Summary: Christians firmly accept everything that the Bible teaches, which includes accepting Jesus Christ as being their head. To do that requires us to subject ourselves to his will in everything he says. However, Paul says that in this same way, wives are to subject themselves to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22,23,25), yet many Christians have a hard time accepting this biblical teaching. Then what did Paul mean when he wrote these words? This article examines the divinely established relationship that should exist between husbands and wives.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians saying, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22,23,25).
As Christians, we firmly accept Jesus Christ as being our head, and that requires us to subject ourselves to his will in everything he says. As such, we willingly consent to becoming his servants. Paul says that in this same way, wives are to subject themselves to their husbands.
This advice has been the subject of much heated debate, especially in the modern age of feminism. Even within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has been taught at the highest levels of leadership that husbands and wives are equal in authority within their home. More than this, it is one of their fundamental doctrines that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11), meaning that in order to inherit eternal life it takes both a man and a woman being sealed together as eternal marriage partners. In other words, a man by himself cannot inherit eternal life without being eternally married to a wife, nor can a woman inherit eternal life without being eternally married to a husband (see D&C 131:1-4). Therefore, the wife is just as important to a man’s salvation as is the husband being equally important to a woman’s salvation. As such, they are equally as important in the eyes of God.
If that is true, then why did Paul say that wives are to submit themselves to their husbands? More than that, Paul doesn’t merely say that wives are to obey their husbands, but rather that they must “submit” themselves to him. That infers much more than just being obedient. The word submit means “to yield or subject one’s self to a higher authority; to consent to abide by whatever is asked.” To many people, this is the definition of a servant or slave. Therefore, many people interpret Paul’s words as saying that a husband is superior to his wife and that the wife is expected to be her husband’s slave by willingly submitting herself to whatever he asks of her without complaint or reservation. But is that what Paul really means?
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is perfect, fully righteous, and absolutely fair and just in all that he does, but the same cannot be said of any mortal man or woman. Therefore, submitting our self to someone who is perfect, is not the same as submitting ourselves to someone who is very much imperfect. Then what did Paul mean when he wrote these words?
To gain a proper understanding of what Paul said on this subject of marriage we need to look at these words in the context of the broader message he was making to the Ephesians, rather than taking these few words in isolation. When properly understood, we find that Paul was really explaining to men what their proper role is as husbands, rather than telling women how they should behave as wives.
It should be noticed that everything Paul says after making this comment about the duty of a wife, is directed specifically at husbands. Beginning in verse 25 he says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: Nevertheless, let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband” (verse 25-33).
The scriptures tell us that God loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son to die in order to save us from our sins, and there is no greater love that can be shown than one man being willing to lay down his life in someone else’s place (John 15:13). Paul says that Christ so loved us that he willingly gave his life to save ours. But then he goes on to say that, in the same way, husbands should likewise be willing to sacrifice their life for that of their wife’s. In other words, husbands are to put the welfare of their wife ahead of their own.
To better understand this principle, we can compare the duties of a husband to the duties of a father. The scriptures tell us that children are to obey their parents but no Christian would interpret that to mean that children are to be the slaves of their parents. Rather, being a father carries with it the duty and great responsibility of watching over and caring for the needs of his children. Society requires him to provide for their physical needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, along with their educational needs, both formal and informal, and to provide them with the emotional support they need so when they grow into adulthood they will be capable of making a positive contribution to society.
When understood in this way, the role of a father is that of a protector, provider, mentor, and a positive role model. That is a very different image than that of a slave owner or a dictator. When we read what Paul said to husbands, we find that the same attitude fathers have toward their children is the same as what husbands should have towards their wives. He is to be their protector, provider, mentor, and be a positive role model for her to look up to and strive to emulate. If husbands were to take this kind of an approach to loving and caring for their wives, she could not help but have reverence for him.
Paul also likens the role of the husband to that of caring for one’s own body. When a man is hungry, he feeds himself. When he is tired, he rests. When he is cold, he dresses himself warmly, and when he is sick, he tends to his illness. When God joined Adam and Eve in marriage, he declared that the two of these individuals were now of “one flesh.” That is to say that although a husband and wife may be two separate individuals yet they need to work together as though they are one person. To do this they need to be united in the things they do, but since not everyone thinks alike, therefore husbands and wives need to learn how to get along and cooperate with one another even when they don’t see eye to eye with each other.
Imagine two oxen pulling a heavy load where one ox wants to go in one direction, and the other ox wants to go in a different direction. Under this situation the load they are pulling will go nowhere or will be pulled apart. In order for the load to go where it’s supposed to, both oxen must be pulling it in the same direction. And the same is true in marriage. If a husband wants to go in one direction and the wife wants to go somewhere different, then the heavy load of transporting their marriage safely to heaven will go nowhere or fall apart.
Since the man is tasked with being the head of his family, it then becomes his responsibility to make sure there is agreement between him and his wife on what direction they should go together. To some, this is interpreted as saying that the man tells his wife what they’re going to do and she’s supposed to willingly “submit” to doing whatever he says. However, this doesn’t fit with what Paul said about the husband loving his wife.
Paul said that a man is suppose to love his wife just like he loves his own body. Most men will not abuse their body, because they know that if they do, it will only bring them pain and suffering, therefore, they carefully attend to their physical needs. If a husband and wife are “one flesh” then if a husband cares for his wife, he is caring for himself and will save himself a lot of pain and suffering, but if he physically or emotionally mistreats his wife, he is really inflicting pain and suffering on himself in ways that he may not immediately see but which will later come back to torment him.
For example, when we excessively smoke cigarettes we damage our lungs, just as excessively drinking alcohol damages the liver, or eating too much sugar can lead to diabetes, however, the symptoms of these illnesses don’t become apparent until the damage become critical. In the same way, when a husband doesn’t take care of the health of his marriage by misusing his responsibility as the head of his family, the damage he is causing in his marital relationship won’t be noticeable until it is almost too late to correct the problem. And if his marriage falls into disrepair, he may very well have lost his opportunity to inherit eternal life.
In the 4th chapter of his letters to the Ephesians Paul gives us a further explanation of the duties of a husband, although he does so in an indirect way. In other words, in this chapter Paul is talking about how the saints in general should behave, but what he says to them can also be directly applied to the role of a husband. To understand why, let’s first see what counsel Paul gives to these saints.
As we read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find that there were a lot of spiritual problem in this church. The first issue Paul mentions is that the Jewish Christians there were expecting the Gentiles who converted to Christ, to keep the law of Moses, specifically, claiming that they had to be circumcised, but also requiring that they keep the various feast days contained in the Jewish law. Paul explains to them that because of Christ we are no longer in bondage to living the law of Moses but are now at liberty to live the law of Christ.
The reason why Paul brings this subject up is because there was great contention among the Ephesians (as well as among Christians in other cities, as evidenced by this same topic being discussed in other letters Paul wrote) concerning this matter. He explains how, in the past, the Israelites were God’s chosen people, but now the Gentiles were to become “fellow citizens with the saints” (2:19; 3:4-6) and partakers of the same blessings that God gave to Abraham and his descendants.
Then, beginning in chapter 4 Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (verses 1-3).
Apparently, when Paul wrote this letter he was in prison for his religious beliefs, which is why he refers to himself as “the prisoner of the Lord.” Then he tells the saints in Ephesus that because they have answered the call to accept Jesus as their Savior, they should live their lives worthy of being called a Christian. He then explains what he means by this, saying that they should live “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, [and] endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Lowliness and meekness are qualities of being humble, and is the opposite of being proud, argumentative, or combative. It appears that the Ephesian saints argued a lot over the issue of the Gentiles being compelled to the live the law of Moses, and Paul is telling them that this is not the way a believer in Christ is to behave. He goes on to tell them that they should be patient (long suffering) with those whom they disagree, “forbearing one another in love.” To forbear means to “bear with” or to put up with or refrain from railing against someone. In this case, Paul is telling the saints that if someone has a different opinion about something, they are to refrain from arguing with them about it. Instead, what they should do is strive for (endeavor) to keep the unity of the faith among them, and do so in love, with the goal of bringing about peace, rather than dissention.
Paul goes on to say that for this reason “[Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (verse 11-13).
The context for these verses is that the reason why there are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers in the church is because it is their responsibility to help us stay on the path that leads to salvation. As we see in this letter, the Ephesians were straying from the doctrines of Christ because they were believing something different than what they had been originally taught. The purpose for prophets and apostles in the church is to help us come (or stay) united in the faith because it is by following the correct teachings of Christ that we can become perfected and eventually measure up to the full stature of Christ. When we stray from the teachings that have been given to us by the true apostles and prophets of Christ then we are following a path that will not lead to our salvation.
Paul then likens the church to a human body and says, “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind” (verse 16,17).
Each part of the human body has a very specific job to do. For example, the feet are good for taking us somewhere but they’re not very good at picking up things. However, the hands are good at picking up things but can’t move us very far. Therefore, each part of the body supplies what the other part is lacking, and in this way the whole body working together is able to accomplish much more if every member of the body does its part.
In the same way, the church as a whole is like one body made up of many different parts or people. If everyone works together for the good of the whole, the church will be able to accomplish much good. On the other hand, if the hand were to say to the feet, “I have no need of you,” or the feet were to say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” then the body will be restricted in what it can do. In the same way, if we in the church argue and contend with one another, how can we expect to accomplish the work of the ministry to bring people to Christ?
Paul says that the non-believers in Christ walk in the vanity of their mind, thinking that they alone know the truth, and argue with everyone who disagrees with their ideas, but Paul tells the saints that that’s not the way they should behave.
Paul then goes on to tell the saints, “that ye [should] put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. Be ye [not] angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil. Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (verse 24-32).
What Paul is describing is how a Christian should behave, acting in righteousness and in true holiness. He tells us that we shouldn’t get angry with one another but rather see to it that by the end of the day we have made peace with those we disagree. Unless we do this, we are giving the devil an opportunity to lead us away from Christ.
He says that we should not let “corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.” Newer Bibles translate this as saying, “don’t speak evil words.” Evil words can take the form of words said in bitterness, malice, anger, sarcasm, vindictiveness, or jealousy. Rather the words we should use, especially towards someone we disagree with, should edify or be uplifting and that minister grace or have a calming influence on those who hear us. When someone disagrees with us, we should be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving of them, remembering how Christ forgave us when we did things that were wrong.
This is the message Paul gave to the Ephesian saints, but it is also the same, exact counsel that husbands should follow when being the head of their family.
If Christ is the head of the church, and the husband is the head of his wife and family, then he must remember at all times that he has an obligation to act in the place of Christ, walking worthy of the position God has given him. It is primarily the husband’s responsibility to maintain peace and unity within his family and for setting the example before them of acting in lowliness and meekness, showing forth longsuffering, and bearing up under all things with an attitude of love.
If the husband is the head of his family then it is his responsibility to see to it that everyone under his care is working together, so that they are all helping one another in measuring up the full stature of Christ and thereby moving all members of his family closer towards gaining eternal life
In every family there are going to be disagreements, especially between husbands and wives, but it is the husband who is most responsible for making sure that the day doesn’t end with anger between the two of them. And when disagreements do arise, it is primarily the duty of the husband to act in righteousness and true holiness, by not letting evil words corrupt his communications. Rather, he should strive to ensure that his words build up rather than tear down, that they minister grace to those who hear him and bring calm to the discussion, that his words heal instead of wound, that what he says invites the Spirit rather than grieving him, and that his words are spoken in kindness, being tenderhearted, being willing to forgive, and not being vain, thinking that he must prove himself right and the other person wrong.
When God placed the husband as being the head of his wife and family, he was not given a license to be a dictator, even a kind one. Instead, God placed the husband at the head of his family with the responsibility to watch over and care for them, much as a shepherd watches over and cares for his sheep. It is a very serious assignment he carries, and one in which God will someday judge him on how well he fulfilled his stewardship.
But God doesn’t expect men to be the perfect husband all the time because he knows that we all have shortcomings and weaknesses. All of us make mistakes now and then, and none of us always does everything we should. If we did, there would be no need for the principle of repentance. However, having said that, what the gospel of Jesus Christ does require us to do is to keep trying to improve.
Instead of focusing on the verse that says wives should submit themselves to their husbands, if men would love their wives as themselves, sacrifice for their wives, treat them with forbearance, show them tenderness, speaking words of kindness, being patient with them, and seeking to be peacemakers, their wives would have no trouble honoring them, reverencing them, and proudly proclaiming that they are married to a good husband.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Marriage