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Volume 17, Issue 3: Husbandry

The Potency of Submission

Douglas Wilson

Husbands are commanded to love, and we are taught that the kind of love they are to render is the kind that bestows loveliness. But wives are not encouraged by this to simply be passive recipients—they are given a command as well. They are to be subject to their husbands (Eph. 5: 24), and they are to honor and reverence their own husbands (Eph. 5: 33). We find the same principle at work—respect bestows respectability. "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. . . . Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. . . This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and 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" (Eph. 5:22_24, 32_33).

In some sense, the relationship between husband and wife is like the relationship between Christ and the Church. Consequently, husbands are commanded to model themselves after the pattern of Jesus Christ. In the reciprocal way, wives are commanded to model themselves after the Church. They are in the first place to submit themselves to their own husbands, as to the Lord (v. 22). Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so wives are to be this way to their husbands in every thing (v. 24). There is no great mystery involved at all if men brow-beat their wives, but Christian marriage is a great mystery (v. 32). So husbands are to love, and wives are to reverence their own husbands (v. 33). As we shall see, this does not reduce women to a state of helplessness, but rather it leads to a true feminine authority.
With wives, as with husbands, the Christian pattern of "self-improvement" is death and resurrection. What is true of the Lord is true of the Church as well. Just as Jesus died for the Church, so everyone in the Church is called to take up the cross and follow Him. So wives are equally summoned to fulfill this pattern, and to mortify their own desires for autonomy. The pattern is not "husbands die, wives coast." Both are summoned to die, so that they might be raised to their particular calling.
Wives are to "submit" themselves (hupotasso, v. 22). The word is a Greek military term, and means to subject, submit, subordinate oneself to a line of authority. The same word is used in v. 24 (cf. 1 Pet. 3:1). In Titus 2:5, the same word is rendered as "obedient." In verse 33, wives are told to reverence their own husbands (phobeo). In this context, it carries the sense of "awe, honor, and respect," and not the idea of being scared or having a phobia (the same point should be made in 1 Pet. 3:2).
A few other words from elsewhere in the New Testament help fill out the picture. Sarah was subject to her own husband (hupotasso, 1 Pet. 3:5), and in the next verse it says that Sarah obeyed her husband (hupakouo, v. 6), calling him lord (kurios, v. 6 ). Peter tells wives that they are her daughters if they do what is right, and do not give way to fear. The word hupakouo comes from the duties of a porter, who was to listen attentively at the door for an inquiring knock. In 1 Tim. 2:9 the word aidos urges women to a deferential reverence.
This means, along with some other novel ideas, that Christian wives should obey their husbands. Wives need to get clear on the actual standard. The fact that your husband is to love you sacrificially does not alter the content of what this enables you to do. Of course husbands are prohibited from bluster, bossing about, selfish grasping, and all the rest of it. But the Bible nevertheless requires wives to obey their husbands. This obedience is to be cheerful, complete, and reverent, all the way down, and across the board. Remember that in our passage St. Paul tells wives to be subject to their husbands in every thing. Now I am fully aware of the fact that in our current cultural climate this is a perfectly outrageous thing to say and teach. It may even be illegal in some states. This is too bad because the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.
You have heard the qualification about this many times—no human authority is absolute, and if your husband commands you to break God's law, then you must (submissively) decline to do so. But this is almost never where the problem is.
What we considered earlier now comes home in a striking fashion. In order to do this, a woman must die, and be raised again. In Gen. 4:6-7, Cain is told that sin lies in wait for him, and desires to master him, but he must rule over it. This is a very unusal combination of words in Hebrew, and the only other place it is found is in the previous chapter, where Eve is told that her desire will be for her husband, but that he will rule over her (Gen. 3:16). Part of the fallen order is this desire that women have to run their husbands in an ungodly way, in big things and little things. But Jesus came to deal with this, and He enables Christian women to partake in His suffering and death, and He raises them up again.
The fear is that this teaching will turn women into doormats, fit only to be walked over by abusive men. The very opposite is the case. Remember that we have learned that love bestows loveliness. If a man sacrifices himself in a Christ-like way, laying down his life for his wife, in issues great and small, what is her natural response? Is it "Oh, good, now I can get really fat"? Not at all—love bestowed bestows loveliness. But the God who made the reciprocity of the sexes included this feature in it as well. Respect bestows respectability. Honor bestows honor. Reverence bestows dignity.

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