Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24 NIV
Christian wives of all classes, cultures, and centuries have taken these words to heart since the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write them to wives in the Church in Ephesus nearly 2,000 years ago. Over much of Church history, Christian wives and their husbands have most often understood the above verses as an unequivocal command. Even so, wives careful to observe this command have worked it out in a variety of ways. Likewise, husbands have been eager to evaluate their wives’ efforts. In addition, these three verses have even been used to imply that all women are subject to all men. Whew!
In my lifetime, the status of women has grown in Western culture. As a result, Christians with high regard for scripture have been prompted to examine this passage more closely. Some choose to stand firm in the straightforward interpretation. Others have brought in scriptures that provide nuance to those interpretations, enabling God’s grace to soften the tone.
Regardless of your approach to Paul’s strong guidance for wives in verses 22-24, his language is equally robust in its full context (Ephesians 5:20-33 NIV). When both husbands and wives set aside their feelings to surrender their prerogatives to Christ, this passage provides a reliable rudder for marriage stability whether spouses are navigating smooth or choppy waters.
Elsewhere Paul implies that Christ’s honor is at stake in Christian marriage. Therefore the specific directive to wives to submit to their husbands should not accommodate a husband’s blatant disobedience to the Word of God or require tolerance of undeniable abuse. In such situations, a wife must obey the Word of God in confronting her husband’s demands to the contrary. In certain circumstances, Godly support or intervention from other wise Christians may be advisable.
The intention of these verses is to frame a picture of the love, blessings, and security that are possible in Biblical marriages and families. God invites each husband and wife to join him in painting a Godly and personalized picture of their marriage. Like all passages of scripture, verses 22-24 must be understood in their immediate context as well as the entirety of scripture. Our forever goal is to grow in our familiarity with the character of Jesus and bring glory to his name.
Many resources are available to address the weighty concerns that have grown up around misinterpretations of verses 22-24. Have patience that the Lord will instruct you as you keep researching these scriptures. Be gracious to and pray for those who struggle in their marriages. Be aware of confusion around this issue (that exists for more than a few contemporary Christians), as you read this article by former faith deconstructionist Sarabeth Caplin.