Are the ancient biblical instructions for marriage that call for a wife to submit to her husband still valid? How can a wife willingly submit to a less-than-perfect husband?
Marissa believed in God and wanted to live a Christian life. However, when she read some New Testament passages discussing the husband-and-wife relationship, she felt uncomfortable. To her these scriptures seemed outdated and written for a very different culture.
For example, the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:22-24: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything."
Marissa felt that God surely would not consider this passage valid today. After all, Paul lived in a male-dominated culture, where women were often dependent on their fathers or husbands for survival. Today, women are able to support themselves and in most cases are as educated or even more educated than their husbands.
Marissa had been married to Tony for three years. He also shared her Christian beliefs and tried to live a godly life. While she loved Tony very much, submitting to his decisions was sometimes difficult. She often felt that her choices and goals were superior to his. After heated "discussions" she would sometimes go along with what Tony wanted to do. But more often than not, she insisted on doing things her way.
Tony and Marissa's marriage had settled into a rather dry routine. They both worked during the day and jointly shared in the household duties in the evenings and on the weekends. However, Marissa remembered how Tony used to bring her special gifts or surprise her with a poem he had written for her. He no longer did those things and spent most of his free time with his brothers and friends.
He had also recently expressed his feeling that she no longer respected him. She was surprised to hear this, and it made her wonder if their marriage would last. Could she be sabotaging her marriage by refusing to submit to Tony? Yet how could she do so when she didn't agree with many of his decisions? Marissa decided to once again look at what the Scriptures said about the marital relationship.
Is this biblical instruction out of date?
Perhaps you too have questioned whether biblical instructions regarding marriage are still valid today. Specifically, are the words of the apostle Paul out of date, or can they be used as a foundation for Christian marriages?
We must first understand that the biblical view of marital roles derives not from ancient patriarchal culture but from the order established by God at the creation of man and woman (Genesis 2:21-24). When couples submit to God's pattern for marriage, the result is peace and happiness.
Sadly, our Western society teaches women to reject the biblical view of the husband's headship and the wife's submission. Ignoring this role distinction within marriages is a major cause of many breakups today.
Both men and women can misunderstand what God really intended for the relationship between husband and wife. The husband's headship does not mean domination over his wife, but rather it is his God-given responsibility to provide caring leadership to ensure the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of his wife and children. A wife's submission to her husband does not mean serving him as an "inferior," but rather being willing to accept his loving leadership.
Does this mean, though, that all family decisions are to be made by the husband? Not at all, for there are various times when a husband should wisely defer to the wishes of his wife (compare the principle of all Christians submitting to one another in Ephesians 5:21). This would especially be true in areas where the wife is more knowledgeable. Both partners should always discuss major decisions and goals. However, if their opinions vary, God has instructed that the husband should make the final decision, and all family members should honor and respect that (Colossians 3:18).
Are women inferior to men?
One reason wives sometimes find it difficult to submit to their husbands is that in our society "submission" sounds like a flawed relationship of inferiors to superiors. Do the Scriptures say women are inferior to men? Are men God's favorites and women created merely to take care of them? These are relevant questions in addressing the critical role of a Christian wife.
For example, consider Genesis 2:18: "And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.'" From this verse some might assume a wife's role is merely to help her husband achieve his goals. But a careful examination of the text reveals that the godly role of a wife is much more than simply functioning as her husband's assistant.
The Hebrew word translated "helper" in Genesis 2:18 is ezer. Interestingly, this word is often used to describe God Himself and has the sense of giving strength. Notice Psalm 115:11: "You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help [ ezer ] and their shield." Other scriptures such as Deuteronomy 33:26, Psalm 33:20, Psalm 70:5 and Hosea 13:9 also use that same Hebrew word in referring to God as our help or helper.
Surely if the Hebrew word ezer connoted an inferior rank or position it would not be used to describe God. God is our helper, and He is certainly not inferior to human beings! Similarly, a wife is not inferior to her husband just because the Creator gave her the role as his helper. Men and women are equal before God since they are both made in His image (Genesis 1:27). Similarly, Christian men and women are equal before God because they are "one in Christ" (Galatians 3:28).
Of course, though husband and wife are equal before God, their roles are different—as are some of their responsibilities.
Does God expect submission?
Many scriptures reveal that a wife is under the authority of her husband. Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:3: "But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God."
This scripture clearly explains that the husband is the head of the wife. But some wives feel that they are not under the authority of their husbands because their husbands are not totally submitting to Christ. In addition, they may feel that their husbands are also failing the command to love them as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25-29).
As we have just read in 1 Corinthians 11:3, a husband must submit to Jesus Christ's leadership so he can truly lead his wife. Husbands must indeed also love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25; Colossians 3:19).
Jesus gave us a wonderful example of sacrificial love. When a husband exhibits the same love and commitment to his wife that Jesus showed the Church, it's much easier for her to follow his lead. She knows he always has her best interests at heart. Conversely, if a husband is not submitting to Christ, or does not love his wife as Christ loved the Church, it can be difficult for his wife to submit.
Of course, no husband is perfect in submitting to Jesus Christ and loving his wife. Many are far from it. But does this give wives the right to ignore the scriptural commands to submit? Some wives even come to the point where they have difficulty loving and accepting their husbands.
How can a wife submit to a humanly flawed husband? What if she is convinced his decisions are not in her or their children's best interests? What about her rights as a person? And what if he would want her to do something morally or ethically wrong?
The Bible reveals that we should always obey God over man (Acts 5:29). He places no human being under the unconditional authority of another. Only obedience to God is absolute. A wife should not be expected to disobey God in order to submit to a misguided husband. For example, if a husband asked his wife to sign a fraudulent tax return or not report his abuse of their children to the police, she would not have to comply.
Scripture is clear that wives are to be submissive to their husbands and obey them unless obedience involves breaking God's laws and biblical principles. Regrettably, there may be situations when a wife may have to resist her husband's will (1 Samuel 25:3-38).
A wife who is unsure about whether to submit to her husband in some matter should seek guidance from God through prayer and studying His Word—and through counsel with a minister if necessary. In some cases just discussing her feelings and concerns with her husband in a humble manner may cause him to reconsider his decision (1 Peter 3:1).
The key to submission
The key to understanding submission is to realize that ultimately a wife is serving God, not man. Notice what Paul wrote in Colossians 3: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord . . . And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:18, Colossians 3:23-24).
Jesus Himself was the perfect model of both loving leadership and submission. Paul discusses Christ's attitude in Philippians 2:5-9 and emphasizes that Christ became obedient to the Father, even to the point of death.
Likewise, every wife should strive to submit to her husband's leadership with the same attitude that Christ displayed toward His Father. Even though she is equal to her husband in the eyes of God, she should not question his God-ordained right to lead, just as Jesus who shared divinity with God the Father did not question His authority (John 6:38).
Trusting in God is needed
While the submission of Christ to the Father provides a wonderful example to help us understand how a wife should submit to her husband in the Lord, it is still difficult for many women to do so. This is especially true when a wife is convinced that some of her husband's decisions are unwise. The answer to this dilemma is found in 1 Peter 3:5: "For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands." The key phrase here is "trusted in God."
By following her husband's lead, a wife is trusting in God's protection and deliverance. This parallels Christ's submission to God, even to His death (Luke 22:42). If her husband truly wrongs her by his decisions, he will be judged by God. However, she will be blessed in the long run if she trusts God and follows the biblical admonition to submit to her husband.
Submitting requires faith in God (1 Peter 1:21) and belief that following God-inspired scriptural commands regarding the marriage relationship will bring success. Satan the devil wants wives to think that God's ways do not always work, and that they must refuse to submit unless they totally agree with their husband's decisions.
God requires the kind of submission that ultimately necessitates faith in His eternal power and goodness. God's ways are not our ways! A wife may logically feel that the only way to achieve the security she desires is to control her own life, and even her husband, as much as he will allow. In reality, however, she can best achieve true happiness and security by trusting God and submitting, even when it does not immediately seem like the best choice.
God has called His followers to pursue a different path from that of the society around them (Matthew 7:13-14). Christians are told to do good to their enemies, to turn the other cheek and always forgive (Matthew 5:44). Is it any surprise, then, that our great God would provide a pattern for marital happiness that requires faith in His all-knowing wisdom? For it is only by trusting God that a wife can truly submit to her husband in every situation (1 Peter 3:5).
Stepping out on faith
And now back to the couple introduced at the beginning. After much prayer and study, Marissa decided to follow the biblical pattern for marriage. She was pleasantly surprised to find that Tony became much more attentive to her feelings and needs. She had feared that she wouldn't be happy deferring to him, but in doing so she found herself much more at peace.
Tony once again felt respected and valued because Marissa recognized him as the leader. No longer threatened, he began to realize the incredible responsibility of loving and caring for her as Jesus Christ cared for the Church. He no longer feared that pleasing his wife would make him a slave to her whims, but instead he became even more sensitive to her needs.
Marissa and Tony were overwhelmed at the blessings that came from following God's marital instructions. Marissa found the love and security she so deeply desired, and Tony finally felt the fulfillment of his longing to have a supportive companion to help and strengthen him. They also experienced much joy knowing that their marriage more closely reflected the relationship between Christ and the Church.
If you desire a better marriage, ask God to give you faith to believe and trust in Him. Not only will following God's Word bless your marriage, but it will also prepare you to become more like Jesus Christ, who lived a life of constant submission to His Father's will.
Jesus explained that we can truly find our life only by losing it (Mark 8:35). A husband must have genuine sacrificial love, and a wife must willingly seek to fulfill her God-ordained responsibilities through submission instead of primarily seeking to do her own will. This can be accomplished by trusting God and allowing His living laws for a happy marriage to unfold!