Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Submission in Marriage

Submission in Marriage

Biblical Submission

Submission is fundamental to Christian living and healthy relationships that honour God. However the concept of submission has been misunderstood and distorted by many people, including many well-meaning, sincere Christians. The Bible teaches that our relationships should be characterised by humility, love, and respect. These are the hallmarks of submission.

In humility consider other better than yourselves.  Each should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.  Philippians 2:3b-4

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honour one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.  1 Corinthians 10:24

Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12

Biblical Submission in Marriage

What about submission in marriage?

In Ephesians chapter six, Paul instructs slaves to obey (hupakouete) their masters (Eph 6:5), and children to obey (hupakouete) their parents (Eph 6:1); but the word used in relation to wives in Ephesians 5:21-22 does not mean obey, but to be submissive (from hupotassō.) The New Testament does not teach that the relationship of a wife to her husband is one of obedience (despite the incorrect translation of Titus 2:5 in the KJV), but of submission. Furthermore, it’s not just the wives that should be submissive.

Hopefully this next bit is not too hard to follow . . .

In Peter’s first letter he tells all his readers to submit to every secular authority (1 Pet 2:13).

Then he tells slaves to submit to their masters (1 Pet 2:18).

Then he tells wives, in the same waybe submissive[1] to their own husbands (1 Pet 3:1).

Then he says, “Husbands, in the same way live together with your wives . . .” (1 Pet 3:7).

There is no verb in the Greek of verse 7, so the theme of submission continues. Check for yourself and compare the very similar language in 1 Peter 3:1, 7 and 5:5.[2]

Just in case you think that last argument was a bit of a stretch, Ephesians 5:21-22 is similar, in that the Greek participle for “being submissive” is mentioned in verse 21, but the word does not reappear in verse 22[3] when talking about wives; it is merely implied, just like in 1 Peter 3:7. [More on this in my article on Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:7-8 here.]

Moreover, the instructions in the Greek New Testament are for a wife to volunteer submission to her own husband (Eph 5:22; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1).   Nowhere in Scripture does it teach or imply that women should submit to all men in general.[4] Furthermore, the Scriptures never tell the husband to make sure his wife is “in submission”. It is the wife’s prerogative. The command to the husband is to selflessly and sacrificially love and care for his wife! (Eph 5:25, 28, 33a; Col 3:19).[4]

Serving vs Ruling

The idea of a husband ruling his wife came as a consequence of sin entering the world (Gen 3:16b). However Jesus came to deal with sin and its consequences. Interestingly, the concept of a “ruling” husband is not picked up anywhere again in the Scriptures after Genesis 3:16; male authority is never put forward as an ideal in the Bible.[6] Mutuality and equality are the ideal.

God’s ideal is for a husband and wife to have a harmonious, loving relationship where each partner serves and prefers the other, in an interdependent, mutually submissive, loving union (1 Cor 11:11-12). For some, submission is seen as weakness, but it takes a generous, secure and mature person to willingly and graciously submit. But what does the word “submission” really mean?  And why did Paul and Peter instruct to wives to be submissive to their husbands?

Submission vs Rebellion

Perhaps the “submission” of wives encouraged by Paul and Peter in Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5 and 1 Peter 3:1 should be seen simply as the opposite of rebellion?

A cognate of the Greek word word for “submit” (hupotassō) is used a couple of times in the Greek New Testament with an alpha privative prefix. (This prefix is equivalent to an English “un”, denoting the opposite, or more accurately, the absence or negation of something.) In this case, the alpha prefix is denoting the absence of submission. The KJV translates this particular word as “unruly” in Titus 1:6 & 10. The NIV translates it as “wild” (Titus 1:6) and “rebellious” (Titus 1:10).[7] A related word is translated as “rebels” in 1 Timothy 1:9. Being  unruly and rebellious is the opposite of Christ-like behaviour and undesirable in either men or women.

In her article, A Comprehensive Understanding of Wifely Submission, Catherine Clark Kroeger has pointed out that Polybius, a 2nd century BC politician and writer, used cognates of the word anupotassō (the opposite of hupotassō) “to designate individuals who were not integrated into the group, dissociated from others, confused or difficult to comprehend. By contrast, he sometimes used hupotassō to indicate associations or relationships that led to greater understanding.” (Polybius Histories III.36.4; 38.4; V.21.4.) In the same article, Catherine Clark Kroeger writes that hupotassō has a broader range of meanings than just “submit”. It can also mean: “to support”, “join with”, “identify or associate with”, “behave responsibly toward” or “relate in such a way as to promote meaning and understanding”. All of these meanings fit very well with the concept of a healthy marriage.

Were Paul and Peter instructing wives to be supportive and loyal to their husbands, and to have the desire to create a meaningful marriage relationship?

Far from the oppressive submission that the church has demanded of even well-behaved women in the past (and present?), it seems that Paul and Peter were simply asking the wives not to alienate themselves from their husbands by being rebellious or resistant, but to remain faithful (Eph 5:33b).  Paul and Peter explain that by being loyal and supportive, their unsaved husbands might be won over to the Christian faith,[8] and also, the church would not get a bad name.[9] It is very important to comprehend these evangelistic reasons behind Paul and Peter’s exhortations for submission! (See also 1 Tim 5:14; Titus 2:4-5 cf 1 Tim 6:1.) Moreover, wifely submission in the first century Greco-Roman context of the New Testament, especially where one partner is an unbeliever, would have looked very different to submission in a modern Christian marriage.

Military Submission vs Non-military Submission

The original language of the New Testament (Koine Greek) developed as men from all over the Greek world joined the army of Alexander the Great. Several Greek dialects merged to form a common Greek language that all the soldiers could understand. Koine Greek started off primarily as a language with a military purpose. As the language developed several military terms, including hupotassō, developed a non-military meaning, as well keeping the initial military meaning. Thayers Bible Dictionary makes the distinction between the military and non-military usage of hupotassō.  “

Hupotassō: A Greek military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader’. In non-military use, it was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden’.”
http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/hupotasso.html

It is essential that we make the distinction between the military and non-military usage submission if we are to understand Peter and Paul’s intention when they used the word in their instructions to wives. The submission of a wife to a husband does not entail subordination to a leader as it does in a military context. It is grievous that some Christians try to apply a literal, military understanding of submission in the precious and intimate relationship of marriage.

Jesus, Our Example

Every follower of Jesus Christ, regardless of gender, race, social or church position, should endeavour to live in submissive harmony with others. Jesus exemplified this submission and humility during his earthly mission. Our aim should be to intentionally follow Christ’s example found in Philippians 2:3-8:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,
But in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests
But also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who being in the very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
Taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in the likeness of man,
He humbled Himself and became obedient to death
Even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:3-8.


Endnotes

[1] Like Peter, Paul’s letters contain many instructions to people for submission in various circumstances. His instructions for submission are not confined to wives. Why don’t we hear more about these other submission verses?

[2] Peter uses the expression “likewise” (homoios) three times in his first letter; In 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Peter 3:7 and in 1 Peter 5:5.  It is always in the context of submission (or at the very least, respect). In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter uses :likewise” (homoios) while telling the young men to be submissive to the older men.

[3] This is true for the more reliable Greek manuscripts, but not for the much-handled Textus Receptus.

[4] It is important to note that the context of Ephesians 5:21-33 is not about Christ’s leadership and authority, but about his sacrificial love and care for the Church. Nowhere in this passage are there any words which speak of authority and leadership.  For this reason, it is unlikely that this passage is asking for women to submit to “the leadership” of  husbands. Moreover, as my friend MaryAnn recently pointed out, “to love your wife as your body is to love her as your equal” (Eph 5:28). [My article on Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters here.]

[5] Some Christians who support the concept of male hierarchy (Complementarians) state that all women should be submissive and responsive to all “worthy” men. (John Piper, Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)  This is a dangerous and unbiblical doctrine!

[6] 1 Corinthians 11:3-10 is not addressing family order but addressing heretical behaviour that was adversely influencing Christian worship in the Corinthian church.

[7] BDAG gives the possible translations: independent, undisciplined, disobedient and rebellious to the noun anupotaktos, which is the nominal antonym of the verb hupotassō.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, by Walter Bauer, revised and edited by F.W Danker, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 91.

[8] We have a lot of evidence that many upper-class women were becoming Christians in early church times, but that many of their upper-class husbands remained unbelievers. The context of Peter’s first letter shows that Peter was thinking of upper-class women with unsaved husbands when he wrote 1 Peter 3:1-6. Only upper-class women could have had the gold jewelry and the fine clothes that Peter refers to in 1 Peter 3:3. Peter wrote this whole letter to people experiencing slander, persecution and fear – this included the wives of unsaved husbands. Peter was trying to encourage the wives to remain faithful and courageous and live lives that would show their husbands the beauty of Christ-like spirit.
Peter, however, did not tell the wives that they were to obey their husbands. The norm in first century Greco-Roman society was that wives were to worship the same gods as their husbands. Peter does not tell the wives to abandon their Christian faith because of loyalty or obedience to their husbands. There are limits to wifely submission.

[9] One of the real reasons behind Peter and Paul’s call for wives not to be unruly, but to be submissive to their own husbands, was so that the wives would behave in a culturally appropriate way and church would not get a bad name. The churches who over-emphasise and even romanticise submission are giving the church a bad name in contemporary society where male primacy is considered unethical. Moreover, the oppressive and restrictive views of some men and the overly romanticised and passive views of some women, in regard to submission, do not truly represent the freedom and equality – or the mission – of the Good News of Jesus.

Please note that I do not advocate that women stay in abusive marriages. Domestic violence is a crime in Australia. If you are in an abusive relationship, please get help now! There are many agencies that can offer worthwhile, sympathetic help.  If you would like assistance in finding help in Australia, please do not hesitate to contact me, or contact your local hospital, which should have specially trained counsellors.

© 1st of November, 2009; revised 28th of September, 2010; Margaret Mowczko

Image credit: iStock #5277001

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Related Articles

The Priority of Wifely Submission vs Mutual Submission
(1) Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:1-6
(2) Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:7-88
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A Suitable Helper
Double Standards in the Promotion & Practise of Submission
The Complementarian Concept of “The Created Order”
Mutuality in Marriage: 1 Corinthians Chapter 7
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Posted August 14th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, , , , , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

21 comments on “Submission in Marriage

  1. Marg says:

    Thanks Elaine. 🙂

  2. […] Do the relationships within the Trinity provide an example for submission in Marriage? […]

  3. Cynthia Meg says:

    I’ve read a lot of articles on submission, and I’d have to say that yours is the best yet!
    So many new understandings!

  4. Marg says:

    Thanks Cynthia.

    I wrote this a while ago, but I’ve added bits and pieces as I’ve come across new information.

    Because of these later additions I thought the writing style of this article might be a bit clunky. And I’ve been meaning to edit it. But I’m glad you liked it and learnt new things. I’m still learning new things too.

  5. Leigh Newton says:

    Margaret, I love your scholarship.

    Christians also learn from society. We cannot accept advancements in science, medicine, ethics, education, law and democracy without also accepting advancements in understandings of relationships, gender equality, equal opportunity and issues of justice.

    It must be said that Christians who only focus on Scripture will be out of touch with pressing issues that we face each day. First century gender dynamics in the Middle East are significantly different to that of today in Australia.

    I argue that we should relate the Christian engagement that has always occurred with society, but it seems that this framing is new for many. This just means that this ‘new’ framing has to be ‘put out there’ over and over for it be incorporated.

    • Jooni says:

      A bunch of feminist destroying marriages by creating rebellious women. Submit or divorce

      • Marg says:

        Not sure who you are referring to in your comment, Jooni.

        Comments should be about the content of the article, rather than a vague criticism of people.

        Did you read the article?

  6. Marg says:

    I agree. I am quite sure that if Peter and Paul were writing to us today they would be explicitly teaching and stating the full equality of men and women.

    Did you see my note right at the end of the endnotes? I think Christians who are hanging on to the idea of unilateral submission from wives and women (even their subordination) are giving the church a bad name in societies that value equality. And Peter’s and Paul’s aim was to avoid giving the church a bad name.

    I also think that many Christian organisations who claim that they are teaching biblical principles of manhood, womanhood, marriage and family life are kidding themselves. (Marriage and family life in Bible times was so different to our’s today. Do we really want to take our cues on marriage and family life from biblical marriages and families?) And some of the views of these Christian organisations on women and their supposed “place in society” has more in common with the views of Aristotle than with the teachings of Christ and the apostles.

  7. C. Dunamis says:

    It really shows the problems that can occur when people take things out of context. The same could be said for words taken out of their culture and time period too…!

  8. leeanne says:

    I left Christianity because of these verses. Your interpretation is better than the master/slave marriages that many Christians espouse. If churches would come to your interpretation of Bible, not as many women would be leaving. And when women leave religion, men and children follow. I think that these verses cause many people to leave religion. I was so saddened by these verses, and the fact that god hated me so fully, that god wanted me to become a slave. It caused me to hate men, and to hate myself. No one should be a slave to another, that has been abolished. Maybe if your views were advocated, I would not be a damaged person wishing to die.

    The Bible causes so much damage to so many people. I think the only positive message to come out of the Bible is to treat one another, as one wishes to be treated. I don’t think this means making a virtual slave of your wife, or making an absolute master of your husband.

    Please keep preaching your interpretation so that other girls arenot irrevocably damaged beyond repair by these negative messages. Too late for me, though.

    • Marg says:

      Leeanne, You’re right: Treating other people as you want to be treated does not mean suppressing and limiting another person and treating them as a slave (Luke 6:31).

      The problem is not the Bible. The problem is that that too many people understand and interpret a few verses incorrectly, and at the same time ignore other verses which show that women, as well as men are made in God’s image. And they do not see that God uses women for his purposes which includes leading his people.

      God loves his daughters. He does not look down on them, or limit them. His daughters are precious and valuable to him and he is grieved that some ignorant and selfish people treat them badly. He knows that his daughters are capable of amazing things. God gives women as well as men the gift of his empowering Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18).

      I can hear your dismay and lack of hope, however Jesus is about hope, and he is about love. I know that he wants to heal and restore you to be a person of hope and love.

      I hope that you can find some Christian friends who will regard you in the same way that Jesus regards you.

      You might be interested in this forum: http://www.equalitycentral.com/forum/

  9. […] “The idea of a husband ruling his wife came as a consequence of sin entering the world (Gen 3:16b).  However Jesus came to deal with sin and its consequences.  Interestingly, the concept of a “ruling” husband is not picked up anywhere again in the Scriptures after Genesis 3:16; male authority is never put forward as an ideal in the Bible.” ~ read more at New Life. […]

  10. Adrienne says:

    I loved your article and this video my friend just showed me reminded me so much of what you wrote!

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/06/candance-cameron-bure-submissive_n_4550818.html

  11. Marg says:

    Thanks for the link, Adrienne. I like the last bit the best, “Everyone just calm down.”

    People make way too big a deal about submission. I believe that, especially in modern contexts, submission is simply courteous and considerate deference. This is something all Christians should have in all our relationships.

    I do wonder about her husband’s desire to “always have the final say on just about everything.” This does not sound considerate, kind or even useful in marriage and family life.

    I also think it doesn’t make sense to compare a marriage of two capable people to the positions and roles/ranks of the president or leaders in the military. The president is in charge of an entire nation, and the military are sometimes involved in life and death situations. Organisations of more than a few people need leaders, a marriage doesn’t need one person to always be the leader unless one of the people is incompetent.

  12. Anna says:

    I agree with everything you have said in this post.

    I, too, have researched the words kephale and hupotasso and have learned there is a military and non-military translation for both. The question is: why is the military translation(authority,obedience) used on a non-military relationship? (And if the military translation is correct, then God must be saying a husband and wife are comparable to an Army Sargeant and Private First Class. It’s absurd! It would only make sense to a complementarian! 🙂 )

    Do you believe Paul/Peter were trying to cleverly confuse the authorities of their time by making them believe he was upholding the existing patriarchical marriage structure when in reality, he was turning it on its head?

    By the way, I believe “male headship” is chivalry, not authority. Men are supposed to empower women, not relegate them to a life of mindless obedience. Bible references to how Christ is the head of the church prove this. Christ’s headship and his treatment of the church is a lesson to men on how they are to treat women.

    Count me in as an egalitarian! I just wish I could find an egalitarian church!

  13. Marg says:

    Hi Anna,

    Yes, it doesn’t make sense to employ the strict military usage of hupotasso but also say that the husband and wife are equal in rank. Absurd, as you say.

    I don’t think Paul and Peter were trying to confuse husbands, but they did introduce the idea of submission from husbands, very carefully, and framed with the idea of honour, so that the idea would not be immediately dismissed by men who had never in their life been taught or shown that they should be submissive to their wives.

    I believe that the Bible does not teach a clearly defined doctrine of “headship”. I believe the two verses that speak about the husband/man being the head of the wife/woman are speaking about two separate issues.

    If we look at Ephesians 5:22ff it seems that headship involves unity, sacrificial giving, and nurture. Leadership or authority is never mentioned here. I suppose the sacrificial giving of one’s self can be equated with chivalry.

    If we look at 1 Cor. 11:3ff, the only other verse on this topic, it is about origin or source.

    I’ve written about “headship” here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/

    I am so grateful that my husband and I go to an egalitarian church where everyone can, and does, minister according to their gifts and skills, and not according to whether they are male or female.

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