There is no scripture verse in the entire Bible that has given marriages more trouble than Ephesians 5:22. The words come from a seemingly clueless Apostle Paul who says, “Wives submit yourselves to your husbands.”
My first run-in with the mandate came in the home of our deacon who had invited me, his 26-year-old pastor, and my wife, Becky, for dinner after church.
Our deacon, Dan, was a 40ish-year-old family man with three daughters who hung on his every word. But a few hours into our meal, it was his wife, Joanne, who was making the biggest impression on us.
Joanne was an incredibly personable woman who exuded confidence in everything she did. Nevertheless, with Dan, she seemed almost subservient. She waited on him hand-and-foot, bringing him what he needed before he’d ask.
As Joanne served dessert, Becky dared a nervous laugh at how Joanne fawned over Dan. The deacon’s wife responded to Becky’s ribbing with the submission verse, telling us it was her Christian duty to serve Dan. With lips pursed, we nodded in feigned agreement, even though our first impressions told us that the arrangement seemed more like servile compliance than a Christian marriage.
On our drive home to the parsonage, my young bride made a few declarations. “I hope you’re not expecting our marriage to be like that. I’ll be your wife, but I won’t be your maid or your waitress.”
Of course, this was no major development. I knew I’d married a product of the women’s movement. On our wedding day, Becky veered away from traditional roles by refusing to be “given away” by her father. Instead, both our parents began the ceremony by announcing their affirmation of the marriage. After our wedding, Becky spent the next four years supporting us through my seminary education.
Now that she was ready to start her teaching career and plan our family, she wanted to be sure I knew that I would be doing an equal share of home upkeep, diaper duty and cooking. Of course I wanted to keep this girl, so I always nodded in perfect agreement.
I remained with the church for four and a half years, just long enough to realize that Joanne wasn’t the mousy subservient wife we first mistook her for. Her marriage wasn’t so easily dismissed. Actually, I was privileged to witness how she and Dan built a marriage of great love and mutual respect. I saw many moments in which Dan also submitted to Joanne’s wishes and lavished her with every bit of love he could muster.
Bottom line was that their marriage worked for them and I had no call to judge.
I met up with Dan and Joanne a few years back and I can tell you that Dan achieved a wonderful life—not by misusing the verse to domineer Joanne, but by cherishing her. Joanne achieved a wonderful marriage, not by losing who she was in Dan’s shadow, but by honoring the man God made Dan to be.
Together, they found the secret that precedes the noisy one about the wives submitting. Ephesians 5:21 makes it clear that both the husband and wife must “submit to one another.”
That simply means that couples must work it out. No one can be the head all the time. Mostly we lead together.
As for our marriage, I don’t think Becky will tell you that our marriage has always been equal because I know it hasn’t. But I also know that submitting to one another continues to work for us.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.