The Bible’s teaching about a wife’s submission to her husband is very unpopular today. Many claim that the teaching is inherently abusive because it establishes a power imbalance in marriage. Certainly the biblical teaching can be abused, but so can any other true principle. The Bible’s teaching, however, is clear. Ephesians 5:22-24 says:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
The word “submit” does not appear in the Greek in verse 22. Many try to say this means wives are not commanded to submit to their husbands in that verse. But the word “submit” is implied because it’s in verse 21. Also, the word “submit” is explicit in verse 24, which says, “wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Furthermore, the word submit appears in the parallel passage in Colossians 3:18, which says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” So what does it mean for a wife to submit to her husband?
First, it means she should show him respect.
The word “respect” is found in Ephesians 5:33. It says, “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” The word “respect” literally means “fear.” Wives are to fear their husbands. But it’s not talking about a slavish or servile fear. It’s referring to a reverence, or fear of honor, that she gives freely and willingly to her husband.
Wives should not treat their husbands lightly, but with reverence. Wives should never treat their husbands like they’re of little weight. Some wives interrupt their husbands, or they’re dismissive of their husband’s thoughts or words. They treat his leadership and direction as though it’s unimportant.
Some wives are combative and they quarrel with their husbands relentlessly. They make him feel like he’s always lacking something. They treat him like he can’t get anything right, and they constantly correct him, and argue with him. Proverbs 19:13 says, “A wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.” Wives who treat their husbands lightly are rebelling against the Bible’s command to respect their husbands. 1 Peter 3:2 speaks of a wife’s “respectful and pure conduct.” Now, certainly, a wife may respectfully give her thoughts to her husband. And she may respectfully disagree with him. A husband doesn’t own his wife’s mind or her conscience. But she must always treat him with respect.
When wives follow this command to respect and submit to their husbands, they bear unmistakable testimony of the truthfulness of God’s Word. Titus 2:5 says that wives are to be “submissive to their own husbands, that the Word of God may not be reviled.” Wives should submit to their husbands so that Scripture isn’t reviled. When people deny that wives should submit to their husbands they are denying the Word of God itself.
Second, a wife’s submission involves love.
The Bible teaches that wives are to love their husbands. It would be wrong for a wife to think of her submission as formal and mechanical. Titus 2:4 says that older women are to train the younger women “to love their husbands.” And what is love? 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 says:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
That is how wives are to treat their husbands: with loving submission. Love begins in the heart. Love must be sincere. A faithful wife treats her husband with respect and with love. 1 Corinthians 7:34 says that the married woman is “anxious [meaning careful] … about how to please her husband.” Part of a wife loving her husband is being careful about how to please him. 1 Corinthians 7:33 says husbands are to be careful about pleasing their wives; so, it goes both ways. When wives love their husbands, they try to please their husbands in their speech, dress, behavior, in the company they keep, and in how they manage the home. They want to please their husbands in the way they raise the children.
But there is a balance to this. Love doesn’t only seek to please the other. 1 Corinthians 13:6 says that when a wife loves her husband, she does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices “with the truth.” If a husband is caught in a pattern of unrepentant sin, he must be confronted. 1 Peter 4:8 says that love covers a multitude of sins. But love doesn’t cover unrepentant sin. A husband might be given to anger or harshness. Or lust. Or addiction. If a husband is living in sin, the most loving thing a wife can do is follow the pattern Christ gives in Matthew 18, which says that she must confront him. And if he does not repent, she needs to bring two or three others with her. And ultimately, the pastors need to be involved. That’s the most loving thing to do when a husband is living in unrepentant sin because his soul is at stake. He must be held accountable and called back from his rebellion.
Wives, if your husbands are living in sin and won’t repent, or if they are hurting or abusing you, you need get help. Seek help from your pastors. If he’s abusing you, call the police immediately, and get help from the civil magistrate. Respecting and loving your husband does not mean allowing him to continue in a life of sin.
No human authority is ultimate. There is a higher authority than a husband. A husband must be confronted with God’s truth, if he’s persisting in sin.
Third, a wife’s submission involves obedience.
1 Peter 3:5-6 says:
“For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good, and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
Verses 5-6 connect submission with obedience. It speaks of wives “submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham.” According to Joel Beeke, “A wife’s obedience to her husband is an ornament to her beauty before God and the flowering of the doctrine of God in her marriage.” She is to obey her husband willing, and freely given from her heart.
But this obedience is never to be demanded or coerced by her husband. The Bible never tells husbands to make their wives obey them. That is forbidden. Rather, the Bible tells wives to willingly obey their husbands from their hearts, out of love for Christ.
Now, a husband may never ask his wife to obey him in anything contrary to the Word of God. Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.” Wives must obey God rather than their husbands. That means, if a husband commands his wife to do anything unbiblical or sinful, she must never do it. She has to disobey her husband, if she’s forced to choose between obeying him and obeying God.
This includes refusing to allow her husband to take away all of her Christian liberty. Some husbands insist that their wives have to agree with all their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But that’s asking her to break the 1st commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” He is turning her into a slave, and he’s making himself into her god. He wants to have complete control of her. But no husband has the right to take the place of God. And a wife should not submit to her husband in that way. She needs to get help from someone, if her husband is doing that to her.
But when husbands are not asking their wives to break God’s law by surrendering their conscience, wives should obey their husbands. Let me be clear about what obedience means. It means that a wife will do what her husband asks, even if she disagrees with him, as long as he doesn’t ask her to sin. One true test of submissive obedience is when there is disagreement. If a wife believes that she is submitting to her husband only when she comes to agreement with him, she doesn’t understand the meaning of biblical submission. Egalitarianism says that husbands and wives always have to come to agreement before they act. But that’s not what the Scripture teaches. Wives are to obey their husbands, even and especially, when they disagree with their husbands, as long as they are not telling their wives to sin.
You can see that Ephesians 5:24, where it says, “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” It doesn’t say, “When they agree.” Just as the church is required to obey Christ, even when it doesn’t want to, so wives are required to obey their husbands, even when they don’t agree with them. Husbands and wives might disagree on any number of things. The education of their children. Whether or not to move. Where to go to church. How to allocate money in the budget. Whether to have another child. None of these things are determined by the Bible. They are all matters of liberty and wisdom.
Wise husbands will wait on their wives and try to come to agreement on these things. Husbands should always listen to their wives. And if their wives have a better idea, there is no shame in a husband changing his mind based on his wife’s thoughts. But if a husband changes his mind, he needs to own it for himself, and never blame his wife, even if she’s the one who persuaded him. When husbands and wives disagree, they should talk about things for a long time, trying to work them out together.
But sometimes, husbands and wives can’t agree. And they still have to do something. In cases like that, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands. A wife’s submission to her husband is one of God’s way of preserving marriages. Amos 3:3 says, “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed?” If two people are walking to two different destinations, they will not be walking together for very long. In order to stay together, they have to both agree on the same destination. But what happens when two people are walking but they start having a disagreement about where to go? One must submit to the other, or else they won’t be walking together anymore. Submission is essential to keeping marriages together. Someone has to submit. Either the husband can submit to the wife, or the wife will submit to the husband.
If neither one submits to the other, the marriage has fractures in it, and they are drifting apart. They may not even be able to remain married. So, if wives don’t submit freely and willingly to their husbands, here is what they are doing. They are asking their husband to submit to themselves, which is contrary to the Word of God. Or they are asking for division in the marriage, which is also contrary to the Word of God.
Consider a husband and wife who are having a disagreement.
They’re thinking about where to send their children to school. They both want to send their children to a private Christian school, but they don’t agree on which private school it should be. She wants the children to go to one that has lots of extra-curricular activities, including sports, and music, so that the children can have a well-rounded education and social experience. He agrees with that, but the other school is cheaper, and their children are still too young to participate in the extra activities. He believes it’s wise to send the children to a school that is just as academically rigorous, but doesn’t have the extra-curricular activities. This school would be less expensive, while they are young, and they can reconsider the other school when the children are older. The wife is concerned that changing schools would be a difficult adjustment and would rather the children go to the more expensive school from the beginning.
The husband and wife take several weeks thinking through it. They crunch the family’s budget numbers. They talk about their philosophy of education and they talk specifically about each of their children. They both really want what is best for their kids. But at the end of the day, they just can’t agree. So, the wife, submits to her husband, and she obeys him, willingly from the heart. He didn’t demand that she do it. She submitted to her husband because she loves Jesus. And even though she’s afraid of some of the consequences of her husband’s decision, she trusts that God is in control and Christ is ruling all things. So she doesn’t have to be afraid. And their marriage is unified. And she doesn’t complain about the choice her husband made. They are still unified, and they continue in Christ under grace.