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What Does Submission Look Like in Marriage?

Some time ago I wrote a post about what men can do to get their wives to submit to their authority. It turned out to be a very popular post! It also sparked some questions which I didn’t deal with in that post but are worth answering.

The main question is this:

What does submission look like in marriage?

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Unfortunately many wives are scared of this topic because they either have a false understanding of what submission is or they have experienced a man who did not understand his role as a husband.

Misconceptions about submission

Let’s first look at some misconceptions of what submission is.

  • Blind obedience to 100% of everything the husband demands
  • The loss of the wife’s own will
  • The right for the husband to demand submission
  • That the wife is less significant than her husband
  • That all decisions must be made by the husband
  • The husband is always right
  • The husband is smarter, wiser or in some way superior
  • The wife must do things that violate her conscience if her husband requests it

A shocking truth

There’s a lot of talk about submission that often overlooks the most important resource; God’s Word!

Turns out that Scripture may not say what everyone assumes. The main passage concerning submission is in Ephesians 5:22-24

Let’s start with verse 22

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. Eph 5:22

Now, here’s the shocking truth…

The word “submit” isn’t really in this verse. The original simply reads “and wives to their own husbands as to the Lord”

It isn’t in verse 22 because it’s assumed from verse 21.

…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Eph 5:21

Paul is calling everyone in the church to submit to each other! That means submission isn’t something only wives are called to do, men are called to submission also!

An attitude

Above all submission is an attitude that everyone who belongs to Christ is called to exhibit in their relationships. It is an attitude that flows from our understanding of all Christ has done for us.

It’s an attitude that says,

“I’m here to serve you because Jesus came and served me.”

It doesn’t demand the obedience of others but rather lovingly exhorts and humbly corrects.

It influences others more through quiet acts of service than it does through public demonstrations of authority.

It prefers to help others in their need rather than demanding that others come help me in my “need”.

It is more interested in encouraging others than honoring self.

It willingly chooses to put aside personal aspirations in order to pursue the good of others.

The wife’s role

While submission ought to be the attitude of every Christian, there is a special exhortation to wives.

Check out the following verses.

…and so train the young women to love their husbands and children to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.  Titus 2:4-5

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives. 1 Peter 3:1

The emphasis on submission given to wives is related to their special role in marriage as a “helper” Genesis 2:18.

By nature a helper needs to be submissive to the person they’re helping otherwise they would not be very good helper!  This submission should, however be voluntarily done from the heart out of love for the person being helped.

The husband’s role

As a husband every time I look at what I’ve been called to I’m humbled!

Check out these verses for husbands.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. 1Pe 3:7

Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Col 3:19

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Eph 5:25

Here’s a good way to think about it!

  • Wives are called to submit to their husbands.
  • Husbands are called to give up everything and be willing to die for their wives.

It could be argued that dying for another person is the greatest act of submission. Either way, husbands are never called to demand the submission of their wives but rather to understand them, treat them kindly and to love them as Christ loved the church.

Question: How would you define submission in marriage? What does it look like for the wife? What does it look like for the husband?

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I am a pastor, missionary, and preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Ukraine since 2007. God blessed me with a wonderful wife and 5 amazing children! My greatest passion is to teach, encourage, and exhort others to turn to Jesus, who is Savior, Lord, and God!

  • Some of this is cultural (not sure about Ukrainian culture concerning marriage) I’m sure, but my idea of submission for husband and wife is mutual submission. I think the main question to ask is “What can I do to meet my wife’s/husband’s needs at this moment? What does he/she need from me?” Then try to meet it. While she defers to me on many things, I would be absolutely foolish to “render decisions from on high” without talking with her about them. i also think it is good to talk about dying for my wife (and I would), but I want to also live for her.

    • Bill, that’s a great question for both spouses to ask. You’re right submission is really a two way street!

  • I posted last week on this very topic!
    Except mine was focused on how WRONG my view of marriage was. Thankfully God helped me understand that true submission isn’t giving up anything, instead it’s gaining a husband who loves me more than himself!
    It’s been an amazing journey. I”m so thankful God gave me a patient husband.

    God’s way doesn’t make sense in our worldly culture, but once we learn to submit to God, submitting to our spouses becomes easier and it brings true joy! From a worldly perspective it doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does!

    • I like how you put it, “true submission isn’t about giving up anything, instead it’s gaining a husband who love me”. Well said!

  • I love this Caleb, such a balanced way to look at submission! Sometimes (and speaking from experience as a Christian wife!) we can go off on either end – passivity or rebellion.

    one thing I’d add – I am a bit disturbed by some things I’ve been reading lately, suggesting that real submission means a wife must pursue agreement on every matter, that deferring to her husband when both of them are unable to agree on something equates to not living up to her role as a help-meet. Personally I think that submission is yielding of one’s will – which means allowing her husband to make a final call when agreement can’t be reached. I think that’s where trust in God comes in 🙂

    • Ngina, I think if submission is an attitude then there doesn’t always have to be complete agreement. Yes, agreement is nice, but in reality you just can’t have it 100% of the time. However, submission and love cover over those things and give the relationship the proper grace and mercy to move forward even if there is not complete agreement.

  • Great post, Caleb. You handled the issue of submission very biblically and clearly. Well done! I think you nailed it: Submission means serving your spouse like Christ.

    • Thanks Dave! Blessings to you!

  • Great post and topic! Whenever I read the Eph. 5L25 passage : “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” It always challenges me to treat my wife better and to love her deeper. I fall short of that a lot but strive to be a husband who serves, adds values, and fully loves my wife.

    • Wow, isn’t that true Dan?! As husbands we have such a great responsibility to love unselfishly!

  • …I think my original is different than your original for Ephesians 5:22
    Mine says (mechanical translation):

    The women to-the own men be-ye-being-subject as to-the master.

    Which would translate to something like Wives, to your husbands be subject as to the Lord. But that word hupotassesthe (where we get submit from) is definitely in the verse…at least in my Bible…

    • Jay, kudos on checking up on the original language! Yes, you’re right, in some of the Greek manuscripts, like Aleph, the word “hupotasses” was inserted. However in earlier manuscripts that were more recently discovered the word is absent and most contemporary Greek scholars agree that the word does not belong in verse 22.

  • Floyd

    Wonderful explanation and defense of God’s truth. I appreciate the example you used about men laying down their lives for the wives and the picture is what defines as “no greater love.” Nice job and reminder. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day and take our spouses for granted. Had no idea of your ministry. May God bless and keep you, brother.

    • Thanks floyd! Blessings to you!

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  • I think it’s helpful to point out that God himself submits: The Spirit submits to the Father and the Son, and the Son submits to the Father. So it’s obviously not a value/capability thing. It’s all about role.
    But I think if I had to define submission it would be declining the chance to lead and take initiative in key matters and instead lining up under your husband.

    • Loren, the Trinity is a good example of submission. I agree with your definition of submission but I also think that submission looks different in different relationships.

  • The Irish Atheist

    There’s only one problem that renders this entire post invalid. When the command is given that women should ‘likewise,’ submit to their husbands, you’ve completely ignored what the world ‘likewise’ was referring to. It references the previous passage where slaves were commanded to submit to their masters. And in the same way, women are expected to submit to their husbands. Not similarly. Not in a complimentary fashion. Not in a balancing duet. But in the same way that slaves serve the man who bought them, ripped them from their families, force them into servitude, bide no quarrel, and hold their very lives in the palm of his hand.

    If that’s your definition of marriage, I hope you have a good marriage counselor. If it’s not, well then, you’re not following the Bible as closely as you think you are.

    • Thanks for pointing that out Irish Atheist. I’m glad that you have taken time to read God’s Word and study it for yourself. I think you’re referring to the passage in I Pet 3:1 Where Peter says “Likewise wives be subject to your own husbands”

      In fact the idea of being subject comes up even before Peter mentions slaves and masters in 2:18. If you look back a little further to 2:13 you will see that Peter talks first about everyone being subject to the authorities over them. In all cases the point is to win those in authority through kindness and good deeds.

      So you’re right, there is a correlation between I Pet 2:18 and I Pet 3:1. In fact it’s a very high calling that God has called all his people to and the greatest example of this kind of loving submission can only be found in Jesus Christ who submitted Himself to death for our sake!

  • Von Dodds

    I have been married for 23 years my husband and I are partners. I think that the word submission is the problem. My husband does not always lead I do not always follow we know what each others strengths are and what the other weakness are. . I have never felt I needed to Submit to my husband in anyway. We discuss and come to a consensus baring that depending on what the situation is about the kids or home I make the final decision.
    The problem I have seen in working with victims of domestic abuse is that many men think of submission as total control. I have heard many men use these passages to justify why they are the “master” of their family and their wives and children must submit to their will in all things.
    This is where I think the problem come from you have people who truly understand what a marraige is about mutual respect, care, understanding and love and those who choice to twist it into something where one party is a master and one is a slave.

    • Von I think your evaluation of the problem is right on. The Bible never calls men to exert total control over their wives. They are called to lead, love, and serve their wives, they are never called to force them into submission.

      • CrystalP73

        Lead them to what exactly? God? As if a husband is so superior, that he can bypass Jesus Christ himself? Husbands cannot bring their wives to God, only Jesus can bring mankind to God. So, I ask again, lead them to what?

        • Kamella Johnson

          I think it is like two people on a journey on a narrow path through a jungle so they have to go single file. The husband takes the lead and puts himself in danger of traps and other things. The wife submitting is like if he says “don’t step there” she can assume he is only trying to protect her and doesn’t step there. And if the husband gets caught in a trap she is there to help him out so she doesn’t have to try and get through alone

  • Emily Nielsen Jones

    all of these gender codes you are advocating trace their root back to ancient gender norms of male honor and female shame/uncleanliness that arose along side of slavery. please check in with your heart, your deepest human capacity for empathy, your highest and best ideals as humans, and the deeper trajectory of the Bible which has been misused to advocate all sorts of social stratifications but which is on the side of human equality, justice and responsible freedom. Please look at the harsh humanitarian realities of our world and let these ancient gender codes become a thing of the past. They are not the gospel and they are at the root of gender injustice which so many are working so hard to uproot. Plain and simple, this is not ok and this is not a positive Christian witness in our world today. peace be with you and may God’s spirit open your mind and heart to a more just and compassionate way of being male and female. Amen

    • Sorry, I’m unclear what you mean by “gender codes” can you explain?

      • Emily Nielsen Jones

        gender codes are basically the social norms that culture creates around how we are to live out being male and female in our world. it encompasses all of the “roles” that evangelicals continue to package and repackage as “Gospel” but in fact arose in the culture of male honor (and female subjugation/shame) prevalent in the ancient world that arose along side of slavery. gender codes are created and are not fixed but have been and need to be changed for the betterment of society.

        • Best_Reviews

          Gender codes will be reversed the day your husband delivers a baby and starts to lactate. Let us know when he begins menstruating.

  • CrystalP73

    Women do not need to be led. Women are not an inferior sex. Women do not
    need to be put in an inferior position of submission to achieve a
    happy, fruitful marriage. This archaic thought process is detrimental to
    healthy relationships. It assumes men are the superior, and I can most
    assuredly tell you, they are not. The only real problem with this article of submission, regardless of how
    flowery you make the male roll to be, is that it advocates using
    narcissistic manipulation tactics to achieve the desired end result. No,
    it is not advocating physically “forced” control; it is advocating the
    use of psychological manipulation to gain dominance. So essentially, it
    is passive aggressive behaviors used to enslave another.

    • I supposed this means that when Christ submitted to God the Father that
      1) It was detrimental to their relationship
      2) God the Father was manipulating Christ
      3) That Christ is inferior to God the Father
      4) That God the Father is narcissistic

      I think you have a flawed understanding of leadership and submission. Biblical submission does not come from a stance of weakness or inferiority, but one of strength. Likewise Biblical leadership does not come from a place of superiority or dominance, but one of service and love.

      But ultimately, if you have a problem with it, you have a problem with the Bible, and thus God. I choose to believe God knows best, and so we’ve modeled this in our marriage, and I can tell you we are both much happier when we do, and I hear the same from hundreds of other couples that I deal with on my blog.

      • Best_Reviews

        How can Christ submit to God if they are one and the same? There is but one God. Praying to any being other than God is paganism.

    • If you are calling giving up all you have and laying down your life willingly for the sake of your spouse “psychological manipulation” that’s fine, but I think you’re in the minority as most people with commons sense would clearly recognize it as the deepest expression of true love!

  • luna

    In my couple, I’m the woman and I’m the leading one. Or more exactly, we tell each other our opinion, and then, we decide what to do. Like normal humans.

    • Yes, I agree that it’s important to share your opinions and understands on issues. Ultimately submission and headship is just about who makes what decisions but more about who takes the leadership in the process. It’s more of a question of responsibility than it is about having a right to make decisions.