Holy Living In An Unholy World,

The Most Unpopular Verse In The Bible

By Dr. Robert Jeffress

A few years ago, I was performing a wedding ceremony for some members of a previous church. After reading from I Corinthians 13 about the supremacy of love and today’s passage about the roles and responsibilities in marriage, we got down to the business of the vows. I asked the bride, “Do you Sara take Bill to be your lawful and wedded husband? Do you promise to love and submit to him until death alone shall part you?” She said “Yes.” I then turned to the groom and asked him if he would love his wife with the same unconditional love with which Christ loved us and if he would lay down his life for his wife. He said “Yes.” They exchanged rings and kissed, and I pronounced them husband and wife.

After the ceremony, this sweet-looking little old lady approached me and introduced herself as the bride’s grandmother. Her countenance suddenly changed and she said, “Reverend, if you had asked ME the same question you asked my granddaughter about obeying her husband, I would have answered ‘No way.'” 

Unfortunately, her reaction is not unusual. I am amazed how many Christians are ready to jettison their belief in the  inspiration of the Bible when they come to verses like the one we are going to look at today in Ephesians 5: “Wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord?” Suddenly, Paul’s status changes from “God’s chosen apostle” to “male chauvinist pig.”

Why is that? Why do so many women—and men, for that matter—react so negatively to this command for wives to submit to their husbands? Some would say it is because of our natural tendency to rebel against authority; others would say it is because we have allowed the world’s belief system to infiltrate the church; others would say it is because we don’t accept the Bible as God’s inspirited Word.

While all of those reasons may be valid, I think that one major reason we resist this idea of submission is that some Christians have twisted Paul’s words to say something the apostle never meant to communicate. The result of such a distortion is that women have been treated as second-class citizens in the home and the church. 

Today, we are going to “accurately [handle] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) by resisting the radical feminists on one extreme and the rabid fundamentalists at the other extreme to discover what God’s Word really says about the roles and responsibilities in the home. “The fact that evil, disordered men have perverted God’s Word is no reason to throw it out,” Pastor Kent Hughes correctly says.

In Ephesians 5, we are in the section of Ephesians dealing with how we are to “walk”—that is, live our lives—in light of the tremendous spiritual wealth that God has given to each of us. The theme verse for this section in Ephesians is: walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.

In Ephesians 4:2-16, Paul says that in our relation to Christians, we are to walk in unity. In relation to our personal lives, we are to walk in purity (Ephesians 4:17-5:20), and now, in relation to our home life, we are to walk in humility. 

1. The General Command (Ephesians 5:21)

The word translated “be subject to” is the Greek word “hupostasso,” which is a military term that means “to order oneself under” a leader. As in military rank, a private is to line up—hupostasso—under the leadership of a sergeant, a sergeant under the leadership of a lieutenant, a lieutenant under the leadership of the captain, and so on through major, colonel, and general.

What makes Paul’s use of hupostasso in verse 21 interesting is that it’s in the middle voice, which in Greek denotes cooperation, where the one submitting or obeying acts as a free agent. 

He or she isn’t forced to submit but willingly submits out of love. The idea is that if we are truly controlled by the Holy Spirit, then we give up our own rights and place ourselves under one another “in the fear [or reverence] of Christ,” Paul said.

Jesus, obviously, is the perfect example of this type of submission, freely given. In speaking about His death He told the disciples, “No one has taken it away from Me but I lay it down on My own initiative” (John 10:18). 

2. The Application of Submission in Marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33)

1. The meaning of submission. (Ephesians 5:22)

Submission does not mean that women never are to voice an opinion, it does not mean that their only response is a plastic smile and a “yes, dear, whatever you say.” As in all things, our ultimate alliance is to Christ. And as John Stott has so aptly put it, “The principle is clear: [wives] must submit right up to the point where obedience to [her husband] would involve disobedience to God.” Wives are to respect rather than rebel against the leadership of their husbands in the home. 

2. The reason for submission. (Ephesians 5:23)

Now, this verse always stirs up a dust of controversy and is a great problem, quite frankly, to those Christians who say today that there is no hierarchy or chain of command in marriage. How do they then explain this verse of Scripture that says that the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church? They take the word “head” which is the Greek word “Kephale” and they say that in Greek “Kephale” does not mean head, but it means “Source.” Just one problem with that.

Dr. Wayne Grudem, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Seminary and a graduate of Harvard, Westminster and Cambridge, did a word study of this word “Kephale” and found that it is used 2,236 times in Greek literature outside the Bible. In each of those occurrences, the word never meant “source” it always means “head.”

“Headship is not a dictatorship,” Warren Wiersbe wrote. And it should never turn into a dictatorship. The head gives direction to the body, not to hurt the body, but to nurture it and help it accomplish its purpose. A body that does not respond to the direction of the head is crippled, paralyzed, or spastic. When a wife refuses to respond to the direction of her husband or a husband refuses to give loving leadership for to his wife, the result is a spastic marriage which the world and sadly the church are filled with.

Whether it is in the military, the church, the workplace, or the home there has to be a clear chain of authority for there to be order. Someone has to have the final say. As someone said, anything in nature with two heads is a freak, and anything with no head is dead!

3. The boundaries of submission. (Ephesians 5:24)

  • Submission is voluntary.

By this I do not mean that wives choose whether or not you want to follow the leadership of your husband. I mean that you choose whether or not you want to get married and therefore live under the authority of a husband.

  • Submission is limited.

That is wives are to submit “To their own husbands” not to every other man. 

There is nothing in Bible that prohibits a woman from leading a corporation, a military battalion, or for that matter an entire nation. “But doesn’t the Bible say in 1 Timothy 2:12 that a woman is not to exercise authority over man.” Yes, but that is in reference to the church. The only sphere in which the principle of women submitting to men applies is in the home and in the church.

Submission is also limited in scope. The word “everything” in verse 24 obviously must be balanced with the truth of Acts 5:29 which says, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Ladies, if your husband asks you to do something illegal or immoral, you are to respectfully decline to do so. You are not to quit coming to church or stop bringing your children to church in order to keep peace in the house, regardless of what some well-meaning but misguided Christians tell you. Submission is limited. 


Full Passage: Ephesians 5:21-24