Should wives submit?

Many resent the way Scripture portrays a wife as a keeper of the home who submits to her husband (Titus 2:3-5).

The intended beauty of this requirement has been marred by distortions and maligned by misrepresentations. This is partly why we need a closer look at the Scriptural portrayal of a wife.

To avoid misapplication, at the end of this post, I highlight seven things submission is not meant to be. 

When the nation’s largest Protestant denomination amended its documents to include a statement on the need for a wife to “submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband,” it resulted in a significant media backlash. Even in the church many were outraged. 

So what should we conclude about the New Testament passage that says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-40)?

When I perform weddings, if I use the “s” word in the bride’s declaration of intent, (asking, “Will you take John to be your lawful wedded husband, to live with him according to God’s ordinance? Will you submit to him as to the Lord?”), I usually hear whispers of dissent from the audience. Yet I’ve never heard any dissent when I ask a groom if he will love his bride “as Christ loved the church.”

Misguided notions about submission in marriage abound. Some picture a wife who allows her husband to order her around and force her to do whatever he demands. Although this was largely the way wives were viewed in the culture of New Testament times, it’s a profound violation of the biblical understanding of wives submitting to their husbands . 

In Scripture, marriage is viewed as a one-flesh relationship based on mutual self-giving love. It’s a covenant of companionship between two spiritually equal human beings. Yet this doesn’t mean that the relationship is without roles and roles in marriage do not diminish individual uniqueness, equality and the call for mutual respect.

Some husbands foolishly misuse Christian teaching about headship and submission to diminish the uniqueness and contributions of their wives. These men typically insist that life conforms to their dominant identity so they can get what they want. 

I’ve also observed women who suppress their identity under more dominant men who frankly need the gifts and strengths of their wives. These wives entertain misguided understandings of headship and submission. They often end up enabling their husbands while wrongly thinking that they’re being submissive wives. They violate the original design of being the complementary completion to men who need the unique contributions of their wives. 

The original plan for marriage assumes the necessity of individuality and uniqueness in husbands and wives for completion of combined oneness. Think about it. If it wasn’t good for the man to be alone, it won’t resolve matters if a wife disappears into his identity. The unity sand offers a nice picture of two becoming one — without one disappearing into the other.

Whatever else oneness is meant to be in marriage, it’s not the disappearance of either part into the other but the merging of the uniqueness of each into one.

I realize that as sinners we all must resist the temptation of selfishly demanding our own way in relationships — especially in marriage. I also understand the tensions of give and take and how two people must be willing to honor to each other above themselves. 

If each person is important to the strength of a marriage, each one must bring the beauty of their uniqueness and gifts to the relationship. It takes two for marriage to be what it is meant to be. 

According to scripture, the husband bears primary responsibility to lead the home in a God-glorifying manner. His leadership clearly involves authority and should be honored by his wife and family. This authority, however, should be based deeply in love (see: I Corinthians 13:4-8a) and thoughtful consideration (see: Philippians 2:3-5; I Peter 3:7) 

Scripture issues strong warnings against husbands who treat their wives with insensitivity (see I Peter 3:7). Husbands must never forget that they are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). Cultural limitations should not be placed on this command any more than on the command for wives to submit to their husbands. 

It’s equally important to recognize what is not meant by submission of wives to husbands.

Consider some helpful distinctions about submission:

  1. Submission does not mean putting a husband in the place of Christ.
  2. Submission does not mean giving up independent thought.
  3. Submission does not mean a wife should give up efforts to influence and guide her husband.
  4. Submission does not mean a wife should give in to every demand of her husband.
  5. Submission is not based on lesser intelligence or competence.
  6. Submission does not mean being fearful or timid.
  7. Submission is not inconsistent with equality in Christ

(7 points from: “Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood” ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem)

Submission is most evidenced in a wife respecting her husband through her actions and speech. Wives must resist attitudes, tones of voice and facial expressions that convey disrespect. The same applies to the way husbands treat their wives! Husbands must act and speak in ways that encourage respectful responses from their wives. 

Oneness (as God intended) can only happen as each partner learns to live in harmony with the uniqueness of the other. Along these lines, I remind couples that playful rivalry is often part of this balance and keeps life interesting and engaging. But there’s a big difference between playful exchange and divisive or nasty rivalry. The latter is a sign of deeper trouble in the marriage.

Insecure and immature people make oneness in marriage very difficult because they are too focused on themselves and how others see them. They tend to approach relationships more as competition for attention and control — as divisive rivalry. They mostly want others to serve them.

The greatest prescription for practical oneness and for overcoming insecurity and immaturity is found in the powerful description of love in I Corinthians 13:4-8. Prayerfully revisit the great description of love in this passage and notice that it is anti-rivalry. 

See also: 

Steve Cornell

8 thoughts on “Should wives submit?

  1. Larry Geiger says:

    Submission starts with Jesus Christ. If you can’t, won’t, don’t understand that, then we can talk all day, all night, all week, all year about wives and husbands submitting and we will have just wasted our time.

    1. Submit to Christ.
    2. Submit to your spouse.

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