Does submission mean that the husband gets his way?

Q.  I’m about to be married and I want to follow the Bible’s instructions for wives, including submitting to my husband.  I’ve heard this means that if we can’t agree, I need to let him have his way.  Is that right?

Actually, as I understand the implications of the Bible’s full counsel to husbands and wives, the concept of submission does not apply primarily to decision-making, and it does not mean that the wife must always defer to the husband.

Here’s why I say that.  In the Genesis creation account, God makes one thing after another and declares each one “good.”  At the end, God declares the whole creation “very good.”  But then God finds something that is “not good”:  the man is alone, without the kind of “helper” he needs.  The Hebrew word often translated as “helper” in English Bibles actually refers to a strong ally who comes to someone’s side in times of crisis or need.  It most often refers to God, as in the psalm that begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

So if it had really been all right for a man to do whatever he wanted, no matter what his wife thought, there would have been no reason for God to create woman in the first place.  But it is “not good” for a man to be “alone” in this sense.

Other Scriptures support this understanding.  For example, when Paul wanted Philemon to make the important decision about whether to grant freedom to his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul wrote not just to Philemon, but also to his wife Apphia.  Paul wanted Apphia to help influence Philemon to do the right thing, as a full participant in the decision.

What, then, does submission mean?  Here’s how I explain it in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, as I’m discussing Paul’s counsel to husbands and wives in Colossians:

* * * * *

Both here in Colossians and in his very similar teaching in Ephesians, Paul stresses that the new life will be lived out essentially in basic human relationships: between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

These relationships, he explains, have become radically transformed because they’ve been carried into a new realm. People who, from an earthly perspective, are slaves and masters must recognize that together they have become fellow servants of a “Master in heaven.” Husbands and wives have become brothers and sisters in the faith who “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as Paul writes in Ephesians, just before discussing the husband-wife relationship. Children are to obey their parents because this “pleases the Lord,” as Paul writes here in Colossians, and their parents are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” as he says in Ephesians. In other words, both children and parents are now accountable to God for how they relate to one another. So the character of these relationships has changed: no longer does one person attempt to dominate the other; rather, the participants show each other respect and consideration before God.

However, the nature of these relationships remains essentially the same. One person in the relationship is still entrusted with leadership responsibility, while the other person respects that leadership and cooperates with it. The coming age has not yet fully arrived, and so these ongoing responsibilities must be honored. A situation described in 1 Timothy illustrates this principle well. Some slaves in first-century Asia Minor who were followers of Jesus thought that the arrival of the coming age meant that they no longer needed to respect their masters. But Paul explains that these slaves should actually “serve them even better,” since they are now “dear to them as fellow believers” and devoted to their welfare.

In other words, relationships of the present age are transformed by the approach of the coming age not by a change in the responsibilities that people have towards one another, but by a change in the spirit in which these responsibilities are carried out. And so Paul tells husbands not to “be harsh” with their wives, he tells parents not to “embitter” their children, and he tells masters to provide their slaves with what is “right and fair.” For their part, he tells children and slaves to “obey” their parents and masters, and he tells wives to “submit” to their husbands.

What Paul says here about obedience and submission is often misunderstood. These concepts don’t describe the process by which it’s decided what the people in a relationship will do. Specifically, they don’t imply that husbands, parents, and employers make decisions all by themselves and that wives, (growing) children, and employees have to follow them without asking any questions or providing any input. As Paul describes these relationships, it’s clear that no one has this kind of arbitrary power. Rather, obedience and submission describe a trusting, respectful attitude that leads to a response of support and cooperation.

Paul uses two different terms here, obedience and submission, and the distinction between them points to an important difference between the husband-wife relationship and the other two relationships he describes. Obedience, which Paul asks of children and slaves, implies a recognized duty to support and cooperate with another person’s leadership, while submission, which Paul asks of wives, suggests a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and who is devoted to that task.

* * * * *

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I wish you every happiness in your marriage!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Does submission mean that the husband gets his way?”

  1. Here is how I see it: Eph 5:15 to 6:9 is the pericope and in there Eph 5:22ff is the so-called household code. However, slaves are no longer legal in many countries so they cannot be a part of one’s home. This means that the household code is a 1st century household code, not a 21st century one and from there it is fairly easy to see that Eph 5:22ff is a 1st century application of the Kingdom principle of “submit to one another”. How this Kingdom principle works out in practice can differ slightly among different times and cultures, but another Kingdom principle of “the strong help the weak” also applies, so if a husband in some culture (such as the 1st century) is seen as being stronger or having more power in some way, he should use any such power to help his wife and vice versa, of course.

    Both spouses are co-leaders of the home, but there is also an aspect of “gospel first then and only then can culture be changed by moving more into the Kingdom”. So when a culture expects some things, a believer is to try to at least appear to meet those expectations as much as possible, so that the gospel message is not hindered without a reason. That is, culture change is mainly from the inside out, not externally. So we see a trend in history towards the eradication of slavery and towards spousal equality in marriage.

    1. I have no basic disagreement with what you write. But for me, the issue is not “equality” in marriage. I think that’s a given, from the time God created humanity male and female in His own image. What I’m wrestling with is the meaning of “submission.” I don’t think the entire concept is culturally limited. For example, we are still called to submit to those whom God has placed in governmental authority. But people today certainly do relate to democratically elected leaders differently from the way they related to Roman emperors in the first century. So wives can relate to husbands in many societies today far differently than they did in ancient patriarchal cultures, but I think the idea of submission still has some relevance within modern, Christian, egalitarian marriage. I don’t think it has to do with decision-making and who gets their way, however, as I’ve tried to explain here.

      1. Yes, Eph 5:21 has the Kingdom principle of “submit to one another” AKA “mutual submission”. This is one aspect of the main principle of “love one another”. So those principles are not culture bound, how they might get worked out in practice may be tied to a specific culture, in order to present the gospel in the best possible way.

        The NT versions of the household codes should be compared with the 1st century Greco-Roman culture’s version, which were based on Aristotle’s teaching that the paterfamilias (family father) ruled his wife, kids and slaves; this implied that his wife, kids and slaves obeyed him. So the contrasting verbs are rule and obey. These was enforced in Roman law and speaking directly against it was seen as seditious, for example to say a slave did not need to obey was punishable by death. (See Spartacus for why.)

        Paul puts his Kingdom spin on these Greco-Roman household codes. As is usual, one should compare and contrast the 2 versions. Paul does not say (and indeed no one in the Bible says) that the idea that a wife should obey her husband is endorsed by God. Rather, he says she should submit to her husband in Eph 5:22; but it is tightly coupled to Eph 5:21 as there is no verb in Eph 5:22 so it inherits it from Eph 5:21 according to the rules of Greek grammar, so they MUST mean the same thing, whatever it means in Eph 5:21 (where it is the case for how believers should treat each other) is what it means in Eph 5:22 (which is where Paul makes an emphasis that a (believing) wife is to submit to her husband).

  2. A reader left this comment through the “Ask A Question” portal: “Not a question but a comment on submission: Christopher, I think you’re right. We can’t fragment out the wife’s “submission” from submission of people to Christ, people to leaders,children to parents, and slaves to masters. I’d even go so far as to say that the “slavery” to which Paul speaks was transformed to what we consider “employment” but yet an analogy remains.

    When you see this practice in action, it seems to end up in denying any commands of the NT… we are always some how wiser into the ways of the kingdom than Paul!

    In the wedding ceremony, I tend to emphasize the public reading of Phil 2: 5-11 because I believe it conveys the intent of Paul but that our culture reads “submission” as a word to be thrown away.

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