Today, one of the most difficult concepts in God’s Word is biblical submission. The word submission is not limited to wives alone. For example, Christians are to submit themselves to each other (Ephesians 5:21), to government (Romans 13:1), and unto God (James 4:7). This is a frequent concept in the Bible. Self-sacrifice is required in each circumstance. Submission is never glossed over to be seen as easy or always convenient. Instead, it is viewed as service unto God.
The Greek word for submission is hupotasso, “to subordinate…put under…” God exhorts women to voluntarily follow their husband’s leadership (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1). A woman is actively doing this-- choosing to put herself under leadership, choosing to be subordinate in a circumstance or relationship. This is not forced upon her by the recipient.
A wife shows submission unto her husband when she allows him to take leadership in the relationship. His position as leader is biblical (1 Corinthians 11:3). Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is an example of a woman following her husband’s lead (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah has never been confused with being a woman who was a frail doormat. Peter notes that she was not afraid in life. Submission should not be confused with a person being weak.
Women are not commanded to submit to their husband’s because God insures that men will be just or loving. When a woman submits unto her husband, she is actually submitting unto God (Ephesians 5:22). A woman therefore does not submit because her husband deserves it in his own merit- she submits because she knows it is pleasing to her Lord. There will be times when a woman needs to submit, and her husband does not deserve it from a human perspective. But by divine right, God set the man as leader and a woman can trust that God is good. She can also know that nothing escapes God’s notice, and a wicked man will be held accountable for his actions.
When a wife submits to her husband, she does not try to take leadership from him. From the beginning of time, woman has tried to take leadership from the man- and man has often gladly given it away (Genesis 3). Some scholars believe that Genesis 3:16 refers to Eve’s new sin drive to override her husband’s headship, which has continued down the line of women. Women use many tactics to try taking control of leadership, including nagging, deception, and manipulation. This always results in sin and often, sorrowful consequences (Genesis 27). When a woman resorts to these tactics, she is trying to usurp God’s good design of relationship roles. A submissive wife must first learn to trust God’s goodness and His sovereignty.
However, a submissive wife is not relegated to idly sitting by while her husband makes all the family decisions. In a healthy marriage, husband and wife work as a team. When a decision cannot be jointly agreed upon, the leader makes it, knowing he is responsible foremost unto God for that decision. In these circumstances or in a decision that the husband must make alone, a submissive wife is not overstepping her boundaries by offering counsel. She must learn to do it in a way that shows respect for his God-given position as head of the family. A submissive woman also offers abundant encouragement, understanding that making decisions is a heavy responsibility on a man’s shoulders.
Some women are not satisfied with this. They want to be in charge. But realistically, marriage cannot work this way. Unity requires relational structure. We see this pattern in other relationships. But submission is never a sign of value. Jesus submitted to the will of His Father (Matthew 26:39). It would be heresy to say that Jesus is of lesser value than the Father. They are One, and Jesus cannot be of lesser value. His submission had nothing to do with His value—it had to do with God-ordained structure. It is the same with husband and wife.
Submission takes humility. It also takes a lot of prayer and relying on the Holy Spirit. But so does Godly leadership. Women can look unto Jesus as an example, and reflect His love and Self-sacrifice as they lovingly choose to submit unto the husband God has placed in their life.
The word submission has been misused and abused in our culture. Most think of “slavery” and a woman becoming a “doormat” when the word is used. It is easy to allow culture to change the meaning of a term. Culture views submission as a weaker person allowing a stronger person to use them, a person of lesser value giving up his rights to someone of greater value. This is not what the Bible means when referring to submission. Sinners often twist and pervert the term, but that does not change the biblical concept of submission.
First, submission is actually a voluntary action by the wife. Wives are commanded by the Lord to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1). This is a commandment from the Lord. However, there is nowhere in Scripture in which husbands command their wives to submit. A wife chooses to follow her husband’s leadership. Slaves, on the other hand, choose nothing. Their decisions are chosen by their master. When a woman submits to her husband, she is actually submitting to the Lord. It is an act of worship and love for her Savior, not as one of a weakened slave.
Second, a woman is not bound to submit to everything a husband desires. When a husband desires his wife to “go along” with something that is unbiblical, she is bound to obey the Lord instead. Peter and John made this clear in front of the High Priest, Council, and Senate of Israel after being released from prison (Acts 5:17-42). When they were commanded to not speak the name of Jesus anymore, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men,” (v.29). They were being asked to do something contradictory to Jesus’ words (Matthew 28:18-20). They were not bound to obey this request.
An unbelieving husband may ask his Christian wife to stop attending church. She is not bound to obey in this circumstance. Her higher allegiance is to the Lord, and community among believers is biblical. Some women are pressured to allow pornography into the marriage relationship. However, pornography is paper adultery-- a woman is not bound to submit to his sinful request. Slaves are bound to any desire of their master; a wife is not bound to desires that reach outside of biblical obedience, and therefore she is not slave to her husband.
The question may be raised as to why a husband does not have to submit to his wife? If men and women are created equal in the image of God, and are therefore of equal value, why then is only the woman commanded to submit?
It should not be concluded that a man is free to do anything he chooses. He is to submit unto God, and to a certain extent, the authority of the church (1 Corinthians 11:3, Matthew 18:15-17). A man is held to a high obedience standard. He is not only to submit unto God, but also lead his wife in a self-sacrificing manner (Ephesians 5:25). Not every husband does this, but a wife can know that her submission “as unto the Lord”—as obedience to God—has eternal significance and will be a testimony of the Gospel to her husband (1 Peter 3:1-2).
God has created a relational structure in which the husband is the head (leader) of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3). This has nothing to do with value, for husband and wife are created in the image of God and they are both co-heirs of the Gospel. But if there is a leader, there must be a follower. This relationship of husband as the leader and wife as the follower is actually a portrait of Christ and His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32). When a woman voluntarily submits, she points to that portrait, bringing glory to God.