I've heard this question asked several times when at conferences and presentations that I have been a part of. After all, the Bible does tell wives to submit to their husbands. SO does that mean I don't have to submit to my man until after we're married? I mean, until then we're not bound or obligated to each other legally or in any other way. Right? Well....yes and no. I'm going to do my best to answer that question from a Christian (and practical) perspective.
First, what does submission entail? The word for submit in the Bible is used to indicate obedience, subjecting oneself to another's advice or admonition, or to submit one's control. By looking at the context of the command to submit to our husbands, we can gain a whole lot of insight into what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Ephesians. Chapter 5 is essentially Paul showing the Ephesians (and all Christians) how to relate to one another in relationships. Reading the entire chapter highlights a few things:
1. Submission doesn't start with marriage, it starts when you become a Christian. In verse 21 of this chapter Paul reminds the Ephesians to "submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God." So submission isn't gender specific, it's for everyone who fears God. Submitting to one another as believers makes us accountable to one another. It means I can come to you and advise or admonish you if you're in a tough situation, or if I know that you've fallen into a sin, or just if I know you need a friend to pray with. That's what makes us a family in God.
"Submission doesn't start with marriage, it starts when you become a Christian."
So it only makes sense that Paul tells believers to submit to one another. It follows Jesus' example when he submitted Himself to having parents that would guide Him and that He would obey while on earth. He submitted Himself when he humbled himself to wash His disciples' feet after they had been arguing over who would be the greatest. And greatest of all, He submitted Himself day by day to the leading of the Father, no matter what the cost to Himself, convenience, or otherwise. So you see, submission is not restricted to a specific gender. Believers are to submit first to God, and also to one another.
2. Wives need to submit to their husbands because family relationships are the building blocks of churches. Think about it. Husbands and wives, and their children, are the members of the church. Your relationship with your spouse will affect your children and your church. Think of how many problems have arisen in churches because of betrayal within marriage relationships? Think about how many broken people we see in our churches because of broken home relationships. I believe that strong families make for strong churches, because when we learn to submit to our family members, we are more prepared for understanding how to deal with fellow believers outside our immediate, biological family circle. When we submit to our husbands-- our nearest neighbor--we gain the strength of character to become a blessing to our church. That's because we've been practicing forgiveness all along, humbling ourselves to apologize when something has gone wrong, and moving past pain and disappointment and learning to trust one another again.
3. Why does Paul repeat the submission thing to the wives? Paul does repeat the admonition to submit to their husbands because--let's face it ladies--we have a problem with submission. A lot of us think that independence and submission are opposites, that we can't be both. But the Bible teaches us differently. We're to maintain our individuality as women while allowing our husbands to lead the household. There's no need for the to-hell-with-men attitude. Ultimately ladies, the way we relate to our man reflects how we relate to God Himself. If we're pushy and nagging to our spouse, most likely we do the same thing with God and try to take things into our own hands when we get tired of waiting. If we're constantly arguing over every single little thing and afraid to trust our husbands with certain decisions, most likely we're afraid to let God have complete control in our lives as well. So take a look at yourself right now, whether you're married or not, and evaluate yourself honestly. Where did your conception of submission come from? Is it from the Bible or what you've heard people say? And how submissive are you to your first husband: Christ Himself?
Now that we understand that submission is not a bad thing, let's talk about what submission in a relationship should look like:
1. Submission is mutual. This is based on my experience in relationships as well as studying the Bible and looking at how God's people related to one another. Ephesians 5 tells us to submit one to another. Each person needs to put themselves aside in order for the relationship to work.
2. Submit your own desires: the desire to be right, for the person to see things your way, your opinion-even if you think you're right! As long as you stubbornly hold on to what you want, your issues will never get resolved because you're looking at your relationship through the "It's all about me" lens. This brings me to my next point. The only way to properly submit your own desires and point of view is to:
3. Submit to God first. Whenever issues arise in your relationship, instead of reacting emotionally, take it to the Lord in prayer. This might be a 10 second mind-break to pray for guidance on what to say next, or the right attitude. Or it might mean you going into the next room to be by yourself, calm down, and look at the situation from His point-of-view. And by His I mean God. This is the best way to figure out what you need to do. It allows us to see the other person not as an enemy or competition, but as our brother/sister in Christ. It helps us be aware that they have issues that they are dealing with personally that we need to be patient with.
4. Don't be afraid to apologize first, or compromise. "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. (Matthew 5:23-24) Notice that in this situation that even if it's your brother that has a problem with you, you should still be the one to make the first step. This is invaluable advice. So many times I've experienced positive results from this. When you come to the table with a humble, conciliatory attitude, the other person is a lot more inclined to do the same. Before you know it each of you will be insisting on doing what pleases the other in the situation where before you might have been about to strangle each other.
5. Submission does NOT mean you are surrendering your individuality. It means you are surrendering your "It's all about me and what I think" world-view and taking the needs and concerns of the person as being just as important as your own. It means that you are moving from the "old man", battling for self-satisfaction to the new man, created in Christ for good works, looking not to be served but to serve.