Marital submission means putting God first
James Knight has been considering the call, in scripture, for wives to submit to their husbands, and shares with us his interpretation of that instruction.
"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord." says St Paul in Ephesians 5:22-23.
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This is an instruction that seems so antiquated to a modern audience. And understandably so; in the age of sexual equality, a relationship based on a woman being submissive to a man could be seen as an anathema to many. But I think what St Paul means by it is widely misunderstood. The power of wives submitting to their husbands is not some kind of doctrinal shibboleth that is easily replaced by new wave feminism or contemporary egalitarianism - it is actually, I think, an instruction that shows the man’s huge responsibility before God and before his earthly beloved.
Recall Ephesians 5:25 again, where Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and see how that plays out in terms of wives submitting to their husbands. Just think what that actually means in terms of husbands taking the lead in living a Christ-centred life. Christ gave His life for the church, and in doing so He sanctified us to set us apart from sin into righteousness. When Jesus said ‘Be perfect!’ - He meant it. He meant, do everything in your power to be as much like God, and as close to God relationally, as you can possibly be. Husbands therefore are called to love their wives with the same kind of purifying love that Christ has for his beloved creation.
In saying “Wives submit to your husbands”, St Paul is really saying to our female beloveds “Submit to the Christ that is in your husband”. Think what that means as a responsibility for husbands: we’d better jolly well be as Christ-like as it’s possible to be, because our beloveds exist first to please God, and it is our responsibility to make sure that happens. Wives are people of God first, and beloveds second - and their spiritual well-being and walk with God has been entrusted into our relationship with them.
Wives submitting to their husbands is really an instruction for us husbands to be worthy of such an honour, by reflecting and imitating Christ in a way that radiates Godly influence on the beloved. Your wife is given to you by God to be helped transformed into perfection, through the power of Christ's love and grace.
Your love for her is primarily about being alive to truth and purity and righteousness - from that all other pleasures flow. Your love is about encouraging her faith in Christ Jesus, to be pleasing before His eyes; to receive praise; to present your wife to Christ as a precocious student might present her work to a truly gifted teacher; or a daughter to her father; or a protégé to her mentor; and most of all, a creature to the Creator.
Wives submitting to their husbands is about trusting a beloved to love them in a manner worthy of the Lord, and calling on the male beloved to treat her as well as it’s possible to treat her, and help her become as Christ-centred and grace-inspired as possible. It’s about being loved with enough Godliness that will fix both their minds on Christ, and become the Divine creatures they were created to be, so the husband can present his wife to the Lord with absolute pride and joy in his heart, and say “Isn’t she amazing? Look how much she loves you and how passionately she has put you first in life, Lord”.
Wives submitting to their husbands is not a call towards patriarchy or masculine predominance or feeble submission - it is the opposite: it is a call for the husband to be the most humble, gracious, devoted, truth-seeking man of God he can possibly be: so much so that his wife is his priority, and his conduct is so Godly that it radiates into her life and makes her feel inspired towards Christ, and loved because of who she is and what she will become.
This is the greatest honour and blessing God could bestow on a man - and it is a commission that can only be achieved to its highest end with perfect truth-seeking, love, grace, kindness, gentleness, generosity, understanding and devotion.
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
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