Should Men Be Submissive To Their Wives?

May 9, 2012

As I continue my series on sustainable marriage, it’s important to address the issue of submission. Today, I’m going to ask a key question, share a key thought, and then give you an opportunity to respond and discuss. Next Thursday, I’ll share more of my own thoughts.

Discussions on submission in marriage usually focus on whether wives should be submissive to their husbands. Ironically, I don’t know anyone who takes the Bible seriously who questions what the Bible says on this matter.

Paul says it pretty clearly: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22 NIV84). There may be disagreement about what submission means; but surely most everyone agrees that Paul’s intent was to teach the submission of wives to husbands.

The real question is whether biblical submission is a one-way street, wife to husband, or whether husbands are also expected to be submissive to their wives.

One verse prior to the one quoted above is this general instruction to all Christians: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV84). This is probably in the top five most-ignored verses in Scripture.

Paul did not make any exceptions. He did not say, for example, “Everyone in the church should submit to everyone else—unless you happen to be married to each other; in that case, the husband should not submit to his wife.” And think how strange it would be if he had. That would mean I should be submissive to every Christian—male and female—except for my wife, Debbie!

It is interesting that in most English Bibles, the two verses are separated by a paragraph break and a bold heading, giving the impression that Paul was dealing with two completely different topics. But in the Greek New Testament, verses 21 and 22 are part of the same sentence. The word for “submit” does not even appear in verse 22, but relies on the participle in verse 21.

Those who teach the view called “mutual submission” suggest that verse 21 provides the context for the teaching on marriage in the rest of the chapter. In other words, husbands and wives are to be submissive to each other, just as all Christians are taught to be submissive to each other. They see marriage as a mutual partnership with the husband taking the lead in some areas and the wife in others, neither asserting absolute authority over the other.

So those are the two primary views: one-way submission (often part of a larger perspective called complementarianism) and mutual submission.

What thoughts do you have regarding biblical submission? What does it mean to be submissive? Should a man be submissive to his wife? Why or why not?

Note: This can be a sensitive issue. Be aware that I moderate all comments and expect commenters to be respectful of all others and their views. The question is not about your feelings on the matter, but what you think the Bible teaches us about it. Also, be aware that I work a day job. Any responses I have during the day will likely be clustered around lunchtime.

You might also want to check out 7 Habits of a Sustainable Marriage.

Read the next post in this series – What Does It Mean To “Submit” In Marriage?

Kevin Scott

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Kevin Scott is a pastor, speaker, and author of ReCreatable: How God Heals the Brokenness of Life (Kregel, January 2014). He writes essays about sustainable Christian living, discipleship, and community.

4 responses to Should Men Be Submissive To Their Wives?

  1. Kevin: I happened upon your discussion because I was aware that the first verse mentioned is often quoted (and perhaps often abused… ) and the second one mentioned is rarely remembered…

    My opinion after following the Lord for 35 years and being a wife for 30 is that… a big S is often inferred by most people when speaking on submission…when the real meaning might be something more of a small s. A gentle attitude, being slow to speak when there is any temporary dissagrement… something both men and women should ‘practice’…not a company ladder order.

    I have a Jewish friend, from a very devout family line that says that good Jewish men are taught to “hear Sarah’s voice”.

    Interesting isn’t it. Perhaps if ‘Sarah’ felt she was being heard…there would be no need for a great big giant S.

    • Hi Michelle. Glad you found the discussion. I like your distinction between the big S and little s. And I had never heard that about “hearing Sarah’s voice.” Excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I believe there is a strung duality to the submission of the husband and wife and that it has to be put into a greater context through the scripture that follows.

    The wife submits to the husband as the church submits to Christ. This places the husband in the position of being the spiritual leader of the union and an example by which the wife and family are to model themselves after.

    But I think the key attitude of the husband has to come from verse 25, where is says, “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” What better example of submission can you have but the ultimate display of love that comes from self sacrifice and devotion?

    The relationship then takes a whole new dynamic. The wife submitting to the authority of the husband in the matters of their spiritual growth and health, assured in this because of the husbands ultimate devotion to place the wife ahead of all concerns. The relationship becomes self fulfilling and building.

    The chapter continues by setting an example of this sacrificial love for the wife by comparing the husband’s devotion to the wife to the love of one’s own body. When a body is cared for it thrives. All parts take direction from the mind and the consciousness of the head, but the head is ever mindful of the importance and feelings of the body below it. If an area causes pain, it is addressed immediately lest the rest of the body and the head suffer from that pain as well.

    But even in the place of authority, the husband (the head) is not always the expert of all tasks in life. While the head leads, and the body submits to that leadership, the head that is concerned first with the needs of the body knows when to let the body shine in the areas of its expertise. Likewise, a husband who puts his wife ahead of himself in all things knows, or quickly learns, to take direction in areas where she is the expert on the matter. His leadership as head of the union is to recognize and guide the family in the direction provided to him by his bride.

    Mutual submission fosters trust and health in the marriage. It requires effort on both parts, and rewards by its inherent nature of self sacrifice on the part of both. But ultimately, there has to be an order to start the ball rolling in the right direction. Once it’s moving, it generates its own momentum.

    • Hi Dwight,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. There are some good thoughts here. One question I have is what is meant by “spiritual leader of the union.” I’m wondering, in the view you’re describing, where that idea of spiritual leader comes from, what it means, and why it is reserved for the husband alone. What if, as in other areas, the wife happens to be better qualified to lead in this area?

      Just some questions to spur your thinking.

      Glad you’re participating here.