When Camilla and I were writing our wedding vows, my future wife told me that she had a problem with the word submit. We had dug up some traditional vows based on Ephesians 5:22: “I promise to love, cherish and submit to my husband as to the Lord.”
“I’m not going to say that,” said Camilla.
I didn’t really think she would. Danish women are fiercely independent. They don’t submit to anyone anywhere.
In the end, we opted for a watered-down version of that passage. But if we were to redo our vows today, neither one of us would have a problem saying the word submit. In fact, we would relish it because we have learned the true meaning of submission.
What does it mean to submit?
When we think of submission, we tend to think of the strong dominating the weak. We picture wrestling holds and being beaten into submission. We think of kings ruling over subjects, and husbands lording it over wives. But this is not the sort of submission that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.
Want to know what submission is really like? Look to that wonderful union we recognize as the Godhead. See God the Son submitting in all things to God the Father. See God the Father giving the Son a Name above all names. See the Son bragging about the Spirit, and the Spirit testifying of the Son.
Surely submission is one of God’s most beautiful ideas. It is the very essence of other-focused love.
In a marriage, who submits to whom? Do husbands submit or wives?
Many churchgoers familiar with Ephesians 5 would say that wives submit, but the biblical answer is both. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Husbands put wives first, wives put husbands first, and that’s the recipe for a happy marriage.
At least that’s the theory.
In reality, what sometimes happens is that only one of the partners submits, and the result is an imbalanced relationship. Whenever you have a meek wife submitting to a domineering husband or a gentle man yielding to a strong-willed woman, you have a marriage that’s out of whack. It will take considerable effort from the long-suffering partner to keep the marriage going.
And this is why Paul speaks to both husbands and wives.
Like a director dispensing lines in a play, he wants both actors to understand their roles. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved his church, and wives are to respect and submit to their husbands, as to the Lord.
As long as the husband concerns himself with his part, and the wife concerns herself with hers, all will be well. But as soon as the husband starts reminding the wife of her lines—“Woman, submit!”—there will be trouble.
And trouble there is, because the church teaches only half of Paul’s message. It tells wives to submit but it rarely says the same thing to husbands. Which is surprising because in Ephesians the emphasis is the other way around. Paul spends more time talking to husbands than to wives. Wives get three verses; husbands get nine.
If we are to teach submission, let us do it the way Paul did it. Let us right the imbalances of history by encouraging men to lead the way.
Extracted and adapted from Dr. Paul Ellis’s new book, The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice.