Confused about Marriage Submission in the Bible? This Will Help!

🌺  Written by Gina

Do you wrestle with what marriage submission in the Bible really means? In today’s post, Gina M Poirier unpacks these tricky passages and what they mean for building a healthy relationship.

Marriage Submission with man standing behind a woman with his arms around herMy husband Marc and I like to say that we navigate life together by consensus.

If he doesn’t like a recipe I make for the family, I take it off the rotation. If I think he’s spending too much on his hobbies, we renegotiate the budget. Major decisions like where to live and how to parent are made with full agreement from both of us.

While it isn’t always smooth sailing, I guess you could say that we’re well-practiced in the arts of negotiation, compromise and submission, with decisions big and small. It’s part of life as a Christian.

 

When it comes to the topic of submission in the Bible—especially as it relates to marriage dynamics—many people have a knee-jerk reaction. Few topics in the Scriptures are so emotionally charged, so hotly debated, and so misused and abused.

You may have reacted in any number of ways to what I wrote above. If you’ve been raised with an understanding that wives’ submission in the Bible translates into a strict hierarchical relationship, you might take issue with our consensus arrangement. Maybe you know what the verses on submission in the Bible say about marriage, but perhaps they don’t sit quite right, or you’re not sure how to apply them to your life practically.

 

Some interpretive tools have helped my husband and me come to our current understanding of what submission in the Bible means for marriage today. If you’re interested in wrestling with submission in the Bible in a way that can help you grow in your faith and in your marriage, I invite you to dig deeper into the conversation—you might uncover some surprises! I’m going to avoid the polarizing terms complementarian and egalitarian and instead try to look at this issue through the lens of the cross (see 1 Corinthians 1:10–17).

 

Related reading: 6 Must-Have Habits for a Healthy Christian Marriage

 

 

How to Approach Tricky Subjects Like Marriage Submission in the Bible

 

Let me start out by saying I’m not a theologian or pastor. But like most Christians, I must make sense of the challenging verses like those on marriage submission in the Bible if I want to live out my faith. There are several approaches that are very helpful when I do this:

 

  1. Consider biblical context. When I come across challenging verses like those on marriage submission in the Bible, I view them through the lens of what I know to be true in the rest of Scripture. For example, just because there are verses that talk about how to operate in a society with slaves doesn’t mean that God supports slavery (he definitely doesn’t). Sheila Wray Gregoire has a great article about how some Christian marriage advice leaves Christ out when it uses prooftexts to build doctrine, rather than building doctrine on Christ’s teachings.

 

  1. Consider cultural and historical context. This can be difficult because there is inherently some conjecture when it comes to understanding what was going on when the biblical text was written. But if you can find generally reliable information, it can be very insightful as you try to figure out the author’s intent—especially in the epistles (letters from apostles), as I’ll discuss in a bit.

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with uncertainty. While some of the Bible’s teachings are crystal clear, many of them are not. There’s a reason scholars debate these things! You don’t have to be an expert. More and more, I’m embracing the opportunity to wrestle with challenging scriptures, like those on submission in the Bible, and being okay with uncertainty.

 

The Meaning of Marriage Submission in the Bible

 

The English words “submit” and “submission” come from the Greek word hypotassō, which according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible means “to subordinate; reflexively, to obey:—be under obedience (obedient), put under, subdue unto, (be, make) subject (to, unto), be (put) in subjection (to, under), submit self unto.” It is used 38 times in the New Testament. Words translated into “submission” also appear in the Old Testament, but never in reference to marriage.

Hypotassō is used in various situations in the New Testament, most frequently in reference to our submission to God’s authority, such as in James 4:7: “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” There are also some situations in which humans are told to submit to one another. The word only appears in three passages in reference to marriage.

 

Verses on Marriage Submission in the Bible

 

If we’re going to talk about marriage submission in the Bible as it relates to a man and a woman’s relationship, it boils down to these passages:

 

Ephesians 5:22–24

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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.

 

Colossians 2:18

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

 

1 Peter 3:1–2

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

 

Marriage submission in the Bible, specifically of wives to husbands, seems straightforward if you just look at these verses out of context. But as I explained above, we must dig deeper if we are to be good students of the text.

 

Considering Biblical Context

 

When considering marriage submission in the Bible and what that means practically (not only in marriage but also for other applications), Jesus is always a great place to start. What did he say about power dynamics and submission—and how did he reflect what he taught in the way he lived?

As Philippians 2:6–11 beautifully illustrates, Jesus is God, yet he did not use that power and authority to his own advantage. He humbled himself to take on human form and then gave up his own life. In Philippians 2:5, Paul instructs the believers, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

When Jesus’ disciples started arguing about who among them had more authority, he said, “You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45). Jesus demonstrated how to do this by washing his disciples’ feet and instructing them to do the same.

This is consistent with the way God operates throughout the Scriptures. He turns human power structures upside down. Submission is the way of the cross, and it is paradoxically the most powerful way to operate in a world that is corrupted by the abuse of power.

 

It’s also worth noting that marriage submission in the Bible does not condone abuse, bullying, manipulation or coercion by those who exert power over others; rather, it condemns these things.

 

Related reading: Is Divorce Ever God’s Will? (Plus Biblical Reasons for Divorce)

 

Considering Cultural Context

 

The verses that talk about marriage submission in the Bible are found in the epistles. These are letters written by the apostles that contain detailed instructions about how Christians are to live.

While many of the concepts in the epistles are universal, some parts address very specific situations written to the original audience (some of which don’t make sense in a modern context).

The three passages on submission in the Bible are written in a style known as household codes. Such codes were well-known in Greco-Roman culture. In them, the male head of the household held ultimate authority; women, children and slaves were inherently inferior. Famous thinkers like Aristotle had versions of household codes that were widely circulated to keep the patriarchal social order intact.

 

So what were Peter and Paul trying to accomplish by writing Christian versions of these codes? Were they going out of their way to reinforce the cultural norms around them? Doubtfully.

If they were going to be consistent with Jesus’ teachings, their writings should have turned the power structures of the world upside down. And if you look closely, that’s exactly what these Christian household codes do.

They do tell women, children and slaves to be in submission, because that is the way of Christ. Yet that’s probably not what would have stood out to the original hearers since their submission was already assumed in that culture. What set these biblical codes apart from their Greco-Roman counterparts was the instructions they had for the “heads” of the household.

 

Paul Writes to All Believers

 

At the beginning of the section on household codes in Ephesians, Paul writes in verse 21 to ALL believers: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This sets the tone. Then, after telling the wives to be submissive to their husbands, Paul goes into much longer instructions for the husbands in verses 25–33. Following Christ’s example, husbands are to completely lay down their lives for their wives in their love for them! Greco-Roman codes said nothing of the sort.

Similarly, while he doesn’t go into as much detail in Colossians, Paul instructs husbands to love their wives and not embitter their children, following an earlier passage telling everyone to put aside their fleshly (self-preserving) nature.

Peter likewise has challenging instructions for husbands—in 1 Peter 3:7 he says to treat their wives with respect, as partners and co-heirs of Christ’s promises. For women whose spouses aren’t following Jesus’ teachings, he offers encouragement by telling them not to be afraid and to trust in God. Most of these women probably didn’t have the power to leave a destructive marriage or resist abuse in any way in that culture—they had to patiently lean on God, who saw their suffering.

 

I imagine these instructions created quite a stir in a patriarchal society. Women, who were subordinates in the culture around them, were not only being noticed, but treated as equals with dignity and respect in Christian marriages and the Christian community. It’s no wonder women were converting to Christianity in large numbers during that time.

 

What Marriage Submission in the Bible Looks Like

 

So what does marriage submission in the Bible mean for today—and for all time?

My position is that when a husband and wife are both following the spirit of what Peter and Paul say in their letters, as well as centering their relationship on Christ, what you get is a partnership in which each person is putting their spouse’s needs ahead of their own. They are ultimately submitting to God.

This dynamic reinforces the surprising assertion that Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The cross is the great equalizer; two people love can each other selflessly and operate by consensus even when the culture around them is built on destructive power dynamics.

I’m not saying there aren’t any differences between genders, or that they don’t have different roles in a marriage. And there are other questions that I haven’t addressed directly, like the meaning of headship and women’s roles in the public assembly, or what to do when one spouse is abusive. This article is a starting place. I hope you continue to study these issues and talk about them with the same Jesus-centered, contextually mindful approach.

 

How do you feel about marriage submission in the Bible, especially in marriage? What do you think it should look like?

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  1. I wish I could remember the exact words the Deacon used when talking about submission in marriage at my wedding. My husband and I used this as one of our verses (we had already been married 8 years outside and the church).
    He explained what the original word was in the language the Bible was originally written in and said, basically, that it meant that we were "in mission" together.
    Marriage is meant to get the other person to heaven and to raise any children to also follow in this mission. Our "endgame" is to get to heaven and bring as many people as we can with. We do this by the example we set with our lives. To serve each other in love.

  2. So the timing of this article is no coincidence – at least for me. I have been S-T-RU-GGGGGGG-L-ING with this topic especially lately – for a variety of reasons. Suffice it to say, God has been speaking to me and I believe He wants all of us to have His plan for our lives… His perfect plan – which means my imperfect heart struggles sometimes. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. So glad to hear this is encouraging to you. I love how God speaks to us in a variety of ways at just the right time.

    2. You're welcome, Debbie! I've wrestled with this topic a lot too, so I'm glad it can be of encouragement to someone else as I flesh out my thoughts <3

  3. Wow – I love all the research you've included in this! Lots of great food for thought, especially on the revolutionary nature of what was being taught. Thanks for sharing this!

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