A Submissive Wife

Q – I know that Ephesians 5:22 and other passages say a wife should obey her husband in all things. I went to the Q&A section but you don’t seem to have a section devoted to the wife’s submission. I was hoping that you could explain, in light of the entire Bible, how a wife should submit to her husband.

Jim – Let’s start with the “big picture,” because we can only understand the details when we have a framework into which to plug them. Here’s the primary concept that guide our thinking on this subject: God is orderly.

God is not “of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33). And God has laid out organizational structures in His word that dictate positions of authority and leadership. Whether we’re thinking about leadership within the church or leadership in the home, God has determined the best, most beneficial plan for our dealings with one another. Trouble erupts when we circumvent God’s way of doing things and replace His structure with our own. But, far too often, church governments fail to follow God’s prescribed methods just as husbands and wives often fail to align themselves with God’s clear model of Christian marriage. And that always, always leads to trouble. It’s inevitable. God simply does not bless activity that is contrary to His dictates. Yet, church after church, marriage after marriage, people chase their own agendas and wonder why God did not protect them from the inevitable debacle.

We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God, our Maker, hard-wired certain thoughts, feelings, reactions, and needs into each particular gender, male and female. For all our fleshly effort to deny that fact, the differences remain. And our Maker knows how to best structure the marriage relationship so that each partner performs a significant, complimentary role. Rebellion against that structure cannot help but create problems. God’s ways work, our ways end in misery. Yet, our sinful nature constantly yearns to do things our own way. So, God’s word includes instructions on how to order and cooperate in marriage.

Let me emphasize that last idea — cooperation. God’s instructions cut both ways. Both the husband and the wife have significant responsibilities in marriage. But, the failure of one partner to perform his/her duties is not an automatic excuse for the other partner to give up their own responsibility. So, let’s start by looking at the whole context of Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5, then we’ll talk about individual aspects and responsibilities. There’s much more to this passage than merely verse 22. Here’s the whole pertinent pericope:

“Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. 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. Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see to it that she respect her husband.” (Eph. 5:15-33)

The whole of this passage is introduced by the words “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise.” That’s the theme. It is not just a couple of arbitrary rules concerning marriage. It has to do with redeeming your time here on Earth because so much of the world is evil. So, we are not to be foolish, but we are to work to understand the Lord’s will. For instance, we are not to be under the influence of alcohol, but to be filled and controlled by the Spirit of God — that’s where wisdom resides. Rather than being involved in worldly pursuits (such as drunkenness) we are to speak and sing to the Lord, always thanking Him for everything and be subject “to one another” in the reverent recognition of whom we serve. That’s the context.

With those thoughts in mind, Paul turns his attention to husbands and wives. But, the great balance of what he has to say is directed at the husband. So much so, in fact, that the only instruction he has for the wife is:

(1) that she be subject to her own husband, as to the Lord.
(2) that she respect her husband.

Now, despite the fact that I used the word “only,” these are firm, non-negotiable aspects of a Biblical marriage. A wife is to listen to, respect, and cooperate with her husband as a matter of Christian conscience, in a way that reflects the church’s subjection to Christ “in all things.” This is not a popular idea in our contemporary society. But, as I said, rebellion against this structure inevitably leads to a failed marriage.

Now, it’s equally true that a Christian husband who desires appropriate respect and subjection from his wife must perform his particular duties. The entire rest of Paul’s instruction in this passage has to do with husbands treating their wives appropriately:

(1) The husband is the head, or leader, of the wife — but his headship is to parallel Christ’s headship over the Church.

(2) The husband is to love his wife in a way commensurate with Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. That love was demonstrated in the sacrifice of Himself in order to achieve the Church’s eternal welfare and reconciliation with the Father. Christ’s love is marked by sacrifice, despite the fact that the ones He gave Himself for were enemies, sinful, blind, darkened, hateful, and consumed with wicked deeds. In other words, the love which husbands are commanded to give is genuinely self-sacrificing and not conditioned on the ebb and flow of human emotion or performance.

(3) Husbands are to love their wives as they love their own bodies. Because the two of them are one, when a man loves his own wife he loves himself. The inverse is also true. To be cruel to one’s wife is to be cruel to one’s self. Just as no man ever hated his own flesh, but will go to great extremes to make sure his own body gets everything his flesh desires, he should equally strive to see to it that his wife is satisfied, filled, and properly cared for. Just as it says all the way back in Genesis, a man is to “cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.” A husband is to “cherish and nourish” his wife as he would his own body.

(4) The husband is to love his wife as he loves himself.

(5) The love a husband demonstrates for his wife is to be a direct reflection of Christ’s love for His church.

Now, the tough question is: Do most Christian men live up to this description? The answer, of course, is “no, not usually.” Yet, these same failing men are often quick to point out that their wives have failed in their subjection and respect for their husbands. It seems unfair to me. Unless a man can say that he has reached the point of perfect obedience to Christ (who is the head over the man) then it’s quite hypocritical to constantly point out the wife’s failure to achieve perfect obedience to the one who is the head over her.

So, what’s the answer to all this? Grace, grace, grace, grace ….

Just as Christ is gracious to the husband for all his failures, the husband is to be gracious to the wife despite her failures. We’re sinners, after all, and not one person has achieved perfection in the flesh. Meanwhile, the wife is to be gracious to her husband, acquiescing to his headship and respecting him as a God-fearing man.

So, there’s a balance in this passage. The responsibility is parallel; it goes both ways. The man is to follow Christ and exhibit Christ-like characteristics in his dealings with his wife. The wife is to recognize that God has placed her husband in a position of authority and give him the respect that his position deserves.

BUT! — Neither party will perform those tasks and expectations perfectly or perpetually. And that’s where grace is so vitally necessary. When a legalistic man pounds on his wife’s conscience, pointing out her failures and using the Scripture as a means to batter her emotionally, there’s no grace present. When a woman reaches the point of utter rebellion against her husband and denies his wishes in order to exert her independence and teach him a lesson, there’s no grace in that.

The only meeting place between the obligations of the wife and the husband is on the grounds of grace. Judging each other on the basis of performance will always, always leave you angry and dissatisfied, because no one can ever live up to another person’s standards. Kindness toward each other will solve a multitude of hurts.

Since we’re talking about a husband’s obligations, Peter touched on the subject, too. And he placed the responsibility for a healthy relationship squarely on the shoulders of the husband. In 1 Peter 3, he starts by addressing women who are married to unbelieving men. In that case, the obedience of the wife may serve to convert the husband. Then he instructs that they dress modestly so that their inner qualities shine through. He follows by reminding wives that holy women, who hoped in God, adorned themselves with gentleness and a quiet spirit, being submissive to their husbands as Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.

But then Peter makes a really remarkable statement — “and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” (1 Pet. 3:6) Peter’s employment of the phrase “without being frightened by any fear” has led to all sorts of speculation and interpretation. It may well be that Peter is convinced that Abraham’s love of Sarah was her inspiration to submit to him. She did not do it out of slavish fear. So, women become the daughters of Sarah when they do what is right “without being frightened by any fear.” Fear is never a proper motivation for submission in marriage. Proper submission is motivated by love and proper respect. Such respect must be earned, not demanded or inspired by terror.

For another view of this passage, in his commentary Albert Barnes explains it thusly:

“The word rendered “amazement” [ptonsis] does not elsewhere occur in the New Testament. It means terror, trepidation, fear; and the literal translation of the Greek does, “not fear any fear.” It seems to me that the following may express the sense of the passage:

(1) There is undoubtedly an allusion to the character of Sarah, and the object of the apostle is to induce them to follow her example.

(2) The thing in Sarah which he would exhort them to imitate, was her pure and upright life, her faithful discharge of her duties as a woman fearing God. This she did constantly wherever she was, regardless of consequences. Among friends and strangers, at home and abroad, she was distinguished for doing well. Such was her character, such her fidelity to her husband and her God, such her firm integrity and benevolence, that she at all times lived to do good, and would have done it, unawed by terror, undeterred by threats, To whatever trial her piety was exposed, it bore the trial; and such was her strength of virtue, that it was certain her integrity would be firm by whatever consequences she might have been threatened for her adherence to her principles.

(3) They were to imitate her in this, and were thus to show that they were worthy to be regarded as her daughters. They were to do well; to be faithful to their husbands; to be firm in their principles; to adhere steadfastly to what was true and good, whatever trials they might pass through, however much they might be threatened with persecution, or however any might attempt to deter them from the performance of their duty. Thus, by a life of Christian fidelity, unawed by fear from any quarter, they would show that they were imbued with the same principles of unbending virtue which characterized the wife of the father of the faithful, and that they were not unworthy to be regarded as her daughters.”

In any case, Peter’s emphasis is on Sarah’s commitment to wholesome, righteous principles, even under threat of terror or fear. That, according to Peter, should be the hallmark of Christian wives. They are to stand for what is proper and Godly, despite the circumstances that may inspire worry or fearfulness. Whether it’s an unbelieving husband, the opinions and pressures of society, or her own flesh, the Christian wife is to follow Sarah’s example and be motivated by the love of truth and righteousness, regardless of the circumstances or worries that may inspire her to bend.

At that point, Peter turns his attention to the husbands and addresses their responsibility to consider their wives and deal with them in an understanding and honorable way, inasmuch as she is a fellow heir of the grace of God —

“You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7)

Only a woman living under the headship of a husband who deals with her tenderly, understanding her fragility and emotional needs, will ever truly respect her husband “without being frightened by any fear.” In Peter’s paradigm, if the marriage is wrought with fear, distrust, terror, or anger, it is the husband’s fault for not dealing with his wife “in an understanding way.” The husband is to show his wife honor. And if they do not, their own prayers will be hindered.

I simply don’t think enough men have considered the gravity of such words. I know men who can terrorize their wives and then fall to their knees and think God is attending to their every word. But, the conscience and heart of a Godly man should be broken to the point of failing to pray successfully when he damages his own wife — which is his own body.

But, Peter wasn’t finished. He continued writing —

“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)

Again, it is remarkable to me to see men hug their friends at church, laugh with their pals on the phone, speak great theological ideas and share intimate fellowship with Christian brethren, all the while heaping every form of fearsome abuse and anger on the one person he is biblically commanded to hold in highest respect and honor. As Christians, we are ALL to treat each other sympathetically, in a familial way, with kind hearts and humble spirits. And we’re so good at doing that with strangers. Yet, we’re all-too-quick to exhibit our worst behavior to the ones we have vowed before God to love and cherish above all others.

We are sinners, indeed.

Meanwhile, Paul wrote to the church at Colossi –

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.

Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” (Col. 3:18-21)

There’s a great balance in these words. In family relationships, everyone is to do their part in a way that is pleasing to God, above all else. But, there’s an undercurrent to these words that is not to be missed. Paul commanded these principles and behaviors specifically because they are not our natural, fleshly way of behaving.

When God cursed Adam, Eve, and the Serpent after the fall in the Garden of Eden, he told Eve (speaking to all womanhood) that her desire would be to her husband and he would have the rule over her. Inasmuch as she was the one who compelled her husband to join her in her rebellion, God placed the husband over her. Therefore, Paul commanded women to “submit yourselves to your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” This is the structure that God imposed on humanity and it is the only structure He will ever bless.

Then Paul turned his attention to the husbands, instructing “love your wives and do not be bitter against them.” Why would that command be necessary? It’s because men naturally grow frustrated and bitter against their wives as time passes. The eyes of men wander, their minds imagine things, and their hearts lust after other women. It’s in their make-up, ever since the fall. So, God instructed that a man would leave his mother and father, and cleave to his wife. The two become one. He is bound to her. So Paul commands that husbands be sacrificially loving and not bitter.

Then Paul turned to children, instructing that they obey their parents, just as the 5th Commandment states. Children are naturally rebellious and wildness beats in their hearts. So, the command to obey is sensible and in their best interest.

Equally, Paul instructs fathers not to provoke their children to the point where the kids become discouraged and angry. Here again we see the male character on display. Men want to rule with an iron fist. Men want to instruct firmly and punish severely. Men struggle to control their testosterone-fueled temper. So, the instruction is necessary and befitting our intrinsic biology and make-up.

But, it’s all in-balance. Wives are to submit, husbands are to love and resist the feelings of bitterness. Children are to obey and fathers are to be careful in their discipline that they don’t discourage their offspring or provoke them to anger. It’s all complimentary and utterly dependent on grace. Left to ourselves, none of us could live up to the least of these ideals or principles.

Then, to wrap up this section of his letter, Paul introduced the over-arching principle that lays at the heart of his exhortations.

“And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:23-24)

Our inspiration to do right, submit, love, obey, and not provoke each other is all rooted and grounded in our love for God. Sometimes we get so close to the members of our family that we forget that they are also members of the body of Christ, saved by the same grace, and dependent on the same Savior.

Speaking as a male, I know that it’s easy for us to argue that others must submit because we are “the head of the household.” But we also have a head over us and He expects us to live up to His expectations. And if we are failing Him (as we so frequently and constantly do), it’s tremendously hypocritical of us to berate the members of our household for their failure to fully submit to us. We men want grace and mercy from Him who is head over us. So, we certainly need to demonstrate similar grace and mercy to those over whom we are given headship.

It’s grace, grace, grace, grace, grace.