“Wives submit to your husband as to the Lord,” is the primary command for wives found in Ephesians 5:22-24 (see also Colossians 3:18, and 1 Peter 3:1). What does, “Wives be subject to your own husbands” mean? Read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to find out!
Table of Contents
- Submission Is Not Only for Wives
- The Way We Submit Is as Important as Submitting
- Wives Submit to Your Husband Because You Want to Obey the Bible Versus the World
- The Need for Wives to Submit to Their Husband
- What Is Revealed about a Wife Who Submits to Her Husband?
Because we live in a fallen world—and because our fallenness resulted from Adam and Eve’s refusal to submit to God—ultimately, we are prone to resist submission, unbeliever and believer alike. Our culture views submission negatively. When we become Christians, we continue to struggle with submission because we’re called to submit in multiple ways that our flesh resists. Therefore, as you read this chapter, here are two key points that are vital to keep in mind:
- The Bible speaks frequently of submission, so if you have a problem with it, you will have a problem with much of the Bible.
- Submission—or having a submissive spirit—is spoken of positively in Scripture. If you do not want to be a submissive person, you will have a hard time following Christ.
Before we do more exploring about what the Bible says about submission in marriage, let’s talk about submission in other areas of life.
Submission Is Not Only for Wives
Often when we hear the word submission, the first thing that comes to mind is God’s command for wives to submit to their husbands. But wives are far from the only believers commanded to submit. In fact, every Christian is called to submit in a variety of ways. Later we will examine 1 Peter 3:1-6, which commands wives to submit to their husbands, but before Peter instructs wives, he first addresses submission in other relationships:
- First Peter 2:13-17 commands believers to submit to government (see also Romans 13:1-7).
- First Peter 2:18-25 commands slaves to submit to their masters; in our society, the equivalent is employees submitting to employers (see also Ephesians 6:5-8).
- First Peter 5:5 commands congregations to submit to their elders (see also Hebrews 13:17).
In Ephesians 6:1, the apostle Paul commands children to submit to their parents (see also Colossians 3:20). He also instructs wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22, but one verse earlier, in Ephesians 5:21, he commands believers to submit “to one another in the fear of God.” This calls us to have a submissive spirit that is willing to give up rights and desires unity in the body of Christ. We see this described more clearly in Philippians 2:3-4: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Our spiritual liberty is not only about freedom but about giving up—that is, submitting—our rights for others. If a brother or sister in Christ would be offended or stumble on account of exercising our liberties, we submit to that person by laying down our rights (Romans 14:14-23; 1 Corinthians 8:9- 13). Paul says in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Hebrews 12:14 reiterates, “Pursue peace with all people.” Establishing this peace, whether in the marriage union or any other relationship, involves submission. It involves making sacrifices in deference to others.
The Way We Submit Is as Important as Submitting
When I taught elementary school, I told students on the first day of class that the way in which they did what I asked was as important as doing what I asked. For example:
- If I instructed a student to take out a book and the student slammed it defiantly on his desk, he would be in as much trouble as if he had not taken out the book at all.
- If I told a student to push in her chair but she pushed it in with a bad attitude, she would be in as much trouble as if she had not pushed in the chair at all.
The way we submit—whether students to teachers, children to parents, congregations to elders, believers to government, employees to employers, believers to one another, or wives to husbands—is as important as submitting itself. If we submit with a bad attitude, we are not really submitting. We may think of submission as an outward action, but it starts with a right inward attitude. To put it simply: Submission is an issue of the heart.
It’s noteworthy that the New Testament Greek word translated “submit”— hypotasso—is a military term that means “to arrange (troop divisions) in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” This reminds me of a lesson I will never forget from my time in the Army. A superior officer asked those of us under his command, “What do you do with every command you receive?” We gave any number of answers:
- “Make sure you know exactly what you are being asked to do.”
- “Learn from the order.”
- “Carry out the request as quickly as possible.”
Nobody had the response the officer was looking for. Finally, he said, “Take the order and make it your own.”
What he meant was that any time we were given a command, we should do it as though we wanted to do it. If a soldier moaned, groaned, rolled his eyes, complained, or argued with his commander when asked to do something, he would be considered insubordinate. To say the commander would frown upon his response is an understatement. Likewise, from a Christian perspective, we should recognize how much God frowns upon us when we submit with a poor attitude. This also applies to
- students when they submit to their teachers
- children when they submit to their parents
- employees when they submit to their bosses
- wives when they submit to their husbands
And this applies to husbands when they demonstrate their love for their wives. Will a wife feel blessed if her husband sighs and complains while changing a diaper or washing the dishes?
Wives Submit to Your Husband Because You Want to Obey the Bible Versus the World
These days we often hear about the “redefinition” of marriage. Such discussions typically refer to marriage as being something other than the union of one man and one woman for life. But there is another way society has redefined marriage, and that is in relation to the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives. Consider this: Even non-Christian friends and neighbors have no issue discussing husbands loving their wives, but mention male headship or submission, and you can count on facing fierce opposition. Here is what self-proclaimed feminist Cath Elliot said about biblical womanhood:
Unfortunately, as in any movement for social change, there are those who remain resistant to their own [freedom]: a tiny minority of women who have been so indoctrinated by religious conditioning that they continue to see themselves as men’s subordinates…Biblical womanhood does exactly what it says it does: it sends women back to the dark ages. At the [True Woman] Conference, for example, the Christian sisters launched their new manifesto, inspiringly titled “The True Woman Manifesto,” where they resolved to cultivate “such virtues as purity, modesty, submission, meekness, and love” and where they affirmed their calling as women “to encourage men as they seek to express godly masculinity, and to honor and support God-ordained male leadership in the home and in the church.” It’s encouraging to see that only three thousand women have signed this terrible charter, but it’s also depressing to think that three thousand women think so little of themselves and their daughters that they’re prepared to endorse such illiberal, anti-woman nonsense.
Ms. Elliot’s perception of biblical submission is that it enslaves women and ruins their lives. She is not alone in thinking that way. This is the prevailing view of secular society regarding the biblical roles of husbands and wives.
Submission Provides Freedom
In support of the biblical view of submission, Dr. Jay Adams, founder of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS), the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC) (now known as ACBC, or the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors), 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.1
Dr. Adams’s point, which is equally true for husbands, is that true freedom is experienced when we live in obedience to God. True freedom comes when we strive to be husbands and wives as God commanded rather than as society defines. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). This is why we need to embrace what Scripture says. Real freedom and joy—whether for young, old, male, female, single, or married—comes from embracing the Bible’s teachings. Disobedience always leads to frustration and bondage.
Whenever we read the Bible, we face two choices:
- We can shape Scripture to fit our desires and beliefs.
- We can allow Scripture to shape us and our thinking.
As Christians, we will undoubtedly say we want the latter, but the real difficulty is that we live in a world that strives to shape us. What’s wrong with being shaped by the world? Jesus said the devil is “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). John said, “The whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19).
Conformed or Transformed?
For this reason, Paul instructed, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). Paul alerted us to the fact the world desires to conform us, and he said that instead, we are to be transformed by letting our minds be renewed. If we were reading this verse for the first time, we would probably expect Paul to use the same word twice: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be conformed by the renewing of your mind,” or “Do not be transformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Instead, Paul used two different words, and if we understand them both, then we can understand the verse.
The Greek word translated “conformed” is syschematizo, which means “to conform one’s self to another’s pattern.” It’s related to the English word schematic because it’s describing the way society shapes us to follow its patterns. The Greek word translated “transformed” is metamorphoo, from which we get our English word metamorphosis. Picture a caterpillar bursting from its cocoon, transformed into a beautiful butterfly. This is what should occur with us: If we resist the world’s conforming influence, we can be transformed as our minds are renewed by God’s Word.
Allowing this transformation to happen can be difficult when we choose to disagree with what Scripture says. When our beliefs are challenged, it is at those moments that we must choose to submit to God’s Word instead of the world. Unless we think we are wiser than God, we can trust that He knows best. As you read this book, my hope is that you will make the decision to let the Bible transform your view of marriage. Otherwise, you will end up being conformed to the world’s ways of thinking. This is especially important when it comes to the matter of submission, a teaching that is firmly rejected by society and, sadly, even by some churches.
The Need for Wives to Submit to Their Husband
An examination of basic leadership structures makes clear that submission is an important principle in every area of human interaction. No organization can be successful without authority or headship. Businesses have CEOs, sports teams have coaches, governments have presidents or prime ministers, and schools have principals.
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 senior pilots, or two lead surgeons. Imagine how uncomfortable you would feel flying on a plane in which two senior pilots are arguing over the flight plan. Imagine being operated on by two lead surgeons quarreling over the proper procedure. That is why we always see a head coach and an assistant coach, a president and a vice president, a pilot and a copilot, a principal and an assistant principal. The second-in-command is expected to submit to the authority of the leader, or head.
Because we recognize the wisdom of and need for orderly leadership in all other areas of life, we should recognize the wisdom of and need for the same in a marriage relationship and appreciate how clear God makes this point in Scripture. Consider the following:
- In the New Testament, wives are instructed five times 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 more common commands in God’s Word.
- Every New Testament passage that discusses the marriage relationship commands wives to submit. In other words, there’s no discussion of marriage without discussing a wife’s submission. 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.
- Despite all the New Testament verses we have looked at that instruct believers to submit toward various individuals—employers, elders, government, parents, husbands—it’s significant that there is no verse specifically instructing husbands to submit to their wives.
Because Ephesians 5:21 says to “[submit] to one another,” the passage 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. Rather, it is talking about believers’ mutual responsibilities toward each other. Paul does not transition to the subject of marriage until verse 22, when he begins addressing wives directly.
- As we saw earlier 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 the 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 2:3-5, and 1 Peter 3:1.
Submission When a Wife Disagrees
One of the most common arguments I have heard from wives who don’t want to submit to their husband is, “I would submit to my husband if I agreed with him.” Can we see the problem with this logic? The command for a wife to submit to her husband is especially relevant when she disagrees because that is when she has the most trouble embracing her husband’s leadership. When a wife agrees with her husband, she has a much easier time submitting to him.
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 other authority structures we have discussed, there is a clear answer that God has decreed: For the marriage to be able to move forward and maintain harmony, the husband has been designated to make the final decision.
When couples make a decision, a husband should do his best to hear his wife’s counsel and take her thoughts into consideration. In doing so, he fulfills his calling to love his wife. Yet these two points should be kept in mind:
- Although it is ideal for a decision to be made only after a husband has given his wife ample time to share her thoughts and opinions, some situations might not allow for lengthy discussions. If, for whatever reason, time is limited and a presentation of both sides is not feasible, wives are still called to submit to their husbands.
- As much as a husband should make every effort to hear his wife’s thoughts, a wife should not make every effort to exasperate her husband in the hopes that he will simply give up and give in.
As difficult as submission may be at times for the wife, she needs to remember this: If her husband is wrong, he will be held responsible for the outcome. The decision is on his shoulders. Her responsibility ends at submitting, not at making the final decision. Marriage counselor 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 must 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 must be the final decision maker, and God has ordained that this should be the husband.2
Yes, submission is difficult. It is tough for husbands to lead spiritually, and it is tough for wives to submit. Wives should be encouraged and find submission easier by keeping two things in mind: First, a willingness to submit doesn’t necessarily mean supporting the idea. Instead, submission means supporting the man behind it. And second, when wives submit, they are doing it for their husband, but even more importantly, they are doing it for the Lord Himself: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). A wife submits to her husband because she wants to submit to Christ.
A Husband Can Make Submission Easier, but He Can Never Make It Easy
Earlier we discussed how a husband can make it easier for a wife to respect him, but making it easier to submit to him is a different issue. Generally, a wife has trouble respecting her husband if there is sin in his life, and she has trouble submitting to her husband if he is not a spiritual man. It is difficult for a wife to trust a man to lead when he doesn’t pray, read the Bible, isn’t involved in the church, or doesn’t have a heart for God. The reason should be obvious: If a husband isn’t fulfilling his spiritual callings, a wife will have little confidence in his 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 is spending time regularly 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 and decisions. There are plenty of reasons for a husband to pray and read Scripture, and one of them is so that his wife can say, “I have concerns about the decision my husband is making, but I trust him because he is receptive to God’s will and he wants what the Lord wants. I know this because his spiritual life makes it obvious.” Being a man of prayer and of the Word is the greatest way for a husband to make his wife’s submission easier.
To bring some balance to this discussion, you will notice I said a man who fulfills his spiritual responsibilities makes submission easier rather than easy. It will always be difficult for wives to submit to their husbands. As we saw earlier, God told Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband” (Genesis 3:16). This refers to a desire for wives to control their husbands. It might help for a man to be loving and godly, but because of the curse, wives are going to struggle with submission regardless of whether their husbands are living a spiritually yielded life or not.
While a wife might insist that she would submit to her husband’s headship 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. To tie this together: Husbands can make submission easier for their wives by being godly men, but as part of the curse, a wife will have times when she struggles with submitting even to the godliest man.
What Is Revealed about a Wife Who Submits to Her Husband?
When a wife submits to her husband, it reveals she is discerning enough to reject worldly philosophies and cultural pitfalls that plague other women. Unlike them, she recognizes the wisdom of God’s design for marriage, and her faithfulness is a tremendous testimony: “[She is] obedient to [her] own husband, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:4-5).
The wife who submits to her husband can have peace because she has put her life and marriage in God’s hands. Just as a willingness to submit to headship provides peace, harmony, and progress in businesses, organizations, and teams, so too do they provide the same in marriages. A wife who submits to her husband reveals her commitment to the health and joy of the relationship. Through her devotion to her husband, and most importantly to Scripture, she reveals her desire to have a marriage God’s way.