Be Subject to One Another

Debbie Holloway

I don’t often base my theology on my feelings. Now, I do think God implants desires, instincts, and often feelings inside of us to better communicate His own heart. But I am a cautious person and I rarely trust my own feelings over the judgment of someone I consider wiser than myself.

The apostle Paul (someone probably wiser than myself) wrote to one of his churches: “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.

So I might look around and think, Man, guys are dumb. Or I might consider my own opinions on a certain matter and think, I could give much wiser input than HE could about this decision – but when it comes to my future husband (and yes, we have a date set) I know what Paul has to say.

However, I don’t think that’s all he has to say.

Ephesians chapter five isn’t only about marriage. In fact, it’s actually about the Church and being “imitators of God.” Just ONE verse before the (in)famous passage on husbands and wives, Paul writes “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

Backing up, his whole thought goes like this: 

“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 5:17-21).

My first thought is, wow. Paul is trying to impart the importance of humble, selfless community. We are not to spend our time getting drunk; it’s unsightly and a waste of time. We are to speak to each other in psalms! According to Strong’s concordance, the Greek psalmois used in the verse means we should communicate with each other as though we were musical instruments. My communication to another believer should be a “sacred ode.” That’s a lot more grace and intentionality than that with which believers often speak to each other, I think.

Then Paul tells us to be subject to each other in the fear of Christ. Now, the Fear of the LORD is a different subject entirely. My fiancé is a biblical studies student with a concentration on the Old Testament, and he did a very extensive paper on how the Fear of the LORD means a lot more than “reverence” or “respect.” One source I remember him telling me about described this fear as the fear you might have of a spouse. Not afraid because they abuse you, but afraid that you might displease them, break your vows, or wound them. The fear is like living with great care and caution because the love you have for them is so strong. I guess that is sort of a side-note on my thoughts, but I have a feeling that this Fear is an important, underlying root in examining how and why we treat each other the way we do.

So, we are to (in and through this Fear of Christ) be subject to our Christian brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. This is the same word used in the following verse: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the LORD” (Ephesians 5:22). On the one hand, I think it’s important to note that the word is the same. If we are supposed to subject ourselves to all our Christian brethren, of course we must to our spouses! And yet, the text clearly does go further. It says for me to be subject to my “own” husband – specifically (not yours, not hers, and not any other man) denoting that this submission is a little different. Paul does not say submit through or in Christ (as he does in Ephesians 5:21) but says just like the Church submits to Christ. Similarly, and of striking importance to a later point, Paul also says that husbands are to love their wives just like Christ loved the ChurchEphesians 5:25.

He is setting up a model here for us to follow. This is an important relationship; one that God has clearly treasures and values. Marriage is so important that it’s modeled after our relationship with Christ. Clearly it’s an imperfect model (because no one is Christ- Romans 3:10). But it’s something.

And here’s something I find more fascinating the more I read it:

“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” Ephesians 5:25-30.

I have seen many controversial sermons, messages, and articles tackle the role of wives in Ephesians 5. But you know what I have not heard as much about?

  • Husband: guide your wife so faithfully and righteously that you keep her holy and blameless- never lead her into a bad or dangerous situation.
  • Husband, nourish and cherish your wife (mind, body, spirit) with all the care and caution of self-preservation. You would do anything to keep yourself alive, well, satisfied, and happy. Do that for her as though her body (mind, spirit) was your own.
  • Husband, love her just like Christ loves the Church. Really. Like he ministered to her. Suffered and died for her. Pursues her every day to make her love him like he loves her.

Wow. Wow. I can’t think of a greater charge in Scriptures than “love [insert person here] as Christ loves the church.” Because Christ’s love for his Body is endless, perfect, wise, flawless, and selfless. He listens to us, protects us, works with our faults, guides our choices, and rolls with all the punches of every new age. And men cannot be that, not really. But they are called to try. Just like I, as a woman, will not be someone who can be good at subjecting myself to my husband. But I know that my soon-to-be-husband is the kind of man who will do everything he can to love me like Christ loves the Church, so I am going to try my best to subject myself to him in our discussions and decisions- just as Christ laid down his own human will for the Father’s greater plan.

It has become a firm conviction of mine that women were designed by God to be amazing helpers. I mean, we really are amazing helpers. There is something about women that I find awe-inspiring and fascinating. How we can be single-mindedly devoted to nurturing, assisting, planning, or caring. How weird instincts kick in when somebody is bleeding or hungry or crying. And obviously not every woman has all of these things cultivated beautifully. I myself am certainly in the midst of learning how to be a woman. But basically for every sort of man, there is a sort of woman that is a magnificent helper for him. I have found the man I am supposed to help. He has found the woman he is supposed to love. Neither of us take that responsibility lightly.

I suppose my current conclusion on the roles of husbands and wives is that their mandates really are strikingly similar when you get down to brass tacks and examine context: Reflect Christ. God made women in such a way that it will be easier in some ways to be the ones subjecting. Having a mandate to submit also gives us necessary reminders of how Christ is our head and we have to daily submit to his will. God made men in such a way that they are ready to tackle the adventure of loving, and having the responsibility for the family decisions reminds them of how Christ cares for us, and to soberly approach any decisions they make.

I’m okay with men and women being different. But in this matter I think we really have the same calling: to be Christ’s love to our spouses. To always be willing to concede, give up, or make the sacrifice. We are just bad at doing that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be writing endless articles (like this one!) about what Paul has to say about God’s heart for marriage. But God calls us to be better than we are. Which is exciting for me. Because that means He believes in me, and that He’s willing to help me, and He wants to make my marriage into Something that Looks Like Him.

Debbie Wright is Assistant Editor for Family Content at Crosswalk. She lives in Glen Allen, Virginia and is an avid writer, reader, and participant in local community theatre.

Publication Date: July 2, 2012