The subject of a wife’s submission to her husband gives rise to tensions. If you have been part of such discussions, it is likely that you will have heard more about what submission is not than what it is. “I don’t know what submission means, but it certainly cannot meant that!” Let me ask a different question that may help with the context.
Why do people resist coming to Christ?
I suppose that several reasons could be given. If we rule out the problems of the many who have not heard and understood the Gospel, we can say that many people resist on intellectual grounds. They just don’t accept that Jesus is more than a man, that he rose from the dead, and that he is appointed as Judge of all the earth. And they would have a lot of company.
But further, why do so many adopt that position? Well, it is popular. But why is it so popular? I believe that at least a large segment of these objectors do so, not because of the force of their arguments, but because they do not want to come to Christ. I believe that many of us, with reference to many different subjects, tend to adopt the position that we want, and then secondarily marshall arguments that support our position. I suppose that many who resist Christ say that Christians have done exactly that - choose Christ, and then find arguments to support the position.
But my point then exposes what I believe is the largest group of people who resist coming to Christ: they resist him, because they don’t want to submit to his authority. They do not want to accept the yoke of being a Christ-follower. This is not intellectual resistance; it is willful resistance. I simply don’t want to.
If you found yourself under the domination of a cruel taskmaster, you might quickly flee to a kinder master. If you saw yourself in slavery, you would gladly welcome deliverance into a better relationship. But if you view your life as being your own, and that you are the master of your own world, the invitation to turn away from such independence and self-sufficiency is hard. It’s like, well, dying to self. And who is so suspicious of self, that they actually trust someone else more? The common condition of men and women in our culture is that know one knows and cares what is best for me than my own self, and thus we remain willfully independent. And so many - most - resist Christ.
Except we are not truly independent. The Gospel shows that we are enslaved to our passions, and that those passions are actually structured and inflamed by spiritual powers that have the upper hand. We are not free. We are slaves of sin.
Those who would be Christians give up resistance to Christ when they recognize their sin and see their need of a Savior. They bow to his authority, confessing the mess they have made of things on their own, and recognizing that they do not possess the wisdom or the strength to rightly govern their lives. They have come to understand that their lives are not their own (1 Corinthians 6), but that life is a gift, and they act as stewards, so that they are accountable for significant decisions and actions, not to their own selves, but rather to God. We believe that we find our lives when we lose them (Mark 8).
Now, submission doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Submission is admittedly a dirty word when sounded out in the context of American individualism. But against the backdrop of redemption, submission is sweet. God is good, and He is gracious, and, in Christ, He rescues us from sin and from ourselves. For saints individually and for the church collectively, our submission to Christ is illustrated by a wife’s submission to her husband.
Then why is this so difficult? Because, as saints, we are still sinners. And the earliest chapters of the Bible make plain that there is rebellion bred deep into us in the effects of sin. God speaks to Eve, the first woman, in the after-effects of the first sin, and he tells her that “her desire will be against her husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). There will be a contest of wills - willful resistance. And so the Christian bride makes a conscious decision that she will act toward her husband as she acts toward Christ. She will submit, even when it does not come naturally.
But why is this so hard? Another layer of reason is that your husband is not Christ. While Christ is perfect in wisdom and love, your husband is not. And yet, you are to trust him with your life more than you trust yourself. I wonder, if brides really understood this, would there be fewer brides?
The whole history of the human race as described in the Bible could fall under a search for a Deliverer, and a search for a Leader, a Ruler. Every worldly ruler seems to think first of himself, and is often guided by a dangerous combination of foolishness and ruthlessness. Our disappointments with rulers are many, and they give us little reason to trust anyone else. But Ephesians 5 is clear: the husband is the head of the wife. Genesis 3 is clear: the husband will rule the wife.
If David, the best king ever, were your king, you should still yearn for a better King. And if prince charming is your husband, there are enough chinks in his armor that you will still yearn for a Ruler who will lead and love perfectly. I think that is what wives know and accept - as good as your husband is, there is still something better. There must be. Marriage is not the ultimate experience. You are being prepared for something greater, even as God can and often does bring plentiful blessings in the present.
So, what does it mean to submit? It means to willingly place yourself under a God-ordained order (hupo-tassw). Since God has designed the home to be a place where the husband is to lead and love his wife as her head, then the wife submits to that order. There are other orders to which we submit, whether in society with its laws and government (Romans 13), or in church to the Word and to designated leadership (Hebrews 13).
Submission is akin to obedience. The word-picture in my brain for obedience is standing underneath a reverse umbrella, where, when you stand in its shelter, you are watered with God’s word, and you stay under the direction of that word, not venturing out into the dryness to do your own thing according to your own senses. Obeying means to abide under the direction of God’s word. Submission means staying within God’s order - staying in line as when marching in parade - keeping in step even when the rest of the world runs helter-skelter. The husband/wife relationship is part of that order. And while obedience infers an understanding gained from God, submission infers that you abide in that order whether you understand and agree, or not. Submission is harder than obedience.