Wives: What Submission Does (And Doesn’t) Mean

Few commands in Scripture strike our modern ears as more offensive than those commands to submit. Read through Ephesians, for instance, and you can’t avoid Paul’s admonition to wives:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24 CSB).

For some women, I can imagine that Paul’s instruction to submit to your husbands just about makes your heads wants to explode. Or at least it’s not something you’re going to have cross-stitched on a pillow anytime soon.

Much of our bristling response against submission, however, is a result of the ways that the idea has been twisted. We hear “submission” and immediately add in ideas of inferiority, tyranny, and abuse. But submission in marriage, Paul says, was a gift of God designed to help us grow and make us more like him. God’s call for you wives to submit to your husbands, far from diminishing your worth, is an invitation for you to reflect Jesus in how you submit to that leadership.

What Submission Doesn’t Mean

There are a few things submission doesn’t mean:

1. The dominance of the man

A wife does not exist as a serf in her house to cater to her husband’s whims. Just a few verses after Paul’s command to wives, he tells the husband to lay down his life for his wife and love her “as Christ loved the church” (verse 25).

2. Abusive relationships

I wish this didn’t need saying. When Paul says to submit to the husband “as to the Lord,” that means “as a way of serving God”—not “in the place of God.” This means that if your husband tells you to do something that would make you disobey the Lord or if his leadership ever puts you or your family in harm’s way, you need to get out of there, and you need to get some counseling to help you heal.

3. Submission in all areas

Paul’s command doesn’t mean that all women everywhere should submit to all men, as if women can’t lead (for example) in the workplace. Paul is only talking about the marriage relationship.

4. Using this verse as a tool to wield over your wives

Notice that the verse is addressed specifically to women. Men, it’s her verse, not yours! As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, that means you shouldn’t quote it at your wife. It’s hers to obey, not yours to demand. If she’s not doing it, all you can do is be the kind of leader it would be a joy to submit to. You play your role, and trust God with hers.

Your Submission Is an Invitation to Lead

What submission to your husband does mean is that you allow him the space to steer the family.

I love how Kathy Keller, wife of Redeemer Presbyterian’s Tim Keller, explains it: “Submission means that in matters of disagreement, I yield to Tim the deciding vote. I get a vote; he gets a vote; he gets the deciding vote.”

When Tim and Kathy were deciding on whether to move to New York City so he could plant a church, he felt they should go, and she did not. They had to make a decision; to not make one would be, functionally, to make one against. Tim conceded and said, “OK, if you don’t want to go, we won’t go.” Kathy replied, “Oh no, you don’t! You’re not putting this on me. You have to make the decision and bear the responsibility.”

Spiritual leadership means the husband has the burden of responsibility. Its counterpart is the sort of submission that encourages and equips the husband for that leadership. As Kathy’s example shows, submission can be an active and engaging trait—but in the end, someone has got to break the tie. I love how Tony Evans puts it: “Spiritual headship is God telling the woman to duck so he can punch the man.”

Spiritual headship is not license for men to do what they want to do. It is empowerment to do what they ought to do.

But, wives, that means you don’t only follow him when you agree with him or feel like he is making the right decision. That’s not submission; that’s agreement.

You may say, “Well, my husband is not a spiritual leader” and wonder what that means for how you follow him. But this verse doesn’t say, “Submit … when he is a sufficiently spiritual leader in your eyes.”

If your husband is not a spiritual leader, your submission to him in this way can help call him up into this kind of leadership.

As a wife, your submission creates a vacuum that serves as an invitation. And when your husband does step up, you need to encourage him. Say things like, “That’s what I love in my man. Leadership.” Then watch him come alive.

When the two of you start to conduct your marriage this way, you will find that deeper joy you’ve been looking for. This is what happy marriages are made of!

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