Every Jesus loving woman has meditated on and examined the scriptures that speak about wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, 1 Peter 3:1). A wife’s submission is a hot topic among many and can be dividing in marriages, friendships, and churches when not fully explored. Almost seven years after leaving Mars Hill Church, which heavily influenced my view on submission and other issues surrounding women (I attended for nine years) I have decided to investigate deeper at what scripture prescribes.
In the past I wrongfully accepted what I was being taught on the grounds that it appeared to line up with scripture and it sounded correct, but I failed to see if it was being taught within context. I am simply sharing with you what I have found scripture to stipulate. However, this is not going to be exhaustive and will only look at situations when a wife’s submission is not absolute, as I have seen little written addressing this straightforward.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Ephesians 5:22-24
While Ephesians 5:22-24 instructs wives to submit to their husbands, it does not give the husband permission to dominate his wife. Though the husband is the head of his home this does not permit harsh, domineering, selfish, cruel or abusive behavior towards his wife (Colossians 3:19). This behavior is a result of sin and needs to be recognized as such. This type of behavior does not bring unity to the marriage; it only brings destruction and pain. Husbands, you can’t discipline your wife; you are to love your wife as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25).
Likewise, wives need to be careful not to resent their husband’s role in the marriage or rebel against scripture and move to obtain authority where it is not permitted (Colossians 3:18). This too is a result of the fall and will bring destruction to the marriage. A wife’s submission is voluntary; it is not something that can be forced but it must come from a gospel-centered love.
The flip side of the aggressive behavior from both husbands and wives is passivity or laziness. With this laziness husbands tend to not take initiative in the marriage and fail to lead their family according to how it’s laid out within scripture, they in turn become wimps in their effort to be considerate of their wife’s ability to make decisions thus allowing her to make all of the decisions. Equally, wives who in an effort to avoid being rebellious in their home end up being so passive they no longer have a voice in their marriage and the decisions of their home. Wives can be subject to the authority of their husbands without loosing their voice and husbands can successfully lead their home without muzzling their wife’s gifts, and place in the marriage and home.
Women are not called to ignore the gifts that God has blessed them with and husbands should support those gifts within the context of scripture. We are to be good stewards of the gifts God has blessed us with and be faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). God does not call women to be doormats, a slave, or completely passive (Ephesians 4:6) nor are they called to be silent but to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:25).
Additionally, submission does not instruct a wife to follow her husband into sin or sin because he asks her to (Acts 5:1-11). Husbands and wives are to obey God first (Acts 5:29). A wife submitting to her husband does not mean that he can stop her from attending church or go against her conscience. However, wives need to be respectful to their husbands when communicating about matters of disagreement (Ephesians 4:25). It is also important to remember that wives are included in the instructions given in Matthew 18:15; they are permitted to confront their husbands’ sin.
In an effort to love their husband and to follow Christ, wives sometimes believe submission to their husband also means that they are to endure abuse, abandonment, or adultery. However, scripture does not teach this (1 Corinthians 7:15, Matthew 19:9). Marriage is worth fighting for, especially when the spouse is truly repentant. Sometimes it is hard and messy and we may need to endure the muck for a season but God never calls anyone to endure abuse.
The call for a wife to submit to her husband can become a tangled mess in trying to hammer out what exactly scripture speaks to in this matter. Sometimes in the mess, people can become confused and misunderstand scripture. Other times scripture is used to control or manipulate. On this issue of submission, both husbands and wives need to proceed with each other in a gospel-centered love.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
For an additional look at submission a good friend has written a great article on the matter, Submission and the Mutual Lust for Autonomy.