“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
With these words about submission, Paul begins teaching the church at Ephesus about a lifestyle of following Jesus, with a sizeable portion of that teaching focused on marriage. Discussions about submission are often limited to how women are to be submissive to men. Paul teaches something different: all Christians are to be submissive to one another.
Can you imagine what a church looks like when each member seeks to defer to the others? Can you imagine what a marriage looks like when rather than seeking to rule over one another the husband and wife are mutually submissive?
Like Jesus in Matthew 19, when Paul teaches about marriage, he turns to and quotes from Genesis 2. Marriage is characterized not by ruling over, but by being united as one flesh. Man and woman are created under God, over the earth and side-by-side. In marriage they are no longer two, they are one.
A woman who follows Jesus will be submissive, deferring to her husband. Rather than trying to rule or dominate her husband, she submits to him. The husband is the head of the wife, which could be understood as “leader” or “source.” Convincing arguments can be made for both readings. But rather than spending a lot of time arguing over the meaning of the word, we might be better off looking at Paul’s instructions to husbands about how they are to be like Jesus. These instructions help us understand the meaning of “head.”
A husband can demonstrate submission (a concept taken from the topic sentence in verse 21 and continuing throughout this lengthy teaching) by loving his wife like Christ loved the church. This context connects “head” more with sacrifice rather than authority. A husband who follows Jesus will lay down his life for his wife. So however you understand the word “head” in verse 23, a man’s headship is lived out through deferring to his wife, even to the point of laying down his life.
Submission. Love. Sacrifice. Deference. Respect. Unity. Oneness. These are the words that describe a marriage in which the husband and the wife are followers of Jesus. Genesis, Jesus, and Paul are in agreement on the nature of Christian marriage.