Submission can be a controversial can of worms. In Australia, secular journalists have recently published concerns about the dangers of submission. They’re right to do so.
When men and women submit to Christ, we give up our selfish rights and preferences, and voluntarily choose to live under his authority. He owns our lives and asks for total allegiance. If Christ were not trustworthy and abounding in compassion, grace, wisdom and goodness, this would be a precarious position indeed. But, thankfully, submission to Christ is the truest freedom, so we need not fear.
But in this sinful world, power is abused. Men and women in all kinds of positions of influence and leadership can use their position selfishly and sinfully, and victims become injured by heinous evil. As such, submission is a risky business.
So when Christ says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”, there are risks. Sometimes husbands are foolish and make bad decisions. Sometimes husbands are sinful and abuse their wives. God speaks very clearly about the latter. He hates violence, rage, fits of anger and the abuse of power (Ps 11:5; Prov 3:29; Gal 5:19-21; Mark 10:42-45). Such people will be punished most severely (Gal 5:21).
So what do we do?
Ephesians 5:22-33 is the extended parallel of Colossians 3:18, where the hidden mystery of marriage is unveiled. God designed earthly marriages to give a foretaste of the sublime goodness of the eternal marriage between Christ and the church. As such, wives are to be like the church, modelling submission so that everyone has a better understanding of what it looks like for individuals to submit to Christ. Likewise, husbands are to demonstrate Christ’s headship, modelling sacrificial, selfless leadership so we better understand Christ’s loving rule. We are to learn from each other.
I am very grateful to God for the blessing of a wonderful, Christlike husband. Richard insists on taking out the garbage every week, he cooks when I’m busy, he drives when I’m tired and he comforts me when I’m sad. Submitting to him is a wonderful joy that I don’t take for granted. I received this undeserved blessing through the painful death of another. So I cherish it dearly, thanking God for this tangible expression of Christ and the gospel.
Yet despite this, in my sinfulness, I still fail. Sometimes I get tired and grumpy. Sometimes I’m impatient and irritable. To my shame, sometimes I get angry when I feel my husband hasn’t loved me exactly as I want him to, and in a desire for justice I punish him for it. But Colossians says, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them”. Should Richard only love me when I’m kind and patient and in a good mood? This would be outrageous! Husbands, even if your wife is angry and emotional, please love her patiently—with compassion, kindness and humility. Assume she knows how undeserving she is.
Likewise, wives, even if your husband is disappointing, slow to initiate, and clumsy in his efforts, please respect him, patiently encourage him, and build him up with your words. Assume he knows his weaknesses and failings. He might feel trapped and unable to change himself. He may feel self-hatred and pity for his own inadequacies and sins, and know just how undeserving he is of your loyalty and grace.
Ephesians 5:33 is very helpful in all this. Insightfully, author Emmerson Eggerichs says that respect is the heart of submission, and the biblical ‘love language’ for men. In general, where women want to be loved and cherished and adored, men want to be respected.
But sometimes in our ungodliness, instead of respecting our husbands, wives can belittle, demean and demand. Sometimes it’s easy for us to have a critical, complaining or controlling spirit, especially when there are differing preferences and opinions. While there’s certainly a right place to disagree and discuss, and while there’s certainly a right place to keep a safe distance from a violent or abusive husband, it honours God to do so with loving respect—not with superiority and stubbornness, not with a spirit of revenge or bitterness, but with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12).
As you continue reflecting on Colossians 3:18, these questions might be helpful: Do you appreciate your husband’s work and service? Do you admire his strengths (or even his efforts) to love? Do you praise his godly ideas and leadership? Do you honour his preferences and desires?
Respect is most foundational to the goodness of submission: Whatever his failings, how can you treat your husband with respect and build him up with your words? Perhaps do some homework. Ask him, “What makes you feel respected?” You never know—the answer may surprise you.
By Jeanette Chin