I have a closet door that is supposed to slide. It doesn’t. Somehow it got stuck. It’s a floor-to-ceiling mirrored door. I’d like it to work, but it’s a repair job I can’t tackle myself. Eventually—maybe—I’ll call someone in to repair it. Meanwhile, I just use the other door.
Sometimes in the Christian culture, ideas get stuck. They’re supposed to work one way, but they don’t. They got off the track at some point, but nobody fixed it. So we live with an idea that is not working, and may not even be right.
This past weekend at Lakeside Church (as part of a series called Myths We Love to Believe) we talked about the Myth that women are supposed to submit to men. More specifically the myth says wives are to submit to their husbands. Now, before you go all Internet crazy on me, Yes, I know the Bible does say this. It says it precisely. Twice. Nope, make that four times. Very clearly wives are called by God to submit to their husbands.
However, few lies are complete lies. Few myths are completely void of truth. When Satan wants to slip us a myth about God and how we relate to him, he usually slides it into a sleeve of truth. That way it looks good on the outside. If the inside is not quite accurate, well, he figures many people won’t notice.
The female submission story is one of those kinds of myths. When we actually look at Ephesians 5:21-6:9, the centerpiece passage that teaches submission, we learn a fuller story. Ephesians 5:21 sets the stage. Paul writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The principle Paul is teaching is called Mutual Submission.
Perhaps a breakdown of the literary passage will help. Ephesians 5:21-6:9 is one unit of literature. It is an application-oriented follow-up to Ephesians 5:15-20, where Paul invites the Christians to understand God’s will and be filled with God’s Spirit. One application of being filled with God’s Spirit is to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is a universal Christian responsibility. Followers of Jesus are to submit, or place themselves under, one another. It is mutual submission. It is always mutually beneficial.
The surprise is that it plays out in some unexpected relationships. Three pairings of people follow the general principle: wives and husbands; children and fathers (or parents); and slaves and masters. Each one is a pairing of people who are called to submit to one another.
It is easy to see how slaves are expected to submit to masters—assuming that the institution of slavery were legal, as it was in Paul’s generation. Likewise, children should submit to or place themselves under their parents. Otherwise what is the Fifth Commandment about? But it is nearly impossible to figure out how a master should submit to a slave. Yet Paul tells the masters: “Treat your slaves in the same way.” We ask, the same way as what? Paul says, “Treat them in the same way Christian slaves are to treat their masters: with respect and fear and sincerity of heart.” That is a picture of mutual submission.
Fathers are also expected to submit to their children. This does not mean the father bows down to his kids. Paul says fathers should not exasperate their children—should not make them beside themselves with anger. Rather fathers are to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Fathers are to place themselves under their children to lift them up, to help them successfully live as followers of Jesus.
With that background, consider the first pairing Paul lists: husbands and wives. Because wives come first on the list, and because they get some specific instructions on submission, we often focus on the responsibility of the wife to submit. But that is the myth. In Paul’s words, husbands and wives, just like children and parents and slaves and masters, are to place themselves under one another. This is done for the purpose of lifting one another up, supporting one another, blessing one another.
And here’s where my sticky door theory comes into the conversation. Often, when we men come to this passage we get stuck. We slide right past the idea that submission, according to 5:21, is mutual among Christians of both genders. We get stuck on verse 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” From that flows the idea of headship and power and spiritual leadership.
For years the evangelical church has been stuck on the idea that a man is to be the spiritual leader of his wife. It is a noble concept. It was promoted years ago by the speakers at Promise Keepers events. It is inspiring and aspirational and sometimes completely legitimate (when a man is qualified and prepared to be a spiritual leader of his wife). But it is not what Paul is teaching in Ephesians 5 or any other passage about heads.
Under the banner of submission Paul gives the husband and the wife each one verb to describe what submission looks like for them. For the wife the word is found in Ephesians 5:33. The wife is called to respect her husband. That is what submission looks like for a wife toward her husband.
The husband’s marching orders are found in 5:25. Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives.” That is the only verbal imperative Paul gives. Love. Not lead. What did Jesus do for the church? He loved her! He gave himself up for her. He raised her up by standing under her. He washed and cleansed and cared for her. He smoothed out wrinkles and made her beautiful. Because he loved her. It is what a head does for a body.
We need this door to get unstuck. We have women pausing in their spiritual development because they are waiting for their husband to lead. We have men who feel guilty and inept because they believe they are supposed to lead, but they know their wife is far ahead of them spiritually. They could never catch up enough to lead her. So they stop trying and feel shame because of it.
I wish I could get this piece of the Christian culture unstuck. Many marriages could be so much more beautiful if men were freed up to love their wives without worrying about leading them. Just love them. Sacrifice for them. Lift them up by standing under them. Bless them. Serve them. They would probably get a beautiful bride in return. That’s what Jesus is hoping for.