Submission in Christian Marriage

Since e-Mom announced last Friday that the topic for her Marriage Monday this week was “Submission in Christian Marriage,” it’s been in the back of my mind, but I haven’t had the kind of time needed to write that kind of post til this morning.

The concept (command, really) that Christian wives are supposed to be submissive to their husbands comes primarily from a couple of passages, both sections involving instruction to the family. Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” and Colossians 3:18 says, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.”

This command has been challenged in recent years by the thought that the Bible teaches a mutual submission in the preceding verse in the Ephesians passage, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” But the following verses 22-24 go on to say, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.  Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing,” so wives submitting to their husbands is a step beyond the mutual submission in verse 21. That mutual submission is part of the outflow of being filled with the Spirit in verse 18 (more on that in a moment) and applies to the whole church, but that principle of mutual submission certainly applies in marriage as well. Yet it doesn’t nullify the particular submission a wife is to show to her husband in verses 22-24. The next part of the passage instructs a husband to love his wife as himself as Christ loved the church (v. 25) and as himself (v. 33). I think a couple of ways that mutual submission applies in marriage is that neither partner is an independent agent, and neither is to be tyrannical or selfish. All of the Biblical instruction about how Christians are to love and treat each other in general applies to each partner within marriage as well.

The Greek word for “submit” in all the passages mentioned here is from a Greek word transliterated as “hupotasso” and is defined by this site as:

to arrange under, to subordinate
to subject, put in subjection
to subject one’s self, obey
to submit to one’s control
to yield to one’s admonition or advice
to obey, be subject

A Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use,it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.

So this goes far beyond the idea that submission just means that when push comes to shove, the husband has the final say (there shouldn’t be any pushing or shoving physically or verbally). We’re to “arrange ourselves under” our husband’s leadership just as the church should arrange itself under Christ’s leadership.

This doesn’t mean that the husband is a tyrant — his leadership should be as loving as Christ’s. Nor does it mean that the wife is a doormat, because the church certainly isn’t portrayed that way under Christ.

It also doesn’t mean the wife never shares her opinion, though of course she should do so in a kindly way. The Bible says that the two different people in a marriage become one. Neither eclipses the other: they somehow meld into a new unit.

But it does mean that the husband is the leader, the head. That can rankle modern, independent women. But Chrysalis portrayed the beauty of ice skating couples, the man leading, the woman following, both submitting to each other. The same is true in dance as well as business and even Star Trek. 🙂 I remember noticing during episode one episode the many times a captain had to ask or tell someone to do something. If each of those people challenged his authority, they’d have been defeated by the enemy within the first few episodes. When authority and submission work together like they are supposed to, it’s a beautiful thing.

I think many women have a few particular fears about submission.

One is that they might lose their own voice. But even Christ values the prayers of His bride. That’s a little different — we don’t (or shouldn’t) give Him suggestions about how to run the universe. 🙂 But He does welcome our requests and communication.

But the second fear is that, since our husbands aren’t Christ, they might fail, they might lead the wrong way. And indeed they might. They’re only human, and we need to be as loving and forgiving as we want them to be when we fail. It takes great faith to be truly submissive. When we are concerned about the direction our husband’s leadership is taking the family, we can express our concerns (though we shouldn’t nag or demean or berate), but ultimately we should ask the Lord to guide our husbands in the way they should go. I’ve relied heavily on Psalm 37:23a (“The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD”) and Jeremiah 10:23 (“O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps”) through many of the major decisions we have faced through the years and prayed for the Lord to guide and direct my husband in the way He wanted him to go.

The third fear is that it is somehow demeaning to be in submission to someone else. But Jesus was not demeaned by being under the headship of His Father. They are co-equal. That word hupotasso is even used when Jesus went home from the temple with Mary and Joseph and “was subject unto them” (Luke 2:51). He was the Son of the Highest, yet He subjected Himself while on earth to his earthly parents.

Sometimes wives feel that if they don’t think their husbands are loving them as Christ loved the church, as the husbands are commanded to do, then the wife isn’t under obligation to submit to her husband. Some years ago when I was a new Christian chafing under the things going on in my unsaved home as I was growing up, I came across the instruction later in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 to children to obey their parents. It struck me then that there were no qualifications on that instruction. The Bible didn’t say I was to obey my parents only if they were Christians or if they were doing everything right. It just said “obey.” The example of Jesus as a boy obeying His earthly parents, even though I am sure they didn’t always do everything right, was a help. So it is in the marriage relationship. Ideally these things are to work together: when a husband lovingly leads and loves his wife, it’s easier for her to submit to him; when she is lovingly submitting rather than fighting against him, it’s easier for him to lovingly lead. But we’re each responsible before God to do our part whether the other does or not. I Peter 3: 1-2 says, “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection [hupotasso again]to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives;  While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.”

Such a command seems beyond us. I mentioned earlier that the Ephesians 5-6 instruction flows out of the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 5:18; similarly, the verses about family relationships in Colossians 3 come after instruction to “seek those things which are above (verse 1), to put on certain characteristics (verses 12-15), to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (verse 16), and to “whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (verse 17). It’s only as we’re rightly related to God, spending time in His Word, being filled with His Spirit, doing everything as unto Him and by His grace that we can be what we need to be in our marriages and homes.

This post will be also linked to “Works For Me Wednesday,” where you can find an abundance of helpful hints each week at We Are THAT family on Wednesdays, as well as  Women Living Well.

13 thoughts on “Submission in Christian Marriage

  1. I agree. And once again I’m grateful to you for such a thoughtful post (which reminds me of what my role is and how I’m supposed to be treating Jonathan and submitting to him.)

    Laughing about your Star Trek example! It’s true!!! ;D HAHA!

  2. I love your Star Trek example too. 🙂

    You have laid this out so logically and biblically. I see this post becoming a resource for many for quite awhile.

    With a different kind of husband, I can see how I would rankle under the concept of submission and be tempted to not submit, but with Jeff it is so easy. I’m glad God gave me a “bye” on this one. 😉

  3. An excellent post Barbara, and very well thought out. Your inclusion of the definition of “hupotasso” is enlightening, and tells the story in and of itself.

    Thank you for linking this post for Marriage Monday. A gem!

    Blessings, e-Mom ღ

  4. Thank you very much for your well-stated explanation of this vital subject. I married mid-life (42) and most of my friends, even Christian friends could not understand why I included “obey” in my vows. I would have never considered it NOT being in my vows. Submitting to my husband has given me so much freedom because I understand that by doing so, I am pleasing God and living under His authority. I am blessed with a very Godly Christian husband; but when we first married, he was had just begun his journey to a totally committed relationship with God. Even in the early years of our marriage, I submitted to him. He has never treated me as a doormat but as a cherished partner; valuing and considering my opinions, but taking the responsibility of making final decisions. As his relationship with The Lord has matured so have the decisions he makes for us. I hope your blog has inspired some of the women who have chosen to life outside the submissive life to trust God enough to know what is good for them and let their husbands lead. Thank you again.

  5. Beautifully written! I love the thought you pointed out that submission is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in us. Thank you!

  6. I love the word “arranging” – this post was very timely for me to read. Thank you for sharing it. I plan to read it again once or twice throughout my day today. Popping over from Living Well Wednesdays.

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  8. I submit to my husband as he does to the Lord. I think honor is an important key for both spouses. I just finished reading a great brand new book that aligns with this so well. It’s called “The Wholehearted Wife: 10 Keys to a More Loving Relationship,” by Erin, Greg and Gary Smalley. Biblical, inspirational, affirming. One of my favorite quotes is, “If you want to have a more loving relationship with your husband, remember that he’s a gift from God, a treasured possession – just as you are. As a Wholehearted wife, seek to honor him each day by cherishing him and affirming his value. Treat him like a Stradivarius!” I highly recommend it!

    • I don’t think you have to change your personality or be unsmart to be submissive. If you think of it as submitting to a boss’s leadership, it’s similar. It doesn’t mean things can’t be discussed – it just means the husband is the leader.

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