Ephesians 5:24 is a familiar verse to many Christian wives. It is one of a group of verses that speak of submission to husbands, and it gives us a model for our submission namely the church’s subjection to Christ.
“But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:24)
Though this verse is describing something beautiful, it ends with something that can be difficult to accept and understand. I’m referring to the word everything. The idea of submitting is challenging enough for many of us, but submitting in everything can be a real stumbling block. Everything is a lot! It doesn’t appear to leave any area of our life unnamed. In practice, it may not play out so comprehensively however. It depends on the marriage. What submitting in everything looks like can be different from one couple to the next. I am planning on writing about that in my next post. Today, I want to look at a very important exception to everything.
I do not believe that everything includes anything contrary to God’s word. In other words, everything means everything but sin. This would include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sin. You may wonder why I would feel the need to write about this exception. It should be obvious, right? Unfortunately, there are those who believe that a wife must submit to her husband no matter what. I worry for wives in that situation, especially when they are in agreement with their husbands about the extent of their headship.
This belief carries the idea that a husband has absolute authority over his wife, the everything of verse 24 being the catalyst. Based on this, there is no exception to submission. I wholeheartedly disagree with this view. Kindly put, it is a misunderstanding of a husband’s headship. More strongly put, it is akin to blasphemy. I say this because this belief puts a husband in the place of God. While the Bible teaches that husbands do have God given authority, it does not say that their authority is ultimate or absolute.
Ultimate or absolute authority belongs only to God. He is above all. He is after all, God. It is to Him that we are ultimately responsible.
“Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O LORD, and You exalt Yourself as head over all. “Both riches and honor come from You, and You rule over all, and in Your hand is power and might; and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen everyone.” (1 Chronicles 29:11-12)
“For the LORD Most High is to be feared, A great King over all the earth.” (Psalms 47:2)
“The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all.” (Psalms 103:19)
“For in Him (Jesus) all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;” (Colossians 2:9-10)
Because it is only in God that absolute authority exists and because we are called to obey Him, a Christian wife must not submit to her husband if what he wants is contrary to God’s word. Leaning on the everything of Ephesians 5:24 as justification to follow a husband into sin is drastically dishonoring to God, and seeing it as a compulsion to follow a husband into sin is unnecessary. Christian wives can and must refuse to submit to anything outside of the revealed will of God. We must first and foremost be true to our Lord. Besides the very real need to walk in obedience to Him to His glory, knowingly walking in sin can do damage to a wife’s spiritual and possibly emotional and physical health.
Why does it say “everything”?
So if there is an exception, why does it say in everything? My quick answer would be that it is setting the scope of the wife’s role by working off of the church’s subjection to Jesus. That subjection is in everything. Christian wives (and husbands of course) understand what that means. We know how we as the church are under Him and are called to submit to Him in all ways. He is our God and our head. This gives us a clear picture of what is expected.
The context limits “everything”
This same picture also allows us to understand that everything has an exception. Since we know that our submission to our husbands is to be “as the church is subject to Christ”, we can know that everything cannot possibly include sin. Why? Well, how is the church subject to Christ? Surely not in the doing of any sin! It’s just not possible. Christ would never command it.
Let’s widen the context a bit and back up two verses for another indication that everything has an exception.
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” (Ephesians 5:22-23)
Here we read again about Christ and the church. We also see that wives are told to submit “as to the Lord”. How do we submit to the Lord? In what He commands; and again, that would never be anything sinful. Whether considering the church as a whole or considering individual wives, true submission to Jesus can never include sin. Since this is our model, we shouldn’t submit to anything sinful. In addition to this, and this is huge, so many verses make it clear that sin is never an acceptable option for a believer, regardless of who commands it.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?“(Romans 6:1-2)
“Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” (Romans 6:11-13)
“Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:9)
“The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” (1 John 2:4-6)
Separating in everything from the context and from the rest of Scripture can lead to a number of bad situations. A wife may feel real pressure to submit to sinful activities or a wife may make the mistake of thinking her husband has absolute authority and stop discerning between righteous and unrighteous behavior or a husband might push these words to get what he wants. I pray that if you are in any of these situations you may begin to see that everything has an exception. It is absolutely ok, nay, necessary to say no to your husband if he requests or demands something sinful.
There is a caveat here. Sometimes what we think is sinful could be a personal conviction and not something that is clearly addressed in the Scriptures. You may find it helpful to search the Scriptures, pray about it, and maybe even talk to a pastor or elder if you are unsure. If you discover that it is biblically necessary to say no, it’s important to say it lovingly and respectfully. We’re still called to this, not harshness or self-righteousness. Let it be done to God’s glory.
If you have already transgressed by following your husband into sin, remember that the Lord is faithful to forgive if we confess. (1 John 1:9) Also, seek out any support you might need to stand firm in obedience to our Lord.
Posts in this Series
Part One: Are Wives Really to Submit in Everything? (This post)
Part Two: What Does it Mean to Submit in Everything?
Part Three: Real Life Situations For Submitting in Everything
Part Four: How to Begin Submitting in Everything
See Also: Submission Verses: Quick Reference
Additional Resource: Domestic Abuse in Marriage
Excerpt: “Though I have consistently affirmed submission in my ministry work, I have also repeatedly stressed that wives should not submit to anything that is contrary to God’s word. The Bible does not teach that wives should submit to domestic abuse. I do not believe that wives default settings should be to suffer in silence even in small things, never mind serious abuse.”