Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…. -Ephesians 5:22,25, NIV
I’m going to be transparent here:
This passage from Ephesians 5 bothers me. It does not bother me that it is in the Bible. I thank God for His Word. It is always true and trustworthy. Rather, what bothers me about this passage is how I experienced it being used and how it continues to be abused from what I gather in others’ stories.
God’s Word is life; the human interpretation and application of it is too often not so much.
These days I have frequently heard sermons preached from evangelical pulpits decrying the mishandling of this passage where husbands use the submission clause to dominate their wives. This is truly an abuse and misunderstanding of the passage. If a man is dominating his wife, he is not loving her as Christ did the Church. That is pretty obvious but has often been overlooked. I applaud my brother and sister ministers who expose the use of the submission teaching as an excuse to dominate as abuse.
However, I am not here to focus on that abuse but rather more disguised ones. These are the abuses that arise when this passage is utilized to provide a reason for why the marriage ended (even when adultery is blatantly obvious to all).
When I was putting together my extensive evidence and statement for my ecclesiastical trial, my pastoral education supervisor pointed out a possible assumption behind the proceedings apparent in the official denominational application guidelines. She identified how the paperwork always put the male pastor (essentially only men are ordained in this denomination) as responsible for what happened in the marriage plus ergo the divorce regardless of the circumstances. I see this as the unexamined fruit of an overly zealous application of “the husband as the head of the wife” teaching found in Ephesians 5:22ff.
Let me put this unexamined fruit another way:
The divorce is always the responsibility of the man–regardless of circumstances–because he is the head of the house.
This is a wicked teaching. We are not responsible for another’s sin (see Deut. 24:16)! This truth is applicable to husbands as well as to wives. It is basic justice not to blame or hold accountable a person for the decisions/actions of another. And God is just.
Furthermore, God did not wring His hands wondering how He failed as a leader and “husband” while Israel played the harlot in the Old Testament (see Hosea 2). He exhibits righteous anger. Then God divorces Israel when it is clear she will not stop her adulterous ways (Jeremiah 3:8). God takes no blame for that divorce.
Another problem with this nefarious and subtle teaching is how it undermines the wife’s agency. It obscures the reality that she is accountable for her own actions and decisions. Realizing and taking responsibility for these decisions or actions are the prerequisites to repentance as one has to realize one’s own power to choose otherwise in the future (i.e. to stop sinning).
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. – 2 Corinthians 5:10, NIV
This Scripture is important to keep in mind. The wife is still accountable for her actions. If she has committed adultery or abandoned her marriage without Biblical reasons, she has to answer to God for those sins. Those are actions. And “all” will appear before God for a reckoning.
Pastors, we do our people a disservice not making it clear each party in a marriage is totally accountable for his or her actions. I do not see it working on Judgement Day when a wife tries to blame her adultery on her husband saying he was miserable at making her feel loved. God only has to point out it was her actions He is talking about, not his. Her husband did not commit adultery. She did and must answer for such actions. Spiritually, we do not prepare our flock well for that day if we teach that wives are not responsible for such serious actions as unbiblically divorcing or cheating on their husbands.
When teaching and drawing lessons from Ephesians 5:21ff, we need to remember that doing the principles outlined in these verses does not guarantee a perfect or whole marriage. We are all unique individuals–both male and female; so, we all respond differently. And we are all individually accountable for our own actions and decisions. This is true regardless of marital status. After all, we know no one is married in the Resurrection (see Mt 22:30).