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What a Wife’s Submission is NOT

I understand boys and men. I have one sibling (a brother), and just about all my cousins are boys. My father was a coach, and even though I was not a gifted athlete, playing sports with other boys was pretty much how I spent my childhood. I also fell in love with the outdoors, so when I was not playing ball, I was hunting or fishing – you guessed it – with other guys.

To be honest, I never spent much time thinking about the issues facing women. Three dates began to change this in my life.

December 16, 2000 – I became a husband to an incredible woman.

October 2003 – I became a pastor for the first time to a church filled with wonderful ladies.

July 10, 2008 – My wife gave birth to our third child, our first daughter.

These moments made women matter to me in a much deeper way. So, when I come to the teachings of the Bible directed at women, I work hard to be sensitive to the challenges they face.

Recently, while preaching on marriage, I returned to a very familiar passage written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Ephesus. He writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22–24, ESV).

While the book of Ephesians is not primarily about marriage, it is about the life we are supposed to live in Christ. The life you live for Christ touches every relationship you have: your relationship with God, your church, your children, and your spouse. Paul, mincing no words, says the primary way a woman relates to her husband should be characterized by humble submission. I realize passages like this can be misunderstood, misapplied, and, sadly, result in women being mistreated. 

For this reason, let me offer some clarity on the matter by explaining what biblical submission does not mean in a woman’s life.

  1. Submission is NOT subservience.

Subservience is defined as someone being useful in an inferior capacity. We all find ourselves in subservient roles when we take our first summer jobs. We are typically paid minimum wage to do what we are told. Our managers and the business owners make far more money because they are worth more to the organization. We are useful in an inferior capacity.

Submission, on the other hand, is defined as someone choosing to yield to authority and has nothing to do with worth or value. It is an issue of role and respect. When God commands a wife to submit to her husband, He is not communicating anything about her worth or value. Paul, the author of this verse, wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV). From the beginning, God’s design for humanity was for the man to be the leader of the home. His headship carries great responsibility, and his ability to lead faithfully is dependent on his wife’s support and submission.

     2. Submission does NOT suppress women.

Usually, criticism of the Biblical teaching of submission goes something like this: “See, here is another one of those archaic verses from the Bible that is nothing more than men suppressing the right for women to be strong, independent, and treated equally.”

Before I counter, I must admit that the passage would be difficult to digest had Paul written, “Women submit to the will of all men.” Thankfully, that is not what it says. I have two beautiful daughters. I am very committed to helping them be well-educated, confident, and strong young women. I want them to have opinions, convictions, and passions. The Word of God that I love so dearly most certainly does not teach – or even imply – that, because my daughters are females, they should blindly and willingly exist to please the desires or direction of men, in general. Paul is very careful to say that a wife’s submission is to her “own” husband.

My daughters came into the world under my protection, provision, and authority. One day, I will most likely walk them down an aisle, and when I do, I will symbolically and spiritually hand them over to a young man who will be charged to provide, protect, and lead them. No other men deserve – nor should have – this high honor. There are no grounds in this teaching for the wholesale suppression of women.

     3. Submission does NOT spread sin.

Some argue that telling wives to submit to their husbands causes women to endure abuse and removes accountability for men. Unfortunately, all Scripture can be sinfully twisted, and my heart breaks that there are women who have been in volatile, and even violent, situations, only to have their husbands or irresponsible spiritual leaders throw submission in their faces. Clearly, acting sinfully or continually being treated sinfully in the name of submission is not biblical submission. 

Biblical submission to human authority (including that of a wife submitting to her husband) is NEVER permissible or encouraged if it causes disobedience to God. So, any woman being hurt, abused, or mistreated by her husband is not bound by the call of submission. Probably the most popular example of this from the Scriptures is Peter and the early Apostles. After being arrested by the religious leaders of their day for preaching Christ as the Messiah, they faced a clear choice. Should they obey human authority or God’s authority? Their answer could not be clearer. “But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, ESV). This logic is not permission for a wife to disrespect or disregard her husband’s leadership, should she simply disagree. It is, however, proof that submitting to her husband is not designed to create an environment where a woman is vulnerable or, even worse, victimized. Acting sinfully or continually being treated sinfully in the name of submission is not Biblical submission.

And husbands, we must go back to the whole of what we read from Ephesians 5:22-24 and remember that we are to love our wives as Christ loves the church. And what did Christ do for the church? He died for the church. If a wife is to submit to her husband in everything, a husband must lay down his life and his agenda, making it his primary goal to love, protect, and nurture her.

Finally, submission is not just for wives. A brief survey of the Bible shows that all Christians should submit often in their lives. To list a few examples, we are commanded to submit to God’s will, His Word, our spiritual leaders, our parents, and the laws of our governing authorities. No matter what the world tries to tell us, submission is not taboo or outdated. It is a beautiful thing to see a strong woman, secure in her identity in Christ, willingly offering her life and service to her husband and her family. Not only does this make for a strong family, but it is also a great advertisement for the power of the gospel, which is built on a Savior who submitted His life unto death for our salvation.