It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the command for wives to submit to their husbands is among the most difficult biblical teachings for people to accept. Perhaps it has always been a hard saying but with the rise of feminism, it has been especially difficult.
Many (even in the Church) resent the way scripture portrays the ideal woman as a keeper of her home who submits to her husband. When the nation’s largest Protestant denomination amended its documents to include a requirement for a wife to “submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband,” a media backlash followed. People were outraged by what they considered an archaic depiction of women and marriage.
But those who believe that the Bible is more than a culturally restricted text feel obligated to take it seriously. Responsible interpreters of the Bible understand that not everything is meant as a binding obligation on all people in all places. But when it comes to marriage, the teaching of Scripture explicitly transcends cultural limitations by connecting it to the way God created humans and ordained marriage (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:21-25; Matthew 19:3-9; I Timothy 2:11-15).
Unfortunately, there will always be those who try to make the Bible say things it doesn’t and some who use the Bible to suppress or even oppress others. And, it should be acknowledged that applications of Biblical teachings about marriage will sometimes vary based on circumstantial differences.
Along these lines, a question the Church has faced repeatedly is what the New Testament requires when it 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)?
To avoid undesirable (and perhaps unpopular) implications, some have tried to tone down the weight of this text by suggesting that Ephesians 5:21 teaches mutual submission. I believe that this is a mistake. In the original text, the word for “submit” in verse 21 prepares the way for verse 22 (where there is no greek word for submit*).
The word also prepares the way for the flow of the next chapters. After verse 21, we observe what could be called the order of submission. It would be like saying, “Submit to one another in a way that looks like this: wives to your husbands…” The text then continues with references of submission of church to Christ, children to parents and servants to masters. To imply some kind of mutual submission to any of these would be obviously misguided.
(* V. 21: Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ “submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.” v. 22: αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῳ κυρίῳ, “wives to your husbands as to the Lord.”)
While we might suggest ways in which a husband could submit to his wife, Ephesians 5 is not the place to go to advocate the idea. Further, I believe it would be best to call such acts displays of “servant-love.” The term submit is better left to matters related to structures of authority and submission.
What is the difference then between servant-love and submission?
The word submit is a term of response we are called to give to those who bear responsible leadership in human relationships. When Scripture says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (I Peter 2:13), it reminds us that God endorses orders of authority and submission. Since we can even find this structure exemplified functionally in the Trinity, we know that submission has nothing to do with inequality. God ordained the functional structure of authority and submission for His creation. He instituted it in the angelic world as well as the human.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for husbands and wives to have the same vision of the nature of marriage. A primary reason for many marital problems is a failure on the parts of husbands and/or wives to understand, respect and live by the God-intended plan for marriage.
According to Scripture, marriage is a one-flesh relationship based on mutual self-giving love. It’s a covenant of companionship between two people who are equally made in the image of God. Yet this equality does not mean that marriage is a relationship is without roles. Nor do roles in marriage diminish equality and the call for mutual love and respect.
The husband bears primary responsibility to lead the marriage relationship 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 on love (see: I Corinthians 13:4-8a) and thoughtful consideration of the needs of those he leads (see: Philippians 2:3-5). As with all human authority, it should not be followed if it requires one to disobey God.
What submission does not mean:
Misguided notions of submission in marriage abound. Some consider it a return to the Ozzie and Harriet homes of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Others picture a wife who allows her husband to order her around and force her to do whatever he demands. These ideas do not reflect the biblical understanding of wives submitting to their husbands.
Perhaps to guard against abuses of authority and wrong notions of submission, it’s important to note what submission does not mean. I appreciate the seven things that Piper and Grudem note concerning what submission does not mean (“Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism” ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem). Their list is based on a New Testament text that curiously holds up Sarah as a paradigm of submission (see: I Peter 3:1-6).
- Submission does not mean putting a husband in the place of Christ.
- Submission does not mean giving up independent thought.
- Submission does not mean a wife should give up efforts to influence and guide her husband.
- Submission does not mean a wife should give in to every demand of her husband.
- Submission is not based on lesser intelligence or competence.
- Submission does not mean being fearful or timid.
- Submission is not inconsistent with equality in Christ
For more on what submission should not mean, and on the beauty of diversity within marriage, see my recent article: Does unity sand offer a better picture of marriage?
(see also my Position Statement On Marriage).