Colossians 3:18 commands wives to submit to their husbands. We must understand what a wife’s biblical submission is NOT, because of the obvious questions: How far does submission extend? Is there anything to which a wife should not submit? Read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to find out, “What does biblical submission of a wife look like in practice and what does it not involve?”
Table of Contents
- Answering Those Nagging Questions
- First, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Submit to Other Men
- Second, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Submit to Abuse
- Third, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Submit to Sin
- Fourth, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Husbands Do Not Defer to Their Wives
- Fifth, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Husbands Do Not Listen to Their Wives
- Sixth, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Are Inferior
- Following Jesus’s Example of Submission
I was invited to be one of the keynote speakers for a marriage conference. During one of the first planning meetings, the various speakers and the conference leaders came together to choose the topics for the messages. Many important topics were suggested, such as husbands loving their wives, intimacy, communication, and conflict resolution. Nobody mentioned submission, so I said I would preach on the subject. Immediately the tone in the room changed. While the other suggestions were met with enthusiastic responses, such as, “Sounds good…I look forward to hearing that message…That will be very beneficial,” mine was met with, “Umm…Uhh…Hmm.” You would’ve thought I had offered to speak on something completely unbiblical rather than the primary command given to wives that is very clearly repeated throughout the New Testament in Ephesians 5:22, 24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:3-5, and 1 Peter 3:1.
One of the other keynote speakers said, “I try not to use the word submit. I like to say defer, compromise, or consider.” The awkwardness continued when we filmed the promotional spots for the conference. My video probably took more time to be recorded than the rest of the speakers combined because there were repeated objections to me quoting Bible verses commanding wives to submit to their husbands. Interestingly, I did little more than simply recite the verses, letting the Bible speak for itself. I didn’t interpret them or comment on them, which reveals how much discomfort there is simply associated with what God’s Word says about submission.
Submission is difficult to address. Some people cringe at the word. I will be the first to say submission has been misused and abused in relationships, sermons, and counseling sessions. My desire is to approach this sensitive command in both a biblical and delicate manner. Up front, I would like to make two requests:
- Please commit to taking the time to consider what Scripture itself says about submission and how it applies to everyday life. Clearly, the fact God made this such a key part of His marriage instructions means it is important.
- Please keep in mind that as our Creator and Designer, God knows the ideal for our relationships. Not only does He know what is best for us, He wants what is best for us. For us to reject His design is to settle for less than God’s best, and say we know better than Him.
Answering Those Nagging Questions
In any discussion of submission, some obvious and legitimate questions arise: How far does submission extend? Is there anything to which a wife should not submit? Are all women required to submit to all men? Does submission mean men can do whatever they want to their wives? What about physical or mental abuse?
As we cover the command for wives to submit to their husbands, I don’t want these questions nagging you. I believe you will be more receptive to what submission involves if you first learn what it does not involve. Let’s answer these nagging questions by considering what a wife’s biblical submission is not!
First, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Submit to Other Men
While Scripture is clear that God commands wives to submit to their husbands, each command is equally clear that wives are commanded to submit only to their husbands:
- Ephesians 5:22—“Wives, submit to your own husbands.”
- Ephesians 5:24—“Just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”
- Colossians 3:18—“Wives, submit to your own husbands.”
- Titus 2:3-5—“Older women likewise…admonish the young women to…[be] obedient to their own husbands.”
- 1 Peter 3:1—”Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands.”
Wives are under their own husbands’ headship, and not under the authority of other men. Even in the church, a wife is under the authority of her husband, and her husband is under the authority of the leadership of the church: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3).
In Genesis 2:18, when God spoke of creating the first woman, He did not say, “I will make men [plural] helpers.” He said: “I will make him [singular] a helpmeet.” When I want help in my life, I look to my wife or to other men God has placed in my life. I do not look to other men’s wives because I know they are not my helper. Scripture clearly limits the boundaries of a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission to the context of a marriage relationship.
Practically, this also addresses the misconception that submission means women can only hold positions—in or out of the church—in which they are subordinate to all male associates. Such an extreme view would suggest that a woman cannot be a nurse because a male orderly might be her subordinate or that a woman could not be a teacher because a male aide or janitor might help her at times. As I mentioned earlier, when I was an elementary school teacher, most of the principals I worked for were women.
Second, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Submit to Abuse
What women long for is spiritual and moral leadership from their husbands—not spiritual or moral domination. While this is straightforward, because there is so much confusion about what submission is and isn’t, it is vital for us to be clear on what this means. When we hear the word abuse, typically we think in terms of physical mistreatment. Abuse, however, can be emotional, mental, and even spiritual. There are wives whose husbands never lay a hand on them yet mistreat them so badly they are in just as bad or worse condition than women who are physically abused.
What should a woman in an abusive relationship do? She cannot divorce her husband, but she can separate from him. The apostle Paul writes, “The woman…is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives” (Romans 7:2), and “If [a wife] does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:11; see also verse 39). If the abused woman is part of a church, she should go to the pastors or elders, and they should find a safe place for her (and her children, if necessary). In the meantime, for the husband, discipline is performed, counsel is given, repentance is sought, and the biblical counsel or gospel is given time to work in his heart. An abused wife may also need to seek social or legal services, residency in a battered woman’s shelter, and even help from the police, if the abuse warrants such.
That said, the abuse card can be used carelessly. I have heard women throw out the word simply because a husband didn’t give his wife everything she wanted. When a wife does not get to do all that she wants to do, go all the places she wants to go, buy all the things she wants to buy, or spend all her time the way she wants to spend it, that is not abuse.
I’ve also heard women talk about being abused when they aren’t treated with what they believe to be sufficient adoration. Having a husband who is less than perfect in this area does not constitute abuse. While God does command husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, no husband does this perfectly. As fallen humans, husbands will have times when they sin against their wives, but this does not necessarily mean abuse has occurred. If failing to love one’s wife perfectly constituted abuse, then every wife on earth would be in an abusive relationship.
Third, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Submit to Sin
The account in Acts 5:1-11 of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, is instructive. The background of this story is that early church members were selling their possessions and sharing the proceeds with the apostles and other believers who had needs. Ananias sold a possession, kept part of the money when he brought his offering to the apostles, but acted as though all the proceeds were being given to the church. As the apostle Peter declared, Ananias had every right to keep part of his profits if he wanted. But because Ananias claimed to have turned over all the funds—and thus he lied to the Holy Spirit—he dropped dead on the spot.
The correlation is that Ananias “kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it” (Acts 5:2). When Sapphira showed up, not realizing her husband had died, she had the opportunity to tell the truth. Instead, she reiterated her husband’s lie. This led Peter to say, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” (verse 9).
God’s judgment on Sapphira for supporting her husband’s sin shows she was as accountable as him. Peter’s response indicates that if she had refused to participate in the deception, her life would have been spared. This is a perfect example of a time when a wife should not have submitted to her husband.
Let me add a caveat that the principle in question applies to being asked to engage in blatant sin. A wife should say no to a husband who demands that she participate in any kind of illegal activity, such as drug dealing, theft, adultery, or even lesser legal offenses, such as cheating on income taxes or lying to an employer. This is quite different from a husband opposing his wife’s involvement in positive spiritual activities. A husband may resist his wife taking time from home and family to join a Bible study fellowship, attend church several times a week, volunteer for a Christian outreach, or participate in a church sports league. In those instances, he is not asking her to commit a sin, but simply to respect his preference. That raises an important question: What is a wife supposed to do when her husband resists her participation in activities that can contribute to her spiritual growth?
A wife can respectfully let her husband know her desire and ask if he would allow this for the benefit of their marriage, children, or family. If he is still resistant, then she should submit and pray. Assuming God wants her or the family involved in the activity, there’s a possibility He will change the husband’s heart. Even if a wife does not like her husband’s decision or request, she should be encouraged that God will reward her submission and—assuming the husband is disobeying God by declining—hold the husband responsible for his poor spiritual leadership.
Fourth, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Husbands Do Not Defer to Their Wives
Every healthy, joyful marriage in which a woman feels loved involves a husband who defers to his wife. Godly men are not going to thoughtlessly insist on submission. They will first seek to graciously reach an agreement with their wives. Even when an agreement can’t be reached, they may still choose to defer to their wives. Let me share two examples from my marriage.
Not long ago I decided a great plan would be to surprise the family with one of my favorite foods—popcorn—and a show filled with thrills, tremendous plot lines, and edge-of-your-seat action—Little House on the Prairie. While I was working up an appetite doing cardio, my mom called to say, “Katie invited us to go out for frozen yogurt with all of you. When do you want us to come over?”
Now, I’m sure many husbands can relate to this. You’re excited about how you would like to spend your evening, only to find out that your wife has other plans. My first thought was that Katie and I hadn’t discussed getting frozen yogurt. My second thought was that the frozen yogurt shop didn’t sell popcorn or show Little House on the Prairie.
At that moment I had two choices. I could put my foot down and say, “I’ve already decided we’re going to have popcorn and watch Little House on the Prairie as a family, so that is what we’re going to do.” Or I could say, “You know what? I’m going to sacrifice for my wife. What she is suggesting we do could be a great way to spend the evening. I’ll take the family to a frozen yogurt shop.”
This might seem like a trivial example, but the point I’m trying to make is that even though wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, godly husbands look for ways to bless their wives and families, even when it means a change of plans or decisions. Ephesians 5:28 says husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies, and at the time, my wife wanted frozen yogurt. You can guess where we ended up.
On a more serious note, at the time of this writing, our eight-month-old daughter, Lydia, stopped nursing. She also wouldn’t take a bottle, eat anything, or use a pacifier. While up to this point she had been our easiest baby to care for, she couldn’t be comforted, wouldn’t sleep at night, and cried constantly. She started losing weight, which was even more concerning because she was already small. Katie took her to a medical clinic, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with her. While I was concerned about Lydia, I knew Katie was more distressed than I was. She cried regularly because we couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
A few days later, Katie called me and said, “I looked in Lydia’s mouth and saw something attached to the roof of it.” Upon closer inspection, we could see that it was a dress-up, press-on fingernail that belonged to one of Lydia’s older sisters, Charis. Somehow Lydia had gotten it, and it had become attached to the roof of her mouth. While we were thankful to finally know what was wrong, we couldn’t get it out. I tried to remove it with my finger, but it wouldn’t budge.
I then called someone in our church, who invited us to head over to his house, as he thought he could take it out. But Katie didn’t feel comfortable with that idea. She wanted to take Lydia to the hospital in case there was an infection or the nail got lodged in her throat during the attempt to remove it. I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I thought my friend could take it out. More than likely he could have, and a trip to the hospital (and the accompanying bill) would have been unnecessary. But I could see how upset Katie was and how much she wanted to see a doctor so she would know things were fine. I deferred to Katie and we went to the hospital, which gave her peace of mind as a result of knowing that Lydia was receiving all the care she needed. Deferring to my wife so she felt loved was worth the cost.
Fifth, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Husbands Do Not Listen to Their Wives
We have already learned how God created the woman to give man a “helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18). I don’t want to sound simplistic, but in my mind, the three greatest resources God has given a husband on this side of heaven are the Word of God, the Holy Spirit (also called “the Helper”), and his wife.
A husband who does not listen to his wife is forfeiting one of the greatest resources God has given him. In addition, consider how these three resources work together. God can use His Holy Spirit to counsel husbands through their wives. Many times, God has used Katie to warn me, correct me, encourage me, or direct me. There have been times when Katie has shared Scripture with me or given me her thoughts on a passage and she helped me to better understand God’s Word.
Scripture gives a powerful example of how a wife’s wisdom can be instructive for a husband. The context is the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, who was sitting in judgment over the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. During the trial, Pilate’s wife sent him a message: “Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19). Pilate rejected her counsel, and we all know what happened afterward. Could there be a better example in all of history of a time when a husband should have listened to his wife?
One very significant instance in which I believe God used Katie to direct me has to do with a key transition I made as a pastor. At the time, I was an associate pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Lemoore, California. Although that was a wonderful season of life for us, Katie sensed that God had gifted me to shepherd my own church. The senior pastor agreed with Katie’s assessment, so she had confirmation from him as well.
When we found out about a pastorate at Woodland Christian Church in Woodland, Washington State, Katie wanted me to take the position, but I wasn’t so sure because I enjoyed my job at Grace Baptist, I don’t like change, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to so many people I loved. In addition, the job security at the new position didn’t look promising. One of the deacons had the integrity to tell me, “Based on our savings, if the giving remains the same, we will only be able to pay you for eight months.”
I say all this to make it clear how hard it was for me to change jobs. Looking back, Katie’s ongoing encouragement is one of the main reasons I was able to make the move. There is one more detail to the story, but I will save that for later. For now, I simply want to share that God used Katie in that situation to give me the confidence I needed to become a senior pastor and use my spiritual giftedness in a greater variety of ways.
Sixth, Biblical Submission Does Not Mean That Wives Are Inferior
A common criticism of submission sounds something like this: “If wives are supposed to submit to their husbands, then wives are not equal to their husbands. Because God made men and women equal, wives do not have to submit.” Do we apply this thinking to the other kinds of relationships that require submission? Do we say that parents are superior to their children, elders are superior to their congregations, governments are superior to the people they govern, or employers are superior to their employees? Not at all. The same logic dictates that a wife’s submission to her husband does not in any way make her inferior.
Perhaps the best example of this is seen in the relationship between God the Son and God the Father. Consider these verses demonstrating Jesus’s submission:
- In John 5:30, Jesus stated, “I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.”
- In John 6:38, Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
- In Matthew 26:39, Jesus prayed only a few hours before His crucifixion, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
Does Jesus’s submission to the Father indicate that He is inferior? Absolutely not. Jesus made His equality with the Father very evident:
- In John 10:30, Jesus proclaimed, “I and My Father are one.”
- In John 17:20- 22, Jesus said, “I [pray]…for those who will believe in Me…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You…that they may be one just as We are one.”
Those who believe a wife’s submission to her husband makes her inferior must also conclude that the Son’s submission to the Father makes Him inferior. If we acknowledge that the Son is both submissive to the Father and equal with Him, we can also acknowledge that wives are submissive to their husbands while still being equal with them.
The Son’s submissiveness to the Father and the unity, equality, and oneness they share is a beautiful picture of a wife’s submissiveness to her husband and the unity, equality, and oneness they should share. Note the following parallel: Jesus said, “We are one,” and Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one.” To make the parallel with marriage even stronger, 1 Corinthians 11:3 states, “The head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” Just as the Son submits to the Father and sees Him as His head, a wife submits to her husband and sees him as her head.
Following Jesus’s Example of Submission
We can all be encouraged in our submission by looking at Jesus’s example. In the middle of Peter’s passage on submission he praised our Savior’s behavior: “To this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). This does not apply only to wives submitting to their husbands but to any relationship involving submission. When children demonstrate submission to parents, congregations demonstrate submission to elders, believers demonstrate submission to government, and employees demonstrate submission to employers, they are demonstrating the heart of Christ. A submissive heart is a heart like Christ’s. To submit is to be like Christ.
Just as Jesus is the premier example of submission, so Satan offers the premier example of rebellion. Scripture provides vivid images of Satan’s original rejection of God as his head, which resulted in his being cast down and out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12-20; Ezekiel 28:12-19). Then, in the Garden of Eden, we see him as a serpent stirring up similar rebellion in Eve. Consider the parallels between the words he spoke to himself and the words he spoke to the first woman:
- “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14).
- “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God ” (Genesis 3:5).
Satan is saying here, in essence, “You do not need to submit to God. You can have His position instead.” As difficult as it is to hear this, ultimately, to be rebellious and reject the authority God has placed over us—whether parents, church leadership, government, employers, or husbands as the head of the family— is to follow Satan’s example.
But let’s not conclude with our focus on Satan. Let’s resume “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). When we think of submission, our minds can go to
- how Jesus was willing to submit—perfectly
- what He was willing to submit to—the wrath of God that our sins deserve
- why He was willing to submit—His unimaginable love for us
Nobody has ever had as much to submit to as Jesus did. Nobody has ever submitted to any trial or suffering as well as Jesus did. We should be encouraged by the example Jesus set for us whenever we face a situation that calls for submission. We should think about all Jesus submitted to whenever we feel like we are required to submit too much. We should remember the suffering Jesus submitted to whenever we feel like our submission involves too much suffering. We should especially keep in mind that Jesus submitted “for the joy that was set before Him” so that someday, we can hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:21). Jesus’ example should encourage all us—man and woman alike—in our submission.