It can be reasoned that all of Paul’s instruction given to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5:22-33 may be dismissed based on the contradictory position these verses hold with 5:21.
To provide a point of reference for an answer to such a position, a very brief summary of 5:22-33 is in order. The thrust of these verses and instruction is found in Paul’s life-changing words concerning marriage in 5:32 – “This mystery is profound and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Paul uncovers what has been previously hidden, the mystery that marriage is a metaphor of Jesus Christ and the church. In marriage, the husband is representative of Christ while the wife is representative of the church. Thus, when Paul speaks of submission of the wife to the husband, he does not refer to a cultural, ego-driven, patriarchal leaning view of marriage, but rather to the picture of the gospel. This is indeed a profound thing. Since Christ is head of the church, and since the husband is representative of Christ, the husband is then the head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23). Because of this, wives are to submit to that headship just as the church submits to the direction and leadership of Jesus Christ. This article is not meant to elaborate on what that kind of submission looks like and how that kind of submission has been abused due to the fall; I will revisit those issues another time.
So, from Ephesians 5:22-33, wives are to submit to the headship of the husband and husbands are to love their wives.
A common objection to my admitted brief summarized position of these verses is that all of Paul’s continued instruction in verses 22-33 is made void, or contradicted, by his instruction in verse 21 – “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” How, the argument goes, can a wife’s role be to submit and a husband’s role be to love when Paul says in verse 21 that both are supposed to submit? In other words, because of “mutual submission” there can be no kind of hierarchical roles among husbands and wives and these verses at best can be altered and at worst ignored (which of course means you must ignore Colossians 3:18, etc).
At the risk of sounding somewhat elementary in my response, I will simply say that no contradiction exists here.
First of all, many translations (including, not surprisingly, the NIV), improperly place the heading in their translation as to confuse the issue. Verse 21 of Ephesians 5 is meant to provide a general conclusion to the preceding 20 verses and act as a kind of transition to verses 22-33. Therefore, the heading of “wives and husbands” or “instruction for Christian households” is best placed after verse 21 and not before. Although this does not by itself provide a real argument against the objection, I do believe it throws a stumbling block for some folks who are guided by the headings, which are, of course, not inspired.
Having said that, it is absolutely true that both husbands and wives are to submit to one another. And yet, such mutual submission does not negate the continued instruction of Paul precisely because there are different kinds of submission. Our attention must immediately turn once again to the picture of Christ to His church, on which the marriage pattern is found. Did Christ submit to the church by offering his life as a sacrifice for her? Of course. And yet that is a different kind of submission than how the church responds to Christ. We are to be guided by his headship and authority over the church. In other words, Christ submitted himself one way – by offering his life. The church submits herself to Christ in quite a different way – by respecting His leadership and faithfully following Him. Whereas we see a picture of mutual submission here, we do not dare suggest that there is no headship and authority of Christ over His church.
And so it is with the husband to his wife and the wife to her husband.
These critically important issues for marriage become marred by a sinful desire on the husbands part to suppress the wife and lead in ways that do not honor Christ and by the wife’s desire to reverse the order of God’s ordaining. But no contradiction is found between verses 21 and 22-33. We mutually submit, but the husband is head, all to the glory of Christ and His church.