What’s Up with the Bible Saying “Wives Submit to Husbands”?


the-pink-and-yellow-girl asked a question:

With the “wives submit to your husbands” verse, how do you understand this? My pastor has explained it to me before, but as a woman I often end up feeling kind of sad or frustrated by it when I don’t think that’s what I’m supposed to feel.


Hey dear friend, I wrote a pretty big post on this once before, I commend it to you hereOf course, please feel free to disagree or dialogue with me.

My short answer is this: The word “submit” in Ephesians 5:22 isn’t originally in that verse in the Greek language. Seriously. Check it out. It says, Wives to your husbands as to the Lord.The word “submit” is actually implied by the previous verse which says, Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. So first you need to know, there is mutual submission between husband and wife. Paul starts off by commanding both to submit to each other.

Here’s my longer answer:


There’s a much bigger picture here that makes these verses “better” in one sense, but much harder in another.

A few verses after the whole submission thing, Paul says, Husbands love your wives as Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her. The Greek word for “gave himself up” is paradidomi, which can mean “surrender, commit, give myself away, hand over.” To some extent, this is an even stronger word than submit. It expresses what Jesus did on the cross when he died for us. So husbands have the task of dying. Wives submit, husbands both submit and die.

Now it does say somewhere in there that the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. Here’s the thing. Do men realize how big of a responsibility this is? Why would any man ever be using this verse as some kind of authority badge? That verse is meant to inspire leadership, not abused as a veto. It literally means that if the house isn’t in order, then the husband isn’t being a good head of the house. Taking this further, if a church isn’t in order, either Jesus isn’t there or the people aren’t working with Jesus.

In the end, Paul says he’s not really talking about marriage, but using marriage as an example to talk about the church. So in one sense, yes, he’s prescribing a good marriage. But in another sense he’s prescribing what it means to be a community of God. For people to elevate these verses out of context misses what Paul was doing here: he was saying that in a Christian community, there is mutual submission, a call to leadership, and obvious fruit when we get this right (and lack of fruit when we don’t).

What surprises me is when someone says, “Your Bible is so outdated, it tells wives to submit to husbands in there!” Ironically, an argument that misreads the verse this way is validating the wrong interpretation of this verse. It’s like if I argued against pro-life by saying, “The Bible endorses attacks against abortion clinics!” No, it does not, but a bunch of people might actually believe that to be true if you keep saying it is.

We need to actually talk about what the verse in question, not the socially perpetuated mythology of the verse. The Bible, after all, has way more difficult and problematic passages than this one. By now, I just assume that if someone brings up Ephesians 5 as a problem, either someone else convinced them it was a problem without looking into it, or they haven’t really read it at all, or they see the Bible as an instruction manual of random fortune cookie proverbs instead of within the overarching story of a God who loves us and wants for our best.

J.S.


Photo from Unsplash

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21 thoughts on “What’s Up with the Bible Saying “Wives Submit to Husbands”?

  1. Jesus is quite the example of loving the church and submitting to death for the church. I agree, men have a tremendous mandate to love and die for their wife! The wife could be seen as coming under the protection of the husband. There is so much to be learned in mutual submission to each other.

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    1. When I read the word “ownership”, my gag reflex was triggered. The Gospel Coalition is one of the worst groups promoting such stuff. It’s so sad how this patriarchal, pseudo “order of creation” has crept into evangelical circles, bringing about nearsighted ideas of gender roles. And shaming those who don’t fit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The pastor to whom I referred is not affiliated with the Gospel Coalition. I was appalled that this pastor used this terminology and other related words. The crowd was large and treated every word like it was straight from God. Sadly, many have forced culture upon the Bible rather than allow the Bible to influence culture.

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        1. Matthew: sadly, I have seen this, too. You hit the mark when you say that culture is imposed upon the bible. As for the bible influencing culture, that’s more complex since there are so many cultures.

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          1. P.S. Matthew: not to sound “holier than thou”, the bible as I see it is a tool for the Holy Spirit to speak to and transform us individually within. No doubt, these transformed people will transform culture to a degree, but the latter isn’t the goal. It’s the outcome.

            Thanks for this discussion Matthew!

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        2. Interestingly, in this video John Townsend talks about a healthy definition of “ownership” in marriage. It applies outside of marriage, too. You will probably enjoy it.

          There will be a problem when someone abuses boundaries and wears down another person’s will and self-confidence. In church contexts, this kind of manipulation is often not adequately distinguished from healthy interaction that determines boundaries.

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      2. Where have you seen that in the Gospel Coalition? I did a Bible Study supported by them and it really brought some clarity and freedom to me regarding the submission thing.
        Thanks!

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        1. Christi:
          I cannot speak to the Bible study that you took. I’m glad it helped you.

          The Gospel Coalition is complementarian, which is something that I used to be able to tolerate as what some Christians believe. I do not share the belief that it’s biblical.

          The idea of an order of creation (Adam the male was created before Eve the female) may not be explicitly stated. It’s very often an essential element of complementarianism. It expands outward from that seed of thought into ways of living based on gender. Men lead. Women follow. Not always in a physical sense, but in the many churches women are not allowed something as “simple” as passing the collection plate.

          Maybe you don’t have a problem with this approach. That’s fine. I didn’t for a while, until I saw how it hurt women who felt called into leading a ministry that wasn’t limited to reaching women and/or children. It also doesn’t square with Jesus’ treatment of women.

          I hope that I answered your question. I really am glad that you benefitted from the study.

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          1. One more note: I have lost tolerance for complementarianism because of what I previously mentioned about women being told to not minister to males. Additionally, there are many, many examples of how the hierarchy drawn out of complementarianism has been used to justify all kinds of abuses.

            Do I see any indication that you or brother Park would side with an abuser? Of course not. It is sadly prevalent.

            Case in point: a few years ago an American male preacher of Middle Eastern background was imprisoned for months abroad in the Middle East for preaching the gospel, it was reported. He was severely abused in prison. Eventually, he was released. As he returned to the U.S., his wife would no longer live with him. It turns out that he had been terribly abusing her and at least one of their children. She never wanted it to become a public issue. It did, probably because the husband’s time in prison was so publicized in evangelical circles. I wish that I could remember the names. If I find them I will let you know.

            Billy Graham’s son automatically sided with the husband, as did many evangelical leaders. I’ve seen the pattern repeat itself in so many anecdotes I’ve read or heard in groups, news, etc.

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      3. Replying to Jennifer: Agreed. Also is it possible you’re teferring to Desiring God? From what I’ve seen, the TGC has a wider range of opinions on the issue (though they definitely could’ve said what you’re describing). I think Desiring God, despite some of the good they do, has been backwards sometimes on marital stuff and gender issues.

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        1. JS Park:

          Hello. I hope that my responses above to Christi address your question. It is to a degree a matter of how much one is comfortable with the limits and demands put on believers because of their gender.

          TGC may be more soft complementarian, as Nina eloquently discussed below. Meanwhile, Desiring God? As John Piper seems to be affiliated with that offshoot of TGC, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that it’s quite extreme.

          Even before I knew of his complementary views, I found John Piper problematic.

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          1. From a personal perspective: years ago I dated a guy who I came to realize, subscribed to a fair bit of this complementarianism. He didn’t seem like that at first, but eventually he started evaluating me using statements like “not very Godly”, and “not feminine.” It wasn’t a good experience. That plus the lack of support put me off church for 10 years.

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  2. I respectfully disagree with this post. While I do see and appreciate that you are trying to advocate for mutual submission in marriage, by also advocating for the man as the “head of the home”, you are still pushing a form of soft patriarchy that doesn’t do either genders any favors. While you use the term “mutual submission”, you still believe in a system of roles which puts the pressure, or “responsibility” as you put it, unequally onto the male’s shoulders. By your logic, both men and women must submit… but men a little bit more? Why would God give more responsibility to men than women? I am struggling with your argument that it is to bring “order” to a home. Maybe you can expand on this?

    This article does a great job addressing the theological reasons why I disagree with your interpretation of that scripture. It’s not that I think “your Bible is outdated”, I think your interpretation is.
    http://sarahbessey.com/disagree-bure-biblical-marriage/

    As someone who is in an egalitarian marriage, I have never had more order in my life than when my husband and I work together equally. I have never felt stronger, more heard, more cared for, and respected. My husband would say the same. We lead together. We make every decision together, submitting to God, submitting to each other. We are equals. I feel like this man-made construction only puts limitations on how rich and beautiful a marriage can be when two flawed people truly become one flesh as they choose to lift one another up to be all that God created them to be. This idea that men still need to be the only leaders can only be for one reason: men and women are not truly equal in God’s eyes. If they are not truly equal, then God must think more highly of man, which in itself is soft patriarchy.

    I have been following your blog for probably around five years and say all this with love. I am looking forward to seeing your response.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this Nina. I read the blog post as well. I’m going to ponder what you said and think through it carefully. Maybe I didn’t express myself very well at all or missed something completely. In my own household, I believe we do equally submit (or at least try our very best, however imperfectly). So I think in practice, we are closer to what you’re describing. Certainly I would not want to endorse a soft patriarchy.

      Do you have a take on what the “head of the household” verse means there? (Maybe it’s not a correct translation or there’s a better explanation?) The way I have seen this interpreted is that some men try to say, “My wife is a natural leader and I’m not, so she can lead,” so it seems that this verse might be directed to someone who is trying to crawl away from leadership/responsibility. In other words, Paul perhaps knew men were more inclined to drift from responsibility and accountability. Or in marriages when one is more wired for leadership than the other, do you have a take on how that is accommodated? I am asking all these things genuinely with full curiosity, and hoping that wherever we land that disagreement doesn’t mean disconnection. I am aware I am still learning all these things, and at least in practice, it seems we are more or less on the same page (perhaps not though, I don’t want to explain away any counterpoints you have brought up).

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      1. Thank you for your thoughtful and humble response. I will do my best to respond in kind.

        As far as headship goes, I feel as though these two articles do a good job analyzing those two verses. In the first link, I am specifically referring to under the heading: “Myth #3: Headship as Leadership”, and the second link goes more in depth, if you’re interested.
        http://juniaproject.com/5-myths-of-male-headship/
        http://margmowczko.com/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/
        I invite you to read this because I agree with your statement that it is probably not very different than how many Christians in loving, selfless marriages act, yet the phrase “head of house” is still used frequently among Christians none-the-less, hence why I use the term “soft patriarchy”.

        The Greek aside, if a couple is truly living out mutual submission in their lives and marriage, then I do not see why it would be necessary for God to mandate that a man must have the last say. I would argue that letting Jesus’ love reshape our lives is the only thing that truly brings “order”, and if a spouse isn’t doing that, that is a human/spiritual issue, not a gender issue. I still fail to see any positives by adding gender-oriented authority to the mix, but I can see numerous negatives on how that interpretation can be and has been used to control/abuse/silence wives simply because they are women. All this ultimately leads to a much larger discussion, which is whether or not the complementarian view of marriage a form of soft patriarchy… This may be for another time and place, but I am open to that discussion as well if you’re interested.

        As to your second question about being more “wired” for leadership, in loving and healthy marriage, one (hopefully) marries someone who is compatible with their strengths and weaknesses and who also has the same values and dreams. In my marriage, I am the more natural leader when it comes to teaching and people-skills, but my husband is a more natural leader in planning, administration, and follow-though. Whenever we have a big decision or are trying to accomplish something, we yield to whomever is more naturally talented in that area or respectfully discuss things until we reach a consensus that we are both happy with. At the end of the day, our core value is the same: we want to follow and submit to Jesus. When we are both truly lost and confused, we look to Jesus, not one another, to solve the problem. Does that make sense?

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  3. wow what a great read. appreciate how well resourced your writing is and how you have written in a way that can make a bit of touchy topic be easily heard and therfore deeply understood. thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  4. You were absolutely right in pointing out that the husband is called to a unique degree of responsibility in the relationship. Any husband (and there are many) who wants to claim this chapter as though it were going to make his life easier has completely missed the point. Eve ate first, but the scriptures still record that sin entered the world through Adam (Romans 5:12). We sinned, yet Christ died on our behalf. Husbands are accountable for their families in a way that wives are not.

    You also did a great job of pointing out that Paul is showing how marriage is an image of the church. However, he doesn’t say that husbands and wives are both symbols of members of the church and therefore submitting to one another is all it represents. Instead, he shows that Christ is husband of his bride, the church. The same imagery is used throughout all of scripture.

    If we’re to believe equivalent submitting is the view he’s discussing here, than he’s teaching that the church and Christ are to submit in the same manner and degree, one to another. While nearly everyone in the church would reject the notion that Christ and believers are of equal authority, functionally many seem to believe it all the same. In this age of lawlessness and individuality, authority of any kind is largely scorned even within the church.

    Whenever this topic comes up, some women rush to express how disgusted they are at the thought that they should be under authority or submit to their husbands any more than they already do. Assuming egalitarianism is the accurate interpretation, we should still all be seeking to submit to our spouses more than we do. Yet none of the discussions revolve around how everyone could stand to submit more, but rather how victimized women are by a system that expects them to submit more than they already do. At best, such comments are people swinging planks around looking for specks.

    Instead of removing positions of authority in our lives we need a better understanding of intended leadership and authority. “But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” Matthew 20:25-28

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