispered to the salesman, “Now, honey: that there is love.”[3]

In marriage, as Christ gave his life for us, we give our lives to each other. Submission is not that far of a stretch when you think what Christ has done for us on the Cross. It is the best way to take our vows seriously. Let’s just say it, such submission is, well, “. . . That there is love.”.

Submission is a revelation of God’s love for others.

Paul teaches in Ephesians five that when he is speaking of marriage, he is speaking of a mystery: the mystery of Christ and His Bride, the Church. In other words, marriage is a revelation of God’s love. Or to put it another way, when we give ourselves as husband and wife, the way God gave us Himself as Savior and Believer, then we witness to God’s love to others.

Many years ago, a young woman came into a Sunday morning service where I was preparing to give the Call to Worship. She did not know Christ. Her appearance suggested that her life was being lived in rebellion and sin. She started coming to our home on Monday nights for a time of discipleship. And she told me: she had been watching the way I treated my wife. And she had been watching the way the couples in our congregation treated each other. For in her life, she had known nothing but pain with relationships with men. And she knew only women who spoke evil of their husbands with other women. She only knew of men who didn’t cherish their wives but ignored them or used them and divorced them. One evening, in our Bible study, she broke down crying. And my wife and I sought to hold her and comfort her. And as she was heaving tears, she said, “You are all so kind to one another here. I can never have that.” Well, in a few years, I performed her wedding. And sometime later, baptized her little girl. And she wept again that day and told me how good God is.

You see the marriages of our church revealed the kindness and mercy and grace of God to that young woman, and it changed her life.

Submission requires a changed life, changed by God’s love, to transform the way we love. It is, in fact, a response to God’s love for us, a reflection of our love for God, a release of our lives to each other, and a revelation of God’s love for others.

To submit to each other in marriage—wives honoring their husbands as if his cloak is the God-given garment that protects your soul and gives you your name, husbands loving their wives as an act of denial, repudiation, of all other competing loves, practically giving your life away each day, as a demonstration of her royal role in your heart—is to reflect the submission of Jesus to undeserving sinners on a cross, and is to portray the response of the eternally grateful believer to God. When at first we bow before the One who submitted to His Father by submitting to us, we will be eager to embrace “submission” as the “natural” attitude and actions of one so astonished by God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[1] This story was related to me, personally, by my friend The Rev. Dr. John Guest, Rector of Christ Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania in October 2004.

[2] I have this anonymous poem written in my notes from 2004 as having been quoted by Rev. Dr. Bill Bouknight in a sermon, “Marriage: God’s Idea.”

[3] Adapted from my files.