Who Submits To Who In Marriage?

Text: Ephesians 5:22-33

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

Recent studies tell us that one in four marriages are likely to end in divorce. Infidelity, fights over money, lack of communication, unrealistic expectations, and lack of intimacy are some of the main reasons given for divorce. Regardless of the specific reason given, though, there is something underneath that is the primary cause for divorce that is often not mentioned. That cause, or that thing, is the old Adam (the sinful nature). 

You see, the old Adam demands to have complete freedom. The sinful nature wants complete control of the checkbook, sex on demand, security, and the attention of others. It wants all of these things and more, without the hassle of having to communicate. And when the sinful nature’s freedom is hindered or challenged, it throws a fit.

“I want what I want, and I want it right now, and nobody can tell me otherwise, especially my spouse!” 

Now, this old Adam is bad enough for one person, but consider when two sinful natures go at each other in a marriage.

When the sinful nature is in control, the husband and wife become like competing military forces throwing grenades from foxholes.  With sinful grit, they neither give an inch nor show any mercy to each other. They will fight to the death to protect the sinful nature’s beloved freedom.  They will launch accusations at each other, self-justify, and play the victim card when necessary. 

After the hell of marital war sets in, though, and there is no turning back, divorce papers are filed, and a simplified reason for divorce is given - we divorced because of money or a lack of intimacy or something else.

Please keep in mind that I am not referring to divorces due to abuse, abandonment, or adultery, for divorce is permissible and many times needed in such circumstances. But rather, the point that we must keep in mind is that the sinful nature in all of us is that which inevitably causes divorce. And if not divorce, this sinful nature and its thirst for sinful freedom, wreaks havoc in way too many marriages today.  Perhaps even your marriage.   

Permit me an opportunity to explain.

Our society romanticizes freedom.  Our society teaches us that freedom is the pinnacle of happiness. To be self-reliant and free from others is a sign of true empowerment, whereas to be submissive or owned by someone else is imprisonment.

This kind of thinking falls right in line with the appetite of the sinful nature. And believe it or not, this kind of thinking is completely contrary to the essence of marriage and the Christian faith.

In today’s Epistle’s reading from Ephesians, we heard about ‘submission.’  In verse 20 of chapter five, the Apostle Paul says,

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Yes, wives submit to your husbands.[1] And husbands, submit to your wives.[2] Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.[3]

But we do not like to submit, do we?

To submit is to be put under someone else. To submit is to obey another, to be under their control. However, this is exactly what a husband and wife are called into when they enter into the estate of marriage. I think it could be said that there is no greater attack upon the sinful nature and its beloved so-called freedom than marriage.

You see, when a husband and wife enter into marriage, they are joining together to submit to one another. The woman vows to love, honor, and respect her husband in good times and bad. And the man, he vows to love, cherish, and sacrifice for his wife in good times and bad.

However, the old Adam tries to throw these imprisoning vows out, resulting in women not respecting their husbands and men not sacrificing for their wives.

For example, the sinful nature has its way when women gather together for social gatherings where the main topic of conversation is husbands. More often than not, these conversations are not geared around gratitude and respect for husbands but complaints, grumbling, and eye rolling.  In these gatherings, the husband is raked over the coals; disrespect abounds.

And what happens after these social gatherings?

Emboldened and maybe even fueled with anger, the wife returns home where the husband becomes the target of passive aggressive nagging, complaining, criticisms, and disrespect.

I can recall a church where the women of the church were so critical and disrespectful of their husbands, that the church leadership had a difficult time getting men to run for church leadership offices. Why would they want to run for leadership if their efforts would be met with harsh disrespect?

You men though, you are not off the hook. When the sinful nature has its way with you, you don’t sacrifice for your wife but choose comfort.  Instead of getting off the La-Z-Boy to help with dishes, you would rather drink a Miller Light while watching ESPN or reruns of The Simpsons. And instead of sacrificing to help with dirty diapers or dirty laundry, you would rather run to the comfort of the garage or golf course. And when confronted? You will do the bare minimum for your wife and want a medal of honor from her for your tiny little contribution.
I can recall another church where they had a constitutional amendment stating that 50% of the church offices needed to be fulfilled by men. When asked about the amendment, it was stated by the men that the amendment prevented the women from taking over the church. However, what was really going on was that the men had no interest in sacrificing their hunting, farming, and sports time for the church. The men had no interest in sacrificing much of anything, especially when it came to their wives and families.

Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy on us all.

Dear friends, when the sinful nature has its way, wives give their husbands disrespect, not respect.  And when the sinful nature has its way, husbands go the way of apathetic laziness, not sacrifice.  And when the marriage relationship gets strained because of this?  The husband and wife dig foxholes and begin launching grenades at each other to protect their sinful lack of respect and their sinful lack of sacrifice.  The wife then says to herself as she is throwing grenades,

“I am not going to bind myself in respect toward a man who does not sacrifice for me!” 

And the husband says to himself while throwing grenades back,

“I am not going to bind myself in sacrifice for a woman who does not respect me!”  

And around and around the old Adam goes, destroying everything in its path.

Dear friends, this is the reason why, the old Adam – the sinful nature – needs to be crucified daily. If not crucified daily, it wreaks havoc not only in your personal lives but destroys the Lord’s gift of marriage. 

But how is the old Adam crucified daily? The answer, it is crucified daily through confession and repentance to one another and ultimately before the Lord.  And it is crucified when you hear the good news that you are forgiven and do not belong to sin, but to Jesus.

Dear Husbands and Wives, you are baptized.  You do not belong to sin, but you belong to Jesus.  Christ Jesus gave everything up for you to make you His own. And because you belong to Jesus and have stepped into the estate of marriage, you also belong to each other.  Husbands you belong to your wives, not the old Adam. You have been called into sacrifice, not slothful apathy.  Wives you belong to your husbands, not the sinful nature.  You have been called to respect, not disrespect. 

And so, because you, wives, belong to Jesus, when disrespect sets in; repent, confess, and hear the forgiveness of sins accomplished for you by your Jesus.

And when apathetic laziness has its way with you husbands; repent, confess, and hear the forgiveness of sins accomplished for you by your Jesus. 

This is the Christian faith, this is marriage: egos, self-centered freedom, and the old Adam no longer central but finding their end in Jesus – daily.

And remember dear Baptized Saints, the scriptures promise you that in Christ, newness of life emerges – as a gift. 

It is like this: the life you live is not yours, but it is lived by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself for you.  And just as He gave Himself for you, the Holy Spirit gives you holy impulses as well, so that you will love your spouse in the way Jesus loves you. 

Dear Baptized Saints, you, who have ears, hear it again, you are not free, but you belong to the Lord, and you belong to your spouse.  This submission is not a curse but a divine gift, for when you belong to someone else you know what it means to be loved, respected, and possessed by another.  You are not free, which means that you are not alone in this life, but are one flesh with your spouse (if you are married) and one with Christ as a baptized Christian. You are not forsaken, not alone, not abandoned, but cherished and valued.

In the name of Jesus: Amen.  

[1] The wife in Ephesians 5 is not called to place herself under tyranny but under a leader.  Furthermore, submitting to a husband should not be understood as Law (obedience) but as Gospel (receiving).  That is to say; just as the Church places herself under Christ to 'receive' all good things (Note: we must remember that Christ came not to be served but to serve), likewise, the wife joyfully submits to her husband.  She places herself under him because she cherishes and respects a husband who sacrificially gives her all good things - even his life if necessary.   (LSB, 2026)

[2] The husband in Ephesians 5 is not called to 'rule' his wife, but to 'love' his wife. This is contrary to the ethos of the first century. (LSB, 2026) And how is he to love his wife? He shall be willing to give up his very life for her, submitting himself to death. Why? Because this is what Jesus does. Indeed, we are called to freedom; however, we do not use freedom as an opportunity for the sinful nature, but through love to 'serve' one another... or as Paul says in Galatians, "through love [we] serve as slaves [to] one another."  Indeed, the husband has a reciprocal obligation for the one in his care.  Ephesians 5 lays the greater burden on the husband to love his wife - even to the point of dying for her.   

[3] If the husband is the head, the wife is the heart.  Neither is more important than the other.  Both are needed for a healthy marriage.  They cannot survive alone.  Husbands and wives serve, love, honor, and respect each other because they are gifts to each other in the estate of marriage. (LSB, 2026)

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