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Why Wives Are Commanded to Submit to Their Husbands

Why Wives Are Commanded to Submit to Their Husbands

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An examination of basic leadership structures makes clear submission is an important principle in every area of human interaction. Marriage is no different, which is why wives are commanded to submit to their husbands. No organization can be successful without authority or headship:

  • Businesses have CEOs.
  • Sports teams have coaches.
  • Governments have presidents or prime ministers.

Just as we recognize the need for a leader, or a head, we also recognize that there cannot be two heads. We do not see two head coaches, two presidents, two head pilots, or two head surgeons. Imagine how uncomfortable you would feel flying on a plane where two head pilots are arguing over the flight plan. Imagine being operated on by two head surgeons quarreling over the proper procedure. Instead we always see a head coach and an assistant coach, a president and a vice-president, a pilot and a co-pilot, a principal and an assistant principal. The second-in-command is expected to submit to the authority of the leader in charge.

Since we recognize the need for orderly leadership in all other areas of life we should recognize the same need in marriage and appreciate how clear God makes it in Scripture.

Scripture Is Clear that Wives Are Commanded to Submit to Their Husbands

Consider three points:

  1. Wives are commanded five times in the New Testament to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 5:24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1). The repetition makes this one of the most common commands in God’s Word.
  2. Every New Testament passage that discusses the marriage relationship commands wives to submit. A wife’s role is inextricably linked to and contingent on her submission to her husband. God does not see wives’ relationships to their husbands separately from their submission to their husbands.
  3. Despite all the New Testament verses we have looked at instructing submission toward various individuals—employers, elders, government, parents, husbands—it is significant that there is no verse instructing husbands to submit to their wives.

For a better understanding of submission, watch this message I preach at Marriage God’s Way Conferences

“Submission” is frowned on in the world’s eyes, but it’s a clear command to wives in Scripture. What does it look (and not look) like for wives to submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ? Also, how can husbands make it easier to submit to them?

Does Ephesians 5:21 Negate Wives Submitting to Their Husbands?

Unfortunately, since Ephesians 5:21 says to “(submit) to one another,” it is sometimes used to argue that husbands and wives should submit equally to each other. There are a few problems with that interpretation:

  • Ephesians 5:21 does not refer to the marriage relationship but is talking about believers’ mutual responsibilities toward each other. Paul does not discuss marriage specifically until verse 22 when he begins addressing wives and husbands directly.
  • As we saw in Chapter 6, at least two husbands—Adam and Ahab—were rebuked for submitting to their wives (Genesis 3:17; 1 Kings 21:25).
  • Paul cannot be teaching that husbands should submit to their wives because that would conflict with instruction that immediately follows in verses 22 and 24 for wives to submit to their husbands, as well as similar instruction in Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1.

In support of women submitting to their husbands, Dr. Jay Adams, founder of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS), the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) explained:

Submission does not remove freedom; it allows for it. When is the train freer? When it is bumping over the hillside off the track? Or when it is smoothly running along the track, confined or restricted, if you will, to the track? It is freer when it is where it ought to be, doing what it was intended to do . . . Freedom in God’s world never comes apart from structure. When one is free to live as God intended, he is truly free indeed. We hear much about women’s liberation today. I want you to be liberated. Here is the path of genuine liberation for a woman: submission. Submission allows her to run on the track; it allows her to make beautiful music in her home.

Jay Adams, Christian Living in the Home (P&R, 1972), pp. 74–75

Submission Is for When a Wife Disagrees with Her Husband

A wife is commanded to respect her husband and submit to him. Is there a difference between the two commands?

  • Respect deals with a wife’s feelings toward her husband and the way she treats him as a result.
  • Submission deals with a wife’s response to her husband when she disagrees with his decision.

One of the most common arguments I have heard from wives who do not want to submit to their husbands is: “I would submit to my husband if I agreed with him.” Can we see the problem with this logic? If a wife agreed with her husband, she would not have to submit. Submission is in place entirely for when husbands and wives do not agree. Perhaps a husband and wife have discussed a decision together, presented their ideas, shared their thoughts, and tried to come to an agreement. But they cannot. At this point, what do they do? How do they decide? Do they flip a coin or play “Rock-Paper-Scissors”? Just as in all the authority structures we have discussed, there is a clear answer here, and it is an answer God has decreed, not man. For the marriage to be able to move forward, the husband has been designated to make the final decision.

Two points should be kept in mind regarding husbands and wives discussing decisions together:

  1. Although it is ideal when a decision takes place only after a husband has given his wife ample time to share her thoughts, some situations might not allow for lengthy discussions. If for whatever reason, time is limited and a presentation of both sides and opinions is not feasible, wives are still expected to submit to their husbands.
  2. As much as a husband should strive to hear his wife’s thoughts, a wife should strive not to exasperate her husband. She should not say, “You can’t make a decision yet, because you haven’t heard everything I have to say,” while presenting countless variations of the same opinion said in different ways.

When a wife has to submit, she needs to remember if her husband is wrong, he will be held responsible. The decision is on his shoulders. Her responsibility ends at submitting, not at making sure the right decision is made. Marriage expert and author Wayne Mack explains it this way:

Submission means a wife sees herself as part of her husband’s team. She has ideas, opinions, desires, requests, and insights, and she lovingly makes them known. But she knows that in any good team someone has to make the final decision. She knows the team members must support the team leader, his plans and decisions, or no progress will be made and confusion and frustration will result. Fifty-fifty marriages (where the husband leads half the time and the wife leads half the time) are an impossibility. They do not work. They cannot work. In marriage someone has to be the final decision maker, and God has ordained that this should be the husband.”

Wayne Mack, Strengthening You Marriage (P&R, June 1, 1999), p. 14.

Submission is difficult. It is tough for men to lead spiritually, and it is just as tough for wives to submit. Wives should be encouraged by the reality that submission does not mean supporting the idea but supporting the man behind it. When wives submit, they should remember they are doing it out of love for God and their husbands.

Husbands Can Make Submission Easier for their Wives, but They Can Never Make It Easy

A husband can make respecting him easier, but making submitting to him easier is a different issue. Generally, a wife has trouble respecting her husband if there is sin in his life, but a wife often has trouble submitting to her husband if he is not a spiritual man. It is difficult for a wife to trust a man who does not pray, read the Bible, is not involved in the church, or does not seem to have a heart for God. The reason should be obvious. A wife will have little confidence in her husband’s ability to make the right decisions for the family.

A woman wants a man who is guided by the Lord. When a wife knows her husband regularly spends time in prayer and in God’s Word, she will have a much easier time placing her life and the lives of her children in his hands. She will feel confident in his judgment. There are plenty of reasons for a husband to pray and study Scripture regularly, and one of those reasons is so that his wife can say: “I trust my husband. He wants what the Lord wants. He is receptive to God’s will. I know this because his spiritual life makes it obvious.” Being a man of the Word and a man of prayer is the greatest way for a husband to make his wife’s submission easier.

To bring some balance to this section though, you will notice that the subheading speaks of husbands making submission easier instead of easy. This is because it will always be difficult for wives to submit to their husbands. God told Eve:

“Your desire shall be for your husband.”

Genesis 3:16

This refers to a desire for women to control their husbands. It might help for a man to be loving and godly, but as a result of the curse, wives are going to struggle with submission regardless of what their husbands are or are not like. While a wife might insist that she would submit to her husband if only he were more like Christ, this is not a valid argument because Christ loves all wives perfectly, and they still fall short of submitting perfectly to Him. In conclusion, husbands can make submission easier for their wives by being godly men, but as part of the curse, a wife will have trouble submitting even to the godliest man.

Discussion Questions

  1. What comes to mind when hearing the word submission? Are your thoughts positive or negative?
  2. Does Scripture present submission positively or negatively?
  3. Aside from marriage, in what other relationships are Christians called to submit? Which of these is hardest for you to submit? Why?
  4. Discuss a time you gave up rights to be at peace with others:
  5. What are the differences between submitting outwardly and submitting inwardly?
  6. How do your actions demonstrate your attitude about submission?
  7. Since we recognize submission is necessary for orderly leadership in so many other areas of life, why do we see such a struggle to embrace it in marriage?
  8. Since wives are commanded to submit to their husbands five times in the New Testament, why do you think some churches and/or couples reject it?
  9. What are the differences between a wife respecting her husband versus submitting to him?
  10. Why is submission in marriage necessary?
  11. How does the idea of equating submission to working as a team encourage you?

Husbands

  1. Discuss the blessings of a time your wife submitted to you.
  2. List three of your wife’s actions that demonstrate her submission to you.
  3. Do you feel your wife exasperates you by presenting countless variations of the same opinion stated in different ways? If yes, discuss at least one time this took place (preferably recently).
  4. List three things you do that make it easier for your wife to submit to you:
  5. List three things you do that make it harder for your wife to submit to you:
  6. What changes will you make so that it will be easier for your wife to submit to you?

Wives

  1. Discuss the blessings of a time you submitted to your husband.
  2. List three actions that demonstrate your submission
    to your husband.
  3. Do you feel you exasperate your husband by presenting countless variations of the same opinion stated in different ways? Why or why not?
  4. List three things your husband does that make it easier to submit to him:
  5. List three things your husband does that make it harder to submit to him:
  6. How will you begin praying for your husband so that it will be easier to submit to him?
Your Marriage God's Way book and workbook by Scott LaPierre

The content in this post is found in Your Marriage God’s Way and the accompanying workbook.

19 Responses

  1. Very early on in our marriage (of 15 years) my husband told me that I had to get rid of my cat I had for years before we got engaged. I refused but this crushed me and was my introduction to the concept that he was “the leader” which meant he would always have the upper hand and get what he wants while I would live in pain and depravation. Because we had only been married for a short time and I was already pregnant and felt trapped. I was reluctant to leave but would have if I needed to. It was only by the grace of God that I stayed. Right out of the gate I knew I couldn’t trust him and this badly damaged our marriage and relationship. To this day, even though I’ve tried to forgive him for his callousness we’ve never had the closeness or intimacy I always wanted in a marriage. And I will never completely trust him because I know what he’s capable of doing. Even though he knew I had this cat, he told me to get rid of her because it’s what he wanted. And he waiting until after I moved across the country and gave up my job to be with him to spring this on me. After that, I had planned to leave him when the kids turned 18 because of this and other things he did to me in the name of “being in charge”. Life with him wasn’t unbearable so I stayed, but planned to leave. I must say God is powerful and showed me another side of him. We have to kids who both love animals like me and our younger daughter begged him for a dog since she knew what one was. We got her one for her birthday after we begged him but soon after, he tried to get rid of her. I listened to him and he said he didn’t like “it” and he thought “it” would wreck the house and now he had to figure out what to do with “it” when he wanted to go on vacation. I wasn’t going to let him do to our daughter what he wanted to do to me. He again invoked the “I’m in charge and you’re not” crap. I told him no. I didn’t tell him this, but if he wanted to get rid of the dog I would go with her. He agreed to get her – it’s not like I came home with her on my own. I braced for the retaliation. But something else happened. He accepted the dog. It saved our marriage. I later told him that I have never felt more loved than when he accepted the dog that our daughters and I love. It made me not want to leave and to work things out with him. My life and marriage are better. But they’re better because I DIDN’T submit to the unreasonable and mean request of my otherwise nice husband. I have two daughters and I will tell them stay the heck away from men who think like this. They want to control you. They want to have their way and do what they want. They don’t love you. Any man who loves you doesn’t need you under him. It’s no way to live and it’s not what God wants for marriage. I could never believe in a God that created me as a one of his creatures to be at the mercy of someone who doesn’t care if or how much I suffer. That’s not God’s plan for marriage or for women.

    1. Hello Anne,
      I’ve heard many stories like this with wives telling me how terrible their husband is, or husbands telling me how terrible their wife is. The thing I always wonder is, “If your spouse is as terrible as you describe, why did you marry him/her?”
      You even repeatedly said things revealing he was like this on your wedding day: “very early on…married for a short time,” meaning he didn’t become this person after decades, through trauma or abuse. Again, I have to wonder why you married him?

      You said:

      I could never believe in a God that created me as a one of his creatures to be at the mercy of someone who doesn’t care if or how much I suffer.

      You’re the one who walked down the aisle and said, “I do.” The Bible says we should hear both sides before coming to a conclusion, so I have no idea if your husband is as terrible as you describe, but let’s say he is. It was your choice to spend your life with him. Why are you upset with God?

      Your horror story is that he made you get rid of a cat? You acknowledge that you never forgave him, which makes you sound like a bitter woman. You can’t move on from this? You said you planned to leave him when your kids turned 18, which shows your unfaithfulness both to your husband and to God.

      If I understand, you made sure a dog came into the home even though your husband didn’t want one? I’m not sure how this makes you any different than him. Everything you criticized him for is true of you. You forced your will and got what you wanted. You decided to stay, and felt loved, because you overpowered your husband and got your way?

      God is the author of marriage. He knows what provides for healthy, joyful relationships. Unless we think we’re wiser than God, we should strive to obey what He says.

      You have twisted submission and applied many things to it that God doesn’t apply: “have the upper hand and get what he wants…have their way and do what they want…need you under him.” This is not what submission means. I don’t want to repeat the post I wrote – which I’m wondering if you even read, because your understanding is so contrary to the true – but submission is in place for when husbands and wives disagree. The responsibility to make the decision, so the relationship can move forward, rests on the husband’s shoulders.

      I think the real question is, do you believe the Bible? If so, then what do you do with all the commands for wives to submit to their husbands?

  2. Such a good point that if we are in agreement then the need to submit is not really there. There are so many times in my walk with Christ I fight His will and needed to realize it was never about me fighting but me submitting instead.

    1. Hi Kristi,
      Although the post is about wives submitting to their husbands, it definitely applies to our relationships with Christ too. Like I said to Mary earlier, there are lots of relationships that require submission, definitely including our submission to the Lord.

  3. I believe the word `submission` has gotten a bum wrap over the year’s. In today’s culture of `me first`, submission means weakness, silence, you are of no worth. This is sad. That’s completely not what scriptures tell us.

    Submission means; you are implying you feel your husband is worthy of being your leader. By failing in this you imply to him, he’s not worthy of leadership, that he is not of worth. It does not mean he’s never wrong, he never makes mistakes, you have nothing to say .
    It means you don’t always get your way. It means to not belittle, nag, usurp his authority on a decision or matter to do it your way. It means not to be ungrateful, impatient, thoughtless, prideful and selfish.

    As wives to recognize our dissatisfaction with our husband stems from a self-righteous attitude, by our attitude we are actually saying that we are a better person than our husband.

    We are failing to reverence, respect and love our husband as God commanded is really a sin against our husband and against God. Our individual husbands are a person of God’s design, not our design. We are of worth, but we are required to reverence our husband. Eph 5:33 Ampl. “And let the wife see that she respects and reverences her husband-that she notices him, regards him, honors him, prefers him, venerates and esteems him; and that she defers to him, and loves and admires him exceedingly.”

    Submit does not mean to blindly follow without expressing your thoughts and opinion, or to ask questions.

    1. Hi Mary,
      As usual, wonderful thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

      The Bible speaks of the need for submission in a number of relationships:
      • 1 Peter 2:13–17 commands believers to submit to government (also Romans 13:1–7).
      • 1 Peter 2:18–25 commands slaves to submit to their masters; in our society this would translate as employees’ submitting to employers (also Ephesians 6:5–8).
      • 1 Peter 5:5 commands congregations to submit to their elders (also Hebrews 13:17).
      • Ephesians 6:1, Paul commands children to submit to their parents (also Colossians 3:20).

      I suspect people who have a problem with submission will have a problem with much of Scripture.

    2. Hi Scott, I thought my comment was already very long, so, I left out employers, employees, parents, children, friends. Eph 5:21 “Submitting yourselves to one an other in the fear of God.” Each should have the humility and ability to yield her or his, own way to the way of another for the sake of harmony. (Seed v Luke 9:23)That’s another subject! Ha!

    3. Hi Mary,
      Right. My reply wasn’t meant to sound at all disagreeable to your quote (if that’s how it sounded). I thought you made a great point about submission getting “a bum wrap.” I was trying to piggyback off that by making the point that people who have a problem with submission will have a problem with Scripture, since Scripture speaks so highly and frequently about submission.

    4. Hahaha, Scott I didn’t think it was disagreeable at all. Yes, your right there are many scriptures in regards to submission dealing with our multifaceted lives. Why, submission could be a book in itself! 🙂

  4. I have to admit, I’m having a hard time with this one. I “submit” to my husband, but I’m going to nitpick here, and just say that I dislike the word “submit” because its connotations are lacking the actual message needed to fully understand what God was trying to do when He gave us the guidelines of marriage. My husband is certainly the “head” and I follow his leadership, but that doesn’t always end up well for some women. Blind submission can be evil. I grew up watching this verse being played out in a very perverse way of intentional and consistent abuse. I think the reason why so many women become defensive is because of that particular word — submission. I would hope that mutual respect in a marriage initiates ACTIVE listening and results in compromise and understanding when there is a disagreement. It really does leave the responsibility on the man to lead in the most Christ-like way by always seeking to do what God tells him and not take advantage of his role. Anyway, it’s a delicate subject, and I always find it to be one mostly discussed by men. Your insight is basic in terms of only “decision making” in the marriage. I don’t think that’s the entirety of “submitting” to one’s husband. I don’t know. I don’t want to argue or sound like I don’t agree because that’s not the case entirely. I just don’t know that this message covers enough of the details to alleviate any doubts for a woman who is questioning her ability, need, or want to “submit.” It almost seems like your analogies are parallel to that as well. A co-pilot and pilot are still piloting together, and there are times when the copilot is in control to aid the pilot. When it comes down to simply “decision making” the pilot has a say so, but you see, there is an agreement already put in place, “do whatever is best for the passengers.” Essentially, they don’t have a disagreement to work out. I guess this post is really just about individual roles working together. I wish when this topic was discussed it wasn’t such a “put my foot down” kind of matter of fact tone, and more of a “let’s discuss specific roles in marriages as it pertains to mutual love and respect.”

    1. Hi Rachel,
      Thanks for reading and providing your honest thoughts.

      A few things. You said:

      I’m going to nitpick here, and just say that I dislike the word “submit” because its connotations are lacking the actual message needed to fully understand what God was trying to do when He gave us the guidelines of marriage.

      I use the word submit, because that’s the word Scripture repeatedly uses and I don’t think we should shrink back from being scriptural, we shouldn’t apologize for what Scripture says, etc. The command for wives to submit to their husbands is repeated five times in the New Testament making it one of the clearest and most common commands in all of Scripture. So my first question would be, what do you think about these commands? When you say, “I am having a hard time with this one,” would it be more accurate to say you have a hard time with God’s command? Hope that doesn’t sound too straightforward, but I’m not sure how to make it softer.

      Yes, “blind submission” can cause problems. I agree. I actually have a section in my book called, “What Submission Does not Mean…” where I outline times wives don’t need to submit (submitting to abuse, sin, etc).

      You also said:

      I grew up watching this verse being played out in a very perverse way of intentional and consistent abuse. I think the reason why so many women become defensive is because of that particular word — submission.

      I’m very sorry that you saw God’s command “perverted” and that it has encouraged you to reject the command completely, but I might invite you to reconsider what you were seeing isn’t what God commanded. I don’t think God says, “Okay, you can ignore what I said because you saw it misrepresented.”

      Also, the question is never, “Will this make people defensive?” If that’s our standard, then say goodbye to verses about hell, repentance, homosexuality, and everything else that makes people defensive.

      Regarding some points you made in the second half of your comment, I largely agree! If you look at the title of the post though, it says, “Why are wives commanded to submit?” I was trying to answer that question. Sure, I could’ve answered other questions – like those you’re wishing I would’ve addressed – but that would’ve went outside the scope of what was asked.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  5. I have heard it explained that if the wife goes over the headship of her husband and vetos a decision and it ends up turning out poorly, then it falls on her shoulders and she has to carry the weight. God’s intention was for the husband to do the heavy lifting on his shoulders and bear the weight of the decisions that are made. It is a good thing for a wife to let her husband carry that weight. She has other things to carry. This jogged my memory to that explanation. Thanks!

  6. This is a great post. I’ve seen so many women get upset over the verses that command us to be submissive because they think, falsely, that God wants them to be a doormat! This is a wonderful explanation.

    1. Hi Kay,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, submission definitely doesn’t mean wives are doormats. I elaborate on the point in my book, and briefly tried to make the point in the post, but submission takes place when husbands and wives can’t agree after the husband has heard his wife’s thoughts.

  7. I am a submissive wife for some of the reason you listed. My husband has a different opinion on my role in our home. Nice to see other Christian families perspecties and a glimpse into dynamics.

    1. Hi De,
      Thanks for sharing.

      Would you be comfortable sharing the other reasons you obey God’s commands to be a submissive wife? You said the post touched on some of the reasons; I’d like to hear the others. Thanks!

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