What does the Bible really mean when it says wives should submit to their husbands? I’m a capable, independent woman who’s also a new Christian, and I don’t like the idea. Some people at my church even say it isn’t relevant anymore.
You’re not alone in wondering how to interpret biblical submission in marriage. It’s a touchy subject, not least because it’s often misunderstood as being sexist or no-matter-what obedience. Add in our Western culture — where a me-focused lifestyle is easy to come by — and the internal and external conflict you described is real.
A closer look at Scripture, though, shows the full picture of marriage: a relationship that mirrors the love between Christ and His Church. When a husband submits to the Lord, leading his wife with a servant’s heart and nurturing her God-given talents, she can confidently submit to him — lean on him and trust his covering. That will always be relevant.
The topic of submission in marriage is too broad to cover completely in one article. Nevertheless, we can build a solid framework with basic awareness of four areas:
- Understand the spiritual significance of marriage
- Debunk the myth that women are inferior to men
- Embrace the differences that do exist between women and men
- Recognise that biblical submission and biblical leadership complement each other
Submission points to the spiritual significance of marriage
We find diversity within unity in both the three-in-one bond of the Trinity and in the one-flesh union between a husband and wife.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in the sense that all three are God. At the same time, there’s a certain hierarchy in their unity. For example, Jesus clearly spoke of Himself as being equal with God (John 5:18) — and then He said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28, ESV).
The apostle Paul also compares marriage to the connection between Christ and the Church. The relationship isn’t of master to servant; it’s of lover and beloved.
As Lord of the Church, Jesus has given up His life in exchange for the life of His Bride. This is what Paul has in mind when he says, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour” (Ephesians 5:23, ESV).
The union represented [in marriage] may be one of the greatest miracles in all of creation. But it’s also something more. For in addition to everything else marriage means for a man and a woman, it has a deep spiritual significance — an eternal and cosmic significance … At the very highest level, it functions as an unparalleled working image of the seeking and saving Love of our Creator and Saviour — the Love that compels Him to unite Himself to His people in a mystical bond of eternal fellowship and never-ending interpersonal give and take. ~ “Developing Shared Spiritual Intimacy”
Sounds good, yes? Let’s be honest, though: Interpersonal give and take can be a sore spot if we don’t humbly acknowledge our similarities along with our differences.
Women and men have equal worth
“Submission” can be a hot-button term because of how it’s perceived in contemporary culture: the implication that women are inferior to men.
However, Ephesians 5:15-33 was written to encourage unity in marriage. With that in mind, Paul’s instruction to wives can’t be separated from his teaching to men and his overarching advice to both sexes:
- “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. … Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:22 and 25, ESV).
- “[Submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, ESV).
The New Testament is very affirming of women — shockingly so when viewed in its social and historical context. In one instance, Jesus talks openly with a Samaritan woman (John 4), something that normally would have been taboo for a Jewish man. In another case, Paul describes the standing of Christian believers (men and women) before God and stresses that we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV).
Scripture testifies to the equality of husband and wife in terms of personhood and value in the sight of God. So we can celebrate women’s contributions both inside and outside the home and oppose all forms of sex-based mistreatment and injustice.
Women and men are also inherently different
To deny there are significant and consequential differences in male and female is to deny the basic nature of humanity and how we fashion our common life together. This is true in both the family and the larger community. ~ “Is There a Universal Male and Female Nature?”
Here, too, much more could be said. Still, when it comes to submission, generally speaking, the sexes have different needs for love and respect: Men need to feel respected by their wives, and women need to feel loved by their husbands.
This explains why Paul specifically tells husbands to “love” their wives and wives to “respect” their husbands (Ephesians 5:33). A lot simply has to do with the unique natures of male and female.
Of course, God wants both husbands and wives to treat their spouses with love and respect. When the Bible says that wives should respect their husbands, it assumes such respect will be based on love. When it tells husbands to love their wives, it takes for granted that a disrespectful love isn’t love at all.
Scripture is clear about God’s design for marriage in the fact that men and women have different roles. Yet it never suggests that one spouse is more important than the other.
Instead, when a Christian husband and wife learn how God has wired them to complement each other in mutual submission, they reflect the love that exists between Christ and His Bride.
Biblical submission is a response to biblical headship
Biblical submission allows a wife to confidently follow her husband’s lead. And Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear that a man does have responsibility for leadership in his home. But again, it’s only as a leader that his wife submits to him — not as a tyrant or her superior.
Unfortunately, “male bashing” in our culture makes it too easy to forget about the importance of masculine leadership altogether. We can’t swing so far one way trying to avoid male domination that we go to the other extreme and strip husbands of their authority.
That said, leadership doesn’t give a husband the right to rob his wife of being a unique individual. He doesn’t get to disregard or mock her opinions and feelings. And he should never misuse leadership to get his own way.
A husband must love and cherish his wife — to die for her if necessary — even as Christ loved the Church. He should include her in important decisions and consider her perspectives carefully and respectfully. Day by day, he should become increasingly sensitive to leading with love because he’ll ultimately answer to God for the way he treats his wife.
Sadly, we know that’s not always the case.
When things aren’t as they should be
If a wife believes that her husband is misusing his role and won’t listen to her concerns, we’d be the first to urge her to get help — especially if there’s abuse. Contact us or The National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-737-732.
In all things, a woman is responsible first to God. If she cares about her marriage, her family, her community, and her relationship with the Lord, she doesn’t submit mindlessly to every decision her husband makes. Submission and obedience aren’t necessarily the same thing.
© 2016, 2020 Focus on the Family. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.