A version of this article first appeared on the author’s blog.
I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University when I first grappled with Ephesians 5:22. I’d come from an academically driven, equality-oriented, single-sex high school. And I was repulsed. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.” You’ve got to be kidding me.
I had three major problems with this verse.
The first was the premise that wives should submit. I knew women are just as competent as men—often more so. If there is wisdom in asymmetrical decision-making in marriage, I thought, surely it should depend on who was more competent in that area: sometimes the husband, sometimes the wife.
The second was the idea that wives should submit to their husbands “as to the Lord.” It’s one thing submitting to Jesus Christ, the self-sacrificing King of the universe. It’s quite another to submit to a fallible, sinful man—even as one thread in the fabric of a much greater submission to Christ.
The third—which perhaps grieved me most—was how harmful I believed this verse was to my gospel witness. I was offering my unbelieving friends a radical narrative of power inversion, in which the Creator God laid down his life, in which the poor out-class the rich, in which outcasts become family. The gospel is a consuming fire of love-across-difference with the power to burn up racial injustice and socioeconomic exploitation.
But here was this horrifying verse seeming to promote the subjugation of women. Jesus had elevated women to an equal status with men. Paul, it seemed to me, had pushed them back down. I worried this verse would ruin my witness.
Picture of Christ and the Church
In my frustration, I tried to explain Ephesians 5:22 away. In the Greek, the word translated “submit” appears in the previous verse, “Submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), so I tried to argue that the rest of the passage must be applying submission as much to husbands as wives. But this didn’t stick: the following verses lay out distinct roles for husbands and wives.
Then I turned my attention to the command to husbands. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the church? By dying on the cross; by giving himself, naked and bleeding, to suffer for her; by putting her needs above his own; by giving everything for her.
I asked myself how I would feel if this was the command to wives: Wives, love your husbands to the point of death, putting his needs above yours, and sacrificing yourself for him.
If the gospel is true, none of us comes to the table with rights. The only way in is flat on your face. If I want to hold on to my fundamental right to self-determination, I must reject the message of Jesus, because he calls me to submit completely to him: to deny myself and take up my cross and follow him (Luke 9:23).
Then, the penny really dropped. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church. This model isn’t ultimately about any individual wife and husband; it’s about Jesus and the church. God created sex and marriage to give us a glimpse of his intimacy with us.
Because our marriages point to a greater marriage, the roles are not interchangeable: Jesus gives himself for us; we submit to him.
So, much to my surprise, the three problems I had when I first read Ephesians 5:22 were resolved. But I now have three concerns about how complementarian marriage is often taught.
1. Attempts to summarize
Complementarian marriage is often summarized as “Wives submit, husbands lead.” But this summary doesn’t reflect the biblical commands. Wives are indeed called to submit (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1). But the primary call for husbands is love (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33; Col. 3:19), and the additional commands call for empathy and honor (1 Pet. 3:7). The command to wives in Ephesians certainly implies that husbands should lead with the sacrificial love of Christ. But if we must boil the Scriptures down, “Wives submit, husbands love” is a more accurate reflection of their weight.
2. Attempts at psychological grounding
Hoping to uphold the goodness of God’s commands, Christians sometimes try to ground complementarian marriage in gendered psychology: women are natural followers, men are natural leaders; men need respect, women need love; and so on. I’ve heard the claim that women are naturally more submissive, but I’ve never heard anyone argue that men are naturally more loving.
I’ve also heard people argue that we are given the commands because they address what we’re naturally bad at: women are good at love, men are good at respect, so the calls are reversed. But to say that human history teaches us that men naturally respect women is to stick your head in the sand with a blindfold on and earplugs for good measure.
At best, these claims about gender are generalizations, analogous to the claim that men are taller than women—though far less verifiable. At worst, they cause needless offense to a generation that already misunderstands and misrepresents what the Bible says about gender. They also invite exceptions: if these commands are given because wives are naturally more submissive, and I find I’m a more natural leader than my husband, does that mean we can switch roles?
If we look closely, however, we’ll see that these claims are nowhere to be found in the text. Ephesians 5 grounds our marital roles not in gendered psychology, but in Christ-centered theology.
3. Attempts to justify “traditional” gender roles
Ephesians 5 sticks like a burr in our 21st-century, Western ears. But we must not misread it as justifying “traditional” gender roles. The text doesn’t say the husband is the one whose needs come first and whose comfort is paramount.
In fact, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of traditional gender roles, in its original context and today. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the axe of the gospel.
But my greatest concern when I hear Ephesians 5 taught is my failure to live up to it. I’ve been married for a decade, and it’s a daily challenge to remember what I’m called to in this gospel drama, and to notice opportunities to submit to my husband as to the Lord—not because I’m naturally more or less submissive, or because he is naturally more or less loving, but because Jesus submitted to the cross for me.
My marriage isn’t ultimately about me and my husband, any more than Romeo and Juliet is about the actors playing the title roles. My marriage is about reflecting Jesus and his church.
Ephesians 5:22 used to repulse me. Now it convicts me and calls me toward Jesus: the true husband who satisfies our needs, the one man who deserves our ultimate submission.