What does biblical submission mean in the context of our daily lives, as we wrestle with the inevitable rub of relationships?
I am convinced that much of the resistance to this idea of submission in marriage comes from a faulty understanding of its meaning. Here are some basics we need to understand.
- A wife’s submission is not to men in general. Every person—man or woman, young or old—has relationships that require submission, whether to parents, a boss, civil authorities, or spiritual leaders in the church. And all of us as believers are to have a humble, submissive attitude toward one another in the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:21). However, when Scripture instructs wives to submit, it is specifically to “their own husbands,” who have been established by God to serve as the head of their wives and to love them and lay down their lives for them.
- Submission does not mean a wife is inferior to her husband. Scripture affirms unequivocally that men and women are both created in the image of God and therefore have equal worth. They have equal access to the Father and are equally coheirs with Christ, sharing equally in the Holy Spirit, equally redeemed and baptized into Christ, equally partakers of his spiritual gifts, and equally loved and valued by God.
- Submission doesn’t subject a wife to a life of forced compliance. The word used in the New Testament for “submission”—referring to the orderly fashion of following a leader—speaks of an act that is voluntary. In a proper understanding of marriage, no husband should ever force his wife to submit to him through coercion or manipulation. Submission is her willing decision not only to follow him, but ultimately and supremely to follow in obedience to her Lord.
- Submission doesn’t amount of slavish, groveling subservience. A wife is not a hired maid. Not an employee. Not a child. Not a second-class citizen who bows at the feet of her superior. Submission is rather a joyful, glad-hearted, intelligent, loving response to your husband’s God-ordained position as your spiritual head (Ephesians 5:22-23). And that headship doesn’t mean your husband has absolute authority over you. Husbands are not the supreme authority over their wives. God is. Husbands have been delegated authority by God, and they will answer to God for exercising it in a humble, sacrificial, loving way.
A wife is not a hired maid. Not an employee. Not a child. Not a second-class citizen who bows at the feet of her superior.
- Submission doesn’t minimize a wife into mindlessness. Being submitted to your husband doesn’t doom you to a fate of blind, unquestioning obedience. You still possess valid opinions and the right to express them in a humble, godly way. As your husband’s helper, in fact, you would be derelict in your duty not to bring things to his attention that he either doesn’t see or doesn’t seem to understand.
- Submission doesn’t mean husbands are always right. Your husband is not God. (You already know that.) He is every inch the sinner you are. (You know that too.) So biblical submission cannot possibly be based on how wise or godly or capable your husband is, or on whether his style or manner or personality is to your liking. Bottom line—he is not the one who makes this pattern work in marriage. God is. And God is the One to whom you and I are ultimately submitted in our marriages.
- Therefore, submission never requires a wife to follow her husband into sin. Your ultimate allegiance and loyalty are to Christ. If your husband abuses his God-given authority and requires of you something that is contrary to the Word and will of God, you must obey God rather than your husband. However, my observation from listening to many wives in difficult marriages is that often their struggle is with being led in a way they don’t prefer to go or just don’t think is best, rather than in a way the Bible and conscience forbid. It’s important to distinguish between the two in responding to a husband’s direction.
- Finally, a wife’s submission never gives license to her husband to abuse her. Never. Whenever a woman is instructed in Scripture to submit to her husband, there is a corresponding command for husbands to love and cherish their wives. There is no possible justification for a husband to abuse his wife, whether in overtly physical or verbal ways or in more “respectable” types of manipulation and intimidation—what one pastor calls “polite abuses.”* If you are being abused (or suspect you are being abused), you must get help. There is nothing in biblical teaching on submission that permits such treatment. If you (or your children) are being physically harmed or threatened, you should get to a safe place and contact both civil and spiritual authorities for protection
Wherever people abuse the order God has established for any sphere, the problem does not stem from flaws in God’s plan, but from humanity’s sinful distortions of it. Therefore, the solution to problems that arise when this principle is applied in marriage is not to throw submission out with the bathwater, but rather to align our understanding and practice with what Scripture really says. Because when the system is working according to God’s design, blessings flow to us from heaven, revealing to us, in us, and through us the beauty of his character and ways.
Adapted from Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth (©2017). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission. www.MoodyPublishers.com.
*Dave Dunham, A Word About Polite Abusers, Pastor Dave Online, June 30, 2016, .