A Wife’s Submission


I’ll begin here with studying the passage in Ephesians 5:21-33, which inspired the name of this blog.

*All quotes(except from the Bible) come from “Paul, Women & Wives” by Craig S. Keener.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless.  In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it,  just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” – Ephesians 5:21-33, NIV

Is submission uniquely a wife’s responsibility?

Let me be clear and say that I do believe a wife should submit to her husband.  As believers, we are to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ(Eph 5:21), and this includes a wife submitting to her husband.

“When Paul calls on wives to submit, his words, even taken in their strongest possible sense, do not call wives to further subjugation.  At their strongest, his words merely fail to challenge the prevailing structures of authority in society, perhaps because challenging authority structures was not his purpose in this letter and would have accomplished little in his situation except to increase the persecution of Christians…”[p.159, emphasis mine.]

In other words, “The submission of wives was standard in ancient culture.  Roman law gave men binding authority over their wives and unmarried daughters.”[p.165]  Telling wives to submit to their husbands would not have stood out to anyone in Paul’s day; it was standard practice, assumed by everyone.  Wives’ submission to their husbands is not a Christian idea.  It was a reality in the culture in which Ephesians was written.  Fortunately,  we no longer live in a culture that requires wives to submit to their husbands by law.  We should be grateful to live in a time period in which women are not the property of their husbands, and are protected by the law equally to men.  As women, we have personal freedom that women in Paul’s day couldn’t imagine, and this is a very good thing.

What is unique is that Paul says a wife must to submit as unto the Lord(as a believer, without bitterness against her husband, and with a greater purpose) and that husbands need to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  Considering verse 21, how are husbands somehow released from submitting in marriage?  This part of the passage is not taught to husbands, because submission is seen as the wife’s responsibility in marriage.  Yet we see in verse 21 that submission is for all believers, including husbands.

What does it mean for the husband to be the “head” of his wife?

It is taught that since this passage says that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, then the husband is the boss, because Christ is the boss.  Now I’m not arguing against Christ’s Lordship, He is Lord over all.  But in the context of this passage, Paul is not talking about “who’s the boss”.  “Indeed, Christ’s love is explicitly defined in this passage in terms of self-sacrificial service, not in terms of his authority(Eph.5:25-27).” [p.167]

What is the husband’s position as “head” of his wife?  He is to love her, give himself up for her, and love her as his own body.

There is nothing in this passage about husbands leading and making decisions for their wives.  This is not a passage about “who’s in charge”.  It’s about oneness.  Not only are the words “leadership” and “decision-making” not there, the very concept of having the husband make the decisions in marriage doesn’t make sense.  Can we really have “oneness” in marriage when one partner has to obey the other, or when one person has the final say in all the decisions?  It is unjust and unfair that in the name of Christ, who spoke against the concept of worldly authority(Matt.20:25-28),  complementarians have turned the beautiful concept of the marriage covenant into a hierarchy.

Paul is talking about a profound mystery, in which husband and wife come together as one flesh.  And as believers, we are called the Bride of Christ, and one day our engagement to him will be realized, and we will be with him forever in eternity.  When a man and woman come together in marriage, they become one and are to reflect this relationship between Christ and the Church as we live our lives together in “one flesh” unity.

Highlighting submission as uniquely a wife’s role can become idolatry.  It constantly relates her life as a believer with how successful she is at being submissive.  Then when her idol comes crumbling down,  the woman is a failure because she wasn’t submissive enough.

It is my conclusion that overemphasizing a wife’s submission to her husband’s leadership is a misunderstanding of Ephesians 5:21-33.  The beauty of “one flesh” imagery is compromised when complementarians attempt to define roles in marriage that are not Biblical.


About creativehomeschooler

I'm a homeschooling mom of two creative children. I created this blog to highlight the things I'm thankful for during my days. It can be a challenge to homeschool, but I try to look at the grace my children and I experience. And these kids come up with some neat projects, so I hope to encourage and inspire others who may be reading.

4 responses »

  1. Hey Stephanie!

    I love how you’re really seeking to think through these verses and to grapple with these difficult passages. In the article you quoted, Craig seems to indicate that Paul was simply following cultural norms when he called upon the wife to submit to her husband. And yet in Ephesians 5:24, Paul makes a very direct connection between a wife submitting to her husband and the church submitting to Christ. In other words, it seems like the relationship between the husband and wife is supposed to be a beautiful picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.

    I don’t think that the issue of submission is imply a cultural norm that Paul left unaddressed. Rather, it seems that the relationship and roles between a husband and wife are supposed to be a window into the glory of the relationship between Christ and the church.

    Now just for the sake of clarity, I think there is a huge difference between submission and subjugation. Submission in no way implies that a wife doesn’t make decisions. In fact, in many ways, Jen makes more decisions that I do! So I think that word “subjugation” is unhelpful here.

    Does this make sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


    • Thanks for your comment Stephen. I agree with you that Paul was trying to show the relationship between husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church. I don’t think submission is only a cultural norm either, although I don’t think submission of wives was/is a new, Christian idea. Women were already thought of inferior at the time, and were basically under the authority of their husbands by law. This train of thought was agreed upon before the New Testament was written, before Jesus came. I think that Paul was making the distinction between the submission of unbelieving wives and believing wives in this passage, by saying that her submission can reflect a Christ-like attitude. What I was trying to point out is that the passage in Ephesians tells all believers to submit to one another in verse 21, yet this seems to be ignored by husbands in the context of marriage. Also, the husband being the “head” isn’t explained in the passage as him being the leader, it is explained as him laying down his life for his wife and loving her as his own body….there’s nothing about leadership, decision-making, or who’s in charge in this passage. I hear what you’re saying about you and Jen’s relationship, but this confuses me because I’ve gotten the message that in the “complementarian” view of marriage, the man is the final decision maker. I am not directing this at our church, but at the complementarian teaching’s I’ve heard from outside it.
      I also want to point out that in my opinion, it is a mistake to read a “hierarchy” into this passage from Ephesians. I think it’s a misinterpretation of this passage to read “the husband leads/the wife follows”, because to me, you can’t be “one flesh” in a hierarchal relationship.
      I hope that explains what I’m trying to say in a better way. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading.

  2. Good thoughts. I’m going to think on this one some more. I’m grateful that you’re willing to grapple with these tough concepts.

    A couple more thoughts. It seems to me that there is a difference between the submission of verse 21, and the submission between husbands and wives. In other words, yes, all Christians are supposed to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Paul could have simply left it at that. But, he also felt that he needed to clarify how a relationship between a husband and wife should look, so he added that on in verse 25. After all, that whole section in Ephesians is dealing with how relationships in the church should be structured.

    Also, in terms of a husband exercising leadership, my understanding of the word “head” is that there a meaning of authority in that word. I believe that Wayne Grudem went to great lengths to show that the word “head” does not mean “source” as a lot of people argue, but actually carries with it a weight of authority. Now of course, I don’t believe that a husband should be authoritarian. That’s wrong. But there is some sense where a burden of leadership/authority falls onto the husband.

    You also said that you didn’t see how there could be submission and still be oneness. It seems though, like Jesus is the prime example of this. He completely submitted to his Father in every way, and yet there was perfect oneness between them.

    Anyway, that’s my ramblings at 3:54 on a Friday afternoon. Thanks!!!


  3. Just a few thoughts:
    1. The Trinity doesn’t model marriage.
    2. This passage doesn’t compare the marriage relationship between Jesus and God; it’s between Christ and the church.
    3. Whether “head” is translated as “source” or “authority” is irrelevant, because Paul clearly explains what he means by the word in verses 25-33, and there is no indication that the husband is to have authority over his wife. (I think in this instance the head and body are used metaphorically, for the oneness of husband and wife, and how painful their separation would be since they are part of each other.)
    4. Here are Jesus’ thoughts on authority:
    “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ ” ~ Matthew 20:25-28

    I’m sure there’s more I could go into here, but like you said, it’s Friday afternoon(evening now). I need to stop typing;-)
    I think we might have to “agree to disagree” on this one. I appreciate you reading and commenting, though. I love the challenge and I love getting into Scripture to figure it out. Thanks!

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