Submission doesn’t Mean what you Think it Means
How to read Ephesians 5:22
Bad theology hurts women. Sometimes it even kills them.
In his book Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, Lee Grady tells the story of a woman called Doris who suffered through an abusive marriage. Doris’s husband, the head deacon at their church, would sometimes come home from work in a rage and physically assault his wife.
For a long time, Doris said nothing. But after the violence began to escalate, she turned to their pastor for help.
“He’s your husband,” said the pastor. “You can’t leave him. He has authority over you. You must be making him angry.”
Doris meekly returned home believing that she was somehow responsible for the abuse she was suffering. Nothing changed. Her husband continued to beat her, and eventually, he killed her.
Doris’s story is hardly unique. I have had female readers tell me similar stories.
“My husband was abusive, but my church said I had to forgive him and stay with him.”
And I’ve had male readers say similar things as well, but not as many.
Grady reports that in the United States, religious homes are ranked second highest in incidents of domestic abuse. Only the homes of alcoholics are worse.
Why do so many religious men abuse their wives? It might have something to do with this verse:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22)
This scripture is part of a two-punch combination that misguided men have inflicted upon women. Apparently, Ephesians 5 says wives must submit to abusive husbands, while Matthew 5 says they can never walk away.
Of course, these scriptures say no such thing. But read them through a patriarchal lens and you’ll think they do.
“Let women be subject to their husbands as to a lord.”
That’s how Thomas Aquinas read Ephesians 5. Aquinas said the relationship between a husband and a wife is “like that of a master to his servant.”
Although the husband is not really a lord, his wife submits to him as though he were.
Many Church Fathers and theologians taught that wives are meant to serve their husbands.
Augustine said, “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in that the lesser serves the greater.”
The first duty of a wife, said the Puritan John Dod (1549–1645), is to fear her husband. Her second duty, “is constant obedience and subjection… she must resolve to obey him in all things.”
Although the trend these days is towards equality in marriage, much of the Christian world remains committed to traditional roles of hierarchy. And this is understandable, because Paul told wives to submit to their husbands. It’s right there in black and white.
For some, this is the most dangerous word in the Bible. It’s medieval. It opens the door to all kinds of abuse. Surely no other word has been the cause of as much physical and psychological damage.
But is it possible that submit does not mean what we think it means?
Could it be that this word, like the words repent, confess, obedience, and love, has been so mangled by manmade tradition that it no longer bears any resemblance to its original meaning?
Submission, as modeled by Jesus and described by Paul, stems from love, not power. Submission is not forced on us from above; it is something we offer to another. It’s choosing to surrender because we want to, not because we have to.
We yield to the other because we love and respect them. Indeed, submission is the essence of love. It is saying, “Because I love you, I choose to put you first.”
The apostle we read at weddings
This weekend, at weddings all over the world, thousands of people will hear the following words from the Apostle Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not self-seeking” (1 Cor. 13:4–5).
On the subject of love, there was no greater authority. Paul understood that true love does not seek its own, but is other-focused.
Love says, “How can I put the needs of the one I love ahead of my own needs? How can I put the other one first?”
The choice to freely give yourself to another human being—a husband, a wife, a child, a friend—for no other reason than you love them, is a tremendous risk. It is probably the greatest risk you can take. But when you have someone you truly love, you’ll happily take the risk because you love them.
And if they happen to love you back—well, there’s no greater thrill in the world.
“Sounds great, Paul, but what if the husband is abusive?” For answers to tough questions like this and practical tips for a heavenly marriage, check out The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice.
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This is the best explanation I have ever read about submission. Finally I am hearing the heart and voice of the Lord regarding this word. I have read many people’s account of this scripture but it has never bore witness with the Lord and love I know. This writing captures the essence.
Thank you, Rhonda.
Good article and advertisement for your book
Not many years ago l listened to a sermon heavily waited toward ‘staying and believing.’ No matter what! In these days zero tolerance for an unchanging abusive partner has to be our level. Considered time and therapy and clear change needs to be proven.
What if he just refuses to work and pay bills. His parents give him money he’s 52 yes old married 28 yrs. verbally abusive if I state I’m leaving. What should I do?
I recommend getting marriage counseling, preferably from someone who has been married for decades and is in tune with the Spirit.
Refuses counseling. It would be me getting the counseling. He knows the Lord listens to teachers but just doesn’t want to work. Thanks for your reply.
Thank you, Paul! I am really blessed
These teachings on women have been some of the best of all your wonderful teachings. They not only reveal God’s true view and love for women but His plan and love for all mankind. Thank you.
Thank you for the encouraging comment, Mr. B.
Thank you, Sir Paul Ellis, you are a blessing! I want to say that we submit to God because we know Him, we trust Him that He loves us. In same way, with trust i understand to submit to husband knowing that he is trustworthy of respect and knowing his love. As we do to the Lord we do in the same way, not to the opposite, to husband, which means the husband should be in the same dirrection to the Lord. We love another as we love ourselves, not as we hate ourselves, love is in truth, and is kind. Someone who steal our peace and joy and health by cheating or abusing, is not from the Lord, someone who treat us poorly doesn’t love us and can’t go together two who don’t agree. In this case separation is already installed even before to become official, so can’t live a life being hurt and in hipocrisy! Can only forgive and pray and stay where is safe mentaly, emotionaly and physicaly, follow grace and peace of God, honour God with our body, not being slave of any abuser, live healed and whole and trust God for He will take care of for all our needs, Hallelujah!
Why would she need counseling if her spouse is the one refusing to provide. The Scripture is clear about a man not providing for his family. God calls a man like that, worse than an infidel (unbeliever). Continued submission to a man like that will just encourage or enable his ungodly, sinful behavior indefinitely. What she needs is an exit plan! I know. I’ve been there.
Curious to know your opinion on my situation. I know my husband loves me and very protective of me. So much so that he insists that he screens all books that I would like to read because he believes I am so easily deceived. I’m 58 y/o and a mother of 5. I’m also a graduate with a Master’s degree. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for over 30 years so it’s a very hard pill to swallow when I feel that he treats me like a child.
Without knowing any context, my opinion is that this is an unhealthy arrangement that is perhaps based on a misunderstanding of what Paul says in 1 Tim. 2:14.
Thank you for your prompt reply. I let my husband know how I felt and he has since released me from our covenant but will not divorce me. He states I am no longer under his covering and I am free to do what I desire. I don’t know whether to cry or rejoice. I’m just heavy hearted.
I am very sorry to hear about your situation. I will pray for God’s grace and wisdom to prevail.
C.B I am sorry to hear this too. I am praying for you and your husband too.ABBA God loves you and your husband.He knows what is going on and why “behind the scenes” Even though your husband has “ released” you from his covenant God has not and will never and you are still under His covenant,covering and loving protection.Yes I believe it is too a misunderstanding of Gods word so I am praying for enlightenment from Holy Spirit.It is hard to be with someone who is in fear ( as I believe that is all it boils down to re: any type of control )so they feel like they have to use “control” in order to feel in control. I have been there and had to pray for the Lords intervention and intercession as it is a very difficult,delicate situation for everyone involved.