Though we are, in a sense, already declared holy in Christ (we are “saints”; Rom. 8:27), Scripture clearly presents all believers as engaged in a struggle with sin’s presence until they die (1 John 1:8–9). Its exhortations, therefore, are for imperfect people who sometimes fail to meet God’s demands.
Practically speaking, this means that husbands and wives are not allowed to delay obeying God’s commands until their spouses fulfill their own God-given roles perfectly. Wives must submit to their husbands even when they are not perfectly loving, and husbands must love their wives even when they do not submit themselves perfectly. There is no out for wives when their husbands are in a bad mood and no out for husbands on the days their wives are hard to love.
The realities of our sinful world and God’s sole possession of absolute authority also mean that spouses are not required to endure gross, impenitent sin in the name of superficial Christian obedience. Wives, for example, are never called to remain in situations where they or their children are being abused. In fact, staying in such a predicament breaks the Lord’s command for them to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). True wifely submission is service (v. 21), and wives are not serving abusive husbands if they refuse to confront their husbands’ gross sins (Matt. 18:15–20), which may mean leaving an abusive situation.
Submitting to the authority of one’s husband, then, is not servile obedience. Neither does it mean the wife must keep silent when she fears her husband is about to make a foolish decision. Good husbands realize this and lead their wives with self-sacrificial love, following Christ’s model by putting the interests of their wives in first place (Eph. 5:25). They do this aware that no matter how much they give up for their wives, Jesus has given up far more for His people. John Chrysostom exhorts husbands: “Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse. Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still done not as much as Christ has for the church” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament vol. 8, p. 185; hereafter, ACCNT).