We find this verse in the letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus. This letter has an amazing structure, and provides the reader with some really good insights into spiritual realities. Chapter 4 and the first half of chapter 5 show how a group of believers should function, as a body of Christ. It culminates with 5:21, which says that people in the body should submit to one another in the fear of God.
The next section, of which our verse is the first, shows how this submission works out in various relationships (husband/wife, master/servant, parents/children). These are hierarchical relationships, and the instructions from Paul first focus on the party that has to submit, and then explains the responsibilities of the one to whom submission is owed. Submission is a controversial subject, so let’s first dive into the Greek to see what the verse above really is saying.
Wives, ‘gune’, is the word for woman or wife. So the context has to determine whether it refers to a woman, or to a wife.
Submit, ‘hypotasso’, comes from hypo (under) and tasso (assign, arrange, place in order). Tasso was commonly used in military language, to designate a specific status or order. So hypotasso is to place someone or rank someone underneath someone else. So, to submit is a good translation.
Own husbands, ‘idios aner’, does not mean idiotic husbands. Idios means one’s own. Aner means man, or husband, and again the context has to determine whether it refers to a man in general, or to a husband in specific.
As to the Lord, ‘hos to kyrio’, means just that.
The word ‘own’ makes it clear that this is about a wife and her husband, and not about women and men in general. So the Christian doctrine teaches that there is a hierarchy in marriage. In our culture, this is probably often frowned upon or even considered offensive. But the idea of submission in marriage is not just voiced here, by Paul. Peter wrote the same thing (1 Peter 3:1). Now this does not mean that hubby gets to play little lazy king in the home. Husbands have to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). Christ humbled himself, served the needs of others, and died a painful death so that others might live. So husbands are not off the hook, not at all, but this verse is not so much about husbands have to, but about the duty of wives.
Wives have to submit to their husbands, as they submit to the Lord. But what if the husband is foolish? What if he makes bad decisions that cause pain and suffering within the family? 1 Peter 3 is pretty clear. Even in those situations, the wife has to submit, suffering for doing what is good. God remembers, and will reward and punish both the wife and husband based on their works. In those situations, the wife will have to put their trust in God and pray that He will protect her and/or teach husband a lesson. But she still has to line up under her husbands’ authority. Just as there should be no limit to our submission to the Lord, there should be no limit to the submission of a wife to her husband (except of course when doing what the husband wants goes directly against what God wants, then you have to obey God and not man).
This level of submission is probably only possible if the wife fears God. Remember that this is what verse 21 mentioned. God requires that we obey His commands. And on Judgment Day, we all have to face Him and answer for what we’ve done. So if you, as a wife, decide not to submit to your husband, for whatever reason, how are you going to explain that to God? But if, in trying circumstances, you overcome and continue to do patiently what is right, will God then not abundantly reward you for being a good and faithful servant? He promised He would.
In the case where the husband is doing the right thing, the submission becomes much easier. When the husband is gentle, makes decisions that serve the well being of the family, and loves his wife like Christ loved the church, it is much easier to follow his lead. But even in those cases, there will be times when your preferences clash with the direction your husband is leading. In those instances, the wife has to trust God and put her own will aside.
It is important to mention that men are not more important in God’s eyes. There is no partiality with God. Husbands and wives play different roles, but they are equally valuable to God. And a wife who submits will receive greater future reward than a husband who does not love his wife as Christ loved the church.
Its hard to do full justice to this controversial topic in a blog post. But for those who want to dig deeper, here is a great sermon, called The S-Word: Submission: http://truthbase.net/sermons/title/the-s-word-submission-2010/