I've ben teaching my way through Elisabeth Elliot's book, Keep a Quiet Heart, at a weekly ladies study group. A few weeks back the lesson fell on an uncomfortable topic: submission. Elliot asks, "What does submission mean?" "Seems kind of negative. Sounds as though women are not worth as much as men. Aren't women supposed to exercise their gifts? Can't they ever open their mouths?" Elliot states flatly that she's not comfortable with that kind of submission either! She says it is a topic "so often misunderstood and wrongly defined."
So for our lesson that week I turned to Ephesians 5 and decided to pick that passage apart with a fine-tooth comb and come to terms with exactly what God is requiring of us humans. Here's what I found.
First, it's shocking how many more commands are given to husbands than to wives. We focus on, "wives, be subject to your own husbands," and tend to stop in our tracks. That sentence finishes with, "as unto the Lord." Wives are not called upon to be submissive to their husbands in any form beyond what they offer to Jesus first. So I ask myself, what does submission to Jesus look like? Because that's exactly the kind of submission I'm supposed to give my husband.
We aren't left in any doubt, because the passage quickly becomes a fleshing-out of exactly how Jesus loves His bride. (The church, the collection of God's saved people throughout history, is Jesus's bride.)
* Jesus is the head of the church, which is a good thing, because a group of humans that big needs a leader, and I'd rather have Jesus than anybody else.
* He has this role because He did something for His bride that no one else did; He died for her sake, for her protection, to save her life. He sacrificed Himself for her. That's the kind of headship that a husband is supposed to demonstrate in order for his wife to look at him and say, "Oh! A husband like Jesus! Sacrificial love! Yes, I'll gladly submit to that!"
* A husband's total sacrifice for his wife has an astonishing effect on her ... and I do mean total sacrifice. I don't just mean going to work everyday and putting a roof over her head. I don't mean never cheating on her with another woman. I don't mean never hitting her, cursing her, belittling her. Those are the lowest standards. It's understood that even a pagan husband would do those things. Real husbandly sacrifice goes far beyond -- He must give up himself, what he wants for himself, his pride and arrogance in his manliness, his desire to have his own time for his own hobbies for his own satisfaction. He must make it his constant study to understand her thinking, her instincts, to love her ways and anticipate her desires. He must be willing at any moment and every moment, to concede to her needs and her wishes. Her wish must be his command.
And I can hear the howls out there now. The men are crying "foul!!" and the women are simply guffawing. But I am deadly serious, people. Men simply do not understand how much they have vowed to give up, when they stand before God and those witnesses, in church, and commit for a lifetime. They are signing their lives away, according to Ephesians 5! (As Jesus did when He left heaven.) They are placing their well-being in the hands of a woman! (As Jesus did when He came to love us.) Men don't really want to do that. But that's what sacrifice means, because we all know that the hardest thing for a man to give up is his own pride and his own preferences. They're the greatest sacrifices of all. Everything else is peanuts.
So ... what about that stunning transformation I referred to above? What astonishing effect does such total sacrifice have on the wife? Well, women? What would you do for a man who gave up everything for you, treated you like a queen, met your every need and wish, studied your mind and cared for you every waking minute? If you're a decent human, and have a woman's heart, you'll be all over him, making sure he feels loved and affirmed and adored. There is nearly no end to how much affection and care a woman will give to a man who has sacrificed himself for her. She will defend him and cheer for him against all enemies.
Paul says it this way: the husband's sacrifice makes the wife glorious, pure, beautiful, spotless and wrinkleless (take THAT, Oil of Olay!) ... holy. That's the transformation. The husband gives up a lot, but in return, he gets the woman of his dreams.
If we didn't get it the first time, Paul makes it painfully clear. "Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies." If he loves, pleases, coddles, cares for, or cherishes himself in any way more than he cherishes her, he's breaking his vows. He's not a husband. He's not emulating Jesus. And his behavior will damage his wife, stripping her of beauty, glory, purity, holiness. She will find it impossible to maintain herself in the face of such selfishness.
*The husband cherishes and nourishes his wife. It's not enough to just say, "I cherish you," or to pay for the food on the table. The verse means more than that. Cherishing is proved by sacrifice, by repeated acts of love, by obvious considerations for her that require the husband to get out of his comfort zone and embrace her world, her needs, her delights. That's what Jesus did -- He came out of His heavenly comfort zone into our ugly world, and He met our needs and provided for our desires, right here.
We take marriage vows. If you take your vows in a church, a house of God, before a minister of God's kingdom, you'd better watch yourself. Husbands, the onus is on you -- the initiative is on you; you must begin the process of loving, cherishing, nourishing, sacrificing. Your wife is only called on to respond to it, not to initiate it. Your wedding vow includes all the points listed above -- it's a marriage before God, and you've promised Him to make a marriage conforming to His definition. A vow is a serious word, a bond, and its breaking has consequences -- that's part of what makes it serious.
If a husband rids himself of selfishness and arrogance, and works night and day for his wife's happiness, she will have little difficulty submitting to such a situation. Who wouldn't love such a life? A man who frees you to be yourself, pursues your interests and delights, cheers you along the way, gives you gentle advice and adores you -- you may call it submission, but I call it happiness.