What Does It Mean To “Submit” In Marriage?

May 16, 2012

I said last week, while most discussion about biblical submission focuses on whether a woman should submit to her husband, the real question is whether a man should submit to his wife.

The apostle Paul taught all Christians to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 ESV). He never made an exception to this general rule, and, in fact, it would have been odd to say the one exception was that a husband should not submit to his wife.

In the ancient world, it was not a radical teaching to say a woman should submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22). This was absolutely expected, though there have been women in every age who have flaunted their independence.

The departure—what set Christianity apart from ancient culture—was the expectation that husbands would love their wives, even “as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25 ESV). And how did Christ love the church? He humbled himself and gave up His life for her.

Paul, it seems, took seriously some of what Jesus said about leadership and submission. Read slowly and carefully His words:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on my thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:25–30 ESV).

And then there’s this parallel (with another in Mark 10):

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25–28).

How did Jesus love the church? By submitting to her, serving her, so that she could have a seat at the table, a position of privilege. He took His place waiting tables. He laid down His life so she could have the privilege of sitting on the throne.

Leadership in Christ’s kingdom looks a lot like submission and service. And the Christian family is to be a microcosm of the kingdom. It’s not one person leading all the rest or one person being subservient to another; it’s mutual service and submission for the benefit of all.

That’s not to say that there’s not a head. After all, Jesus is still the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23–24); but it redefines what it means to be the head. For Jesus, it meant serving rather than being served. It meant inviting others to lead and serve by His side.

Next in the series—To a Young Man Contemplating Marriage: 4 Answers to Which I’ve Forgotten the Questions

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.

3 responses to What Does It Mean To “Submit” In Marriage?

  1. Jennifer Peters May 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Kevin,
    I went to school with your niece Alyssa and she had posted about your blog. I decided to check it out and the things you write are really resounding with me. I have a question for you. My husband and I are really trying to figure out what it looks like and means for us to be good stewards of what God has given us. We try and try but still end up wondering how we’re almost out of money at the end of the month. We always tithe right away, but we feel like if we’re truly practicing stewardship the way God has in mind, maybe we wouldn’t be worrying so much. There’s a lot of condemnation right now, we constantly feel like we’re messing up, and we’re just not sure how to move forward. Have you written any posts about this or would you maybe be willing to? I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts. Thank you!

    • Hi Jennifer! I haven’t written anything about it, but let me put some thoughts together and get back to you. It’s a great and relevant question. I’m glad Alyssa helped you find my blog.

      • Jennifer Peters May 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

        Thank you so much! We are interested in all the advice and counsel we can get. We want our marriage to honor God is every way.