Does God Really Want Women To Submit?

A couple I was to marry a week later asked me to preach on Ephesians 5:21-33, the passage I’ve come to view as Paul’s cheat sheet on marriage.

Paul’s call to husbands was simple enough, if not easy: love your wife as much as Jesus loves us. Oh, and be ready to lay your life down for her.

Of course, I wanted to say something to the bride, too. As I glanced over the passage, I noticed Paul’s instruction to wives:

‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord’. (Ephesians 5:22)

Insane RESPECT Insane Focus via Compfight

OK, I thought. But that doesn’t sound like the kind of feel-good message the bride – let alone the other women in the room – are expecting to receive. There had to be something – anything – else I could glean from the passage, right?

As I poured over the passage, though, I reached the unmistakable conclusion. There really was nothing else. Not in this passage, anyway.  Paul could have said absolutely anything to wives and he said ‘submit’.  Twice (see verse 24).

A Bigger Issue, An Important Choice

So, if we believe that the entire bible is ultimately written by God, we have a choice to make. We can say that there may be some significant mistakes (like this passage), but then we really can’t trust anything, including the parts that we do like.

The other option is to trust that God has preserved his word and, therefore, we can trust it. So, in this case, the question isn’t, ‘Should wives submit to their husbands?’, but rather, ‘how’?

What It Doesn’t Mean

I hate it when pastors skirt around thorny passages like this one. So don’t worry; I’m going to get to what Paul is saying.

But first, let’s talk about what he isn’t saying.

  1. First, he’s not saying women should submit to men in general. He’s saying a wife should submit to her husband.
  2. Second, he’s not saying women are in any way inferior to men. That’s shot down everywhere in the bible, perhaps most clearly in Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28.
  3. Third, submission is something a woman chooses to do in deference to God, not something a man requires his wife to do. The command comes from God to wives.
  4. Finally, he’s not saying ‘do whatever your husband tells you’. If your husband asks you to do something that doesn’t square with biblical teaching, you can’t go along with him. When faced with a choice, we ‘must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).

So What Is God Saying?

Still, the question remains: what does Paul mean by telling wives to submit to their husbands?

In calling wives to submit to their husbands, God is saying that the husband has ultimate leadership and responsibility for the health and well-being of their marriage.

In part, this means that there will be occasions – hopefully rare – where a husband and wife disagree on some important issue. (We’re not talking Coke or Pepsi). They try to work it out, but can’t. If what the husband is suggesting is compatible with God’s Word, God is asking his wife to follow his lead. To submit.

As a quick example, after a move my wife, Sharon, and I had to find a new church. We visited several and, after lots of praying and listening, wound up having a different opinion on which was best for our family. Since we couldn’t come to a consensus, I asked her to follow my lead.  (As a FYI, this was a rare occurrence, one of perhaps 5 in our 16-year marriage).

But that’s just part of what Paul has in mind, I think. Look at verse 33, the summary of what Paul says in our passage.  ‘However, let each one of you [husbands] love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband’.

God – through Paul – gives husbands and wives different instructions because they’re… different. And not just anatomically. While we don’t want to stereotype and be overly rigid, in general men and women have different primary needs. Most men desire respect first and foremost, while most women would say the same of love.

So, submitting to your husband is largely to show him respect. To treat him as an equal made in God’s image (i.e., made like him). To let him know you appreciate him and what he accomplishes at work, in the home. And to avoid things that have the opposite effect.

This is so incredibly different than where we are as a culture. Think about our TV commercials and sitcoms, for example. If someone is portrayed as foolish or incompetent, it’s always the guy. The woman (or children), through her intelligence and moxy, is the hero. Sadly, this dynamic both reflects a trend that already exists, and, continues to perpetuate it.

Jesus Shows The Way

If this teaching seems hard – and it is – wives can take comfort in Jesus’s example. Although he was and is equal to God the Father, he showed his Father the kind of respect and deference we’re talking about.

This is probably most clear in his fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, hours before his death, he asked the Father three times to avoid the cross, but always with a ‘nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’ (see Luke 22:39-44).

Jesus, it turns out, is only asking wives – and husbands (see Ephesians 5:25-31) – to do what he has already done.

Making It Personal

I want to, very briefly, move this from the realm of theory to your everyday life as we close.

If you’re already a wife, do you respect your husband and communicate that to him? Are you willing to follow his lead when you have a disagreement?

If you’re not yet married, it’s so important to find a guy you can respect.  My wife tells me that it’s natural for (some) women to wind up with a guy who will basically do what they want.  It feels good for awhile, but turns out empty when you realize you need someone who has his own thoughts and opinions.  A nice, passive guy might change later, but you can’t count on it.  So, if you’re not married yet, do you need to move on from a relationship you’re in, or, change the kind of guy you’re looking for?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Wanda McDonald

    Sorry, but in a disagreement why should the man always get his way? Why can’t he lead in the areas he excels at and the wife lead in the areas she excels at? For example, lets say she is an accountant and he is a mechanic. They have a disagreement on something involving the finances (he wants a new toy for the garage, she says they NEED something fixed in the house). Why should he get his way and get the toy for the garage? This doesn’t fall into the realm of going against God, but if they were to do what you suggest, the husband would have a new toy in the garage while needed repairs would be pushed aside. In that example, she obviously is the appropriate one to lead. This example is all too common. And in your example above, why should you get to choose the church? If she felt more comfortable at the other one, then why would even want to drag her to some place she was not comfortable? Or why couldn’t you attend both bi-weekly? Instead she has to endure your preference just because your opinion somehow matters more?
    If you were following the instruction to ‘love self-sacrificially’ as the very next line in that verse says, then you would sacrifice YOUR choice, and give her hers! If you were loving self sacrificially as you were supposed to, you would have went with HER choice of church. But since you still continued to exercise YOUR choice OVER hers you were not being loving self sacrificially! That line about loving as christ did doesn’t mean the 1 in 10000000000 chance you might encounter physical danger. It means DAILY laying down YOUR desires, to give your wife hers! THAT’S what she is supposed to submit to. Not your decisions! Not your supposed ‘authority’ but she is supposed to allow you to put her first. It deals with chivalry. You know, like if you pull out a chair, she should submit to your giving yourself and your own wants up for her sake. It has nothing at all to do with who gets the last say. That is only being selfish! YOUR command was to love SELF SACRIFICIALLY. Choosing your preference over hers was definitely NOT doing that! So how can you expect her to submit?
    And leading should not come down to what’s between your legs and it doesn’t (or clearly women would not have leadership ability). Both spouses should lead in the areas they are the ones to excel at. Btw the word LEAD or leader is not actually used in relation to marriage. And head does not mean in charge of or authority over. And “help” is used more often to describe God – and God is most definitely not a subordinate to us right??

    • Wanda, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to this post. I’m so glad you felt free to express your disagreement, and hope my readers will always feel free to lovingly challenge me so that we can all grow and learn.

      First, I agree that wives and husbands should provide leadership in the areas where they’re most gifted. For example, my wife handles the logistics of balancing our finances because she’s way better at that!

      Second, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe my (or that of men in general) matters more than my wife’s (or that of women in general). In the example of choosing a church, I asked her to follow my lead not because I liked my choice better, but because I saw some things that really concerned me after talking to the pastor at the other church. I felt that it would not be in my family’s best interests to go there, so I was trying to exercise my authority for the good of our family, not (I hope) for selfish reasons.

      Third, I don’t think Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 is mainly about wives submitting to their husband’s decisions in matters of disagreement. It’s mainly about how marriages can reflect Christ’s relationship to us, his church (see especially v. 32). However, I do believe one of the implications of Paul’s teaching in verses 22-24 is that the husband does have the authority to make a final decision – with his family’s best interests in mind – in matters of disagreement. This should never, ever be done selfishly or without every effort to reach consensus. (Which means it should very rarely need to happen.)

      Paul’s choice of language supports this way of interpreting the passage. By definition, the word ‘submit’ means to do something you don’t want to do. Also, the Greek word Paul uses for ‘head’ refers to a husband’s authority over his wife and not ‘origin’ or ‘source’. A husband is not the ‘source’ of his wife either physically or spiritually. In addition, in over 50 uses of the same word in Greek extra-biblical literature, when person A is said to be ‘head’ over person B, in each instance person A has authority over person B.

      Wanda, thanks again for taking the time to engage with my post and share your thoughts. Although we probably won’t agree on everything, you’ve pushed me to think more deeply and biblically. I also realize that sometimes men (including me) have not used their authority well, and have given women every reason to be suspicious of how passages like this could be used in ways that are harmful to them. With God’s help, I hope husbands will do a better job of treating their wives like Jesus treats us.

      • Wanda McDonald

        Well we will obviously disagree. I do not believe that in a relationship of two, you can have one person always having last say in everything. As I said, in reality, this means your wife really has no say at all. Do you see why this is (logically speaking)? Because if she agrees with you, it was your decision anyway, and if she disagrees with you, you will just exercise your ‘authority’. The fact that she never gets any authority over any area as you (I imagine like others) believe that she is to submit always. So really logically speaking, the wife has 0% power. Meaning, none at all. I was actually born into Christianity, and I ended up leaving because of these verses. I am now Sikh, and Sikhism husbands and wives are fully equals to the point that they become ‘one soul in two bodies’. This does not require one person to entirely give up their will and ‘do what they don’t want to do’. My husband and I (both fully baptized Sikhs) have never gotten into a disagreement where we couldn’t solve it. Sometimes we walk away and come back, and if it ever did get to that point where we could not agree, we’d get a mediator. He would never expect me to do something I didn’t want to.
        I was trying to get the point across that ‘Loving Self-Sacrifically’ as the very next line says, also means doing what you don’t want to. In fact both spouses should put the other first. But of course there will be disagreements as you are individuals. But giving one person full freedom to choose their choice over the other ALL the time, is wrong, and in my mind immoral. The only time I believe this is ok, is for a minor child, a mentally incapacitated person, or someone who forfeited their free will by commiting a crime and are convicted. You can say that both husband and wife are equal all you want, but without equality in practical works, then its just lip service as far as I am concerned. These verses very much speak of putting women in a subordinate and inferior position. You cant even say ‘role’ because a role is something someone does, not what someone is. And giving authority based on what someone had no control over, is giving privilege to men and basically punishing women for something they did not choose. I never chose to be female. I have excelled in positions of leadership (I have 20 years in the military and qualified as one of the first women to serve on submarines and I have male subordinates). To me, to say that just because I wasn’t born with the right ‘parts’ I have to forever be in a subordinate position and always be the one who has to do what I don’t want to while the other always gets his way just because he happened to be born with the right ‘parts’ I do not believe God would want this. Ultimately this caused me to leave Christianity altogether. I won’t come back. Through Sikhism I have found God, on a personal level. I am not held back in Sikhism as if my gender is a disability. (which is how I felt in Christianity). As a Sikh I can lead congregation in prayers (we have no actual clergy), I can perform kirtan (hymns), I can read from Guru Granth Sahib Ji in congregation, I can initiate/baptize others into the Khalsa (as I am fully baptized Sikh), there are no limitations. I feel free and like I can be who God designed me to be as a Sikh without feeling smothered and treated like my opinion and input does not count as much as a man’s. As I said, I felt that being born a female is treated as a disability in Christianity. I didn’t want to feel like that anymore. I was born with leadership abilities and to suppress them would be to rebel against who I am.
        Going back to your example, what if your wife also had bad vibes about your choice? What if she had said to you, please trust her judgement? To say that you can not trust your wife’s judgement over yours means you do value your own more.
        Anyway the idea of head as source does make sense if you believe in rib taken but used as a metaphor. But when applied to marriage it would be metaphor (parables) and not literal. I don’t think it was meant to be literal. Men usually are the ones to propose, in old days, women left their parents homes and moved to the husband’s. She had no property of her own. So the husband is the source of the marriage. He is also the one being called to be the FIRST (lead) in letting go of ego and laying down his desires and so called authority to elevate her. In other words the only thing he is supposed to lead is in “caving”.
        I don’t believe it implies superiority. Think of those ephesians passages, the wife is being asked to give a whole lot more if interpreted the way you said don’t you think? The man has to love her – okay, are wives not to love their husbands??? – So if a woman submits to her husband why is that only one way but loving is both? That’s kinda skewed in the husbands favour don’t you think? The verse is about what the other GIVES. If you really understand that it’s saying to love SELF SACRIFICIALLY – to sacrifice is to give up. It’s not talking about the very very minute chance that you might have to ‘die’ physically to protect her. Every man jumps for joy believing that because they know it will likely never happen! Instead the metaphor is to DIE to YOURSELF and sacrifice your own wants and desires to make the other happy. That is the exact same meaning as Submitting. To submit IS to love self sacrificially and to love self sacrificially is to submit. The reason for the different wording? Psychology. Men were so used to controlling and domineering women, and now it’s saying to give up your authority and elevate her to your equal (as an equal heir) so you will be equal heirs together. But the huge psychology trick is in making men THINK it was their decision to give up their own desire to give her hers. That way they still feel like they are in control when they really have given it up and I think that is brilliant how it was done, even though I don’t follow Christianity anymore.
        I challenge you to show me (since you prefer to interpret everything literally) where it says the man gets to make all the decisions for the both of them. I don’t recall any verse dealing with the idea of who gets final say in things. Even Jesus said he always spoke in parables. Please just look at the deeper meaning in this and the brilliant psychology it actually contains! By the way it starts with ‘Submit to one another’ and the rest is just continuing on anyway, so both are to submit to each other. It just uses language used to psychologically trick men into giving up their ego driven desire to control everything, while making them think it was their own choice to do so!
        Though we disagree, I wish you well and Happy Christmas (since I can’t believe we are only few weeks away!)