Those of you who hang around sites like this one or LAF, for which I am a contributing writer, have come across a little word that crops up several times in Ephesians 5 and which is sometimes disparagingly termed by Feminists and Christians alike as the S-word:
Ephesians 5:22-24 and 33 makes no bones about it: a wife is commanded by her Maker and Redeemer to submit to her husband "in everything." This command is not relegated, as some have claimed, to the rare occasion when push comes to shove. "In everything" does not mean "as a last resort," or "on the off chance that you just can't seem to come to a mutual decision." No, Scripture is plain as day: "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything" (Eph. 5:24). Period. No qualms. No qualifiers.
The only exception to this rule is when the husband explicitly commands his wife to do something contrary to the law of God. In such cases, the wife would be compelled to follow God's authority, which is greater than her hsuband's. However, even in households where the husband is an unbeliever, this happens a whole lot less frequently than we wives care to admit. We love to throw around that "exception" card. We think it lets us off the hook. We like to get off the hook. But, Scripture doesn't let us off the hook. Wives are commanded to submit the their husbands "in everything," day in, day out, in little things as well as major ones.
Scripture is not relative. Every husband is the head of his wife.
"In truth, headship is a spiritual reality. Like manhood, it's a gift from God...Manhood is an aspect of male adulthood that cannot be taken away.So too headship is an aspect of husbandhood. Manhood can be obscured,and headship can be denied. But neither is elusive, and neither can be taken away. A man is a man plain and simple. And for as long as a man is married, the husband is the head of his wife." (Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church p. 168).
This headship is not dependent on the wife's submission; it is not even dependent on the husband's own understanding or execution of that headship. The husband does not establish his headship. God does. The wife does not bestow or convey headship. God does.
So, a wife's submission is not dependent on her husband's ability to lead, on his spiritual maturity, on his willingness to love her as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25), or even on the status of his salvation. It is dependent on his relationship as her husband.
It is important to note, too, that while submission is required because of the husband's headship, the husband can never force his wife to submit. In a sense, he can't even command his wife to submit, because God has already done that. And, in order for submission to be submission, it must be willed by the one who is submitting, in other words by the wife. Otherwise, it is not submission; it is merely obedience or even subjugation. Submission is a choice. It is the wife's choice alone to make. In this sense, then, her husband cannot lead her, though he is her head; she must lead herself into submission1.
1 I first conceived of it in these terms by reading Men and Women in the Church by Sarah Sumner, which I paraphrase here (p. 170). However, I think Dr. Sumner would be the first to advocate that this concept does not belong to her but to the public domain, since it is, by her own assertion, merely stating that which is expressed in God's Holy Word. This is the reason I cite her contribution only in a footnote, rather than within the text.