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:

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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.

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