This is part two of a two-part post on the topic of submission. You can find part one here.
Last week, I spent an entire post on what biblical submission is not. It is not treating a wife like she is a child or a husband having totalitarian authority. But what about what submission is? This is one of the many hot-button issues that I have seen being discussed recently. It is a difficult topic that must be approached carefully and biblically. This post aims to do so by painting a picture of the husband-wife relationship from Scripture and talking about what submission should look like. I did briefly touch on this already in my post on what it means to be a helpmeet. This post expands on that even further.
Search the word “submission” in any Christian Facebook group, and you will find countless discussions on this topic. It’s overwhelming. You don’t have to search very long to find a Christian blog that talks about submission. It is a hot topic. Countless people have different ideas, opinions, and takes on what biblical submission looks like.
I have already written a post on what submission is not. And those endless blog posts and endless discussions on submission are what lead me to write this “part two” to my previous post. It seems to me that the majority of blog posts and online discussions reduce it down to what submission is not. Or, even worse, they turn into discussions on who does what part of the housework or whether or not a wife or mom with a job is going against Scripture. At the end of the day, this isn’t what submission is about! Husband and wife roles are too valuable to be reduced down to who loads the dishwasher and who brings home the bacon. Submission and biblical marriage are about glorifying God together in a way that a husband and wife cannot do apart, following the pattern God provides for us in Scripture.
I started this discussion in my post on what it means to be a helpmeet. There, I talked about the definition and implications of the words translated “help meet” in the KJV and “helper suitable for him” in other translations. I showed through Scripture that these words indicate that a wife is a necessary helper, not just a sidekick, secretary, or divine afterthought. Adam needed Eve, just as every husband needs his wife. She is, as Aimee Byrd stated in her book No Little Women, a necessary ally. Thus, women are equal in value and importance to men.
I’ve talked about how ESS and purity culture serve to demean women and cheapen their value. How we handle Scripture is extremely important. To mishandle it, take passages out of context, twist it for our own means, or ignore it completely are all fatal mistakes to our theology and subsequently how we live it out. This is why I take issues like this so seriously: may it never be that I say something that ends up causing spiritual harm to one of my readers.
So, what of submission? Passages like Ephesians 5:22-25, Titus 2:4-5, 1 Peter 3:1-2 all express the role of a wife. In Ephesians, Paul emphasizes that a wife must submit to her husband “as to the Lord.” This verse, although often separated by section headings in paper and electronic Bibles, actually leans heavily on the previous verse. Chapter 5 of Ephesians starts explaining how we should be (imitators of Christ), and continues on to explain what that looks like. Then, Paul makes a transition from how we as individuals should be to how our relationships should be. He, rightly so, starts first with the husband-wife relationship, since, as we will see further down in this chapter, that the husband-wife relationship is to mirror that of the relationship between Christ and the church.
Paul’s last two sentences before the famous husband-wife verses is found in verses 17-21: “So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” We must understand God’s will for how we should be. All of our relationships with fellow believers are to be characterized by our mutual faith and mutual indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Because verse 22 is part of the continuing thought from verse 21 and the previous verses, we must take it and the following verses within that context. Verse and section divisions (which are not inspired, but were merely added for ease of reading and reference, although clearly they’re not always actually helpful) can often cause us to forget that Paul was writing a letter, not just a random collaboration of pithy statements and unrelated commands.
This concept of submission that Paul talks about all throughout Ephesians has the idea of serving each other, loving each other, and yes, even obeying each other. Wives being submitted to their husbands is not about the wives being the terrified servants of a benevolent king. It is about loving, serving, and even obeying their husbands. This obedience is not the same as a child’s obedience to his or her parents, however. In fact, Paul makes a very clear distinction between submission and obedience. When he moves on to commands to children in chapter 6, Paul uses a completely different word from what he has been using in reference to submission. Children must obey their parents; wives must submit to their husbands. Why this difference? Because, as I think we can all reasonably discern, the relationship of a husband to his wife is vastly different from a parent to his or her child(ren).
A child’s obedience must be unquestioning, with the knowledge that the parent is in charge and has rules for a reason. There’s more to it than just a simple sentence, but I am trying not to rabbit trail too much. 😉 A wife’s submission is not about blind obedience. It is about the love and respect she has for her husband as the head and leader of their home. It is not about a husband giving his wife commands and a to-do list. It is about a husband-wife team led by the husband. Wives, we are necessary helpers to our husbands. They need us (just as we need them). We are equal in value and importance. We have just as much say in decision making and the running of our home as our husband. So, where does submission come in? If we wives are so equal to our husband, why must we submit to them to the length of obedience?
Because husbands have been tasked as leaders of their homes. This is not a role that should be taken lightly, and a wife’s submission to her husband must be viewed in the context of her husband’s loving leadership. As Adam, as the first man, was the representative for the entire human race, so is every husband the representative for his nuclear family. This applies to a family made up of a husband and wife all the way to a family with one or more children, as long as those children remain at home under his authority. The loving servant leadership of one’s husband is the context in which we view the submission of a wife.
What this looks like in day-to-day life is different for every couple. The beauty of diversity is found in how couples all over the world can follow the biblical commands of husband leadership and wife submission and every couple can operate in their own unique way under these commands. My submission to my husband has nothing to do with whether or not I am the one doing the dishes and cleaning the house every day and everything to do with how I respond to his leadership. When he comes to a decision for our household, do I accept it? Or do I complain my way into my own way? When I am concerned about a decision he has made or wants to make, do I complain about it to my friends (or even to him)? Or do I come to him out of respect for his role, but with the knowledge that I can lovingly suggest alternatives or ask if he’s considered particular consequences of his decision? Does my approach to my marriage come with the knowledge that God ordained my husband to be the leader of our home? A wife is her husband’s necessary ally. She is his equal companion, his closest friend and confidant. She stands by him when he is discouraged and beaten down, she submits to his loving leadership in their home, and she serves alongside him as they raise their children, run their home, and participate in their local church and local community. Her strength is found in her relationship with husband, but even more importantly, in who she is in Christ. All to God’s glory.
On the flip side, a husbands leadership is not selfish, neither is it abou-=t power. A husband following the biblical model of marriage is a servant leader in his home. He cares for his wife (and children, if he has any) in a way that models Christ’s care for his church. He walks with them through trials as the pillar of the home. His strength is found both in his relationship with his wife, but more importantly in his security in Christ. All to God’s glory.
Who we are and how we are, not just in our marriages but in all of life, all goes back to our relationship with God. We are all one in Christ. We all, male and female, have the same chief end: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Everything we do stems from this. The biggest question we must ask about our marriages is not who brings in the most income or who does the laundry, but how are we glorifying God together? How are we following the structure God has given us for marriage? Are we obeying the commands given in Scripture? Is the husband’s priority loving leadership and the wife’s respectful submission to that leadership?
The biblical model for marriage – when executed in a biblical manner – is not an oppressive system. The idea that one’s wife is to be treated as nothing more than a child or servant is wholly unbiblical and completely misses the purpose for marriage. Marriage is not intended to contain women or put them under a man because we cannot operate any other way. No, marriage is intended for glorifying God better together than a man and woman could apart, is brought about by his grace and sovereignty in our lives, and was created as a picture of Christ and the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. Jesus served the disciples to the point of washing their feet! Husbands must love their wives in the same way. He is to lead her well, be there for her, and serve her by caring for her needs.
Finally, I will leave you all with this: notice what is missing from this post. There is no perfect to-do list or formula beyond God’s model for marriage that will guarantee a perfect marriage. Because the health of a marriage is not determined by a wife who does the dishes and a husband who works an 8-5 job, and there is no other way. A healthy marriage is one that strives to glorify God and follow this biblical model for leadership and submission. My husband and I are newlyweds. Our one year anniversary is not for another month. So I speak these words, not as someone who has it all together or has a perfect marriage, but as someone who is striving both to have a biblical marriage and to encourage others to model their marriages in the way Scripture commands. As a young married, I find it far too easy to either push my husband aside and take control when I should be helping him lead or just complain about how things are, instead of praying for my husband or encouraging him in his role in our home. Just as loving submission is a lifelong lesson to learn, so is servant leadership.
Husbands and wives, give each other some grace, especially if you are new to this marriage game. Your marriage won’t always sail on smooth waters, and it will not always be easy to follow the biblical model for marriage. Life in Christ is not always perfect and wonderful, but it is always good. Husbands and wives, do not forget who is the ultimate head of your home, and who your marriage is intended to glorify (hint: it’s God). Seek his will, seek his face, and center your marriage around him. Your marriage will not always be perfect. It will get hard. It will get messy. But a marriage focused on God and his glory will always come back around, no matter how hard it gets. You and your spouse can get through any trial together, with Christ as your anchor.
Biblical marriage, biblical submission is not about who works the higher paying job, who works at all, or who does the housework. It is about a husband as the head and servant leader of the home; a wife submitting with respect and love to her husband’s leadership; and the glory of God as the primary purpose.
For the purposes of this blog post, I referred to the commentary, Ephesians: an Introduction and Commentary, written by Francis Foulkes and every Greek scholar’s favorite lexicon: the BDAG (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature).