So What’s All This Stuff About Submission? (Ephes. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18-19)

By | July 10, 2011

To Have and To Hold #2


     This morning we’re going to address one of those touchy subjects of the Bible: Submission. This is such a sensitive and controversial subject, especially since we’re living in the 21st Century, that I decided to have my wife, Mary, read over my notes and give me some advice about what I should keep in and what I should cut. So, . . . in conclusion. So, just what is Submission?

     There’s an old story you’ve probably heard about a guy named Frank who died and went to heaven. When he got there he noticed two lines. One was marked “Husbands who were hen-pecked.” The other was marked: “Husbands who weren’t hen-pecked.” Frank looks and there have to be a couple of million guys standing in the “Husbands who were hen-pecked” line but there’s only one guy standing in the other line. So, out of curiosity, Frank walks over to talk to him. They introduce themselves and finally Frank asks: “I’m curious, with so many guys over there, how did you end up in this line?”

     The other guy says: “I really don’t know, my wife told me to stand over here.”

     What do you think? Is that submission? No!

    Or how about the  newlywed couple that was about to check into the hotel. The new bride said: “Honey, let’s pretend that we’ve been married for a long time.” The new groom replied: “Fine with me, but do you think you can carry all those suitcases by yourself?” (1)

    Is THAT submission? No! Again, just what is Submission? That’s what we’re going to look at.


     For some reason we think of submission as a negative term. The American Heritage Dictionary gives this as the primary definition for submission“The act of submitting to the power of another.”

     And the definition for submit is: “To yield or surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another.”

     If you really stop and think about it, we do that every single day. We do that at work, at home, in Church, on the highways, at school, everywhere we go. And we do it voluntarily. We submit to the will and authority of our boss or our supervisor. We submit ourselves to the laws: both the ones on the books and the unwritten laws of decency and how we treat one another. We submit ourselves to the government; to our teachers and civic leaders; to the rules of the clubs and organizations to which we belong; to the expectations of the businesses we frequent; and to God. And yet when we start talking about submission in marriage, sparks fly. Why? Maybe because the whole concept of submission as quoted in the scripture has been abused by those who want to keep women in their place and they use these passages indiscriminately.

    Let’s look at two passages of Scripture, both from Paul, which deal with submission.

Colossians 3:18-19; Ephesians 5:21-33 (NRSV)

[18] Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  

[19] Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.  

Ephesians 5:21-33

[21] Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.  

[22] Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  

[23] For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.  

[24] Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.  

    That’s usually where most people stop in this passage. This is what’s quoted at some weddings but let’s read on and find out what else Paul writes.

[25] Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  

[26] in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word,  

[27] so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.  

[28] In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  

[29] For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,  

[30] because we are members of his body.  

[31] “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  

[32] This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.  

[33] Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

    So now let’s look at what I think these passages really say.


     A. I think the key verse concerning submission in marriage is found in Ephesians 5:21. Paul writes: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This is the verse upon which all the rest of the verses hinge. This is the verse that describes what submission and marriage itself is all about.

     Marriage isn’t about taking, it is about giving. It’s about giving yourself to your spouse. It’s about giving yourself and your time and your love and all that you are to your spouse. It’s about giving yourselves to one another. In the United Methodist liturgy, there are three sets of vows in the marriage ceremony: The Declaration of Intent; the actual Vows themselves; and then the Giving of the Rings. During the giving of the rings, the bride and groom both say the following: “I give you this ring as a sign of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (2)

     “With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” I absolutely love those vows. They are made in God’s name “out of reverence for Christ,” as Ephesians says they should be. They are simple, yet they hold nothing back. And that’s the way it should be in marriage. Two people loving one another and holding nothing back. It is two people “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

     There’s a Great Example of this in the 1968 movie “Yours, Mine and Ours” with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. Based on a true story, it’s about a navy widower, Frank Beardsley, with 10 kids who falls in love with a widowed nurse, Helen North, who has 8 kids of her own. As you can imagine, there are lots of trials and tribulations as the two different families attempt to come together as one. Into this mix a 19th child is about to be born who won’t have to choose sides.

     A family crisis with one of the daughters comes occurs at the very same time that this new addition decides it’s time to make himself known. In the middle of loading Mom into the car, Dad has to explain what marriage and life is all about to the daughter. WATCH

     I think that’s a great example of the idea, “With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” Two people loving one another and holding nothing back, in good and in bad; two people “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

     B. In this context, as we look at the passage further, Paul’s words have a deeper more spiritual meaning. Paul compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the Church, where the husband is the Christ figure and the wife is the Church. This places the husband in the role of the head of the house, just as Christ is the head of the Church.

     Most guys hear this, coupled with the verses before it about wives submit yourselves to your husbands and they immediately start thinking, “All right. I’ve got it made. I’m Lord of the house. I’m number one. We do things my way. Bring me the remote; a beer and a bag a pretzels. When you’re finished with the house work let me know, I’ll show you how I want the lawn mowed and the car washed.” Aaahhh!!!!! Wrong Answer.

     Oh, sure, that’s the wife submitting herself to her husband but where’s the husband being subject to his wife? And more importantly, where is the husband’s Christ like behavior? You see, that’s the kicker of this passage. In verse 25, Paul writes: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

     Paul goes on to describe the sacrificial nature of that love. And it’s all for the purpose of making the spouse “holy and without blemish.” Guys, when was the last time you did something to make your wife “holy and without blemish?” And not just the guys but everyone, when was the last time you did something to build up your spouse? When was the last time you did something sacrificial to show just how much you love your spouse? When was the last time you were the Christ for your spouse? Or your best friend? Or someone who you’re having trouble with? That’s what this passage is talking about, modeling Christ for your spouse and for the world.

     I personally think that if this passage is taken in context and taken seriously, the only way a husband can ever expect to be the head of the house and to have the submissive wife described here is for him to be Christ like in all of his dealings, especially in his relationship with his wife and children. I also think this is the best model for both husband and wife as they live out verse 21: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”


     A. And that’s exactly what a couple proclaims to do in the vows of marriage. They promise to submit to one another. They promise to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

     The marriage vows are a covenant of mutual submission. They are not one person lording it over the other, but a covenant between equals, each modeling Christ for the other. It’s a covenant, not a contract. And there is a difference.

     A covenant is forever. It doesn’t depend on the performance of either party. It is wholly independent of either party’s performance even though it’s based on the idea of relationship. Marriage is a covenant relationship made between a man and a woman in the presence of God. And the only one who has the authority to release someone from that covenant is God, because God created marriage. And God created the marriage covenant to be forever.

     A contract on the other hand, doesn’t have a relationship in mind. A contract is a legal agreement that deals strictly with the performance of the persons involved. If one party fails to perform their end of the contract, the other party is no longer bound by the terms of the contract.

     Marriage isn’t a contract, it’s a covenant. It’s a covenant of love; a covenant based upon love; both love for each other and love for God. That’s why the vows aren’t: “to have and to hold from this day forward, until things get worse, or we don’t have as much money or you get sick and I can’t take it any longer or I’m not in love with you any more or someone better comes along.”  God’s intent is that marriage be forever.

     God is faithful and just. God keeps God’s covenant with us even when WE fail to keep the covenant. And that’s the model we need for marriage. Marriage is a sacred covenant that reminds us of our relationship with God through Christ. Jesus is pretty clear in his teachings about divorce.

     B. That’s one of those hard teachings of Jesus that we looked at earlier this year. I know it raises some hackles when we talk about it because of our own failed marriages. The Biblical witness is that marriage is meant to be for life.

     Unfortunately, we’re imperfect and sometimes we blow it. At times our marriages don’t last. That’s not what God intended but God understands our failure. The Good News is that despite our failure God is loving and forgiving; gives us second chances and allows us to go on. Through Jesus there is forgiveness and second chances.

     The key is to stand for the marriage NOW. The key is to work for the marriage NOW and not to wait until it’s falling apart. There is no quick fix for a broken covenant. Just like there’s no quick or simple fix for a cracked foundation in a building. Unless God is leading the repair team, it takes almost as much time to repair a broken covenant as it did to break it.

     We’re called to be “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And to do as much as we can to build up as well as repair that covenant.


     A. The secret of a healthy, happy marriage, I think, is simple. I believe it’s this whole idea of submission. It begins with each person submitting themselves to God through Christ and putting God first in every aspect of their lives. The second step is like the first, it’s submitting the marriage to God and putting God first in every aspect of the marriage. And the final step is equal partners submitting themselves to each other. “Being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

     B. I don’t want to beat this idea of submission to death but I want to give you some examples of what I understand as submission. So, first a story, then a clip and then another short story.

     A couple of years ago I read a story about a wife who was going to ask for a raise. She told her husband that on this particular Friday, she was going into the boss’s office to request the raise which she felt was deserved. Naturally, she was nervous and apprehensive. Toward the end of the working day she finally worked up the courage to approach the boss and, to her surprise, the her boss readily agreed that she had been working hard and successfully and deserved a substantial raise.

     When this woman arrived home she noticed the dining room table was set with their best dishes. There were candles burning. And a dozen roses in a vase on the table. Her husband had come home early and had prepared a festive meal.

     She thought someone from the office must have called and tipped him off that she got the raise. She went into the kitchen, told him the good news, they kissed and then sat down to a delicious and wonderful meal.  Next to her plate was a note, which read, “Congratulations, darling!  I knew you’d get the raise. These things will tell you how much I love you.” They enjoyed the meal together.

     But when her husband got up to get dessert she noticed that a second card that fell from his pocket. She picked it up, and read, “Don’t worry about not getting the raise! You deserved it anyway! These things will tell you how much I love you.” (4)

     In the movie “The Notebook” Noah and Allie have been in love for years. Class differences and circumstances kept them apart but eventually they come together. We find this out through the love story which Noah reads to Allie, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, every single day. Some days she remembers. Most days she doesn’t but he never gives up. In this particular scene, the kids and grandkids have come to visit. WATCH

     Finally, I read about a young lady who walked into a fabric store, went to the counter, and asked the owner for some noisy, rustling, white material. The owner found two such bolts of fabric but was rather puzzled at the young lady’s motives. Why would anyone want several yards of noisy material? The owner’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked the young lady why she wanted the noisy cloth. She answered: “You see, I am making a wedding gown, and my fiancé is blind. When I walk down the aisle, I want him to know when I’ve arrived at the altar, so he won’t be embarrassed.” (5)


     That’s how I understand the Biblical meaning of submission and being subject to one another. It’s not about power, it’s not about authority, it’s not about who’s in charge. If it’s mutual submission, God is in charge. Our submission becomes about support and love and the covenant made with one another and with God. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

     Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, submitted Himself to the will of God and in so doing gave himself up to death on the cross for our sakes. He died so we would know forgiveness and experience redemption and reconciliation with God. As the opening of our Wedding Liturgy says, “in His sacrificial love, Jesus, gave us the example for the love of husband and wife.” Jesus gave His life for us and with all that He is, and all that He has, He has honored us by raising us to new life and making us heirs of the Kingdom.

     Our challenge, our call, is to acknowledge and receive that new life through living as new creations for Christ in all of our relationships, but especially in our relationship with our spouse.

     Today as we close in prayer and take time for reflection, I want you to focus on renewing your covenant with God through Christ. And then want you to focus on your relationship with your spouse, or your best friend or your family or whoever God places in your heart. How is God asking you to submit your will to His in this relationship? How can you best reflect Christ’s love for them?

     And during these moments, if your heart has been touched by God’s presence, if you have felt the Holy spirit move and would like to spend time in prayer at the altar or make a public profession of your faith in Christ and join the fellowship of our church, then come forward as we sing our Hymn of Invitation.


This is the Word of the Lord for this day.


1.   INFOsearch

2.   THE UNITED METHODIST BOOK OF WORSHIP, Copyright (c) 1992 The United Methodist Publishing House, pp. 121-122.

3.   Ibid. P. 120.

4.   Autoillustrator

5.   Autoillustrator

Other References Consulted

Laugh Your Way To A Better Marriage, Mark Gunger

We can Work It Out, Clifford Notarius & Howard Markman (Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 1993)

Love Life For Every Married Couple, Ed Wheat and Gloria Okes Perkins (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1980)

Fighting For Your Marriage, Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan L. Blumberg (Jossey-Bass Publishings, San Francisco, 1994)

The Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1953)

The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995)

Willaim Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, (The letters to the Galatians and Ephesians) pp. 129-130. The Wesminster Press, Philadelphia, 1976.

Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651, June 1995

The Pastor’s Story File (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651, June 1995

The Autoillustrator, P.O. Box 336517, Greeley, CO 80633

Stories for Preachers and Teachers Software, HeavenWord Inc. 1999

Bible Illustrator for Windows 3.0, 199-1998, Parson’s Technology, Inc.

Leadership, P.O. Box 37060, Boone, IA 50037-0060