Rebecca McLaughlin on Learning to See Paul’s Instructions for Wives to Submit to Husbands Through a Gospel Lens

Content adapted from Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187. www.crossway.org.


I was an undergraduate at Cambridge when I first wrestled with Paul’s instruction, in Ephesians, for wives to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22, ESV). I came from an academically driven, equality-oriented, all-female high school. I was now studying in a majority-male college. And I was repulsed.

I had three problems with this passage. The first was that wives should submit. I knew women were just as competent as men. My second problem was with the idea that wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord. It is one thing to submit to Jesus Christ, the self-sacrificing King of the universe. It is quite another to offer that kind of submission to a fallible, sinful man.

My third problem was the idea that the husband was the “head” of the wife. This seemed to imply a hierarchy at odds with men and women’s equal status as image bearers of God. Jesus, in countercultural gospel fashion, had elevated women. Paul, it seemed, had pushed them down.

Gospel Roles

At first, I tried to explain the shock away. I tried, for instance, to argue that in the Greek, the word translated “submit” appears only in the previous verse, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), so the rest of the passage must imply mutual submission. But the command for wives to submit occurs three times in the New Testament (see also Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1).

But when I trained my lens on the command to husbands, the Ephesians passage came into focus. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the church? By dying on a cross; by giving himself, naked and bleeding, to suffer for her; by putting her needs above his own; by sacrificing everything for her. I asked myself how I would feel if this were the command to wives. Ephesians 5:22 is sometimes critiqued as a mandate for spousal abuse. Tragically, it has been misused that way. But the command to husbands makes that reading impossible. How much more easily could an abuser twist a verse calling his wife to suffer for him, to give herself up for him, to die for him?

When I realized the lens for this teaching was the lens of the gospel itself, it started making sense. If the message of Jesus is true, no one comes to the table with rights. The only way to enter is flat on your face. Male or female, if we grasp at our right to self-determination, we must reject Jesus, because he calls us to submit to him completely.

With this lens in place, I saw that God created sex and marriage as a telescope to give us a glimpse of his star-sized desire for intimacy with us. Our roles in this great marriage are not interchangeable: Jesus gives himself for us, Christians (male or female) follow his lead. Ultimately, my marriage is not about me and my husband any more than Romeo and Juliet is about the actors playing the title roles.

Recognizing that marriage (at its best) points to a much greater reality relieves the pressure on all concerned. First, it depressurizes single people. We live in a world where sexual and romantic fulfillment are paraded as ultimate goods. But within a Christian framework, missing marriage and gaining Christ is like missing out on playing with dolls as a child, but growing up to have a real baby. When we are fully enjoying the ultimate relationship, no one will lament for the loss of the scale model.

It also takes the pressure off married people. Of course, we have the challenge of playing our roles in the drama. But we need not worry about whether we married the right person, or why our marriages are not flinging us to a constant state of Nirvana. In one sense, human marriage is designed to disappoint. It leaves us longing for more, and that longing points us to the ultimate reality of which the best marriage is a scale model.

Ephesians 5 used to repulse me. Now it convicts me and calls me toward Jesus: the true husband who satisfies my needs, the one man who truly deserves my submission.

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today