Hear the word “submission” and “marriage” in the same sentence and you may be gripped by the sudden urge to “hit the road.” Your heart may explode with anger, terror, or guilt, or collapse in hopelessness and resignation. Surely that’s not what God meant when He used those words together in the New Testament. So what did God, and Paul, have in mind? What is godly submission in Christian marriage?

Yes, Paul wrote in at least two places, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18) And the enemy has twisted those words and used them to bring destruction to human beings and marriages for centuries.

Marrying those words with human selfishness results in a lot of trauma. Men have too often used them to dominate and control women, treating them as inferior, forcing sex on demand, and using that Scripture as justification for physical, emotional, and spiritual violence. Women have given in, lived with guilt, failed to “grow up” emotionally and spiritually, accepted traumatizing sex for decades, and experienced levels of violation that make God both weep and rise up in holy anger. Some women have rebelled, seeing no other way to survive.

I know personally people living with such trauma. The pastor whose wife daily cringes in fear, and whose children ran away from home as teenagers to escape the domination and control. The missionary wife subjected to dehumanizing porn-incited sexual violence. The wife punished for going six dollars over her weekly food budget for a family of seven.

Friends, this is wrong! To borrow James’ comment from another context, “These things ought not to be!” (See James 3:10)

Enough of the dirty and twisted distortions. What’s God’s idea of submission in Christian marriage?

A Brief Biblical Perspective

The primary passage is from Ephesians 5:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  (Ephesians 5:21-24)

Note these things:

  1. The first direction is for all believers to mutually submit to one another. That leaves no place for manipulation, control, violence, or domination by anyone, husbands and wives included. Every believer is to seek to meet each other’s needs, not to see any other human being as being there to meet your needs.
  2. Christ is the example – for both husband and wife. How does Christ treat the church? Certainly not with violence or control, but with tenderness and sacrificial loving care. The same word submit is also used of Christ, as in how He is submitted to His Father. (See 1 Corinthians 15:27-28) Certainly there is no hierarchical domination in the God-head. So Christ is also the example of how a wife should relate to her husband.
  3. The husband is directed to love his wife as Christ loves the church. (Ephesians 5:25-29) In this chapter Paul spends more time talking to husbands about their duties than he does talking to wives. Men are to treat their wives with the sacrificial love, tenderness, and the kind of cherishing nourishing care that Christ has demonstrated to us. This is the ideal example of servant leadership.

Perhaps the greater number of words directed to husbands was God’s way of addressing the sinful tendency of many men to either twist their leadership role into one of domination and control, or to abdicate their leadership role entirely. In addition, the repeated direction to wives to submit to their husbands speaks to a man’s core need for respect. (Ephesians 5:33)

What Healthy Submission Looks Like

So how does this translate into modern Christian marriages? What does submission in Christian marriage look like?

Remember that Christ is the example we are following. Take Christ submitting to His Father as the example of how a wife should submit to her husband. And take how Christ treats the church as the example of how a husband should relate to his wife.

For wives, healthy submission does not mean accepting bad behavior, allowing abuse or violence, giving in to sex on demand, or making your husband responsible for your relationship with God. It does mean offering respect to your husband as a gift, building him up, honoring him, following his lead when possible, and allowing yourself to be the catalyst God uses in your husband’s life. It means maximizing what you have to offer the bigger purpose God has for your marriage.

For husbands, healthy submission does not mean you force your wife to comply with your demands, or use violence or intimidation to pressure her into doing what you want, including sex. It does mean you step up with the kind of leadership Christ demonstrated, do the heavy lifting, and shoulder the responsibility to take your wife and family into God’s presence. It means you become the increasingly trustworthy and loving kind of person that enables your wife to want to submit. Like Christ, you give of yourself for your wife’s needs.

When It’s Not Happening

What if your spouse is not functioning like that? Based on the principles Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 and Romans 12:18, you do your part to live in peace. (It never works to force or nag your spouse into changing anyway.) If there is serious abuse going on, or if your marriage is toxic, get some help.  Check your own spirit for anger, control, or rebellion. Keep growing your own character before God, and invite (not force) your spouse to come along.

As demonstrated by Christ and the Father, submission for the Christian is not about hierarchy or control. The opening statement to this passage, “Submit yourselves to one another,” puts it all in perspective. Follow Christ in doing that, and your marriage will thrive.

Your Turn: What have you imagined “submission in Christian marriage” to look like? How does Christ’s example stretch your understanding of submission? Leave a comment below.

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