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 its 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!
It’s easy to misunderstand scriptures like these if one views them through a hierarchical lens – requiring one person to be “in charge” and the other person subservient/obedient. More on this in a sec…
Paul 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, in a way, 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 and power by lifting up His bride through His humility, courage, and sacrifice. If you are a Christ follower, then you probably know the “Bride” of Christ in the New Testament scriptures refers to all people who have entered into a covenant with God based on faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection. (And I’ll explain in a moment we can’t understand Biblical submission if we view our relationships through a hierarchical lens, where one person exerts power over another.)
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.