What Does Submission Mean in a Biblical Marriage Context?

What Does Submission Mean in a Biblical Marriage Context? May 20, 2024

biblical marriage is forever and always
Wifely submission can bring beautiful harmony into a biblical marriage. But does the concept really mean what we think it means?| Photo by Leah Newhouse:

At the heart of every fulfilling biblical marriage lies a concept that no one ever wants to talk about because it is often misunderstood. This controversial elephant in the room is, of course, the idea of submission.

The Biblical Idea of Marriage

The biblical definition of marriage encompasses more than just a union between a man and a woman. It is an equal partnership that mirrors our relationship of obedience to God. It reflects the importance of having a servant heart within the framework of God’s kingdom design.

A healthy understanding of submission as it is presented in the Bible, especially in relation to verses and principles pointing to what it means to have a biblical marriage, is crucial for empowering Christian wives. Looking at submission in marriage through God’s eyes can help wives to embrace their roles fully while nurturing a marriage that honors the covenant they made with their husbands before their Creator. This is not just about reading, memorizing, and adhering to biblical verses about marriage. It is about discovering the deep, spiritual significance of these teachings and how they can enhance our perspective on marriage.

Biblical Definition of Submission

Submission in a biblical context referring to marriage is often misunderstood as a sign that women are seen as being inferior to men. However, the biblical idea of submission in marriage is truly about mutual respect and cooperation.

The word “submission” is derived from the Greek word hypotassō, which was originally a military term meaning to arrange under the command of a leader. In a non-military context, however, it signifies a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden. This concept is beautifully encapsulated in Ephesians 5:21, which calls for mutual submission among spouses out of reverence for Christ.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21, NIV)

This directive emphasizes the importance of husbands and wives coming together under a shared mission, which is to put God first in their lives and their homes.

The practical aspect of submission is not about authority or control. It is about honoring and affirming the husband’s leadership within the family. Meanwhile, the wife uses her unique gifts to help him ensure that the household is running according to God’s design. A wife’s God-given calling is to support her husband’s servant leadership. In so doing, she will honor God and learn to lean on Him and trust in His guidance.

Key Biblical Passages Relating to Submission in Marriage

Ephesians 5:22-24 is often cited when discussing biblical submission. In these verses, the Apostle Paul instructs wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:22-23, NIV). This passage highlights the spiritual model that the marital relationship was established to emulate—the relationship between Christ and the Church. However, this submission is not about suppression or forfeiting individuality. It is about a harmonious partnership in which both husband and wife support each other.

Biblical submission does not mean a wife gets all her spiritual strength from her husband; rather, her primary relationship is with Christ. Submission also does not imply that a woman should live in fear of her husband, or that a man should feel like he can instill fear into his wife’s heart and still say they have a decent marriage.

Nor does it mean that a woman is seen as being less competent than a man. Not in her eyes, his eyes, and certainly not God’s.

As Paul writes in Galatians, in the kingdom of God:

There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, HCSB).

Submission allows for a relationship in which both spouses can flourish as they bring glory to God by living out His purpose for their marriage.

Submission Is Not Subjugation

As mentioned above, one of the most prevalent misconceptions about biblical submission is the idea that it implies that the woman is inferior to the man and should have no voice within the marriage. This could not be farther from the truth.

The analogy often used to explain this dynamic is the relationship between God the Son and God the Father. Just as the Son submits to the Father without losing His divinity or equality (see, for example, John 6:38), a wife’s submission to her husband does not imply that she is of lesser value or importance. The Son is no less important than the Father, and the wife is no less important than the husband.

Consider what Jesus said about His relationship to God the Father:

“I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30, NIV)

It is very similar to what the Bible says happens in marriage when:

“…the two shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:4, NASB)

When two are one, there is no inequality. No crazy struggle for power. Just blissful unity.

Submission Does Not Mean Absolute Obedience

Another common misunderstanding is that submission in a marriage equals unquestioned obedience. Biblical submission is about a willing choice to support one’s spouse, not about a demand for blind obedience. The essence of submission in marriage is alignment and cooperation, not one partner wielding control over the other. Submission should be a reflection of trust and respect, not fear or domination.

In the context of a Christian marriage, submission includes both spouses willingly and joyfully submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ. This mutual submission fosters a relationship in which both individuals can thrive and grow spiritually. Additionally, it is vital to recognize that the authority given to the man within a marriage has boundaries. It is not an excuse for him to contravene God’s principles or enforce harmful personal desires.

By understanding this, couples can avoid the pitfalls of misinterpreting submission and can work towards a relationship that truly reflects the principles taught in the Scripture. In this way, both partners will be able to maintain their dignity and equal standing before God, ensuring that their marriage aligns with His perfect design for a loving, respectful partnership.

Servant Leadership

The Bible verses on marriage do not let men off the hook. Far from it.

In biblical marriage, the husband’s role is mainly that of a servant leader. This leadership style is not about authority, but about serving others with love and humility. The concept of servant leadership in a Christian context means that a husband should lead by example, putting the needs of his wife and family first. This includes taking the initiative in family devotions, disciplining the children, and financial responsibilities, as well as setting a moral standard for the home. Servant leadership is about making decisions that benefit the whole family, not just the individual. And this must be done with a gracious, loving heart.

A husband’s leadership should mirror that of Christ (see Ephesians 5:25), who serves His Church selflessly. Christ’s example shows that true leadership involves sacrifice and a deep commitment to the welfare of others. In practice, this means a husband should be actively involved in nurturing his wife’s spiritual and personal growth. He must ensure that her needs are met, and that she feels valued and respected.

Loving Leadership

Loving leadership is an extension of servant leadership that emphasizes the emotional and relational aspects of leading a family. A husband’s role involves more than just making decisions. He must also cherish his wife, show her love and respect, and be sensitive to her needs and perspectives. The ultimate goal in a biblical marriage is to build a relationship based on mutual respect and affection, in which both husband and wife feel secure and supported.

The biblical mandate for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church is a powerful directive that encompasses self-sacrifice and a commitment to the wife’s holistic well-being. It involves including her in important decisions, considering her opinions, and treating her as an equal partner in the marriage. By loving their wives, husbands demonstrate their dedication to God’s design for marriage, which is based on love, respect, and mutual submission.

In both servant and loving leadership, the goal is not to dominate but to foster a loving, supportive environment where both spouses can thrive. These leadership styles emphasize the husband’s responsibility to lead in a way that honors God and benefits his family, ultimately reflecting the loving nature of Christ’s relationship with His Church.

Practicing Mutual Respect and Support

Respect and support of the husband involves acknowledging his role within the family and valuing his contributions, both big and small. For submission to be the powerful relational force God intended it to be, however, a strong foundation of trust and mutual support should be established. Practically, this type of respect consists of listening actively, valuing each other’s opinions, and working together to achieve common goals.

A wife can show respect for her husband (see Ephesians 5:33) by giving him her full attention when he speaks, making his requests a priority, or consulting him on important decisions. This not only shows respect but also supports him in his role as leader in the home, thus fostering a loving and cooperative environment.

Ensuring Open Communication

Open communication is a vital aspect of practicing submission in daily life. It involves expressing thoughts freely and engaging in honest, transparent interactions. This form of communication builds a sense of trust and psychological safety, allowing both partners to share their feelings and perspectives without fear of judgment.

In the context of a marriage, open communication might look like discussing plans and decisions together, in such a way that ensures both spouses feel heard and valued. It’s about creating a space where constructive feedback is welcomed and where difficult topics can be addressed without fear. For example, a wife might express her concerns or disagreements in a respectful manner. This not only honors her husband, but also contributes to a healthier, more robust, relationship.

By integrating respect and open communication into daily interactions, Christian wives can practice biblical submission that strengthens their marriages and aligns with God’s design for a harmonious and supportive partnership.

Recognizing and Addressing Abuse

Abuse in any form is a profound misuse of the idea of biblical submission and is contrary to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture, as a whole. Emotional abuse, which is often less visible than physical abuse, can be particularly deceitful and damaging. It is crucial for those experiencing emotional abuse to recognize that it is not acceptable and is considered sinful. Emotional abuse may escalate quickly to physical abuse, so it is essential to seek help early.

Within Christian communities, the challenge often lies in a reluctance to discuss or intervene in such private matters. However, it is important for those affected to find support and not be deterred by an initial lack of help. Biblical submission does not mean enduring sinful treatment or abuse. If a spouse is abusive, it very well could be necessary to pursue separation, and help should be sought immediately to ensure safety.

The Church has a role in addressing abuse within its walls and among its community. It should not protect or harbor an abusive individual. Instead, it should extend both mercy and justice appropriately. The involvement of civil authorities may be necessary, as they are placed by God to protect the innocent. A wife may need to prioritize her safety through legal means, which can be pursued without contradicting a spirit of love and submission.

Navigating Disagreements in Love

Disagreements within marriage are normal, but they should not lead to a misuse of the concept of submission as a means of unfair conflict resolution. The idea that submission could be used to give the husband ultimate authority or a “trump card” in disagreements is a significant misunderstanding and misuse of biblical principles. True biblical submission involves an environment of mutual respect and consideration, in which both spouses feel valued and heard.

In practical terms, submission does not mean automatic agreement with every decision a husband makes. Instead, it should involve a loving and respectful dialogue, by which both parties contribute to the decision-making process. It is crucial for both husband and wife to seek God’s guidance in their decisions, ensuring that their actions align with His will and not merely with their human desires.

The biblical model encourages a relationship in which both spouses can express their opinions and work together to reach decisions that honor God and each other. This cooperative approach helps prevent the escalation of conflicts and supports a healthy, Christ-centered marriage.

Submission Strengthens the Marriage Bond

Submission within a biblical marriage fosters a profound bond between spouses by aligning their actions and intentions with God’s design. By respecting and supporting each other in their roles, couples can experience a deeper connection and unity. This mutual respect and cooperation do not imply a hierarchy, but rather a partnership in which both individuals thrive. Scripture emphasizes that while husbands and wives have distinct roles, both are essential and should be honored equally.

Healthy submission involves a voluntary attitude of cooperation and trust, through which the wife respects her husband’s leadership without invalidating his views, especially in public. This respectful interaction not only strengthens their relationship. It also sets a powerful example for others within their community. When both spouses put God first in their lives, submission becomes a joint mission, enhancing their spiritual bond and commitment to each other.

Submission in Spiritual Growth and Life Fulfillment

Engaging in biblical submission leads to personal and spiritual growth for both spouses. It is a spiritual discipline that teaches individuals to hold their interests lightly and prioritize the well-being of their partner. This self-denial is not about losing one’s identity. Instead, it is about finding fulfillment in serving and loving one another as Christ loves the Church.

Submission also allows spouses to grow in their faith together. As they submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, they cultivate a relationship that mirrors the unity and love found within the Trinity. This spiritual maturity is crucial for maintaining a healthy, Christ-centered marriage.

Moreover, the practice of submission can lead to a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace. As couples learn to submit to one another, they also learn to rely more on God’s guidance and wisdom, thus deepening their relationship with Him. This not only enriches their marital relationship. It also enhances their individual spiritual journeys, creating a cycle of love and respect that flows outward from their marriage to others around them.

The Call to Submission

As we reflect on the spiritual significance and the practical applications of biblical submission, it becomes clear that its practice can transform marriages by nurturing a deeper connection and unity that mirrors Christ’s relationship with the Church. The call to submission is a call to love, respect, and mutual support that, when heeded, promises a flourishing marriage that honors God. It’s an invitation to Christian wives and husbands alike to embrace their roles fully, with a heart of service and a commitment to the mutual growth and fulfillment that lies at the heart of a godly marriage covenant.


1. What is the biblical definition of submission?
Biblically, submission is voluntarily choosing to trust and follow someone else’s leadership. It is important to note that submission is not synonymous with slavery, coercion, or suppression. Instead, it is about trust and voluntary compliance without intimidation or manipulation.

2. What does it mean to be a submissive wife, according to Christian teachings?
Biblical submission in marriage involves a wife choosing not to actively oppose her husband’s decisions. This concept does not prevent her from disagreeing or sharing her opinions. In fact, a submissive wife is characterized by her strong personal integrity and the ability to openly express herself.

3. How can a wife practice biblical submission in her marriage?
In a Christian marriage, being a submissive wife means being supportive of your husband. It involves working together as a team, in addition to respecting and supporting him. A submissive wife should freely express her thoughts and feelings, trusting that her husband will respond with love and will prioritize her best interests.

4. What guidance does the Bible offer about a wife’s submission to her husband?
The Bible instructs wives to “submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), highlighting how the husband plays a role akin to Christ as the head of the Church. Just as the Church submits to Christ, wives are encouraged to submit to their husbands in all aspects of life.

Biblical submission is difficult for wives because of the curse that was placed on Eve after she and Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. In addition to telling Eve that she would experience great pain in childbirth, God said:

“Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NIV)

This desire wasn’t a sexual type of desire. It was a desire to control him, and that desire would be thwarted at every turn because sin harms relationships. Wifely submission, then, becomes a way for women to agree with God that living life His way has always been, and will always be, better than trying to live life under their own strength and power.

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