Most of us agree that you shouldn’t have to submit to an abusive husband. But what if you’re married to a good husband?
I get lots of emails from women who believe in hierarchy in marriage, where the woman submits her will to her husband and follows his decisions. Some of these women say they agree that you shouldn’t submit to an abusive man, but what if your husband is a good guy? What is wrong with submission if it’s working for you, if it’s led to a great marriage, if you’re enjoying your life?
When there’s no abuse, living this kind of life can actually be quite lovely. Some women really enjoy orienting their lives over serving others, and enjoy not having the responsibility for big decisions. That’s not a criticism–that’s just different personalities! And if you are such a woman, you may feel attacked when I (and others) say that this isn’t the model that Jesus calls us to.
I want to try to deal with this question today, because I know that I often present very bleak pictures of these sorts of hierarchical marriages. But what if you have such a marriage and it’s not bleak? Shouldn’t you get to submit if you want to?
It’s a great question, and let me try to answer it. We’ve been talking this month about keeping Christ in “Christian marriage advice”, and I want to end the series with this post, because I think it’s an important one.
Submission is good–We should all be submitting to each other.
First, let me start with the basics. We’re called to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Submission is a wonderful thing!
But we can mean different things from the word. Because we’re all to submit to one another, the word doesn’t have hierarchy connotations, as Jesus explains more fully in Matthew 20:25-28.
The point of the Christian life is about serving. It’s about a spirit of humility, as we find in Philippians 2:1-11, where we have the mind of Christ and we consider the interests of others higher than our own. We seek to serve.
This type of submission is not about submitting to someone else’s will, as much as it is submitting to someone else’s welfare. We orient our lives around helping others in humility.
You may also enjoy:
- My submission series
- Pastors: Start preaching what you’re practising (deciding things together)
- The Slippery Slope of Hierarchy Theology (by Keith)
No matter what, though, we are called to follow Jesus first.
One of my favourite illustrations of this is from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, from the book Prince Caspian. In the night, little Lucy sees Aslan the Lion (the Christ figure) walking in the distance. She senses him calling her to follow him.
She wakes up her siblings and tells them, but they won’t listen to her. They tell her she’s wrong. She imagined it. It’s silly to follow him; it makes no sense right now.
And so she cries, and feels despondent, but she doesn’t go anywhere.
Later on in the story she meets up with Aslan, and he asks her why she didn’t follow on her own, even if the others (who were all older and technically “in authority” over her) said no. Here’s the exchange:
For a time she was so happy that she did not want to speak. But Aslan spoke.
“Lucy,” he said, “we must not lie here for long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost today.”
“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. “I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so –“
From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.
“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”
The Lion looked straight into her eyes.
“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I — I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?”
Aslan said nothing.
“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right — somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy.
“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me — what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”
“Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy.
“Yes, little one,” said Aslan.
“Will the others see you too?” asked Lucy.
“Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.”
“But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy,
“It does not matter,” said Aslan.
“Now, child,” said Aslan, when they had left the trees behind them, “I will wait here. Go and wake the others and tell them to follow. If they will not, then you at least must follow me alone.”
It is a terrible thing to have to wake four people, all older than yourself and all very tired, for the purpose of telling them something they probably won’t believe and making them do something they certainly won’t like. “I mustn’t think about it, I must just do it,” thought Lucy.
I love that passage! It focuses on the importance of individual obedience to God no matter what.
Now, I actually think we would all agree that you should obey God no matter what.
But here’s my bigger concern:
If you assume that your husband will be the one to hear from God, then you may stop listening and looking for Jesus to call.
If it is not your role to hear God’s will for your family’s life, then you may stop wrestling to find it or seeking it. If the default is that you will follow your husband, and listen to what he says on big decisions, then you can stop expecting to hear from God on these things. You don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out the best course of action, because that’s for your husband to do.
And indeed, if you start listening, that may cause disharmony. What if you hear something that your husband doesn’t? But if the assumption is that you follow your husband, then there’s a chance that you can avoid disharmony, and can always be in unity.
This is a delicate thing to talk about, and I’m certainly not trying to insinuate that those who follow their husbands don’t pray or that they ignore God. But I do wonder if that relationship with God may tend to revolve around personal piety, Scripture knowledge, and worship, rather than asking big questions about one’s role in the kingdom of God or listening to what God may have you do.
Now, we need personal piety and worship and we certainly need Scriptural knowledge! These things are actually in short supply. But I do worry that we may miss the bigger picture, which is orienting our lives around what God has planned for us to do, from the beginning of the age (Ephesians 2:10).
Yes, when you’re married to a good person that you love and trust, simply following him can lead to domestic bliss.
But what if there’s a bigger story to be told with your life?
I don’t mean that you have a career or that you get a big job or start a big missions organization or something. God rejoices in small things, and God asks different things of us.
But we don’t serve Jesus by serving and following our husbands. We serve Jesus by serving Jesus–by seeking Jesus’ will first and foremost and being part of what He is doing, whatever that may look like.
It’s like the parables Jesus told about the kingdom of God:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
The real question, you see, is not whether what you’re doing leads to a good marriage. It’s how you measure success in the first place. What is the aim?
Or it’s like what Paul wrote in Philippians 3. He lists all his credentials, about how he came from a great family, and how he had the life that everyone thought was perfect. But he sets them straight:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
The point of our lives is knowing Christ. He is the center.
And we do not know Christ by following our husband’s will; we know Christ by following Christ wholeheartedly.
It’s amazing how one of the most frequent things Jesus says in the gospels is “Follow me.” I’ve been watching The Chosen lately, and that phrase is repeated over and over again–“follow me.”
We follow Christ, and we know Christ by orienting our lives around Christ.
Yes, that will mean serving those around us, including our husbands. That will mean rich and rewarding relationships on earth. That will mean taking care of our children and investing in them. But we do it all as our lives revolve with Christ as the center–not with our husbands at the center.
We remember that we are just as capable of hearing from God as our husbands, and we endeavour to listen and to seek out God’s will for our family, so that we can truly be that suitable helper for our husbands. We can be strong in the Lord when our husband is weak, just as he can be strong when we are weak. We are a team.
We are two people, running towards Christ together, side by side, holding hands, with Christ as the focus.
It is very possible to create a wonderful life for the two of you where you follow a good-willed man where he wants to go, and where you just decide not to challenge this but to embrace this. And you may have a satisfying marriage, and lovely children, and a satisfying life. But this life does not revolve around pursuing Jesus but instead around following someone else.
It is a husband-centered life, rather than a Jesus-centered life.
Let me end with my favourite verses, that I have often considered my life verses:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The big things to notice from this passage:
- We throw off BOTH the things that hinder AND the sin. We can have things holding us back from Jesus that aren’t necessarily sin–like orienting your life around another human being.
- As we live life, Jesus alone is the focus and the aim.
- As we consider Jesus and keep him as the focus, we gain strength for the unique race that he has put in front of each of us.
It is a beautiful thing to want to serve your husband, and to pursue harmony in marriage.
It absolutely is. And if you have two people of goodwill and of the right personalities (where he is more decisive and she loves serving), this can work well. This can lead to domestic bliss.
But that is not the point of our lives. Our lives are to orient around Jesus, for each and every one of us, always. We are to be part of the bigger picture of what God is doing. We are to serve Him and listen to Him.
And in so doing, we can achieve domestic bliss in a whole other way. This doesn’t replace the domestic bliss you may want; it gives it a richer purpose.
Dear sisters, keep Jesus as the focus.
Listen to Him, follow Him, keep Jesus as the main thing. This is what you were created for.
Do you agree? Is there another way to explain this better? Have you seen it where the husband being in authority works with some couples? Let’s talk in the comments!
Putting Christ Back in Christian Marriage Series
- Putting Christ Back in Christian Marriage Introductory Podcast
- 6 Ways Christian Marriage Advice Leaves Christ Out
- Why There’s More to Christian Marriage Than Just 5 Passages
- Does a “Christian” Marriage Need to Suffer to Grow?
- Do We Need to Jump out of the Boiling Water? How Advice for Christian Men Got So Off Track (from Keith)
- On Deconstructing our Faith–and Reconstructing by Holding on to what Jesus has said (from Keith)
- Is it So Wrong to Want to Submit to My Husband?
Plus please see my submission series!
Well said Sheila. I bought into this as a young bride 13 years ago. Love & Respect and most marriage books at the time further echoed this concept of being husband-centered. I grew upset a few years in to marriage that God could lead me as a single woman (my parents weren’t Christians so I didn’t have the father-led thing most purity culture taught), but thought that apparently God only wanted to talk to my husband once we were married. In truth, the Holy Spirit DID speak to me, but I would argue submission scripture back to the Holy Spirit that He’d better tell my husband then. So that was foolish…and my fault. Our marriage went from honeymooning to unhealthy to abusive. It wasn’t until I learned that I didn’t like being responsible for decisions and I was afraid to be wrong that I realized why I clung to complementarianism and those specific scriptures. My husband needed my input and occasionally asked for it, but I thought it was wrong. When I learned to listen to the Holy Spirit again, my marriage started to turn around (slowly), but I started coming alive again and healing. My husband was glad that he didn’t have such a weight to hear EVERYTHING from the Holy Spirit for the whole family.
PS- Yes to the personal piety thing. I sought the Lord over the kids and things I thought He was allowed to speak to me about. But even with the kids, I felt stuck because I needed the Holy Spirit to also tell my husband so we could be in agreement and it wouldn’t cause a fight. In reality, he needed to hear from me AND pray too. The Holy Spirit always agrees with itself so I had nothing to fear. If we disagree, then we need to spend more time praying and listening. We’ll find the answer together. Sometimes the Holy Spirit would speak to me first and sometimes to my husband first and sometimes at the same time, but early on it seemed to be one of us so we would learn to seek Him TOGETHER.
So interesting, Aspen! Thank you!
This is really interesting to me! I would never have considered myself a person who would put another person before Christ, but in fact this is exactly what I did when I followed my husband’s lead, even when the Spirit was nagging at me that this wasn’t the way. I had been taught to assume he somehow had an inside track on God’s leading for our family. I realize now, a decade and many painful years later, that he was not actually following God at all, but he used that as a way to get me to comply. What did I miss that God was calling me to?
I guess like Lewis wrote it’s not ours to know what we may have missed out on, but we can change the story now! We all have things we regret in the past (I sure do!), but I hope that going forward you can change your story! 🙂 I’m so glad this helped you today.
I believe if it’s a decision that really matters (not just something like which brand of sugar to buy – in which case, is it really worth arguing about anyway?) then if you are both believers, you can expect God to be saying the same thing to both of you anyway. So if you’re getting a mixed message, you need to work out who isn’t listening!
And if a wife just sits around and waits for her husband to tell her what God says, she misses out on the opportunity to develop her own faith. Last year, we were considering a major decision that we both needed to 100% agree on. Praying over it, I had one question outstanding, so I asked the Lord to answer that question for me. My husband, who had also been praying over our decision shared something which he felt God was saying to him but which didn’t make any sense to him – the message was the answer to MY question!
If I’d just sat around waiting for God to speak to my husband only, we would BOTH have missed out on something which encouraged us that we were making the right choice. As it was, each of us was given a ‘piece’ of the puzzle, and it was only by praying & working together that we got the right answer!
That’s so beautiful, Anon!
I love and appreciate this post SO much. In fact, I just sent it to my 17 and 22 year old daughters, because you put so well into words what I sometimes struggle to help them see.
My husband and I both grew up in fairly traditional households, though he came from one where “the man led and the woman supported” and I came from one with a VERY strong mom who was respectful, but far more “equal” in terms of role. I’m a very strong personality whose top spiritual gifting is discernment and faith, while my husband is a very strong personality who struggles a bit with his identity in Christ and battles some mental health issues.
The first five years of our marriage were EXCEEDINGLY difficult because we were fighting all the Love & Respect and FotF doctrine, while also working hard to face life “shoulder to shoulder.” It was only through an incredible Christian counselor that we finally received a mental health diagnosis that we could start to really address issues and work to move forward into a HEALTHY relationship based on teamwork and recognizing each of our strengths and how God uses those together.
I am so thankful both for our counselor AND for people like you for challenging the status quo and really working to understand context and what was really meant when the Bible was written.
I tell my kids all the time that you HAVE to understand that the Epistles were letters written to specific groups of people to address specific circumstances and that you have to understand the context of what was going on to be able to properly understand what God was trying to say through Paul. The best example I could give was that if I was writing a letter to a friend in Minnesota telling them the best time to plant their tomatoes, it wouldn’t make sense for someone in Florida to follow that same advice, but it also wouldn’t make the advice wrong. Context is crucial.
I know it can be exhausting to keep fighting the fight, and as a woman who has ended up being asked to leave churches (including ones where I led the Women’s Ministry) because I was “dangerous” and had the “Spirit of Jezebel” (i.e. I questioned things, LOL) I feel for the situation you guys are put in. All I can say is that God has ALWAYS used people like you and will continue to do so, so please don’t give up. We finally found a great church where the pastor LOVES that I question things and views my feisty personality as an asset to the Kingdom. I continue to pray you will find that as well, if only so you can experience broader support to hold you up in the tougher moments.
Have you read half the church by Carolyn Custis James
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women https://www.amazon.com/dp/0310522668/ref=cm_sw_r_apan_glt_i_PN9PRXJJTC17C4DM7T00
I think she does a really good job calling women to more. And she doesn’t get into nitty gritty oft the sides but calls all women to be who God made them to be. I love that she talks about Eden and has a claim that there was good conflict prior to the fall and that we were made to figure things out to learn to work together to fulfill the command to rule and care for the earth.
I think this also comes down to how we understand “helper’ in Genesis too. I’ve come up with a little analogy that’s still a work in progress, let’s say Gods will for the marriage is moving a table and if the man’s primary role is to lift the table then his wife is the helper that helps him lift the table. What can happen when we think that it’s man’s primary role because he makes the decision of when to lift and where to take the table is Gods will gets switched with man’s will. I believe that it’s the primary role for each spouse to lift the table. If only helper did not denote a secondary role. Then we’d just see two people lifting the table and you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s the leader who’s the helper cuz they aren’t acting out of their own will but God’s, let’s say he’s the interior designer. Two primary roles both working together.
Anyways just some thoughts and I wanted to say that you did a good job being gentle here and you handle the pushback well.
I know your comment is two months old, Dara, but I just felt the need to chip in. This isn’t really meant to debate or as a counterpoint to anything you said, but just for anyone who may need some clarification. The Hebrew word rendered ‘helper’ in many bibles has a specific meaning/usage which is lost in translation in English. ‘Helper’ in Genesis 2:18,20 is ‘ezer’ in the original Hebrew, which is a noun used solely of an equal or superior who is voluntarily providing critical aid. It is never used to refer to mundane assistance which may be supplied by a subordinate.
God is not implying in this passage what many Christians seem to think. The ‘helper’ God is speaking of here could perhaps better be translated as ‘succorer’ or even ‘rescuer’, but really no English word fully grasps its meaning. What’s clear is that Adam had a critical and deep need for a corresponding companion to bring him relief from his loneliness. That’s what the word ‘ezer’ properly signifies in this context. It does not signify that Adam needed a helper to wash the dirty dishes while he went off to work (lol), or even that he needed a mate to bear and raise his children. It goes far deeper than that.
Stunningly, where it appears in other Old Testament passages, the word ‘ezer’ and its grammatical variants is most often used to refer to God or to His divine help. For instance, in Psalm 89:19 (ESV) it says:
“Of old you spoke in a vision to your godly one, and said:
‘I have granted help [ezer] to one who is mighty;
I have exalted one chosen from the people.'”
Does this sort of help, which is granted(!) graciously to the psalmist by the Almighty himself, sound like the sort which a servant provides by order of a master? Hardly! God is not our assistant or our servant. Still less is He our subordinate. This applies to Eve as well.
To expand on this point, many would then argue that a few passages further disrupts the above conclusion, because after the Fall, God tells Eve that “[your husband] shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). But this is not a prescription for an ideal life. It is a curse and a prediction of sorrow, like the prediction God gives Adam in verses 17-19. We cannot rightly conclude that God is giving Eve some sort of manual for marital bliss, while simultaneously concluding that God is telling Adam in the next breath about the terrible result of his sin. Either the hierarchy of husband over wife AND the curse of the ground are subversions of the natural order, or they are both good things prescribed by God. The latter option is obviously nonsense, so it must be the former. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too when it comes to this passage.
We can surmise from all this that the model of master/leader (husband) and servant/follower (wife) some Christians draw from Genesis 2-3 is incorrect. Men and women are equal under God’s authority. One sex is not the helper OF the other. Both are succor TO each other. The spousal relationship was meant to be reciprocal and correspondent, not hierarchical.
Here are some bad effects I noticed from submitting even to a well-intentioned husband:
1) I discounted my own feelings/ideas/perspective, not even bothering to bring them up, resulting in him flying blind, not knowing what I wanted or really getting my independent perspective because I was so keyed into supporting whatever it was he wanted. This led to both a lot of misunderstandings and unhealthy communication and to poor decisions.
2) I was not alert to situations in which he really shouldn’t have been making the decisions, due to trauma triggers or brain injury. The default was so ingrained in me that I was not prepared for exceptions.
3) I was completely unprepared for brain and other physical injuries to place me in the position of needing to be the sole breadwinner, run the business, make the final call in tough situations, etc. I know how to be an amazing support person; I don’t know how to be a leader. But sometimes that’s needed.
I am still not sure how to acquire the vision and leadership skills I need, I feel woefully unprepared for my current life every day of it.
Prayers, Eliza! That the Spirit would embolden, empower, & strengthen you with all the skills that you need & recognize people who can come alongside your family & the business. Thank you LORD that you comfort & counsel Eliza even now & are there with her & her family in the every day of it. You can take the fustration, hurt, & confusion. God you are her strength & provision, give her peace as you direct her and even nudge her (and all of us) out of the comfort zones. So many verses of promise that You will not leave us or forsake us. Let Your will be done, even through us. Amen.
Husband should not have to carry the mental load alone either. Teamwork makes the dream work!
3 words: Preach it, sister! Or amen, amen, and amen!
“Submission Is Good — We should all be submitting to each other.”
This is so true.
Back in the day when I spent more time arguing with people about the comp/egal debate, I actually had a guy tell me that I had a problem with submission.
But I pointed out to him that I didn’t. I understood submitting to one another and practiced it all the time, joyfully.
I further pointed out to him that HE was the one who had a problem with submission because he believed that is was not for him when quite clearly it is for him because it is for everyone. It’s not the one-sided thing off-balanced teachers make it into.
This stumped him for a little bit. But I’m sure he got over it.
This was amazing to read! I grew up in a household where my mom was basically our oldest sibling. She was treated basically like a child. My dad would come home from work and yell at her and ask what she had been doing (I was the oldest of 5, mind you), would pout at if dinner wasn’t ready, and much more. I remember waiting outside the house for him to get done yelling at her about her spending “too much on groceries.” My mom would even wake him up for work when he worked night shift and if she wasn’t home by the time he had to wake up and had dinner on the table, he’d get mad.
My dad was a very demanding person, obviously. He definitely was a good dad and husband but he had his faults.
We as kids questioned my mom about why she kept up with his behavior and she’d tell us that she needed to submit to him because he was her husband.
I was also told that God created me a female so I was designed to “naturally want to submit to a man” and that “I just can’t help but to submit.”
In my adulthood, my dad begged me to be a stay at home mom just like my mom was and has always wondered why I don’t want to do that. As if it’s that difficult to figure out!
I’ve tried telling my mom that my dad is abusive and she either scolds me and says I just make him sound bad or she’ll say that anyone who tells me that is just ridiculous and to be thankful that I have a good dad.
My husband and I see ourselves as equals and he loves me truly like Christ loves the church. I have a say in things. He doesn’t yell at me. He wakes himself up when he’s going to work and is understanding and supportive. I find it easy to want to serve him because he serves me first.
I loved reading this!
I’m so glad you broke the cycle, Elizabeth! That’s wonderful. I hope your younger siblings are doing okay too. What a horrible thing to grow up with. I hope your mom eventually sees an dunderstands her worth.
Do you have any book suggestions for women who struggle with being controlling? You’ve mentioned the positives in harmful books can be found in other books, and I was wondering if you could share them. I can find plenty of material for meek people to be bolder but not as many for those who need to learn humility in marriage.
This is not a gender issue.
I think most books actually already teach that! That’s what’s so unbalanced. It’s all about teaching women to be meek, but not about teaching us to seek out God’s will! But I don’t think those books are particularly helpful. I’d just focus on learning about Jesus!
You are correct that many Christian books talking about women needing to submit and men needing to lead. However, the wider culture is saying the opposite.
I think that a lot of the confusion is that when you have two diametrically opposing messages, it becomes difficult knowing which one to follow. Especially when neither view feels right.
You often talk about how marriages and relationships are effected by Evangelical teachings, however, it might be helpful to try and address toxic messages that we get from wider culture as well.
My specific calling is to look at the harm evanglical messages have done. That is what I have studied; we haven’t done any research on the harm done by the wider culture’s messages, because there is lots of research about that in academic literature. If people want to know the harm that the wider culture has done, that is what every other marriage book teaches (although they often take the wrong messages from the literature, if they look at the actual studies at all). And those books haven’t worked. So it’s time for a different perspective. That’s what makes me unique.
I would not be asking for you to do new research into wider culture. If there is research available, giving a compare and contrast of marriage issues inside and outside of the Church could be helpful to driving home some of your points.
I do not completely disagree with what you are saying here but I’m curious how you feel about Ephesians 5:22 in reference to this post.
Eph 5:22 – Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
Eph 5:23 – 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.
Eph 5:24 – Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
What is your take on these verses as far as submitting to your husband is concerned?
The first thing to understand is that in the Greek, NONE of those verbs are in command form, while most verbs addressed to men are. They were more like, “this is what is already happening”, or women were already submitting (because in Roman times they didn’t have a choice).
But more importantly, the verb “submit” isn’t even in verse 22. It’s in verse 21 (Submit to one another…”) and then grammatically, the verb is left out of verse 22 because it takes its meaning from verse 21. So wives submit to husbands IN THE SAME WAY that we all submit to one another.
That means that submission is about serving in humility, as Jesus talked about in Matthew 20:25-28 and as is recorded in Philippians 2:1-11. It isn’t about leadership or authority or decision-making. It’s about serving. That was the point of the passage.
I’d encourage you to check out Marg Mowczko’s stuff for more!
But consider Eph 5:24 – Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
How could this be saying, “Here’s how things are currently in the culture and do it the way the culture is doing it”? When are we encouraged to do what the culture is doing if it’s not ultimately what God desires for us? Paul is saying wives should submit to their husbands “as the church is subject unto Christ” not “as you are currently doing it in Roman culture.” All the rest of ch.5 is exhortation on how the Ephesians SHOULD live, not how they’re currently living. Why would this part be any different?
And this is obviously not a “submit to each other” situation with such direct language as “head of the wife” in v.23. We can’t both be the head!
The premise of your post assumes a healthy marriage, which includes a wife that doesn’t treat herself as a mindless doormat. You’re not describing submission in a healthy marriage if this is how the wife is blindly submitting. I agree with you that a church that teaches this as submission is as problematic as a church that teaches a husband to use it as a weapon. However, we can’t ignore that the Bible blatantly assigns the husband as head of the wife in this passage, and a church that tries to wriggle out of culturally difficult commands is just as problematic.
You can be a discerning Christian wife, reading the Bible for yourself, properly setting Christ ahead of your husband, giving input where needed and respectfully voicing objections…and still submit to your husband’s leadership and ultimate decision-making.
Yes, we seek to find a compromise and reach a point of agreement. Part of that v.21 “submit to one another” means the husband doesn’t use the submission card as a weapon to get his way. But it does mean that if we can’t agree, and my husband has reasonably listened to my point of view and taken it into account and remains unchanged, that I choose to yield to him. It’s a hierarchy that promotes a peaceful resolution in a healthy marriage, rather than a power play (as it’s abused in an unhealthy marriage).
Ideally the “submit to one another” should be the rule of thumb such that disagreements naturally work each other out without this hierarchy coming into play. If you are in a truly healthy marriage and seeking to understand what the Bible means by wifely submission, this will look, in practice, like the egalitarian model you espouse, while still ultimately recognizing the husband as head of the wife.
The key, Megan, is who you are following. I will always only follow Jesus. And my husband will always only follow Jesus. And we will do it together, because we have a Jesus-centered marriage rather than a husband-centered marriage.
For more on the Greek in Ephesians 5, I encourage people to look at Cynthia Westfall’s book Paul and Gender, or turn to Marg Mowczko.
Submitting to your husband as your head is not the same as following him. We are called to submit to legal authorities. That does not mean we follow them. I can follow only Jesus while still submitting to my husband. In fact, following Jesus MEANS submitting to my husband, because that’s what Ephesians tells us. Greek verb translations in vs.22 aside, you can’t ignore that vs.23-24 clearly put the husband as head of the wife *AS Christ is head of the church* which means God is saying that this is how it should be.
The husband is the head, not the center. He is called to lead his wife, not be worshipped by her. Jesus is the center of the marriage. Jesus is the ultimate head of both spouses and the wife is not called to submit if her husband is leading her in a way that violates God’s law. But the husband IS set as the earthly head of his wife.
Ok, I looked through Marg Mowczko posts on this passage and I understand your/her argument now. I just disagree on that interpretation of the passage. 🙂
But if first-century Greco-Roman husbands and wives would not have understood the passage to mean “Husbands, you are the boss of your wives,” then WE should not be understanding it that way either.
Again, Megan, head has no connotation of leading in the Greek. It’s about unity. It’s calling men to be unified with their wives and consider them the way they consider themselves.
It is true that the verbs in Eph 5:22-24 are not in command (imperative form), but that doesn’t mean that a command is not implied. The sentence, “The Bible teaches that we are to love God with all our hearts” has one verb in statement form (indicative) — “teaches” — and one verb in an indirect statement (infinitive form) — “to love” — but the sense of obligation is clear nonetheless. So the grammatical analysis does not do away with the sense of obligation (or even command). In fact. these verses are part of the household code (Eph 5:22-6:9) which, in one way or another, specifies mutual obligations of wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, masters. The clear understanding is that Paul is teaching people in each role/situation how they are to behave. The exact grammatical form is less important than the semantic intention — and there really is no doubt about that.
As for the verb “submit”, it is true that it is left out of v.22 (though it is clearly implied, as Marge Mowczko also shows). Paul’s intention, though, is unambiguous since he states in vv.23–24 “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (24) Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (ESV). Here the word “submit” is used explicitly of the church’s relationship to Christ, although the second “submit” in the ESV is only implied in the Greek, not stated explicitly. Recognizing that obligations can be stated without imperatives (command-form verbs), there really is no getting away from the obligation to submit — as Marge Mowczko also states: “The fact remains that if there was no verb in the original text of Ephesians 5:22-24, which is likely, Paul didn’t directly tell wives to submit to their husbands even though the meaning is unmistakably implied” (https://margmowczko.com/grammar-ephesians-521-22-missing-verb/)
It is absolutely true and critically important to understand the mutual submission of Eph 5:21, the servanthood of Matt 20:28 and the preferring of one another’s interests of Phil 2. But it is also inescapably true that the household code of Eph 5:22-6:9 specifies different role-obligations for the different people addressed. If that were not the case, we would have to assume that parents obey their children in the same way that children obey their parents; that masters submit to their slaves the same way that slaves submit to their masters.
Paul most certainly did not tell husbands to “rule over” their wives — or any such thing. He transformed headship according to the example of Christ to be loving, caring and selfless, rather than self-centred and status-based. I agree completely that Paul’s instructions regarding submission in Eph 5:22-24 allow no place for self-centred, authoritarian leadership on the part of a husband. But our basis for rejecting that false idea of leadership is the Scripture — and the very same Scripture calls for a wife to submit. Try as we might – and many people have gone to great lengths trying – we cannot remove those words from Scripture. As followers of Jesus we need to pray for grace to understand how they fit within a biblical model of headship and submission. This is by no means easy or self-evident, but ultimately we have no choice. We have to work together with our different perspectives to help each other understand the heart and mind of Christ. As a theologian of long ago put it, “There is always more light to break forth from God’s holy word!”
Bruce, there is so much more to it. Paul was describing household codes at the time, and showing us how to redeem them. And again, head did not have a connotation of authority. The words that he said for children were very different than for married poeple.
But again, I’ll just point you to 1 Timothy 2:5. We have no other mediator but Christ. Women are to follow Christ. And two people, with the Holy Spirit, do not need a tie breaker. If they do, they’re doing something wrong. Why would God set up a whole system of marriage which is based on the fact that the two will NOT be able to agree in the Holy Spirit? It makes no logical sense (besides not making sense according to the Greek).
As for me, I will serve the Lord. Alongside my husband. And it works very, very well!
If ‘submit’ means to show deference to, why shouldn’t parents sometimes submit to their children and masters to their servants? If we are all one in Christ, as Jesus and Paul say over and over and over, why shouldn’t we all ‘see’ each other and really listen to each other and consider each other’s needs and ideas in love? Submission is always a voluntary act of love, yet most ‘leaders’ see it as a reason to ‘take control over’ another, to coerce them to obey. There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of God. The idea of empire building is of the world. We are to live in Shalom, which is a very right-side-up way of life, not to be compared to that of the world. At all. Back to Jesus, “The Gentiles lord it over each other but with you it shall not be so, but in love serve one another.” Is that really so hard to understand?
I think it can be hard to understand when some people see Christianity as a way to get power over others, and aren’t really seeking Jesus’ heart.
Your explanation here is great!
Sometimes biblical obedience is a way to shun responsibilities, sometimes (and that’s worse), it backs abuse.
And Jesus NEVER calls us to endure abuse. But like Lucy in this beautiful quote, it’s really, really hard to get out of abusive situations. It takes God’s strength and true obedience to Him.
Even when everything seems okay, God did not make us full, with brains and a conscience and a free will, only to blindly follow a human being who is NOT Him.
I did not bought into this within my marriage because it previously took me years to start following Jesus BEFORE obedience to my parents.
By the way, have you adressed that issue ? I know several young adults from traditionnal religious background who let their parents basically decide every big life step for them, including who they marry, what job they do and (most troublesome in my opinion), how they manage their marriage and raise their kids. They argue the 4th commandement (as I used to), but don’t see how Jesus is calling us to put HIM before everything else. Including family.
And that weights a lot on marriages (despite jokes on in-laws or over-protective mothers …)
Like so many, I grew up, came to faith, and was formed as an adult in complementarian/hierarchicalist communities. Thankfully, I have since left that theology and way of approaching relationships. I am naturally a decisive person (Enneagram Eight), yet sometimes I catch myself pining for this sort of relationship. But at some point I realized that the part of me that wants a relationship where I don’t have to contribute financially, where I can sit back and let someone else take responsibility for all the major issues, where I am pursued unilaterally and “rescued” (to borrow a term form Captivating), is the same part of me that wants a parent and not a partner. It is the child part of me that is still immature and wounded, and it is the reason I go to therapy instead of hiding my wounds and weaknesses under the fig leaves of female-only submission.
Marital bliss isn’t the point, you’re right. Following Christ is everything! This is actually broken down in Ephesians 5 and 6. Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t have the word submit in the original at all, and it definitely does not say, “wives submit to your husbands authority”. This wouldn’t make sense anyway, or it would make verse 21 false, where it says “submit to each other”. Can’t have it both ways.
If verse 22 in English started out, “So for example, this is what submitting to each other looks like: between husband and wife;…” I believe it would be more accurate. Because it goes on and into chapter 6 to further illustrate it through parents and children, and then servants and masters. You can tell, because when it sums up how servants are to treat masters, it then says “Masters, treat your servants THE SAME WAY”! What? Yeah, go read it and reread it. It’s great! It might not make sense by our earthly standards, but it does when we see that it’s all talking about how to “submit to each other out of reverence for Christ”. Christ is central!
Yes, exactly! The whole passage is about how wives submit and then how husbands submit.
I agree that “submit one to another” already includes the entire congregation but as we keep reading the the wife is given an extension on her submission, “as the church is subject to Christ.” Just like a husband is included in “love one another” but in Eph. 25 a husbands is given an extension on his love, “as Christ loved the church and gave his body for it.” So as I understand it, there is a greater degree of submission as applied to wives to their husbands just as there is a greater degree of sacrificial love required of a husband for his wife. Why? Because marriage is meant to represent our Spiritual relationship. God is love. We are obedient to Christ. Christ doesn’t submit to us but he does lay down his life for us.
In my experience people in healthy, functioning marriages who SAY the husband is the authority don’t actually live that way. There is a big disconnect between what they say they believe and how their marriage functions. Actual conversation I had with a friend:
Her- I definitely believe the husband is the head/leader.
Me- what happens when you don’t agree on something?
Her- we talk and pray about it until we do agree.
Me- *so confused*
This is definitely what happens, and this is definitely what our study found. The vast majority of people who say they believe in the husband having authority actually function as egalitarians.
But they can’t let go of the ‘belief’ because they have been taught that is God’s way and anything else is sin. So sad.
I understand what you are saying, but what if submitting to my husband is, in fact, serving Jesus? What if, by leaving the bigger decisions to my husband, I have more time to focus on Jesus? So much of the Bible can be interpreted multiple ways. How do I know this is not my role…that is not is not the path God has laid out before me?
Because Shannon, if you’re going to listen to Jesus, then He may have something to say to you about the big things in your life!
We could compare marriage technique strengths and weaknesses all day but an important question is “what is marriage supposed to be like.” According to the Bible it is supposed to be a picture of Christ and the Church. We are to be a re-telling of the willing bride following the lead of the self-sacrificing bridegroom.
So are people who preach “submission” while displaying an overlord and his minion doing a good job with that? No, we agree on that. But a wife, if she was really embracing her calling which would include praying and seeking, opening her mouth with wisdom and also saying she will go the direction her husband chooses… how could we say she is NOT following what Christ wants from her marriage? She is doing a better job, IMO, of demonstrating the “take up your cross” kind of abandonment to our own will that Christians are called to than equal submission, equal leadership marriage. Egalitarian couples may still be a picture of the unity of Christ and the Church that believers are also called to picture but, by not acknowledging the “church is subject to Christ” aspect, they do not fully demonstrate marriage as it’s called to be. (Eph. 5:23-33)
Again, though, Leila, what you’re describing is a husband-centered marriage. You’re asking her to go the way the husband chooses. I believe that we are all to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice, and I think a better picture is two people serving one another, seeking where God chooses them to go. It’s the difference between whose will you are seeking. She is to follow God always. We all are. And when two people are in submission to one another following God, we’re going to have great unity (which is the point of the passage).
Sheila, I appreciate so much of what you have to say. At the same time I feel like you’re missing the point of what several of your commenters are trying to communicate. It seems like you have set up what I think is a false dichotomy – that a wife is choosing either to follow Jesus or follow her husband. While clearly that’s sometimes the case, I think there are lots of Christians who believe – based on a solid understanding of scripture – that both can be true: accepting Ephesians 5:21-33 at face value and following Jesus together in living it out. From what I can see, the interpretation you’re accepting is not sound and is not the result of a consistent Biblical hermeneutic. And it’s very possible for a husband and wife to believe they are equals, to treat each other as equals, and to fulfill different roles in a marriage. A complementarian understanding doesn’t require the wife to follow her husband instead of Jesus – that’s just not in the scripture. They follow Jesus together as equals with different roles and responsibilities in the marriage. Personally, I view my wife as equal in every respect, and we make decisions together. The only time I would assume the final decision-maker role would be if a decision had to be made and we weren’t in agreement. At that point we both agree that it is my responsibility to decide. I may decide to go with her thoughts instead of mine, or mine instead of hers. Whatever that final decision is it becomes OUR decision because we are one. And if a decision can wait we always keep seeking the Lord together. And to suggest that my wife is following me instead of Jesus just doesn’t match reality. And we’re
Not just saying we’re complementarian while living like egalitarians – we’re doing our best to live out a Biblically complementarian understanding of marriage.
Thanks again for so much of what you bring to the issues we face in marriage. Since I’m writing with my thumbs on my phone I may have failed to be as clear as I’d like. Thanks ahead of time for your patience with a somewhat disorganized presentation.
What I’d say is just this: I have heard from a ton of complementarians that the only time that they would make the final decision is if they just didn’t agree.
And yet when I talk to egalitarian couples, that scenario just doesn’t come up. If they don’t agree, they work on it. They pray about it. They seek counsel. They figure it out.
So I know what you’re saying, I do. Really. But I can also say that perhaps having someone who does make the final decision does give you a shortcut that isn’t the best? Because if the aim is to hear from God, why would God want you to shortcut that?
I also want to say that the idea of different “roles” really doesn’t make sense. When we’re looking at those who believe in gender roles, there is nothing that a woman can do that a man can’t do, but there are things that men can do that women can’t do (according to this different roles theology). So it’s really not about different roles, since she doesn’t have a different role. It’s about restricting women from doing some things. Generally, when you allow one person to do more things than you allow another person to do, that’s not called treated them equally.
Again, I do think your interpretation of Scripture is the most common one. I just think that some of the arguments that are often used don’t really make a lot of sense. They sound good, but when you actually break it down, it doesn’t really work.
And, again, multiple research studies have shown that the healthiest marriages are when both people share power and make decisions together, not where one person has the final say. I believe that many, many good-willed couples function well the way you’re saying. But I also think it’s ripe for abuse, and it does cause harm in many couples, and for that reason alone it’s worth really asking if the interpretation is correct.
And the problem with this tie-breaker definition is that it means that I have never submitted to my husband even ONCE in 16+ years, because we have never once needed a tie-breaker. We always sought unity and didn’t move forward until we were unified.
Does that make me an unsubmissive wife then if I never ever have the occasion to do it? Clearly submission must mean more than that.
This tie-breaker model is not at all healthy if it comes comes with the expectation of division and/or at the expense of unity.
Exactly, Kay! I often say that if the definition of submission is letting him make the decision when we disagree, then God must be happy when we disagree because we have a chance to submit! How does that make any sense? it makes it sound like God is happier with disagreement than He is with two people working things out together through prayer and talking and compromise and humility.
In general, the more I unpack my religious trauma, especially around hierarchy of genders, the more it becomes clear that every single one of my **attempts** at submission actually harmed both the unity and intimacy of our marriage. I thought I was doing what was right by keeping quiet about my questions and deferring to his desires even when mine were the opposite, and it turns out that it led to feelings of betrayal from my husband because he felt like I was withholding those parts of myself from him. It will take us years to recover from this.
If your expectations of submission harm unity and intimacy, it’s not healthy. And I can’t imagine any hierarchy that doesn’t harm both of those things.
This is super interesting, Kay (but I’m sorry you walked through it!). Yes, it’s just an unhealthy dynamic all round.
We were talking the other day about, “What is legalism?” It seems to me that what many evangelical preachers basically say is, “Now I want you to know that we are not under the law, so with that said, here is another law: you must, you should, you are sinning if you don’t………..” Sometimes I think I’d rather follow the OT laws than all that.
At least with the OT law everyone acknowledged it was laws. Today they do the same thing, but say that it’s all “grace.”
Inevitably whenever these conversations come up, there’s always someone that says “well, what if we need a tiebreaker?“ my answer to this would be that if you are both truly Christ followers, then he would pray about the decision, and the Holy Spirit will lead both of you to the SAME decision. The only time this wouldn’t work is if someone is being prideful, but not admitting it, and not truly listening to what the spirit is directing. There is zero reason for a “tie-breaking decision“.
The other thing I always hear in these conversations is how men have authority in the Ephesians passages because of the word “head“. However, if you read the Ephesians 5 verses, the example that is given for how Jesus is head of the church that the husband is to emulate is through unconditional and sacrificial love. That’s it. There is no mention of authority or leadership in those verses at all.
I meant *they* would pray about the decision!!!!
I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek but whenever these people start going off about submission and authority and so on, I just think… You know, there’s a community for people who enjoy that kind of thing in a relationship. And if you’re both into that, more power to you, I guess.
But… stop preaching your kink, okay? XD