Many Protestants do not realize that a Bible is supposed to come with the explanatory Church that goes with it. It is a set. There is no end to the preposterous conclusions you will read if you believe that anyone who picks up a Bible has the ability to interpret it. I will be honest: I have even read Catholic web sites touting some of this nonsense that somebody just made up, things that the Church does not teach.
I also think that most people marry without realizing how much mutual submission is required for a marriage to work. “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21) is the starting point for that whole section.
I have come to conclusion that the key is in this: leadership in the secular world is about wielding power. You have to get rid of that idea of leadership in order to understand Christian marriage. Too often, Protestant views of marriage are based on a secular understanding of authority and power. Yet what did Christ say to his first bishops? (This was, incidentally, the Gospel reading at our wedding):
“They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:33-37
So you can see that in a marriage, the husband is Christ. OK. But you cannot be Christ unless you submit to the point of death to the Will of the Father. There was no, is no, and will never be any tyranny in the leadership of Christ. By the words coming out of the Lord’s own mouth, children are received as Christ. Obviously, then, the family is a unit of profound mutual respect.
The Gospel, alas, can be used to tyrannize the vulnerable. Rebellion from that tyranny can lead people away from any willingness to yield to legitimate authority. That is where we are now, I think. The devil says that following our own sense of good and bad is to live so “your eyes are open” and “to be like gods” (Gen. 3:5), but that is not true.
I’ve been married for over 20 years, I’ve been observing marriage for a lot longer than that. Grasping at power, whether the husband does it or the wife does it, prevents married couples from being happy. To have a solid marriage, you have to renounce that grasping attitude. You have to be careful not to marry a man with that grasping attitude, a man has to be careful not to marry a woman with that grasping attitude. In reality, that is what submission means: renouncing power struggles. It is not easy, but it is what works. If the husband “lays down his life” for his wife, submitting to God’s will as Christ did, and the wife submits to a leadership modelled after Christ, there is no tyranny. There is harmony. When the husband, like David, strays from God’s will and abuses his authority in a self-serving manner, then the wife, like the Prophet Nathan, must let him know. She does not become king in his place, but she has the office to remind him what his office requires of him:
“Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but (also) everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; 5 and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Phil. 2:3-8
I hope that helps.
But I’ll bet that this is your ultimate question: Why word it like that? Why not just say “submit to one another”? Because we are not saints yet. We are too weak to be directly answerable to God; we cannot trust ourselves to be without disputes. Why is the male in charge? I don’t know. My personal theory is this: because the male is naturally stronger, and this works best when the ways of nature are not obliterated–God created nature and made man the stronger–but when they are transformed by grace. But that is my opinion. As far as I know, the Church only teaches that the husband has that office, and does not hazard a guess about why.
Which reminds me of a joke…Two brothers are waiting while their mom makes them breakfast, which is homemade crepes. When the first one is done, the two clamour over who gets the first one. Their mother chides them: “What would Jesus do, boys?” After which one brother turned to his brother and said quickly, “You be Jesus this time!”