The two main New Testament passages on this subject are Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-9. Sadly this teaching has been misinterpreted and misunderstood with the result that some husbands have claimed biblical backing for behaving rather like selfish dictators. And some women have thought the NT required them to be “doormats”.
It is obvious that the NT teaches mutual submission. All Christians, male or female, young or old, in leadership or not are called to serve: to a life of submission. Jesus 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).
So the NT does not teach the submission of wives without at the same time teaching the submission of husbands.
Submission to one another in the Lord
In his introduction to the subject of submission in Ephesians 5 Paul says: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21 cf. l Cor. 11:3). A careful reading of the passage shows that the pattern is: he gives in submission; she responds in submission.
The husband gives in submission; the wife responds in submission.
How the husband submits to his wife
By loving her as much as he loves himself, with a sacrificial, selfless love, like Christ loved the Church, giving everything for her.
He submits to her by giving and giving and giving again.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).
He submits to her by building her up as a person.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:25-27) “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” (1 Peter 3:7)
He submits to her by sitting loose to his rights for her benefit
“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Eph 5:28)
He submits to her by putting her well-being before his own, sacrificing his own comfort, ease, likes and dislikes
“He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no-one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church…” (Eph 5:28-29)
He submits to her by seeking to reach consensus on decisions
He submits to her by forgiving her failure.
He submits to her by being Christ-like
“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.” (Eph 5:23)
For him to demand her submission when he is not showing Christ-like love is quite unbiblical. He should always seek to reach consensus, not to make unilateral decisions.
How the wife submits to the husband
By submitting to his sacrificial, selfless Christ-like love.
She submits to him by giving and giving and giving again.
She submits to him by building him up as a person.
“the wife must respect her husband.” (Eph 5:33)
She submits to him only in ways consistent with being built up in Christ and only when he is asking something out of love for her and the family.
“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Eph 5:24). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Eph 5:21-22)
(The norm is mutual submission and consensus).
She submits to him by sacrificing her own comfort, ease, likes and dislikes for his well-being.
She submits to an unbelieving husband (in ways consistent with obeying and being built up in Christ) in order to win him to Christ.
“Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1 Peter 3:1-2)
She submits to him by forgiving his failure.
She submits to him by being Christ-like
So, as the New Testament teaches, husbands and wives should submit to each other.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction