The Reversal of the (Fallen) Relationship between Husband and Wife
by Julie Zine Coleman
She sat on my back porch, discouraged after a pre-marital counseling session she and her fiancé had attended the evening before. The subject had been submission, specifically, the wife’s submission to her husband. Their mentors had given practical examples from their own marriage.
“I found them troubling,” the young woman confessed. “She always lets her husband pick the restaurant after church. And when her husband told her to clean the dryer lint trap after every load, she did it in obedience, even though she doesn’t think it needs it every time.”
Then my friend finally got to the heart of her concern. “Is the husband always supposed to have the last word? Even when I have a strong opinion or superior knowledge in the matter?”
The passage under discussion was Ephesians 5:22 NASB, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Unfortunately, this verse is often taught without the context in which it was written.
The verse that precedes 5:21 instructs: “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”
Paul begins the section with a command in 5:18 NASB: “Be filled with the Spirit.” He then gives four descriptions of what that would look like, all participle phrases (that means they include an "-ing" verb, which are easy to spot in the Greek text):
Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs
Singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord
Giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus
Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.
So whatever submission might look like in the husband/wife relationship, its essence is defined by verse 21. Mutual submission reflects our determination to yield to the Spirit.
When God created Adam and Eve, we read: “Male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over [it]…’ ” (Genesis 1:27b-28a NASB). Man and woman jointly received this command. They were to rule together.
Later in Genesis 2, which gives us more detail about chapter one, Adam looks for “help” to partner with him in the garden. That Hebrew word ezer is sometimes thought to indicate Adam’s intrinsic value over Eve; the lesser created to serve the greater. But ezer is used in other places: for God helping His people, or a strong foreign army that comes to Israel’s aid. Is God subservient to those He helps? Are rescuing armies subject to those they rescue? Of course not. Obedience is not indicated in any of the other uses of ezerin the Old Testament.
This equality between the two is further emphasized in Adam’s reaction to his wife: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23 NASB). With his statement, Adam signified his understanding that the woman is of the very essence as him. A perfect partner for life in the garden.
The narrator concludes, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 NASB). That kind of relationship was possible, because sin had not yet entered the world. They would live in complete harmony and peace, working as a team to fulfill God’s command.
But that would drastically change. All of God’s perfect creation would be distorted from God’s original design with the introduction of sin. This included the relationship between husband and wife. God described this to Eve in His response to their disobedience: “…your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b NASB).
Gone was the equal partnership they had enjoyed before that fateful day. Security would be replaced with fear and insecurity. Self-interest and the will to dominate would replace selfless love. Sin had perverted every part of God’s design.
But Jesus eventually came to restore His creation, by conquering sin and death by His sacrifice and resurrection. We now no longer need to live under sin’s domination. Paul wrote, “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Jesus Christ…For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:10-11, 14 NASB).
For the first time since the fall, marriages now had the potential to reflect God’s original design. Believers had been transformed by the Holy Spirit into new creations. Husband and wife could have the relationship Adam and Eve had before their disobedience. A marriage could be characterized by peace, selfless love and grace rather than discord and struggle. Once again husband and wife could truly operate as a team to fulfill God’s purpose for them.
Paul connected that new potential through Christ right back to the garden by quoting Genesis 2:23 (see above). We can overcome the consequences of the fall and return to what Adam and Eve enjoyed before sin. Mutual submission is now possible, because Jesus has set us free.
Living under the Spirit’s influence will transform how we treat each other. We will reflect our Savior, who gave His life to bring us new life. We can love each other, as Christ loved the church through self-sacrifice and provision. We are members of His body.
Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands are two examples of mutual submission (in verse 21): living as Christ lived, not for themselves, but for the other.
Jesus promised that His sheep would “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). When husband and wife work together, each valued, respected and appreciated, the marriage is better for it. We will bring peace and fulfillment to that relationship. And in doing so, we reflect the life of our Savior to the world around us.
Julie Zine Coleman has an M.A. in Biblical Studies and is the author of the newly released On Purpose: Understanding God’s Freedom for Women through Scripture (Kregel Publications, 2022). You can find more of her teaching at JulieZineColeman.com or at NewHopeChapel.org.