Leadership and Submission in the Home (with Portuguese Interpretation)

FIEL Conference for Pastors and Leaders | São Paulo, Brazil

Let me begin with a quotation from a well-known feminist. Her name is Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. She said this: “Jesus insisted on monogamy and assigned the same rights and responsibilities to both husbands and wives.” Now, I think that is a profoundly misleading statement. First of all, it implies that Jesus addressed the issue, and secondly, it implies that Jesus taught that there is no special role for the husband. Both of those are wrong. I don’t think Jesus addressed the issue, and he did not say anything in all of his teachings that would imply men don’t have a special responsibility.

The teachings and the actions of Jesus honored women very highly. He affirmed women and treated them with dignity. But he did not say anything that would imply men don’t have a special responsibility in marriage. In order to find out what the Bible teaches about that, we must go to the apostle Paul. Later we will go to the apostle Peter.

The Mystery of Marriage

So I invite you to turn to Ephesians 5, and we will read Ephesians 5:21–33. Most of our insights this morning will come out of this passage:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 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.

Now, let’s begin our thinking in Ephesians 5:31. You notice that verse is a quotation from the Old Testament. It’s a quotation from Genesis 2:24. It says, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Now, why does he quote that Old Testament verse? It’s because he sees a mystery in it. Look at Ephesians 5:32: “This mystery is profound. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” So Ephesians 5:32 is interpreting Ephesians 5:31. He’s saying that in marriage when a man and a woman come together it is a picture of Christ and the church coming together.

You know, don’t you, that a mystery in Paul’s thinking does not mean something you can’t understand? A mystery, in Paul’s thinking, is something that was concealed for a long time and now is revealed. So what he’s saying in Ephesians 5:32 is that the deep meaning of marriage was concealed for a long time. It was not fully revealed in the Old Testament, and that concealed meaning is now being revealed and the meaning is that marriage is a parable or drama of the relationship between Christ and the church.

Marriage is meant to glorify Jesus Christ and illustrate how he relates to his church and how the church is supposed to relate to him. Now, this teaches us many things about how husbands and wives should relate to each other. We find instruction here about the roles of husbands and wives. It doesn’t teach us the details of how we relate to each other. Your marriage and my marriage are going to look very different even when they are good marriages. But there are some essential things that are taught here about how to relate to each other, and these roles are not arbitrarily assigned. They are not reversible.

Because the man is supposed to be like Christ to his wife and the wife is supposed to relate like the church to her husband like the church does to Christ. Now, let’s look at how the wife and the husband are to act in view of that. Start with the wives in Ephesians 5:24. This is her half of the metaphor. Wives are to take their distinctive cue or guide from looking at how the church relates to Jesus. Ephesians 5:24 says, “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

So when the wife asks herself, “How am I to act?” She should think, “How should the church relate to Jesus?” We’ll come back to that in a moment. But consider the word to husbands in Ephesians 5:23. When the husband asks, “How should I act?” He should look to Jesus and see how Jesus is acting toward the church. Ephesians 5:23 says, “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” And then look at Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Understanding Headship and Submission

Now, let’s think for a few minutes about the meaning of what it is to be the head and what it is to be submissive. The main point here for husbands is that being the head is not primarily a right to command and control. Being the head is primarily a responsibility to love like Christ, and in the context, you can see that this is a sacrificial servant leadership. The picture of Christ here is not of a boss controlling but of a husband sacrifice.

With regard to wives, we can see this: Submission, which is patterned after the church, is not slavish or coerced or fearful. Christ does not want his church to relate to him as a slave. Therefore, husbands must not want their wives to relate to them as a slave. Christ wants the submission of the church to be free. He wants the submission of the church to be willing and glad. He wants the submission of the church to be pure and strong.

So what we see in this text is that it is designed to protect headship and protect submission from misunderstanding. There are many abuses and misunderstandings of what it means to be had and what it means to submit. This text is written to avoid those misunderstandings and abuses.

Let me explain how a typical feminist understands this text in relationship to Genesis 1–2. Most feminists say that before the fall of mankind into sin, there was no headship and no submission. Before sin, there was only mutuality and equality and no differentiation of role. When sin came into the world, feminists say that’s where headship and submission came from — sin. Then when Jesus comes, feminists say he restores the original equality and mutuality.

Now, let me give another way of understanding things. I think, and I will try to show today and tomorrow that before the fall, the before sin entered the world, there was loving headship and willing submission. Adam was created first and then Eve, and he was a loving, kind, tender, humble leader. He was not a sinner. There was no sin, and her submission was free and creative and willing. It was a beautiful complementarity.

Now, when sin came into the world, both the head, the function as the head, and the function of submission were distorted and ruined. So the role of the head starts to become either cruel or passive, and the woman begins to be either mindless or bossy. Maybe another way to say it would be that submission starts to become slavish and fearful and coerced. So, marriage is ruined by sin. When Jesus comes into the world, what he does is restore the original beauty of being head and being submissive.

So the difference between the feminist view and my view is that they say redemption does away with headship and submission, and I say that redemption rescues and saves and purifies headship and submission.

Well, if that’s true, let me try to briefly define each of them. What does it mean to be a head and what does it mean to submit? Here are my definitions:

Headship is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like servant leadership and protection and provision in the home.

My definition of submission would go like this:

Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor, and affirm, and nurture her husband’s leadership, and to help carry it through according to her gift.

The reason I use the phrase primary responsibility for leadership when I talk about the husband is that the woman does share that responsibility. She has many responsibilities in the home. Responsibilities with the children and with money and with making the home work. She even shares often in the responsibility of providing for the family. Women working is not a new development. You read Proverbs 31 that woman was working from dawn till the sun went down, and the home would not have survived had she not been working. The point of headship is a primary special responsibility, not a sole responsibility.

Practical Implications of Headship and Submission

Now, let’s think about some implications that this has. When Paul says that husbands should love their wives the way Christ loves the church, he revolutionizes the way a husband leads. His leadership becomes a loving, sacrificial servant leadership. He leads the way Christ led. Luke 22:26, Jesus says, “Let the leader become as one who serves.” And you remember that last night of his life? He took off his outer garment and put a towel around him. He got down on his knees and he washed the disciple’s feet, and he said, “That’s what I mean by servanthood.”

Now, feminists — Christian feminists — often point to this and say, “You see, he is not leading. He’s serving. But you and I know that the disciples knew who the leader was while Jesus was on the floor. Jesus wasn’t saying to husbands don’t lead. He was saying lead like a loving servant leads.” An implication concerning submission. This text says that wives are to submit out of reverence for Christ. Which means that her husband is never put in the place of Christ.

What Submission Is Not

Now, this relationship that she has with Jesus has a tremendous impact on the understanding of submission. What I would like to do is take you to 1 Peter 3, and show you six things that submission is not. So let’s turn to 1 Peter 3, and I’ll read verses 1 Peter 3:1–6:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

Now, the situation in this text is that a woman is a believer and her husband is not a believer. There are six things that I see in this text which submission is not, and I find in my church it is very important to talk about what submission is not. Because most women in America today do not like the term submission, and it has many connotations or meanings that are in fact bad.

1. Submission Does Not Imply Agreement with Everything

The first thing that submission is not-Submission does not mean agreeing with everything the husband says. You can see that in verse one. She’s a Christian and he’s not. They have a profound disagreement over what ultimate reality is all about. Peter does not say submit to your husband’s ideas about religion. She has her own thoughts and they disagree with the husband’s.

2. Submission Does Not Entail Surrendering Intellect or Will

The second thing that submission is not. Submission does not mean that a wife leaves her brain or her will at the wedding altar. You see, here’s a woman who listened to the gospel. She thought about the claims of Christ. She made a decision to believe, and Christ became her Lord.

The husband also heard the gospel. The reason I think that is because it says she should win him without a word. That’s because he’s already heard the word. Nobody can be saved without hearing the word. But she doesn’t have to do the preaching. He heard the gospel. He thought about it. He considered the claims of Christ, and he rejected. She received it, and he rejected. She has her own brain.

3. Submission Does Not Imply Avoiding Efforts to Influence Change

The third thing that submission does not mean. It does not mean avoiding every effort to change the husband. I can imagine someone saying a submissive wife doesn’t try to change her husband. And of course, there are many things about us men that you probably never will change. But the main point of this text is try to win him to Christ. So, submission can’t mean don’t try to change your husband. There’s nothing she wants more than for him to change and become a Christian.

4. Submission Does Not Prioritize Husband’s Will Over Christ’s Will

The fourth thing that submission does not mean. Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. This woman is a follower of Jesus before she is a follower of her husband. Submission to Jesus relativizes submission to the husband. The New Testament calls children to submit to parents. It calls citizens to submit to their governments. It calls employees to submit to their employers.

But when you submit first to Jesus all these other acts of submission are relativized. They are not absolute. There will be times when a child may have to go against a parent, a citizen may have to go against his government, and an employee may have to go against his employer if the authority is asking the disciple to sin. And so, it is between wives and husbands.

5. Submission Does Not Depend on Exclusive Spiritual Strength from the Husband

The fifth thing that submission is not. Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal spiritual strength only from her husband. A husband ought to strengthen and encourage his wife. He ought to be a source of spiritual energy. But there are many marriages where that is not the case. In those situations, the wife is not without strength. This whole text assumes she is getting her strength from God, and her strength is flowing toward her husband, who’s not a believer.

6. Submission Is Not Rooted in the Fear of Man

The final thing that submission does not mean. Submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. In 1 Peter 3:6 at the end, it says, “You have become Sarah’s children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” I think this is a remarkable picture of a woman. Her submission is free — it’s not slavish or coerced. She’s not acting out of fear. She is listening to her Lord in heaven. He is the main guide and leader in her life, and that Lord is telling her, for his sake, to submit to this man and he’s not even a believer. Therefore, it takes fearlessness and courage.

What Submission Is

Now, let me try to say something positive about the meaning of submission. I would define it like this: It is a disposition to follow the husband’s authority. Or another way to say it: It’s an inclination to yield to his leadership.

Now, the reason I use the words disposition and inclination is that she may not always yield, and she may not always follow. But in those very moments, she can still be submissive. That sounds like a paradox, but let me illustrate. I think she says something like this: “I am happy, my husband, when you take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and when you lead with love. I don’t flourish as well when you are passive or domineering.”

But she also says, “It grieves me when you venture into sin, and you go into sin, and want to take me with you. You know I can’t go with you into sin. Jesus is my Lord. He is not in competition with you. He wants me to follow you wherever I can, and I want to follow you. I want you to be our leader. And it breaks my heart when you sin. Nothing would make me happier than if we could be united in the cause of righteousness with you as the leader. But I can’t follow you into sin. Christ is my king.”

I think that’s the way a submissive wife talks. This implies that in the normal give and take of life, there may be disagreements between husband and wife on what is wise. My wife often sees things differently than I do. What if she thinks that I am about to make a decision which is very foolish?

Does submission mean she may not say anything or call my choice into question? I think my wife should say something like this. In fact, she has said things like this. She should say, “Johnny, I know you have thought a lot about this decision, and I love it when you take the initiative in our family. I like you to take responsibility for important things. I don’t want you to be passive. But I have some misgivings about what you’re about to do. And I would like us to talk about this again. Could we meet again tonight and rethink this and pray about it?” And I think that is a submissive way to talk and to be.

What Headship Is

Now, let me say a word about headship. In view of all of this, headship means not grasping at rights, taking rights. We should think of headship in terms of responsibilities, not rights. It’s the responsibility to gather the family for devotions. It’s the responsibility to make sure that we get to church. It’s the responsibility to lead out in prayer at meals. It’s the responsibility to see that the children are disciplined and educated. It’s the responsibility to make sure that our money is handled wisely. It’s the responsibility to ensure that we have enough food and that we are safe. When there’s a conflict, it’s the responsibility to pull the sides together and work on reconciliation.

Now, you can hear in all of that that the wife has significant responsibility. But what I’m pleading for is that the husband takes primary responsibility, and under that primary responsibility, she has many responsibilities. And so his headship is not authoritarian; it’s not domineering or oppressive.

Answering Objections

Now let me, in the few minutes that we have left (I think we have almost five minutes left or so), raise one or two objections and answer them.

Objection 1: Competency Trumps Roles

What if the husband is not as competent as the wife? Suppose he cannot read, and she can read. And I tell him he should take responsibility for family devotions. Can he lead in that situation? He absolutely can. I have a couple in my church like that. Here’s what I said to the husband: “John, tonight at eight o’clock, say to your family, ‘Let’s gather together.’ And after the family is gathered together, say, ‘We’re going to read the Bible because we’re a Christian family. You know that mama is a better reader than I am. So, Mary, would you please read the text?’ And after she has read the text, he says, ‘Okay, now let’s pray.’ Then he says to the son, ‘You pray tonight.’ And when they are finished, he has been the leader, and he can’t even read. It is possible. It’s not an issue of competency; it’s an issue of obedience. So that’s objection number one.

Objection 2: Mutual Submission

Many feminists point to Ephesians 5:21 and say, “What about mutuality? The text says, ‘Be subject to one another, one another, one another.’” And they tell me that I’m ignoring that “one another.” What about mutual submission?

My answer to that is this: I believe in mutual submission. I believe that there is a way that I should submit to my wife, and there is a way that she should submit to me. But if you let the text define how we submit to each other, I, as a husband, still have a special responsibility to lead. I am to be like Christ, and she’s to be like the church. Do Christ and the church submit to each other? I think so. Christ submitted to the church in that he died for her. And the church submits to Christ by obeying and following. Or maybe a less offensive way to say it for wives is that the church is excited about the leadership of Christ. She affirms and endorses his leadership.

So, I agree with mutual submission. But we submit to each other in different ways. I submit as a servant leader. And I’m willing to lay down my life to lead, protect, and provide for her. And she submits to me by affirming me in that leadership.

Now I had one other objection, but there isn’t time for it, so let me just draw things to a close. Marriage is a drama, a parable, or a metaphor of Christ and the church. And when the husband copies Christ and the wife copies the church, something beautiful is shown to the world. So God gets his glory, and that husband and that wife get the joy.