In today’s modern culture, submission in marriage is fairly controversial. We’ve been taught for generations that man is the “head of the household” and women are called to “submit to him in all things.” Many churches today teach that men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but they each have different roles to play. And in the end, the husband has the final say.
But I can’t stop thinking about this term “submission.” Because in my mind (and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way), submission by the world’s standard means blind obedience. It requires me to put myself under the authority of my husband in a way that dismisses my thoughts and feelings. I can’t help but envision the way a dog submits to his master. He obeys, honors, and respects the wishes of his owner. It’s this mentality that makes it so difficult for many wives to accept that this is God’s perfect will for marriage. Is this really what Paul had in mind when he called wives to submit to their husbands?
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If I’m being honest, the part that I find the most difficult about submission is that I have personally witnessed this teaching being abused. I have seen marriages that were completely unhealthy because the husband used these verses to lord over his wife. I have watched wives work and serve their husbands in a way that made them feel worthless and powerless. And unfortunately, I have seen far too many manipulative and emotionally abusive marriages in the church where husbands feel they have the biblical right to be lord and master over their wife. And when wives begin to question this behavior, they are made to feel like they are denying their God-given duty to submit.
So what did Paul really mean when he called wives to submit to their husbands?
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. – Ephesians 5:22-24
At first glance, this passage seems pretty cut and dry. Wives are to submit to their husbands in every way. But we are forgetting one important aspect to Bible study… we must always read in context.
And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:20-21 (NLT)
This verse directly precedes Paul’s words concerning husbands and wives. And the same word in Greek (hypotassō) is also used to describe our submission to one another as the body of Christ.
Paul wasn’t just defining what it looks like for a wife to submit to her husband, but also what it looks like when a husband submits to the needs of his wife. It’s as if he was saying, “Submit to one another, and here’s what that looks like within a marriage.”
The truth is that both husbands and wives are called to submit… both to God and to each other. Women are called to submit, yes. But men are also called to submit to the point of laying their lives down for their wives.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. – Ephesians 5:25-27
Man’s Call to Submit
The Bible tells us that husbands are supposed to love their wives as Jesus loved the church. Jesus gave His life for His bride. He spared nothing to demonstrate His love for us. He doesn’t lord over us as a master would of his slaves. Rather, He washed His disciples’ feet, and He served in the most humble way possible.
Serving to Provide and Protect
The Bible tells us that Christ came to serve, not to be served. Just as a good king leads his people by serving them and making them his main priority, a good husband serves his family. A noble ruler forgets the crown and the power that comes along with it. He instead focuses on his people and what he can do to protect, serve, and honor them.
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:45
Honoring to His Wife
Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her, saying: “Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all.” – Proverbs 31:28-29
A godly husband respects his wife, and he speaks well of her. Just as Christ presents the church as holy and blameless, a husband is to honor his wife in the same way.
Woman’s Call to Submit
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” – Genesis 2:18
The term “helper” in no way signifies inferiority. Jesus was even referred to as our “helper” in Hebrews 13:6. Adam needed a companion. He needed a relationship with another human being who could give him strength and encouragement. God created Adam with a specific need that Eve could fill. They walked together and talked together in the Garden of Eden as one flesh. It was not until they sinned that everything changed.
“…yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” – Genesis 3:16
The hierarchy of male over female began as part of the curse. It was never God’s perfect design. His perfect will is that two become one flesh as Adam and Eve had done prior to the fall.
Both men and women are called to submit to God and to each other as they humbly serve in love… this is the very definition of true love.
In a marriage relationship, I believe that God meant for us to work together. He gave us each unique characteristics to bring to the relationship so that everyone’s needs are met. Even as Paul defines godly marriage in Ephesians 5, it’s clear that marriage is very much two-sided. And in many ways, men are called to an even higher standard of submission as they sacrificially love their wives as Jesus loves us.
We are all created equally and are under the authority of Christ (Galatians 3:28). And both men and women are called to submit and humbly serve one another. While our culture tells us that submission involves being a doormat, God’s definition is much different. Submission simply means to place one’s needs above your own and to serve, respect, and honor one another in love.
And in this way… we are all called to submit as servants of Christ.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3-4
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.