“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of his wife…” (Ephesians 5:22)
This is one of the most frequently twisted-and-misapplied verses in Scripture, and out of all the Scriptures that have been misused, this is one of the most dangerous (as I can personally attest from growing up in a patriarchal family).
The verse immediately beforehand recommends MUTUAL submission, Peter VERY heavily implies that BOTH spouses be in submission to one another, Paul outright states this when he says that BOTH spouses do not belong to themselves anymore but to each other, not to mention all those verses about “male and female”, several Biblical examples of women in charge, etc, etc, etc.
But no, everything else is pushed aside by some to insist that women/wives are meant to be subservient & obedient, that the men/husbands are in charge, everything he says goes, etc. That such doctrines are widespread in today’s egalitarian society says a lot about the state of the Body of Christ.
How many people have been so blinded by complementarian and patriarchal philosophy that they believe Rebecca was in the wrong to undermine & prevent her husband Isaac’s wishes when they went against God’s wishes? (If that’s you, no offense, but you’re literally putting the husband on a pedestal above God. If your husband is telling you to do one thing and God telling you to do the opposite, DO WHAT GOD SAYS – NOT YOUR HUSBAND.) Or think that Vashti was sinful in refusing to be a show for a bunch of drunkards like her (equally drunk) husband wanted?
Heck, God once literally instructed Abraham “do whatever Sarah [his wife] tells you to” (Gen. 21:12). Deborah was leader of the friggin’ nation of Israel!
It’s especially ironic because despite common claim, THERE IS NO BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF A “HEAD OF THE HOUSEHOLD“.
I was taught for years that the Bible teaches wives to obey their husbands because husbands are the “head” of the household.
This comes from a verse in Ephesians 5:
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of his wife…”
After 16 years of marriage and 21 years of pursuing Jesus, I see these scriptures very differently now.
In fact, the teaching that wives should obey their husbands is wrong. Even harmful.
Here are three reasons why:
Reason #1: The context of Ephesians 5 tells husbands and wives to submit to each other
When we take any scripture out of context, we usually misunderstand it’s meaning.
If you’ve ever been interviewed, then quoted out of context, you know how this feels:
“Hey! I didn’t say it like that!”
This is precisely what happens with Ephesians 5 teaching about wives and husbands.
Let’s look at the context of the scriptures in Ephesians 5 surrounding “wives submit to your husbands.”
21 And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 For wives, this (submission) means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.
25 For husbands, this (submission) means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…
31 As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” 32 This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. 33 So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5)
Paul here gives advice about husband and wife marriage relationships: Submit to one another.
Wives are to submit to their husbands. And husbands are to submit to their wives!
He then elaborates. I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s like he’s saying, “for wives, my advice for how to express submission is to treat your husband with respect. For husbands, my advice for how to express submission is to show love like Christ loved.
Think about it. Christ actually “submitted” to His church by loving her and giving his life for her. He led through submission. Not a pansy pushover, mind you. A strong, decisive, sacrificial leader who submitted his natural desires for the betterment of his bride, the church. Christ showed his authority by submitting. (As we’ll see in a moment, we can’t understand Biblical submission if we view our relationships through a hierarchical lens.)
In Christ, God and People become One. In marriage, husband and wife become one. Submission is not about hierarchical authority – it’s about relationship and oneness like God showed us in Christ.
Reason #2: The meaning of
the Greek word translated as “submit” does not mean “to obey”
In Greek, the word “submit” is “hupotasso”. It means to get under and lift up. It’s a very different word than the Greek word (“huakoe”) which is translated as “obey.”
Sandra Clements elaborates on this:
Finally, submission does not mean “to obey.” The Greek word for “obey/obedience” is hupakoe, which means to listen to or to harken to. Submission (hupotasso) means to get under and lift up, or to put in order. It does not mean obedience. Gundry well defines this equalizing principle as a sort of voluntary raising everyone else to your own personal level of importance and worthiness. It is interesting to note that other languages further reinforce this concept. For example, Kluane Spake, writes, “The German translation of that word, sich unterstellen, means to place oneself at a disposition of another.” It can also be a military term referring to the equal sharing of tasks, to support, to fulfill one’s part of the assignment.”*
Reason #3: A hierarchical view of relationships contributes to our misunderstanding of authority and submission.
When we view marriage (or a church organization for that matter) through a hierarchical lens, understanding submission gets really foggy.
When I got married, I thought I was the boss. Sure, I needed to listen to my wife, love my wife like Christ loved the church, etc. I had all the good sayings down. My intentions were good.
But I had this subtle belief that, at the end of the day, I was the one who called the shots. After all, I was “the head”. It’s Biblical, right?
When it comes to understanding relationships and authority many of us see the world primarily through a hierarchical lens. Jesus had (and has) all authority. But he never built a hierarchical system of order.
In fact, he shatters the paradigm of hierarchical authority:
24 Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. 25 Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ 26 But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. (Luke 22)
Think of it this way. The one who has the most authority must be the one who submits the most. Jesus lived his life and fulfilled his ministry by getting beneath others and lifting them up – this is the essence of great leadership.
It’s what he did as he taught his disciples. When he fed the crowd, taught them the way of His kingdom and healed their sick. It’s what he did when he bent to the floor and washed the filthy feet of those he led. It’s what he did when he took the worst place imaginable at the cross. He was a leader in the greatest definition of the word imaginable.
It’s not about pandering to others whims and wills. Certainly, Jesus didn’t live like that. Jesus led well. The one who wishes to lead must lead in the same fashion. Jesus broke down the traditional ways of dividing into hierarchy.
26 For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3)
The church which silences women will be found to silence the Holy Spirit,” and “a sect or sex, or race which attempts a monopoly of the Spirit’s voice and power, will find that the Holy Spirit will flee far from it.” — Dr. Katharine Bushnell
Jesus shattered hierarchy in our relationships based on ethnicity, economic status, or gender. He calls us to a wholly unique way of relating to one another in Christ. This is how we change the world.
34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (Jesus in John 13)
I haven’t found it easy to always figure out exactly how this mutual submission thing works in marriage and decision making.
Sometimes it’s slow.
Sometimes it hurts.
But it’s good. Jesus showed the way. I think I’m on the right track.
Don’t think you can make disciples?
Also, pardon my French, but HOW IN THE FUCK have Complementarians and Patriarchs convinced themselves that making all women submissive housewives & giving men all authority is IN ANY WAY “EQUAL” AND/OR “EQUALITY”?!
IF COMPLEMENTARIANSIM IS EQUALITY, THEN SO IS RACE-BASED SLAVERY!
Marg Mowczko, an Australian author, makes a very interesting observation about the hypocrisy of the adamant “Wives must submit!” chauvinists:
I was recently reading through all the “one another” verses in the New Testament. There are lots of these verses. Many of them are about loving one another and not judging one another. I was surprised to see that several say that we are to greet one another with a kiss.
Did you know that there are five verses in the New Testament where believers are instructed to greet one another with a kiss? Five! Four were written by Paul, and one by Peter (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12b; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14b). I didn’t realise there were that many.
In Australia, it is very unusual for men to kiss other men as a form of greeting. And I personally don’t know of any church where all the believers, both men and women, greet each other with a kiss despite the instructions from the apostles Paul and Peter. Moreover, I have never heard a sermon emphasising, or elaborating on, the clear biblical principle of holy kisses.
Did you know that there are five verses in the New Testament where wives are instructed to be submissive to their husbands. Five! Four are found in the later Pauline letters of Ephesians, Colossians, and Titus, and one is in Peter’s first letter (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1). Unlike the instructions for holy kisses, these instructions about wifely submission are unduly emphasised and elaborated on in too many churches.
Holy kisses and wifely submission are clearly mentioned in the New Testament, but one concept is largely ignored while the other is highlighted. Why is that? Perhaps “culture” is part of the answer.
Some churches have decided that, since the kissing instructions were given to people in a culture that already used kisses as a form of greeting, and since men in some cultures today don’t usually kiss one another, the apostles’ instructions are no longer culturally relevant, therefore we no longer have to apply them literally.
I suggest that the wifely submission verses in the New Testament, particularly in Titus 2:5 and 1 Peter 3:1, were given as a concession to Greco-Roman culture, a culture where the subordination of women was deeply ingrained. Furthermore, I suggest that both kisses-as-greetings and wifely submission are cultural phenomena, and neither are culturally relevant today in many modern societies.
It is important to note that Jesus, in the Gospels, and Paul, in his early letters, never mention anything like one-sided wifely submission. Furthermore, all of Jesus’ instructions for kingdom living and relationships apply equally to men and to women. In Jesus’ kingdom, the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, the last are first, and there is no place for hierarchies.
Relationships within the New Creation community of the church should be marked by mutual submission and service. This mutuality extends to Christian marriage.
The New Creation principles, or kingdom principles, concerning relationships have not always been socially acceptable to outsiders, and some new Christians may have implemented some of their new-found freedoms unwisely. So in a few later letters of the New Testament, there are corrective (rather than didactic or doctrinal) instructions to both slaves and to women limiting their freedoms. Slaves are told to respect and obey their masters, including their female masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18), and wives are told to respect and submit to their own husbands.
In some verses we are given the reason for these instructions: so that the church would not get a bad reputation among non-believers (including non-believing masters and husbands) in a society where slaves and women were regarded as lesser people (in comparison with freeborn men), and in a society where slavery and wifely submission were considered social norms.
In twenty-first century Australia, and some other western-style nations, patriarchy and slavery are generally frowned upon—in fact, slavery is illegal. Yet some churches are still teaching that patriarchy and one-sided submission from wives are God’s ideals. These congregations have failed to see that wifely submission was a compromise for the first-century church. One-sided submission from wives compromises and distorts the relationship dynamics of the New Creation.
It doesn’t make sense to take a verse that was a concession to first-century culture and apply it today in a society that mostly sees equality and mutuality as the ideal between husbands and wives. It also doesn’t make sense that some churches choose to uphold the instructions about wifely submission but choose not to uphold the instructions about kisses. They are allowing their own church culture to influence their decision about what verses they want to implement and what verses they want to ignore.
I believe that those who truly think that one-sided wifely submission is a timeless apostolic principle should also start taking seriously other apostolic instructions that are usually ignored (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:8). I suggest beginning with greeting one another with a holy kiss. After all, there are just as many instructions about kisses as there are instructions about wifely submission given in the New Testament.
 In The Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome and written sometime in the third century, there are several statements about the “kiss of peace” which must be “pure”. 18:3 states, “The the faithful shall greet one another with a kiss, men with men, and women with women. Men must not greet women with a kiss.” In other documents, such as the Martyrdom of Perpetua (written in 202 or 203), we read that Christian men and women kissed each other. These circumstances, imminent martyrdom, were exceptional; nevertheless, it is likely that in first-century churches men and women kissed each other irrespective of gender. In chapter 65 of his First Apology (written around 150-160), Justin Martyr wrote that Christians greeted each other with a kiss just before sharing the sacrament of communion. Canon 19 of the Council of Laodicea (held sometime during 343–381) contains later regulations surrounding the kiss of peace.
 The verb “submit” is found in numerous verses and contexts throughout the New Testament. It is also found in the context of women speaking and learning in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. These verses are not about wifely submission. More on these passages here and here. Furthermore, the verb “submit” has a range of nuances. (See footnotes below.)
 Paul’s instructions about wifely submission in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3:18 are given in the context of love and Spirit-led living. So, deference with humility and respect is probably the sense of “submission” in these verses.
 A strict military sense of the word “submit” does not fit with New Testament verses about marriage, especially as Paul’s instruction for wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22 follows his instruction for mutual submission.
“An American missionary couple went to Greece for their first assignment. A local church invited the husband to preach, although he had just arrived in the country. Everything went smoothly until the translator invited him to stand at the back of the church to greet the people as they left the service. He put out his hand to shake hands with the first man leaving. Imagine the missionary’s surprise and shock when instead of shaking hands, this man and every man following him reached up and kissed the missionary on the mouth. Paul and Peter repeatedly commanded early Christians to greet each other with a holy kiss (Rom. 16: 16; 1 Pet. 4: 14). Though the command was never cancelled, most Western believers today do not practice this kiss. They believe the instruction applied to that specific culture and group at that time in history, then and there, not here and now. The task of interpreting the Bible presents some complex challenges. Sincere, dedicated, born-again Christians sometimes arrive at different conclusions about the same passages. Some people use only ‘proof texts’ they have memorized and exclude other factors. Others combine their experience or lack of experience with teaching they have received about the Scriptures.”
Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace & Truth, 2004, 2009) Kindle Locations 233-243.
More interesting observations: