If you are an American, I have bad news for you. You may have more trouble with submission than most people. Submission is considered not only un-American but downright anti-American. “Give me liberty or give me death,” was Founding Father Patrick Henry’s famous declaration during the American Revolution. And, indeed, Americans value liberty more than almost anything else. Certainly, to many people, submission looks like a loss of liberty. We might paraphrase “Give me liberty or give me death!” as “I’d rather die than submit!”
A nation that prides itself on a notion such as this will view submission negatively, and there are two problems for Christians who also find themselves in this category:
- The Bible speaks frequently of submission, so if you have a problem with submission you will have a problem with much of the Bible.
- Submission—or having a submissive spirit—is spoken of positively. If you do not want to be a submissive person, you are going to have a hard time following Christ.
Submission Is Not Only for Wives
Often when we hear the word “submission” the first thing that comes to mind is God’s command for wives to submit to their husbands. But wives are far from the only believers commanded to submit; every Christian is called to submit in a number of ways. Before Peter commands wives to submit to their husbands in 1 Peter 3:1 he first discusses submission in a number of other relationships:
- 1 Peter 2:13–17 commands believers to submit to government (see also Romans 13:1–7).
- 1 Peter 2:18–25 commands slaves to submit to their masters; in our society this would translate as employees’ submitting to employers (see also Ephesians 6:5–8).
- 1 Peter 5:5 commands congregations to submit to their elders (see also Hebrews 13:17).
Additionally, in Ephesians 6:1, the apostle Paul commands children to submit to their parents (see also Colossians 3:20). He also instructs wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22, but one verse earlier, he commands believers:
Submit to one another in the fear of God.Ephesians 5:21
What Does Submitting to One Another Mean?
Have a submissive spirit that is willing to give up rights and wishes for the sake of unity in the body of Christ:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.Philippians 2:3–4
Our spiritual liberty is not only about freedom but equally about giving up—i.e., submitting—our rights for others. If a brother or sister in Christ would be offended or stumble on account of one of our liberties, we submit to that person by laying down our rights (see Romans 14:14–23; 1 Corinthians 8:9–13):
- Romans 12:18—If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.
- Hebrews 12:14—Pursue peace with all people.
Establishing this peace, whether in the marriage relationship or any other relationship, involves submission. It involves making sacrifices in deference to others.
The Way We Submit Is as Important as Submitting
When I taught elementary school, I told students on the first day that the way they did what I asked was as important as doing what I asked. For example:
- If I instructed a student to take out a book, and the student slammed it defiantly on his desk, he would be in as much trouble as if he had not taken out the book at all.
- If I told a student to push in her chair, but she pushed it in while rolling her eyes, she would be in as much trouble as if she had not pushed in the chair at all.
The way we submit—whether students to teachers, children to parents, congregations to elders, believers to government, employees to employers, believers to one another, or wives to husbands—is as important as submitting itself. If we submit with a bad attitude, we are not really submitting. We may think of submission as an outward action, but it is something we do inwardly. Submission is an issue of the heart.
One interesting note about the Greek word for “submit”—hypotasso—is that it is actually a military term meaning “to arrange (troop divisions) in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” It reminds me of a lesson I will never forget from my time in the United States Army. A superior officer asked those of us under his command: “What do you do with every command you receive?”
We gave any number of answers:
- “Make sure you know exactly what you are being asked to do.”
- “Learn from the order.”
- “Carry out the request as quickly as possible.”
Nobody had the right response. Finally, we were told: “Take the order and make it your own.”
What he meant was any time we are given a command, we should do it as though we want to do it. If a soldier moaned, groaned, rolled his eyes, complained, or argued with his commander when asked to do something, he would be considered insubordinate. To say it would be frowned upon is an understatement. Likewise, we should recognize how much it is spiritually frowned upon if we do that when submitting. This can apply to:
- Students when they submit to their teachers
- Children when they submit to their parents
- Employees when they submit to their bosses
- Wives when they submit to their husbands
And this applies to husbands when they do things for their wives. Will it really bless a wife if a husband sighs and complains while changing a diaper or washing the dishes?
For a better understanding of submission, watch this message I preach at Marriage God’s Way Conferences…
The Need for Submission
An examination of basic leadership structures makes clear submission is an important principle in every area of human interaction. No organization can be successful without authority or headship:
- Businesses have CEOs.
- Sports teams have coaches.
- Governments have presidents or prime ministers.
Just as we recognize the need for a leader, or a head, we also recognize that there cannot be two heads. We do not see two head coaches, two presidents, two head pilots, or two head surgeons. Imagine how uncomfortable you would feel flying on a plane where two head pilots are arguing over the flight plan. Imagine being operated on by two head surgeons quarreling over the proper procedure. Instead we always see a head coach and an assistant coach, a president and a vice-president, a pilot and a co-pilot, a principal and an assistant principal. The second-in-command is expected to submit to the authority of the leader in charge.
Since we recognize the need for orderly leadership in all other areas of life we should recognize the same need in marriage and appreciate how clear God makes it in Scripture.
Scripture’s Clarity Regarding Wives Submitting to Their Husbands
Consider three points:
- Wives are instructed five times in the New Testament to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 5:24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1). The repetition makes this one of the most common commands in God’s Word.
- Every New Testament passage that discusses the marriage relationship commands wives to submit. A wife’s role is inextricably linked to and contingent on her submission to her husband. God does not see wives’ relationships to their husbands separately from their submission to their husbands.
- Despite all the New Testament verses we have looked at instructing submission toward various individuals—employers, elders, government, parents, husbands—it is significant that there is no verse instructing husbands to submit to their wives.
Does Ephesians 5:21 Negate a Wife’s Submission?
Unfortunately, since Ephesians 5:21 says to “(submit) to one another,” it is sometimes used to argue that husbands and wives should submit equally to each other. There are a few problems with that interpretation:
- Ephesians 5:21 does not refer to the marriage relationship but is talking about believers’ mutual responsibilities toward each other. Paul does not discuss marriage specifically until verse 22 when he begins addressing wives and husbands directly.
- As we saw in Chapter 6, at least two husbands—Adam and Ahab—were rebuked for submitting to their wives (Genesis 3:17; 1 Kings 21:25).
- Paul cannot be teaching that husbands should submit to their wives because that would conflict with instruction that immediately follows in verses 22 and 24 for wives to submit to their husbands, as well as similar instruction in Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1.
In support of women submitting to their husbands, Dr. Jay Adams, founder of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS), the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) explained:
Submission does not remove freedom; it allows for it. When is the train freer? When it is bumping over the hillside off the track? Or when it is smoothly running along the track, confined or restricted, if you will, to the track? It is freer when it is where it ought to be, doing what it was intended to do . . . Freedom in God’s world never comes apart from structure. When one is free to live as God intended, he is truly free indeed. We hear much about women’s liberation today. I want you to be liberated. Here is the path of genuine liberation for a woman: submission. Submission allows her to run on the track; it allows her to make beautiful music in her home.Jay Adams, Christian Living in the Home (P&R, 1972), pp. 74–75
Submission Is for When a Wife Disagrees
A wife is commanded to respect her husband and submit to him. Is there a difference between the two commands?
- Respect deals with a wife’s feelings toward her husband and the way she treats him as a result.
- Submission deals with a wife’s response to her husband when she disagrees with his decision.
One of the most common arguments I have heard from wives who do not want to submit to their husbands is: “I would submit to my husband if I agreed with him.” Can we see the problem with this logic? If a wife agreed with her husband, she would not have to submit. Submission is in place entirely for when husbands and wives do not agree. Perhaps a husband and wife have discussed a decision together, presented their ideas, shared their thoughts, and tried to come to an agreement. But they cannot. At this point, what do they do? How do they decide? Do they flip a coin or play “Rock-Paper-Scissors”? Just as in all the authority structures we have discussed, there is a clear answer here, and it is an answer God has decreed, not man. For the marriage to be able to move forward, the husband has been designated to make the final decision.
Two points should be kept in mind regarding husbands and wives discussing decisions together:
- Although it is ideal when a decision takes place only after a husband has given his wife ample time to share her thoughts, some situations might not allow for lengthy discussions. If for whatever reason, time is limited and a presentation of both sides and opinions is not feasible, wives are still expected to submit to their husbands.
- As much as a husband should strive to hear his wife’s thoughts, a wife should strive not to exasperate her husband. She should not say, “You can’t make a decision yet, because you haven’t heard everything I have to say,” while presenting countless variations of the same opinion said in different ways.
When a wife has to submit, she needs to remember if her husband is wrong, he will be held responsible. The decision is on his shoulders. Her responsibility ends at submitting, not at making sure the right decision is made. Marriage expert and author Wayne Mack explains it this way:
Submission means a wife sees herself as part of her husband’s team. She has ideas, opinions, desires, requests, and insights, and she lovingly makes them known. But she knows that in any good team someone has to make the final decision. She knows the team members must support the team leader, his plans and decisions, or no progress will be made and confusion and frustration will result. Fifty-fifty marriages (where the husband leads half the time and the wife leads half the time) are an impossibility. They do not work. They cannot work. In marriage someone has to be the final decision maker, and God has ordained that this should be the husband.”Wayne Mack, Strengthening You Marriage (P&R, June 1, 1999), p. 14.
Submission is difficult. It is tough for men to lead spiritually, and it is just as tough for wives to submit. Wives should be encouraged by the reality that submission does not mean supporting the idea but supporting the man behind it. When wives submit, they should remember they are doing it out of love for God and their husbands.
Husbands Can Make Submission Easier, but They Can Never Make It Easy
A husband can make respecting him easier, but making submitting to him easier is a different issue. Generally, a wife has trouble respecting her husband if there is sin in his life, but a wife often has trouble submitting to her husband if he is not a spiritual man. It is difficult for a wife to trust a man who does not pray, read the Bible, is not involved in the church, or does not seem to have a heart for God. The reason should be obvious. A wife will have little confidence in her husband’s ability to make the right decisions for the family.
A woman wants a man who is guided by the Lord. When a wife knows her husband regularly spends time in prayer and in God’s Word, she will have a much easier time placing her life and the lives of her children in his hands. She will feel confident in his judgment. There are plenty of reasons for a husband to pray and study Scripture regularly, and one of those reasons is so that his wife can say: “I trust my husband. He wants what the Lord wants. He is receptive to God’s will. I know this because his spiritual life makes it obvious.” Being a man of the Word and a man of prayer is the greatest way for a husband to make his wife’s submission easier.
To bring some balance to this section though, you will notice that the subheading speaks of husbands making submission easier instead of easy. This is because it will always be difficult for wives to submit to their husbands. God told Eve:
“Your desire shall be for your husband.”Genesis 3:16
This refers to a desire for women to control their husbands. It might help for a man to be loving and godly, but as a result of the curse, wives are going to struggle with submission regardless of what their husbands are or are not like. While a wife might insist that she would submit to her husband if only he were more like Christ, this is not a valid argument because Christ loves all wives perfectly, and they still fall short of submitting perfectly to Him. In conclusion, husbands can make submission easier for their wives by being godly men, but as part of the curse, a wife will have trouble submitting even to the godliest man.
- What comes to mind when hearing the word submission? Are your thoughts positive or negative?
- Does Scripture present submission positively or negatively?
- Aside from marriage, in what other relationships are Christians called to submit? Which of these is hardest for you to submit? Why?
- Discuss a time you gave up rights to be at peace with others:
- What are the differences between submitting outwardly and submitting inwardly?
- How do your actions demonstrate your attitude about submission?
- Since we recognize submission is necessary for orderly leadership in so many other areas of life, why do we see such a struggle to embrace it in marriage?
- Since wives are commanded to submit to their husbands five times in the New Testament, why do you think some churches and/or couples reject it?
- What are the differences between a wife respecting her husband versus submitting to him?
- Why is submission in marriage necessary?
- How does the idea of equating submission to working as a team encourage you?
- Discuss the blessings of a time your wife submitted to you.
- List three of your wife’s actions that demonstrate her submission to you.
- Do you feel your wife exasperates you by presenting countless variations of the same opinion stated in different ways? If yes, discuss at least one time this took place (preferably recently).
- List three things you do that make it easier for your wife to submit to you:
- List three things you do that make it harder for your wife to submit to you:
- What changes will you make so that it will be easier for your wife to submit to you?
- Discuss the blessings of a time you submitted to your husband.
three actions that demonstrate your submission
to your husband.
- Do you feel you exasperate your husband by presenting countless variations of the same opinion stated in different ways? Why or why not?
- List three things your husband does that make it easier to submit to him:
- List three things your husband does that make it harder to submit to him:
- How will you begin praying for your husband so that it will be easier to submit to him?