A Word to Wives

April 22, 2018 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor

 Ephesians 22-24

Paul’s word of submission to wives in Ephesians 5:22-24 carries a loaded emotional response which may run the spectrum from naturally comfortable, to frustratingly puzzling,  and even viscerally countercultural: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

The specific command for wives to submit to their husbands in marriage is only presented AFTER the more general instruction to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)  All Christians, men and women need to embrace the role of submission and humility in their relationships with each other.  Also, according to Scripture, to be a Christian is to live a life of submission in certain areas of life, e.g.: marriage, parents, government, employers, and church leadership.

I. What is submission?

A. In Greek, the word literally means “to take your place under”, to take your God given position and fill it. Submission is a role (a way of life), implies an attitude which is continually figuring out your role, and implies independence in the right context. Obedience is obeying a command, an action, not thinking, and implies dependence (told what to do).

B. Submission is not a husband’s demand, but a wife’s gift.

This is not a command of all men to exert their power to dominate and “put women in their place”, but instruction specifically to wives to submit themselves to their husbands as a gift. Husbands are not to demand submission, but Christian wives are instructed to give freely this very beautiful and precious, yet costly, gift to them.

C. Your Submission is really submission to the Lord.

Wives, submit to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22) Husbands are certainly not perfect like God; women are to submit to their husbands in obedience to God’s instruction, not necessarily because their husbands have shown themselves worthy. True submission to the Lord calls all of us to live humbly, lovingly, and respectfully within the boundaries of God’s will.

II. What does true submission look like? (Video of John and Kelley Ulrich conversation)

III. Why should I submit?

A. In Scripture, God has ordered things this way.  (Eph. 5: 23, 24)

Jesus is our Savior, not husbands. (Eph. 5:23)  However, in some sense the husband is the “head of the wife”, implying authority with submission. Paul here gives no explanation of the meaning or origin of this authority, but Scripture consistently says that God has ordered things in this way. It’s OK for a wife to hesitate with faulty leadership from her spouse, but the instruction remains the same: “Submit yourselves to your husband…” (Eph. 5:22)

B. In Scripture , when you submit, you follow the pattern of Jesus. (Phil. 2: 5-11)

Jesus’ pattern of submission In Phil. 2:5-11: Jesus was equal to God in every respect. Setting aside His equality, as a man He submitted (a gift of His own free will) to the Father’s will, even to the point of death. God “exalted him to the highest place…”  God Himself treasures submission, and will reward those who truly have the “same mindset as Christ Jesus”. (Phil.2:5)

Discussion Questions

  1. What does our own submission look like in our relationship to God?
  2. Why specifically are we resistant to submission:  wives to husbands, to parents, to government, to employers, to church leadership?
  3. Why should a Christian wife submit to her husband if he does not exalt her for it?
  4. What would submission (vs obedience) look like for you:  to husbands, parents, government, employers, church leadership?
  5. Is submission simply religion’s way of controlling, dominating others, or is it the essence of love?


You know some words are loaded. There are some words that elicit a strong response. It may be a response for the word. It may be a response against the word. Some words elicit a strong response. I know there are words like that, so as I prepared for the sermon this week I just asked people for their list of words that evoke a strong response either for or against. Here are some of the words I came up with:

  • Kale – Kale has divided our missions team in half. Some love it. Some hate it.
  • Cats – How many of you love cats? How many hate them? How many are in the middle?
  • Donald Trump – Whether you love him or hate him, that’s a strong word!
  • Taco Bell – I don’t know whether you love Taco Bell or hate it, but if you eat enough of it I promise you it will elicit a strong response.
  • UNC – How many love UNC? How many love to hate UNC?
  • Last love/hate word – Justin Bieber. OK, maybe we’re all together on that one!

There are some words that evoke a strong response!

Today we are going to talk about one of those words. We have been working our way through the New Testament book of Ephesians. We have come to a spot in the book that deals with relationships – husband/wife relationships, parent/child relationships and employer/employee relationships

We’ve started a short series about relationships called “Master Plan.” We started with some general principles from other Bible passages and found that if you are married  you are to treasure the spouse that God gave you. We found that marriages were meant to grow together, and families were meant to grow apart. Then last week John Maiden talked about the Gospel and Relationships.

Well, today we come to the part of Ephesians where Paul directly addresses husbands and wives,  and Paul is going to use one of those love/hate words. Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 5:21-33.

Now just to bring you back up to speed, Paul began Ephesians by taking about all the wonderful things that God has done for us in Christ. He then talked generally about how we should reflect Christ’s love and goodness by walking in love toward one another. Now as we come to the end of chapter 5, Paul is going to get very, very specific in his instruction. He’s going to directly address several groups of people: children and parents, employees and employers. He’s going to start with wives and husbands. He’s going to give us the longest instruction in the New Testament on Christian Marriage. To do that, he’s going to use what for many of us is certainly a loaded word.

So let’s read the passage. We’re just going to look at the first part of the passage, the part to wives today. I’m going to read the whole thing for us. As I read it, see if you can possibly find the loaded word. I’m going to start with verse 21, where Paul closes the preceding paragraph, where he has told all Christians to walk in love by describing all Christians as:

Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

– Ephesians 5:21

Now here’s our main passage:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

-Ephesians 5:22-33

How many of you noticed the loaded word there? It was love, wasn’t it? Just kidding. What was it, ladies? It was submit, wasn’t it? If ever there was a loaded word for women, it’s the word “submit.”

There are a lot of different responses to that word. For some of you, maybe that’s a positive word! You’re good with the idea of submitting to your husband, and today you’re saying “Tell me how I can live this out!” For others, maybe it’s a puzzling word. Maybe you’re like “Wow! Did the Bible really just say that?” But you’re going “OK, but if it’s in the Bible, I want to learn about it.” But for others of you, the word “submission” may not be an easy word. For many of you sisters in Christ,  it’s a word you struggle with and for many of you that’s with good cause.

Most cultures in our world are patriarchal. The power has gone to men. In many instances, that power has been abused. When Kelley and I counsel couples, one of the things we do is make a sort of map of the family and extended family: from the couple, to parents and grandparents  to aunts, uncles and siblings. We say “Tell us about your extended family.” And sometimes, there is a lot of abuse perpetrated by the men in that family. We have counseled many couples, where we draw that map and sadly we ask the wife “Is there a good man anywhere on this map? Is there a strong, godly man? A man you would want to follow?” And sometimes the answer is  “There isn’t. This one had several affairs. That one beat his wife. That one left his family.” If I was a wife who came from a family like that and I saw examples like that, submission would be a major struggle for me.

So for some of you, this is a difficult word. And sisters, I don’t blame you.

But I want to show you something today: Submission is not a bad word. Submit is not a bad word. It’s not a dirty word. It’s not just a word for women. As you can see from the first verse I read,  submission is something that relates to every single Christian. Every Christian is required to submit in certain areas of their life. Scripture tells us to submit to our parents, to submit to the elderly in the church, to submit to the government of our nation, to submit to our employers to the leadership of our church. It tells us all and reminds us in this passage to submit to Christ. To be a Christian man or woman is to live a life of submission. My point is that every Christian needs to know what it means to submit and needs not just to tolerate, but to embrace the role of submission.

So what I want to do today is just look at this instruction to wives and ask three simple questions:

  1. What is submission? Because I think there is a lot of confusion about that.
  2. What does submission look like? I’m going to let you hear from Kelley about that.
  3. Why should I submit? Why would God tell wives to submit to their husbands?

Ladies, let me say the only person more apprehensive about this than you is me. I don’t want to frustrate you or hurt you in any way, but I do want to see what God’s word has to say today. OK, so three questions about this command to the wives to submit to their husbands. Let me encourage you to grab a pen and take some notes, because every single Christian here today needs to understand this concept of submission. The first question is this:

What Is Submission?

We need to have a clear understanding of this, because this concept of submission has been both abused and maligned by people who don’t understand it.  So let me start by saying this:

The word literally means to “take your place under”.

Paul says:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

– Ephesians 5:22

Paul says “submit.” So what does the word mean? The Greek word translated “submit” there is the word “hupo-tasso.” It’s used 38 times in the New Testament. It’s a combination of two words. First, there’s the prefix “hupo” which means “under” (hypodermic needle). Then second, there’s the verb “tasso” which was actually a military word that meant “to arrange or array for battle.” Tasso was used to describe arranging ships in a fleet or soldiers on a field before a battle, putting them in formation. The key idea with tasso is to take your place, to play your part, to find your role and fulfill it. So when you put these together you get hupotasso, which means “to submit, to take your place under to find your God given position and fill it.”

Now here’s what’s important about that. We have to get this, because many people misunderstand it. Submission is not exactly the same thing as obedience. Many people think of submission as the same thing as obedience, as just waiting to be told what to do and doing it. “I say jump. You say how high?” But the two are different:

  • Obedience relates to a command it’s an action. Submission relates more to a role it’s a way of life.
  • Obédience implies action. Submission implies attitude.
  • Obedience implies not thinking. Submission implies figuring out your role.
  • Obedience implies dependence – I need to be told what to do. Submission implies independence in the right context.

So you can obey without really submitting, and there are times when you can submit without obeying. There are times when you are submitting, but you are not being told what to do. There are a few times when playing your God-given role may mean to resist.

So obedience and submission are not exactly the same thing. If you want proof of that, just raise a teen-ager. Actually both of mine were pretty trouble-free kids, but teen-agers can find a way to “obey” without really submitting, right? So the word means “to take your place under to fill your role”. Secondly, notice:

Submission is not a husband’s demand, but a wife’s gift

Again, it’s important for us to understand this. At times, passages like this have been used by men to kind of dominate and control women like Paul gives men the right to “put women in their place.” But folks, that’s not the way Scripture portrays it at all.

Notice that this command isn’t given to describe the relationship of every woman to every man. It says “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” Ladies, this isn’t addressing you in the workplace. It’s not about your abilities or how hard you work. This isn’t about your relationship to every man. This is about your husband.

Notice also that this instruction about submission is only given to the wives. The husbands are never told to demand this in any way. Three times this command is given in Scripture: here, in Colossians and in 1 Peter. It always follows the same pattern: “Wives, submit to your own husbands. Husbands, love your wives.” Not “husbands, make sure your wife submits” not “husbands, boss your wives around.” It doesn’t even say “Husbands lead your wives.” The instruction about submission in marriage is only given to wives. Husbands aren’t told to worry about it in any way. They are told to love their wives.

In fact when the verb “submit” is expressed in the Greek, it is expressed in a special way that shows that the action is done with regard to yourself. It’s not that you are made to submit. Rather, you submit yourselves.

From that, ladies sisters, I take it that your submission is not something your husband demands. It’s not something that society coerces you to do. It’s not something that I’m here to browbeat you with. It’s a gift, A gift that is very, very costly. A gift that is not cheaply given, but a gift that is freely given to your husband. It’s a beautiful gift.

And guys, your application of this passage is not to demand that your wife submits. Your application is to love her whether she submits or not and when she does submit, to recognize how precious that gift is and to love her all the more because of it. Substitution is not a husband’s demand, but a wife’s gift. Now the last thing I want to say about the meaning of submission is this:

Your submission is really submission to the Lord

Wives, your submission to your husband isn’t just submission to him. It’s really submission to the Lord. Let me show you what I mean look at what the Bible says:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord

– Ephesians 5:22-24

Now when you first read that, it can seem like the Bible is saying “Submit to your husbands exactly as you would to God, because your husband is in the place of God,” like he’s divine or something!

But let me assure you that’s not what it’s saying at all!

Paul uses that phrase “as to the Lord” three times in this chapter, when he talks about submitting to husbands to parents and to employers, when it says “submit to your husband / parents / employer as to the Lord.” It doesn’t mean submit to them as if they were God. It means take your submission to them as submission to God. You submit, because your Lord Jesus who also submitted has told you to. It is really obedience to the Lord.

Ladies, that’s the motivation for submission to your husbands. It is first and foremost submission to the Lord. It’s very important that we understand this, because it changes the way we look at submission altogether. It means that our motivation to submit to our husbands or parents or employers the reason we do it is not because they are a good leader! That’s not why we submit. The reason we submit is not because they are godly. Did you know that?  Some of you say “I wish my husband was a godly leader.” So do I, but whether he’s a good, godly leader doesn’t determine whether you submit. In fact, 1 Peter specifically tells us that submission to an ungodly husband is one way you might win him to the Lord. So it’s not because they are good leaders or godly. In fact, it’s not because they deserve your submission at all! The reason we submit to godly and ungodly husbands, and parents, and employers is because the Lord has asked us to. It’s submission to the Lord.

The other thing I notice about our submission being submission to the Lord is this: It sets the boundaries of our submission. Because submission is, first and foremost, a submission to God. True submission does not involve doing something that God has directly told you not to do. Nor does it involve not doing something God has directly told you to do.

This is true of all submission whether in the family, or in the workplace, or in government. If you are in a relationship where you are called to submit and the authority figure tells you to flatly disobey God, and I’m not talking about them asking you not to wear your WWJD bracelet to work,  I’m talking about real disobedience to God, denying your faith or mistreating another human being or lying. If that’s the case, true submission calls you to humbly, lovingly, respectfully refuse to do that. Because your submission is really submission to the Lord.

OK so that’s a little bit about what submission is. It is (1) playing your role, (2) it is a gift you choose to give, and (3) it is really submission to the Lord. Now the second question I wanted to look at is:

What Does Submission Look Like?

Ladies, how does this actually play out in your heart, and in your home, and in your actions? To do that, I wanted you to hear not just from me, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a wife that submits to my husband. I thought I’d let you hear from my wife, Kelley, her thoughts about submission. So here’s us talking about what Submission from a woman’s perspective:

  • Although I’m hesitant to talk about this, you told me that you are not why not?
  • What does submission look like?
  • Here’s a loaded question but “Do you and I ever talk about submission?”
  • Do you think what submission looks like changes over time? Is it different for you now than it was earlier in our marriage?
  • Are there ideas that you have heard of about submission that you don’t agree with?
  • What would you say to someone who is interested in submitting to her husband? Where would you tell her to start?
  • Is there anything that you wish someone would have said to you about submission when you were first starting out?

OK so that’s a little about what submission looks like. Feel free to talk to myself or Kelley later if you have any questions. Now there’s one more question I want to talk about today, and it’s this:

Why Should I Submit?

Like I said earlier this is a hard piece of instruction, a counter-cultural piece of instruction, so why should we do it? Well, there are other practical reasons we could go into, but let me just give you a couple of biblical reasons that we should submit.

Because God has ordered things this way. Look at what Paul says. He says wives should submit to their husbands:

For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands

– Ephesians 5:23-24

Now let me be clear that these verses are not saying that the husband is the savior of his wife! It almost sounds that way in the English, but the Greek is quite clearly not saying that! Jesus is the Savior! But the text does say that, in some sense, the husband is the head of his wife and that does relate to authority, because the application of that headship is to submit to it.

We need to be careful about the “why?” here. Paul doesn’t explain anything here about why that headship came about. The Bible certainly never attributes that headship to a difference in intelligence, or ability or value. The Bible doesn’t apply this headship to the workplace. It’s never related to spiritual inequality. It doesn’t have anything to do with ability, or equality or essence. Paul doesn’t explain in detail here what this headship means or how it came about. But Scripture consistently says that God has ordered things in this way. Three times this issue of husband/wife relationships comes up in the New Testament and the instruction is always the same: Wives, you are asked to give your husbands the gift of your submission.

There are times when that’s a little easier. Maybe you have a husband who knows just how to lead,  and it’s not a power struggle. It’s an easy mix. For others of you, this may be really hard:

  • Maybe you have a husband that, to be honest, is hard to respect.
  • Maybe he’s a dictator and submission feels like signing your own death warrant.
  • Maybe you guys are at odds a lot and you don’t know what submission would look like.
  • Maybe you wish he would lead, but he’s not really in the mix of family life.
  • Maybe this runs counter to all of your thinking, and it’s going to take a while for you to get your head around this.

It’s OK for it to be hard. It’s a costly gift. But wives would you be willing to do what Kelley said and pray about it? Would you be willing to talk to Jesus? That’s the best thing you could do, because the last thing I want to say is this: Why should you submit? Because when you submit, you follow the pattern of Jesus. Ladies, I know that submission can be hard. I know it will be hard at some point. But I have to tell you something: A lifestyle of submission, in any context but I think especially in marriage, is one of the main opportunities that we have to follow the pattern of Christ. Let me show you what I mean: Remember last week when John Maiden preached on gospel relationships, he talked about imitating Jesus. He read one of the greatest passages in the New Testament:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death  even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:5-11

Listen, that gives us the pattern of Christ, which is the same pattern that you, as a wife, follow when you submit. The pattern goes like this:

Step 1. Equality. Jesus was equal to the Father in every way. Equal in essence. He was every bit as much God, as the Father, is God. Equal in ability. He created the world. Equal in knowledge, in goodness, in holiness, equal in every respect. Just as you dear wives are equal in essence, in ability, in humanity, in goodness to your spouse (and you smell better!) The foundation step one was equality.

Step 2: Submission. The Father asked, the Son agreed, the Godhead designed for Jesus to come to earth become human to set aside his equality in authority for a time. Jesus became submissive to the Father, submissive to the point where in the garden, He said “Not my will, but thine be done.” Submissive to the point of death, He set aside his right of equality and gave to his Father to us all the gift of his submission. Just like, wives, you are called to give that gift first to the Lord and, then secondly,  to your husband.

But ladies, notice that’s not the end of the pattern. That’s only two of three steps. There’s equality. There’s submission, but also:

Step 3. Exaltation. Philippians 2 specifically says not just because of who Jesus was, but because of what he did, because he submitted, because he chose to humble himself, God highly exalted him. God gave him “the name that is above every other name.” Listen, God values submission. He treasures it. Your submission may be precious to your husband. It may not, but I guarantee you, it is precious to God. He will reward it. The consistent testimony of Scripture is this: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

Ladies, in your free, willing, costly choice to submit, you have a chance to follow not just the equality of Jesus, not just the submission of Jesus, but to follow the exaltation of Jesus, to have the mind that Jesus had. God treasures your submission.