Pastor James Boice observed, “Marriage is God’s idea and that is a good idea. It is a good idea, because it comes from God who never had a bad idea.” How true! And we can logically conclude that submission for the wife is a good idea, for it is God’s idea. But some readers might be thinking, whatever gave you that idea?
God’s command in Ephesians 5:22 (repeated elsewhere)—“Wives submit to your own husbands”—has, for most of history, been a controversial, if not contentious, concept. But perhaps it has never been so openly attacked than it is today.
There is much confusion, misrepresentation, and even downright hostility to this biblical mandate. Many see it as a mere social construct, which must be shelved—once and for all. But since it comes from God, we know that it is good. So, let’s address this good gift under several headings so that we might be better equipped in understanding the glory of the relationship between Christ and the church. When married people see this, they will reflect it in their marriage. When single people see this, they will be more secure in their relationship with Christ and more devoted to Christ and his church.
No doubt, this command has been abused by stupid (that is, senseless) and selfish men. It has been defamed by women who are stupid (that is, senseless) and selfish. This is a tragedy of immense proportions, for what Paul here commands is for wives to embrace what is essentially God’s good gift.
When this gift is appropriately received and used, the wife is blessed, the husband and therefore the marriage is blessed, the family is strengthened, the church is empowered, and the world is blessed.
So, let’s examine this good gift from God.
The Mandate of Submission
Submission a command, not a suggestion. This is vital for us to see. It is not a social contract; it is not some culturally shaped more. Rather, it is rooted in creation and, after the fall, was restated as a command.
We need to grasp that God’s commands are holy and just and good. As the writer of Psalm 119 repeatedly emphasises, we are to delight in them. So it is with God’s commands concerning marriage. So it is here with God’s command, his mandate, to Christian wives, to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
Creation, not Culture, Determines the Rules
God makes no mistakes. When he created man, he said that it was good. But by the end of the day, he added that, though man was good, something was not good. It was not good for the man to be alone. So God created something else good: a woman. Then God said that everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Now consider: God created man first. He gave his initial command to Adam, the man, first. He described woman as ezer—an aid, or a helper. But, as Kathy Keller points out, this does not refer to “merely assisting someone with a task that they might just as well accomplish without your help. Rather, the term means ‘to make up what is lacking in him with your strength.’ Woman was made to be a strong helper.”
When I was a child, my father would sometimes ask me to “help” him with some maintenance tasks. In reality, I added nothing to his ability to help my dad. He would have accomplished the task as adequately—perhaps even more so—without my helps as with it. I was a supposed helper, not an actual helper.
That is not what woman was created to be. Instead, the word “helper,” as Kathy Keller notes, speaks of an essential help. In fact, the word is often used of God as a helper to his people—and what Christian would suggest that God is only a helper in things that we could perfectly well accomplish without him.
Moses described God as his “helper,” who delivered him from Pharaoh (Exodus 18:4). God is a “help” for his people against their ministry (Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29). When there is no one else to help, God helps his people (2 Kings 14:26–27). The psalms time and again speak of God as a help to his people (Psalms 20:2; 33:20; 115:9; 121:1; 146:5).
The picture is, in a sense, “I can’t live without you. I need you.” Adam could not have fulfilled his calling unless Eve had been created. He could not have fulfilled his calling had Eve not been carefully designed by God.
Eve was created as a helper “comparable” to Adam (Genesis 2:20). The word speaks of someone who is “over opposite” another. It speaks of a counterpart. The two are like different pieces of a jigsaw that fit together to make a whole. At creation, God created the ontological reality of complementarianism. Husband and wife complemented one another; they were equal, but different. They were equal without being egalitarian. As Foulkes writes, “Equality as persons and submission to one another are basic Christian principles in the husband-wife relationship.” And it was all very good.
The Assumptions from the Text
The text operates under two basic assumptions: First, that Adam was created under the headship of God; and, second, that Eve was created under the headship of Adam. These two assumptions have everything to do with our text and with the matter of biblical submission.
In God’s economy, the husband is the head of the home (Ephesians 5:23). Therefore, the wife is called to follow. This is why she is commanded to submit to his leadership. Stott rightly observes, “This is not chauvinism, but creationism. The new creation in Christ frees us from the distortion of relations between the sexes caused by the fall (e.g. Gn. 3:16), but it establishes the original intention of the creation. And, ‘What creation has established, no culture is able to destroy.’”
God’s gifts are good and they are good for a marriage
In a Christian marriage—that is, in a biblical marriage—God assigns the role of follower and the responsibility of submission to the wife. This is clearly stated in the verses before us. It is reinforced in Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5 and 1 Peter 3:1–6.
The Marring of Submission
The concept of submission is far from popular today. (I can sense it when I perform wedding ceremonies and use the traditional wedding vows, which include reference to the bride honouring and obeying her husband.) The reasons range from erroneous concepts and corrupt examples to the anti-authority mood of our age. Some examples will perhaps illustrate the point.
Many years ago, when I was a fresh to the ministry at Brackenhurst Baptist Church, a couple came to see me. The husband was very upset that his wife would not submit to him in a particular area, and so he made an appointment so that I could tell her to submit to him. It was clear from his demeanour that he was not loving her as he ought, and so my first question—to the husband—was, “What are you doing wrong?” Godly wives respond to loving, sacrificial leadership with submission. If the husband does not lead in a loving, sacrificial way, the wife will likely not respond in the way that Paul exhorts in our text.
John Piper tells of a counselling experience in which a wife had to get permission from her husband to leave the room to go to another—including the bathroom. That is not a picture of biblical submission!
On the other hand, there is a prevalent egalitarian mindset today, coupled with a postmodern scepticism about authority and hierarchy. We simply cannot get away from the fact that this text clearly calls husbands to lead and wives to follow.
And so before explaining what submission is, let us look at what it is not. In This Momentary Marriage, John Piper lists several things that submission is not.
- Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says.
- Submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar.
- Submission does not mean avoiding effort to change your husband. (“Submission, paradoxically, is sometimes a strategy for changing him.”)
- Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ.
- Submission does not mean that a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength primarily through her husband. In fact, the less that this is so, the better for the both of you.
- Submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. It is free and un-coerced. (As Kathy Keller says, “Submission in marriage [is] a gift I offer, not a duty coerced from me.”)
The Meaning of Submission
Paul’s words are clear: “Wives, submit to your own husbands” (v. 22a). The word “submission” is actually (necessarily) supplied in this verse. Paul writes in v. 21 of the need for church members to be “submitting” one to another, and, literally, he continues, “Wives, to your own husbands.” Contextually, it is necessary for translators to supply this word, as is clear from others Scriptures too (see Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1; Titus 2:5).
The Greek word behind “submit” means to be subordinate, to be under, or to be under obedience. As Piper observes, it is “the divine calling of a wife to honour and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.”
Submission is a good thing. Indeed, it is an essential thing for an orderly society. The New Testament urges submission to rightful authorities (see Romans 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13). Imagine what it would look like in a society if there were no submission at all!
More importantly for the Christian, it is a Christlike thing. Jesus is fully God. From eternity past, he shared the nature and authority of the Father. And yet, at the incarnation, he willingly submitted himself to the will of the Father in order to save a people. Submission to the eternal covenant was not something that was coerced. He willingly submitted himself (Philippians 2:5–8)—and the fruit of that submission is seen in Philippians 2:9–11. Further, the Son, eternally equal with the Father, will one day “also be subject to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
As a human being, Jesus, Creator of the universe, submitted himself to his earthly parents (Luke 2:51). Imagine that: the Creator submitting to the creature! Joseph and Mary will give account to Jesus Christ, and yet he willingly lived in submission to them!
We should also note that the submission enjoined here is a restricted thing: “to your own husbands.” All women are not to submit to all me. This is something to be tried only at home! Daughters are subject to their fathers, and then they are subject to their husbands. (With men, of course, they are called to be subject, in specific contexts, to other legitimate authorities: government, elders, etc.) The submission exhorted here is restricted to a particular, unique relationship.
Foulkes helpfully observes, “She may fulfil any function and any responsibility in society, but if she has accepted before God the responsibility of marriage and of a family, these must be her first concern, and this is expressed in terms of her relationship to her husband as head of the home…. The wife wholeheartedly accepts her place in the family and devotes herself without reserve to fulfil her function as wife and mother.”
So, what does the submission envisioned by Paul involve? It involves a wife willingly and joyfully and respectfully following her husband. It means that a wife will practically trust her husband and not only profess that she does. It is a matter of entrusting herself to his headship. Of course, this means that a woman needs to be very careful before she covenants to do so? Can she trust this man? Is he wise? Does he walk with Christ? Does he have Christian integrity? These are questions she must ask before entering into the marriage covenant. “It is crucial,” writes Kathy Keller, “that women who want to accept gender differentiated roles within marriage find a husband who will truly be a servant-leader to match her as a strong leader.”
The Motivation and the Model of Submission
The submission that Paul commands is not bland, unthinking, unmotivated submission. Instead, Paul roots his exhortation in deep theology. The wife is to submit to her husband “as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (vv. 22b–24).
The emphasis is Christian marriage—that which models Christ and the church. A Christian marriage is a momentary marriage that is modelled on the transcendent and everlasting marriage of Christ and the church.
The motivation for submission is simple: “as to the Lord.” Simon Austen correctly notes that this is “a wilful, gospel-driven submission from wife to husband which originates from a right relationship with Jesus.”
As mutual submission in the church is to be done out of reverence for Christ (v. 21), and as children are to obey their parents “in the Lord,” so wives are to be driven by their allegiance to Christ to submit to their husbands. Whatever else this means, it clearly means that pleasing the Lord is the supreme motivation. Obedience to his will pleases him.
Further, there is a limitation put here. Loyalty to Christ is supreme—then loyalty to her husband. But I agree with Sinclair Ferguson: “It is usually a danger sign when our first reaction to this exhortation is to find ways in which to restrict and limit it. Paul is encouraging glad, not reluctant, submission; wholeheartedness is the key.”
There is an implied trust factor here: trust in the Lord (see vv. 23–24). Since the believing wife belongs to the body of which Jesus Christ is the Saviour, she can be sure that he has her best interest at heart. Therefore, she can trust and obey him by demonstrating trust and obedience towards her husband.
These verses provide the rationale for a wife’s submission to her husband: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and he is the Saviour of the body.” Just as Christ is the head of the church, so the husband is the head of the wife. Headship calls for submission. But it will be helpful to note that in the context: Headship points us to Christ who has the best interest of his bride at heart. The head must not be separated from the heart. It is a headship that is expressed in loving self-sacrifice. (And note that “head” here is used in the sense of authority rather than source. It speaks of the responsibility of leadership.)
Hendriksen soberly notes, “A home without a head is an invitation to chaos. It spells derangement and disaster worse even than that which results when a nation is without a ruler or an army without a commander.” Again, “He is her head as being vitally interested in her welfare. He is her protector. His pattern is Christ who, as head of the church, is its Savior!”
This is important to grasp. A wife should understand the weighty responsibility of the leadership God requires of her husband. This will help her to be more thoughtful about how she responds. If she loves Christ, and if she loves her husband, then she will seek to help him to lead by supporting him in his leadership.
Some time ago, my wife read an article by a woman making suggestions as to how a wife might encourage her husband to pursue family devotions. If he is not doing devotions, she suggested, take a Bible with you to the dinner table. Then, after dinner, gently push the Bible against his elbow as a way to exhort him. That may be helpful for her, but not for him! Instead, why not lovingly and privately speak to him and ask him to make time for family devotions?
In v. 24, Paul exhorts the proper manner of submission: “Therefore just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” There is an implied spirit or manner that marks the submission. It is voluntary and joyful and trustful.
As Austen notes, “It is our voluntary submission to Christ which is the model for a wife’s submission to her husband ‘looking to its head for his beneficial rule, living by his norms, experiencing his presence and love, receiving from him gifts that will enable growth to maturity.’”
Of course, it is in our nature to pursue exceptions. A wife might, therefore, ask, what if my husband is not a Christian? Do the same rules apply. And, in fact, the Bible is not silent on this matter. Peter clearly enjoins a Christlike attitude to women whose husbands are not converted.
Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.
(1 Peter 3:1–6)
The Marks/Manifestation of Submission
What characterises the biblically submissive wife? We can say at least three things.
A Biblically Submissive Wife is Faithful
It takes faith to place your faith in another! Trust is tough. How can you be sure that your husband will not mislead you? After all, he is not Jesus. But Jesus is Jesus! As you obey him, the responsibility for the results are his—and he gladly accepts this responsibility.
Think, for a moment, what it took Sarah to obey her husband, as cited in the verses above from 1 Peter 3. According to Peter, Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord! How difficult that must have been for her! Imagine Abraham coming to her, well into advanced age, and telling her that they needed to leave their home for another land—and he didn’t yet know the destination! Wives, would you follow your husband in such an endeavour? What about the countless times Abraham made foolish mistakes? He was not a perfect husband, but she trusted and therefore followed him.
The word that is translated “obey” in the New Testament comes from the root word for faith. A wife who submits to her husband does so because she trusts his leadership. There is, of course, always room for dialogue and for appeal, but ultimately, when the decision has been made, she trusts him enough to follow his leadership.
A Biblically Submissive Wife is Fearless
Consider how much fear Sarah would have been tempted to in obeying Abraham’s decision to leave their home for a land unknown. And yet she followed him. A wife who will faithfully submit to her husband will often find herself needing to meditate on Proverbs 3:25–27: “Do not be afraid of sudden terror, nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes; for the LORD will be your confidence, and will keep your foot from being caught. Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so.”
Stibbs notes of 1 Peter 3:
Peter seeks to encourage Christians, whatever their circumstances and experience, to fulfil before God the obligations of their position in society in relation to their fellow-men, and thus to continue actively to do good, without fear or alarm at threats or ill-treatment, because of their quiet confidence and steadfast hope in God (2:12, 15, 23; 3:13, 14; 4:19).
Wives, fearlessly do what is right in the face of a hardened husband. Do what is right in the midst of a rebellious and autonomous culture. Don’t cave to a godless feminist mystique. God’s prescribed submission remains a good gift from him.
A Biblically Submissive Wife is Flourishing
A wife to biblically submits to her husband will flourish. She will experience God’s blessings, and if she takes seriously Peter’s injunction, who knows whether her joyful submission will result, by God’s grace, in the conversion of her lost husband, or in sanctifying changes in her believing husband? Christ’s submission to his Father resulted in him being lifted up (Philippians 2:5–11), and Go may well be pleased to do the same for biblically submissive wives.
Stott hits the nail on the head: “Whenever the husband’s headship mirrors the headship of Christ, then the wife’s submission to the protection and provision of his love, far from detracting from her womanhood, will positively enrich it.”
The Miracle of Submission
Finally, we must note that this kind of submission is miraculous.
The Mess that Demands a Miracle
All of this is a miraculous life—a life that is not natural but rather supernatural. It is for this reason that a submissive wife—one who will receive and steward this good gift of God—needs a greater gift from God: the new birth and a Spirit-filled life to follow.
From the very beginning of sin’s entrance into the world, submission has been a counterintuitive task. God said to the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). This sounds somewhat cryptic, but it seems that the language suggests that the wife’s desire would be to rule over her husband (“contrary to” her husband, as the ESV most recently put it). In the same way that sin would desire to exercise dominion over Cain (4:7), so Eve’s natural inclination would be to exercise dominion over her husband. But that was not God’s plan. “He shall rule over you.” “Eve’s decision of the moment became the habit of a lifetime,” notes Ferguson.
It is because of sin that wives do not find it easy to follow their husbands. But that is still God’s created design, and the wife who is converted and Spirit-filled will pursue obedience in this regard. But obedience will only be forthcoming from those who are saved and Spirit-filled.
The Means for this Miracle
Happily, when God commands obedience, he provides what is needed to produce obedience. He has not left wives alone in this difficult task of obedience. He has provided the necessary help—in a variety of ways.
First, he has given the Saviour. If submission seems impossible, then wives must remember: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). God’s grace is sufficient to produce obedience. When the wife is weak, Christ is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). It’s not easy, but it is possible. Christ’s gracious power is available to produce change.
Second, he has given the Scriptures. The Scriptures—rather than the ever-changing ideas of an autonomous society—must be your rule for life and marriage (see 2 Timothy 3:15–17). It is interesting that, following this very section dealing with submission in relationships, Paul details what spiritual warfare looks like. Boice is onto something when he comments, “It is on the battleground of our relationships that this battle is fought and a lasting victory for God and his righteousness is either lost or won.”
Third, he has given the Spirit. Remember, this entire section is predicated on 5:18: “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” Pray daily for focus to help you in your fallenness—for the gaze that will loosen your grip; for the gospel that empowers you with grace.
Fourth, he has given the saints. I cannot stress this enough: Before dealing with marriage and family relationships, Paul dealt with church relationships (vv. 19–21). This must not be missed. A Spirit-filled church, and a meaningful connection to it, will empower a wife to do the otherwise difficult, if not impossible, thing. A healthy church encourages healthy marriages as we strive together to submit to Christ. Committed connection to a healthy community of faith will helpfully compel you to do the right thing.
Fifth, and finally, he has given the sisters. This is a truth that is sadly neglected in many churches—including our own, far too often. In writing to Titus, Paul exhorted “older women” to “be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things” and to “admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:3–5). Older women—especially those with a track-record of godly submission—are to mentor the younger wives to obey this command.
I trust that we can all better see that submission is God’s good gift to a wife and therefore God’s good gift to a marriage. To quote Kathy Keller again, “The tender, serving authority of a husband’s headship and the strong, gracious gift of a wife’s submission restore us to who we were meant to be at creation.”
And this is so important. For such a marriage is evangelistic. Such a marriage points the family, the church, and the world to Jesus Christ—the one who gave his sinless life to save a sinful people to make them his holy bride. You are invited to come and be a part of this marriage. Have you? Will you? Do so, today.