In an easily overlooked comment in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, God moved the apostle to point out one foundational aspect of Christian relations: Holy Spirit-filled Christians submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–21).
These words appear prior to Paul’s discussion of marriage, parenting, and work relationships. It is clear from what follows that the general duty of submitting to one another does not swallow up the particular duties that are described at the end of Ephesians 5 and the beginning of Ephesians 6. For example, masters and parents do not abandon their positions of authority with servants and children because of this mutual submission.
And yet, this posture of submitting “to one another out of reverence for Christ” does inform and shape these relationships. Take Ephesians 6:1–4: since children are to honor their parents, parents are not to exasperate their children in the manner in which they call them to obedience. There is asymmetry between parent and child, and yet also reciprocity.
And if Scripture’s call to mutual submission in Christ applies to the relationships in Ephesians 6, it certainly applies to the marriage relationship, described in Ephesians 5:22–33. For this passage on marriage immediately follows Paul’s command to mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21.
Even in Marriage?
Here too, it must be stressed, that husbands and wives do not lose their particular marital callings on account of their general duty to submit to one another in Christ. Mutual submission does not put a wife in charge of her husband. He is still called to love her “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” and she is still summoned to submit to him as her head under Christ (Ephesians 5:22–27).
But mutual submission, as a distinctly Christian concept, will make our marriages look different than non-Christian ones, including those that retain some vestigial, if corrupted, understanding of household headship. Indeed, the idea of a wife’s submission might appear less odious to the Western world today if the dynamic of Spirit-driven, Christ-exalting mutual submission were more visible in our homes and churches.
So, what might mutual submission look like in a Christian marriage? In a nutshell, it is a marriage characterized by mutual respect, care, and service — a kind of quiet competition to put the other person first, a “please, let me get that for you” or “you first!” attitude. Each Christian couple can think and pray through the implications of mutual submission for themselves, in their own marriages, but allow me to prime the pump by offering a few examples of what my wife, Emily, and I are working toward now.
Mutual respect ought to be seen in the way we speak and listen to each other. Three examples from our marriage come readily to mind.
First, in the spirit of submitting to each other, we try not to interrupt each other. (Husbands, we can lead here.) I don’t mean the happy “I’ll end your sentences, and you end mine” interruptions when telling old stories or jokes. I’m speaking about the “I’ve heard you long enough, and what we really need is my input” interruptions of an impatient and unloving spirit.
Second, when husband and wife both start a sentence at the same time, especially when there is weight, tension, or depth to the conversation, we could do more than offer to “let you go first” (which often only means that we’re waiting for our own turn to speak). Instead, we could indicate that we’d actually like to hear what our spouses have to say first, that we truly wish to consider their ideas.
Third, either because of our age or because of our electronic devices, Emily and I are at a point where we too often derail a train of thought and struggle to remember where we were headed. So, we are learning to say, “I had one more comment, but if you’re going to lose your thought, I’ll let you go first.”
We have a lot of growing to do here, especially me, but we are asking the Lord to help us submit to one another in our speech. Perhaps something like these examples could work for your marriage or for a married couple for whom you regularly pray.
We can show mutual care, too, as we emerge from arguments and feel the first uncomfortable tingle of conviction that we might not have been entirely in the right. We have a golden opportunity to go to our spouses (even when we still think we are largely in the right) and say, “I’m sorry for the tone that I used with you. I disregarded how it would make you feel. Please help me to see where I’ve done wrong, and if I don’t agree right away, I won’t push back. I’ll think and pray about it, and then I’ll get back to you.” And if you’re really on a roll, “God put us together for a reason, and I don’t want to lose an opportunity to grow.”
Of course, apologies are rarely easy. In my experience, before, during, and after this conversation I need to pray words like “Lord, please humble me,” “Help me to mean more deeply what I am saying,” and “Open my eyes to see anything, everything, for which I need to repent.”
Mutual submission also can be developed in the ways we serve each other. In many homes, a happy division of labor already catches the spirit of mutual submission, so I don’t wish for these suggestions especially to be read as prescriptions.
But it might help some marriages if men were quicker to get out of bed and turn off that last light, to attend to that unknown sound in the house, to get that glass of water for the bedside. It might help if we both chipped in to tidy, to vacuum, to set the table. It might help if one spouse said, “Ladies, the guys desperately want to do the dishes tonight,” or, “Guys, go sit down. We’ve got the kitchen.” It might help if both sought space for the other to attend to personal devotions, to go to a Bible study, to hang out with friends, to be alone, to exercise, to rest.
At a basic level, this submission to one another will look at the other’s biblical duties not to generously remind our spouses of what to do, or to tell them in glorious detail how to do it, but to help make our spouses’ tasks easier, even sweeter. If he is to love you as Christ loves his church, how can you act and speak so as to make that duty a joy for him? If she is to submit to you as to Christ, how can you model the ways Christ eases your own burdens in serving him (Matthew 11:28–30)? Can you pull with her on her yoke? Can you lift with her the heaviest burdens?
And, in thinking about marriage, I’d be remiss not to mention that this dynamic applies to the bedroom, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 7. We belong to the other, and therefore we consider first the other’s requests, needs, and desires in intimacy.
All for His Sake
Above all, we remember that submission to one another is for the sake of Christ (Ephesians 5:21). If our husband or wife does not respond in kind, we carry on — we did not do this merely for our spouse or for ourselves. No, we have done it for Christ.
We submit, no matter the expected or seen results, regardless of how our spouse responds, so that Christ will be honored, so that he will be pleased. We submit so that our gracious Master in heaven will say to us one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23), even if no one on earth notices right now. And we do it because we know that repenting from our previous patterns of selfishness leads Christ’s angels to rejoice, Christ’s saints to smile, and sinners who are on their way to Christ to wonder.
In the economy of grace, undeserved and unrequited love is the currency that purchased our own salvation. And if Christ has shared with us the treasures of his mercy, we will want to spend this same currency on our spouse as well.