What does the Bible really mean when it instructs wives to submit to their husbands? As a capable and independent woman, who is also a new Christian, I was disturbed to hear about this biblical admonition. I've asked others at my church about it in order to try and get some clarification, and have heard a wide range of opinions, including the idea that it's not relevant for believers and married couples today. What are your thoughts?
The "submission" of the wife to the husband within the marital bond (Ephesians 5:22) is best explained from two different but supplementary viewpoints: 1) the spiritual significance of marriage (Ephesians 5:32); and 2) the inherent differences between males and females. Before proceeding to examine these in detail, we should mention that Paul's instruction to wives on this point has to be read in tandem with his exhortation to men: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her" (Ephesians 5:25). It should also be understood under the umbrella of the apostle's introductory admonition to all Christians of both sexes: " Submit to one another in the fear of God" (Ephesians 5:21).
Where the spiritual or theological aspects of the question are concerned, we must bear in mind that the "one-flesh" union between a man and a woman in marriage is, in an important but inexplicable sense, a mystery analogous to the "three-in-one" bond that subsists between the members of the Trinity. As in marriage, so in the Godhead we find diversity within unity. But while all three Members of the Trinity are fully equal and mutually identified in the sense that all three are God, we can also detect a certain hierarchy or subordination of function in their relationships with one another. For example, though Jesus made several statements clearly making Himself equal with God (see John 5:18), He also said, "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). As the Creeds express it, "The Son is begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son." The seeds of Paul's doctrine of marital submission can be discerned in this statement.
Paul also compares marriage to the organic connection that exists between Christ and His Body, the church (Ephesians 6:32). This analogy is instructive, since it is clear that the relation envisioned here is not that of Master to Servant but rather that of Lover and Beloved. As Lord of the church, Jesus has given up His life in exchange for the life of His bride. This is what Paul has in mind when he says, "For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body" (Ephesians 5:23).
Moving on to the subject of sex differences, we think that Dr. Emerson Eggerichs deserves a great deal of credit for shedding some extremely helpful light on this aspect of the husband-wife relationship. In his book Love and Respect, Dr. Eggerichs points out that, generally speaking, the sexes differ in terms of their respective needs for one or the other of these emotional "commodities." Men need to feel respected by their wives and women need to feel loved by their husbands. This explains why the apostle specifically instructs husbands to "love" their wives and wives to "respect" their husbands (Ephesians 5:33). It's largely a question of the distinctions between male and female temperaments and the unique dynamics of the marital relationship.
It may be helpful to add that this distinction is basically a matter of emphasis. Common sense itself suggests that God wants both husbands and wives to treat their spouses with love and respect. Indeed, it's possible to argue that love and respect are just two sides of the same coin. When the Bible commands wives to respect their husbands, it assumes that such respect will be founded upon love; and when it tells husbands to love their wives, it takes it for granted that a "disrespectful" love is no love at all. The point is that there is something in the make-up of the sexes that requires different elements of the question to be stressed in each particular case.
In accord with everything we have just said about the spiritual and the sex-based foundations of the biblical teaching on marriage, Focus on the Family fully affirms the equality of husband and wife in terms of personhood and value in the sight of God. At the same time, we do not believe that this implies equivalence of office or function. Scripture clearly distinguishes between male and female roles within the marital bond - though this should not be taken to mean that one partner is more important than or superior to the other. Instead, functioning together in a complementary relationship of mutual submission, the Christian husband and wife become a reflection of the love that exists between Christ and His Church.
At this point we would like to issue a warning. The biblical pathway here is narrow, and it is easy to fall into twin errors on either side of the road. The first is that of promoting male domination and female suppression. Yes, the Bible makes it clear that a man should bear the responsibility for leadership in the home. But it is only as a leader that his wife submits to him (Ephesians 5:22) - not as a tyrant or superior being. By his leadership she is not disenfranchised or robbed of her personhood, nor is he given the right to run roughshod over her opinions and feelings. Rather, he is to love and cherish her - to die for her if necessary - even as Christ loved the church. He is to include her in the making of important decisions, weighing and considering her perspectives carefully and respectfully. In the end, the prerogative - and responsibility - of choosing and directing is allotted to him. But this does not give him license to disregard the needs and feelings of his partner - in other words, he is not to use it as a "trump card" to get his way. Rather, it places him under a heavy charge to become even more sensitive and more considerate, since he must ultimately answer to God for his choices and for the way in which he treats his wife. In this connection, it's worth adding that grave errors have been made through the misapplication of the man's "headship" in the home. If a wife believes that her husband is misusing this role, we'd advise her to speak with him about her concerns. If he is unwilling to listen, it would be very appropriate for her to bring the matter before a trusted mutual friend or a spiritual leader. It's always a good idea to seek help from an objective third party.
The second pitfall we must avoid is equally dangerous. Given our current cultural climate and especially the proliferation of "male bashing" in media and entertainment, it is too easy to forget about the importance of masculine leadership altogether. In our opinion, the breakdown of many families today is due in large part to the failure of men to assume their God-given responsibilities. If in an attempt to avoid male domination we swing to the other extreme and strip husbands of their authority, we will be disregarding God's plan for marriage and the family, and ultimately courting social disaster.
Before closing, we'd just like to clarify that the Bible is not "sexist" in any sense of the word. Viewed against the backdrop of the social and historical context in which it was written, the New Testament is radically, even shockingly, egalitarian in its approach to what would nowadays be termed "women's issues." In John Chapter 4, for instance, Jesus speaks freely and openly in public with a Samaritan woman, something that normally would have been considered "taboo" for a Jewish man in that society. And the apostle Paul, in describing the standing of Christian believers (men and women) before God, boldly declares, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
If you'd like to discuss this at greater length with a member of our staff, contact Focus on the Family's Counseling department for a free consultation. Our trained and licensed counselors would be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you person-to-person over the phone.
The Model Marriage
Love and Respect
Character Red Flags