“Wives, submit to your husbands”. Why We Mistakenly Assume This is God’s Word to Us Today

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Some of the most controversial teaching in the Bible is its instructions concerning wives.

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

Colossians 3:18-19

 

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

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. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—  for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:22-33

 

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

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 3:1-7

What do we do with these texts? Is this really God’s word to wives and husbands living in twenty-first century Australia? To answer that question I think we need to hear these texts in their original historical context and consider how the biblical writers are interacting with that context.

Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well, ought not to be for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders…For a woman ought to do her talking either to her husband or through her husband, and she should not feel aggrieved if, like the flute-player, she makes a more impressive sound through a tongue not her own… If [wives] subordinate themselves to their husbands, they are commended, but if they want to have control, they cut a sorrier figure than the subjects of their control. And control ought to be exercised by the man over the woman, not as the owner has control over a piece of property, but, as the soul colonists the body, by entering into her feelings and being knit to her through goodwill. As, therefore, it is possible to exercise care over the body without being a slave to its pleasures and desires, so it is possible to govern a wife, and at the same time to delight and gratify her.

Plutarch, Moralia: Advice to the Bride and Groom 142 C-E

A woman must live for her husband according to law and in actuality, thinking no private thoughts of her own, but taking care of her marriage and guarding it. For everything depends on it. A woman must bear all that her husband bears, whether he be unlucky or sin out of ignorance, whether he be sick or drunk or sleep with other women…If her husband thinks something is sweet she will think so too; if she thinks something bitter, she will agree. Otherwise she will be out of tune with her whole universe.

Neo-Pythagorean text

The husband governs, but the wife is governed…But he does not rule over her with a despotic power: for he is diligently attentive to her welfare…Those husbands that govern their wives despotically, are hated by them, but those that govern them with a guardian authority are despised by them…but those that govern them politically are both admired and loved.

Callicratidas, On the Happiness of Households 105.8-.106.9

The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed, for the authority has been given by God to the man.

Josephus, Against Apion 2.199

Wives must be in servitude to their husbands, a servitude not imposed by violent ill-treatment but promoting obedience in all things.

Philo, Hypothetica 7.3

This is the thought world in which the New Testament writers operate. The household of the first century Greco-Roman world was hierarchical, with the adult male firmly entrenched at the top and his wife, children and slaves below. Submission meant a woman was expected to center her life around her husband, avoid the assertion of her own desires and conform herself to her husband’s will.

When first century authors of Scripture penned their words and first century audiences heard them they do so in this context. They knew what submission to husbands meant. It meant exactly what we have outlined, that a woman would center her life around her husband, avoid the assertion of her own desires and conform herself to her husband’s will.  And lest we be in any doubt, some of the texts are quite explicit. 1 Peter 3 commends Sarah, who treated Abraham as her lord and was obedient to him. Ephesians 5 says husbands are in a situation analagous to Christ and wives in a situation analagous to the church. And the church is obedient to Christ, centers its life around the will of Christ, and takes its identity from Christ.

These are difficult ideas to modern ears, so there are numerous ways we try to soften the meaning. Some point to the verse in Ephesians that immediately precedes the call for wives to submit to husbands. This calls us to “submit to one another”. There are two possible ways this could be read. First, it could be read as applying to the people in subordinate positions in the pairs that follow – “submit to one another, that is wives to husbands, children to fathers, slaves to masters”.  Or it could be read as applying equally to everyone, but with the application different depending on one’s position in the household. “Husbands, submit to your wives by loving them, to your children by being patient with them, to your slaves by being fair to them. Wives submit to your husbands by obeying them in everything, children submit to your fathers by obeying them, slaves to your masters by serving them to the best of your will.” I think that the first reading is the most likely way the texts would have been read by the original audience, but either way the meaning of wifely submission remains the same.

If we believe these are God’s word to us today we need to be quite clear: we are asking husbands and wives to enter a relationship that is hierarchical in nature, with wives expected to abandon their own identity and center their every waking moment around their husband’s desires and interests, to conform their opinions to their husband’s and to obey their husband’s will.

Nor does pointing to the responsibility of husbands to love their wives with a generous and servant natured love change the reality of what is expected of wives or make them equals. This should be obvious from the use of the Christ-church analogy. Christ’s love for the church means he acts for the church’s welfare, but it does not mean he abandons his position as Lord of the church nor his expectation that the church will be obedient to him and center itself around his will.

If we are to understand what God is saying to us today I think we need to abandon attempts to soften the meaning of these texts to the point they are palatable to modern ears. Rather we need to understand what the bible writers are trying to do. As I have argued in other posts, they write pastorally. They are asking a simple question: how can the followers of Jesus to whom I write live out their faith in the concrete realities of their lives? In the first century one of those concrete realities was hierarchical household structures, where an adult male stood at the top and his wife, children and slaves were ordered below him. So the writers look for models that might be relevant. In Ephesians 5 Paul draws upon the relationship between Christ and the church. If you want to know how to live well within a hierarchical marriage structure look to the way Christ and the church relate. Husbands model yourselves on Christ; wives model yourselves on the church. When he considers slaves, he appeals to the relationship between humans and God as analagous to that between slave and master. Slaves, if you want to know how to live as a Jesus-follower, give your masters the same service you give to Christ as Master. Masters you should treat your slaves with the same dignity as your heavenly Master treats you.

The bible writers are not staking a claim that hierarchical household structures are endorsed by God. They’re simply asking how you live Christianly when hierarchical structures are what you live within. Indeed, the gospel undermines hierarchical structures by declaring we all stand on the same footing before God (Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 3:11). It would take time, but this simple insight contributed to the overthrow of monarchy in favour of liberal democracy, of slavery in favour of freedom, and of patriarchy in favour of the liberty of women.

Thank God we live this side of that historical development. It’s high time then we got rid of the language of male headship and female submission altogether. Forget trying to reinvent it, to soften the meaning of the terms. Let us state plainly and clearly God does not call men to be the head of the household, nor does God call wives to submit to their husbands. These were part of the hierarchical marriage structures that first century Christians had to contend with but have now been swept away by history and the gospel. Let’s instead start searching for the theological models that can help us live Christianly within the egalitarian marriage structures of our time.

 

 

 

 

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65 Comments on "“Wives, submit to your husbands”. Why We Mistakenly Assume This is God’s Word to Us Today"

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Marx
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I believe in time society’s progress will make most of the bible’s teaching obsolete. Enjoy it while it is relevant.

Glen Olsen
Guest
Dear Egalitarian Friends, We know that many of you within the evangelical world hold your views because you have been convinced that egalitarianism is what the Bible teaches. You tell us that our differences on male and female roles are just differences in interpretation, and that Bible-believing Christians can honestly and fairly interpret the Bible to support complete equality in most or all roles for men and women in the family and the church. You say that you are sincere in adopting your views not because of modern cultural pressures but because you think that the Bible itself supports your… Read more »
Ben
Guest

Interesting this was never responded to. Thank you for a thoughtful study of the actual words in the text. Might we continue to pursue this mode of Bible study. Well done.

Marty kaiser
Guest

Please explain text instructing slaves to endure harsh treatment from their master. Is slavery God’s intended mode throughout history?

Carole
Guest
I have one response to this. Under these circumstances, why would any woman in the 21st Century EVER marry a man? If your argument is that because of societal norms of ancient Israel or Ancient Greece, and because some random man who claimed he met Jesus seventy years after he died and decided he could speak for him (in case you have not guessed, I am not a big fan of Paul, at least as he is most often interpreted), that marriage today should be organized the same way, I am not seeing any benefit whatsoever for women. We are… Read more »
Cameron
Guest
Carole, it sounds like you have an unhealthy view of marriage in general, and of men in particular. The hope of Christian believers is that in marriage, two people can love each other and share mutual admiration and respect of each other’s unique wisdom, intellect and, yes, gender differences the wife and husband bring into the relationship. If you find a man who wishes to use these texts and this concept as a means to establish some kind of patriarchal authority to swing around in his marriage, you can bet he is not himself surrendered to the Lordship of Christ,… Read more »
Carole
Guest
Thank you, Cameron. I truly do appreciate your response, although I disagree vehemently. The marriage described by the OP sounds horrific to me. I did not make those conclusions about marriage, the OP did. And if you look at the comments on this forum, several others echoed the sentiments. I was responding to that, and you are right. I do think that view of marriage is unhealthy. Fortunately, my view is different and not dictated by Paul. The OP states that men should be the “authority,” that women should be “subject” to their husbands, but the reverse is not true.… Read more »
Samantha
Guest
God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If you do not think he thought of future generations when The Book was written and inspired by him, then why read it? If you believe one part of the Bible you must believe it all and take it literally. I do not know how you have been taught on this subject but I think you are a little skewed on it. Submitting is following trustfully and therefore being submitted back to. Allowing the husband to be a leader in the family and respecting decisions he makes. Upsetting the balance is harmful… Read more »
CW Miller
Guest

“I trust what my husband decides is right and I will follow it.” Every single time? No input or opinion of the wife is valid? So we are lesser beings and not equal in God’s image? We are equally in God’s image and equal in value. God created Adam in His image, put Adam to sleep and took half out and created Eve. Eve is equally created in God’s image. The two halves make a whole together not one over the other. Roles should not be confused with value.

Read more http://scottjhiggins.com/wives-submit-to-your-husbands/

Samantha
Guest

I suppose children should not submit to their parents either… I have respect for your opinions. Thanks for sharing.

Hannah
Guest

Children should not submit to their parents either?
False equivalence. Children are still completely dependent on their parents, and all legal, social and financial obligations that the child incurs becomes the debt of its parents.
The same is not true of wives. It *was* true of wives at the time that the Scripture was written in but it is not today.

CW Miller
Guest

Yeah for real..comparing children to an adult EQUALLY created in God’s image! I will not submit to a man who does not submit to God in Spirit and in Truth AND only IN that role will I submit as yield. But if God didn’t want women to have a mind of their own He wouldn’t have given them a mind!

augustus
Guest

Are you telling us that those passages you mentioned were only to be followed by the first century Christians? It is written that God’s word is settled in heaven forever. His word will never change forever. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Again, there is hierarchy among the angels in heaven. God is not an author of confusion.

Carole
Guest

What was said was that wives and husbands were to respect and love each other, and always keep the orher’s best interest in mind. The details were examples of how to do that in the society in which they lived at the time. The ways in which we show each other love and respect or work for each other’s best interests are different in a society that has changed drastically in the last thousand years.

augustus
Guest

If you submit that ‘It’s high time then we got rid of the language of male headship and female submission altogether’, what would you now say of the relationship of Christ and the church? Bear in mind that the relationship of husband and wife is likened to that of Christ and the church.What is certain is that Christ remains the head of the church, the bride, forever.

Jacob
Guest
Its dangerous to believe that the truth in Gods word is relative to our culture or to anything else. Truth, by definition, is absolute. 2 + 2 = 4 no matter which culture it’s applied in. Even if you feel uncomfortable about it, or if you are confused by it. That being said, we know that our Father is good and so his commands are also good and life-giving. They do not bring bondage as you have portrayed this command as doing for woman. But if you read the scripture and truly understand what it says you would see that… Read more »
Noel
Guest
I would just like to say that there is a difference between “God’s truth” and someone’s “interpretation of the Bible.” I have a lot of questions about this issue, but I’m inclined to say that the Bible doesn’t give us a guidebook on hermeneutics. If we decide to interpret everything literally and as binding on a modern-day context, we’ve made extra-Biblical hermeneutical moves based on logic and reason. Same goes for any other method of interpretation. My question for Scott is: If there is something inherently wrong with the system of Male headship in a marriage (it seems you’ve implied… Read more »
CW Miller
Guest

Galatians 3:26-28 ” 26So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Ada
Guest

Oh what a joy it is to see someone who views this scripture the way I have come to understand it. I have felt so alone in my views. Being that you are a man makes me even happier.

One love.

Marie
Guest
I do not believe we can say submitting and leading are not applicable but I do believe there is a lot of misinformation about it. For one thing the idea that leading means the husband has final say. This is an idea that has be regurgitated for decades and continues to be accepted although it has no basis in truth. A husband is to provide, protect and lead his family spiritually. The wife is to support him in these efforts. A husband who is loving sacrificially (dying to self) will never insist upon having his own way(final say) the goal… Read more »
CW Miller
Guest

Well said.

***
Guest
Basic Bible philosophy is a product of Bronze Age thought. Consequently, it is almost exclusively patriarchal. Of the almost three dozen women mentioned in the Bible, perhaps only Esther could be said to play a prominant role. From Genesis through Ephesians, women primarily exist to serve – or, in some instances, service men. Even rape of women is permissible under some circumstances. Spoils of war is a good example in this regard. Women in Bible times usually married at a young age. Mary, the mother of Jesus, may have been either in her late preteens or early teens when she… Read more »
Reality
Guest
Titus 2: 3 The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; 4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. The children are to learn submission and obedience from the mother and authority from the father. Look around you for absolute proof in countless decades of failure and blaspheme of the Word… Read more »
Gerry
Guest

Even today in our Enlightened era women’s “rights” depend entirely upon the good graces of men. Feminists rely on the support of men for every privilege they have obtained.
Women are not in the position of American Blacks. Women, adult women, constitute a majority. Blacks are about 10% of the population. Blacks never have had dominance at the polls and never will even if they all registered to vote, all voted, and all voted in unity, even on ethnic related matters.
Relatively few women vote and those who do vote are hardly unified even on gender related matters.

Gerry
Guest

The “kingdoms” (regimes) of this world are separated and distinct from the kingdom of God. The laws of Christ for His people cannot be applied to the unbelievers and rebels. They will be held to account for their rejection of the gospel of Christ.
Those who sinned in ignorance will be “beaten with few stripes, while those who sinned wilfully, those who knew right but did not, will be “beaten with many stripes.”

Glen Olsen
Guest

Marx….Jesus is about to come back ….FACT …. then your so called “society’s progress” will stop and God’s Word will be the only relevant thing on your mind….so repent… if you will not then enjoy for your teachings they are about disappear.

Gerry
Guest

And in the new world to come gender, ethnic, and other issues will be left behind.

june
Guest
The solution is easy don’t marry. I really don’t know why most Christian women would even consider marriage. Far better to remain single than to enter into a humiliating Christian marriage. Full of teachings like final say (ie he always gets his way)obey (like you are a dog). Sure they can say even Jesus had to submit, like that is even a comparable comparison. Sure Jesus submitted to a sinless flawless God. Most husband are very far removed from sinless and flawless. To enter into a Christian marriage as a woman is to be subject to a selfish self serving… Read more »
Jene
Guest
June I know how you feel. As a woman I spent most of my life resenting God for making me a woman and resenting the bible for degrading women (ever noticed that just about every woman in the bible is a whore and every man is a man of God, I mean seriously you can count the number of Godly women on one hand). The God in the bible often sounds like you typical sexist male using religion to keep women “in their place”. I started quetioning whether the words written in the bible are indeed the words of God… Read more »
Rebecca
Guest

June, thank you so very much for expressing your feelings so openly and honestly! Your post sounds like something I would have written. I too have trouble dealing with sermons discussing the role of women and wives and also struggle with loving a God that would doom us to a life of subordination based solely on the fact that we were born women instead of men. It’s comforting to know there is someone out there that is struggling with the same things I am.

EX-Christian
Guest
One thing I always wondered (I left Christianity a long time ago and I now follow Sikhism where women and men are treat equally). But something always struck me odd: Christianity does not believe in reincarnation. Everyone is once born. In Gods eyes we are all equal So if a soul has only one life, how does God choose who gets to be born into a privileged position (as a male) or in the miserable position of perpetual slavery that is female? (or Master vs Slave etc) At least Eastern religions explain it by karmic punishment. A soul is born… Read more »
Leslie Taylor
Guest

What you are teaching here is a doctrine of devils! You are undermining the Word of God and teaching rebellion against God!!!

Capt.
Guest

You are a Bible-ignorant Commie Liberal. Go live in the all-one-level society in North Korea.

Wilfred M. Mutemi
Guest

Very interesting discussion! I am of the opinion that the Bible does not teach egalitarianism. I think the Bible provides a clear social structure, but which seems to have been more applicable then than now. The modern society clearly is headed towards equal rights and opportunities for both sexes, which hardly can co-exist with the structure given in the Bible. It must be a dilemma for many believers. Clearly, many modern empowered women do not subscribe to the dictates of the codes advocated for in the Scriptures! Just that it is difficult for the Church to admit so!

Eric
Guest

That was a very liberal misuse of the text.

Oleg
Guest

In other words you put modern culture is above God’s will. That’s plainly wrong. The God is what should define the culture, doing it the other way around is the mockery of Christianity.

The Bible gives two very concrete examples – Sodom and Gomorrah. Their culture was modern for their time for the place.

There is nothing to misunderstand about “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
“In everything” has very clear meaning.

Disbeliever
Guest
Wow must be nice to be born male then huh? Thank goodness I want born in a female body! That would be hell! Forget hell after death! Biblical hierarchies marriage is hell on earth for women! Seriously can you imagine having to be subject to your spouse in everything? Thank goodness I’m a man and I can be the one in charge! I feel for my poor wife though not being able to have a will of her own once I marry her! Poor Christian women are essentially slaves! How does God choose who gets to be born in the… Read more »
Joan
Guest

Finally I read something that makes sense to me and does not make women feel like second class citizens. There are other parts of the bible where it is important to understand the context at the time in order to make sense of the passage. Why has this one area about male patriarchy continued and context ignored? It leaves me question some of the intentions of the male preachers. Many men like control and power. This can be a good thing in certain situations – but not in marriages.

john
Guest
Romans 8:7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, You cannot submit to God’s word because you love self more than Jesus. You walk in the flesh and not in the Spirit. The Bible is very clear about the roles of husband and wife. A lost world wants to tell God how marriage best functions, really? God’s words are eternal. These are NT instructions for the Church. They are not suggestions. God who is all knowing,… Read more »
Carole
Guest

Then I guess it is a good thing women have a choice now, and do not have to get (or stay, when there is abuse) married anymore. Cause, again, in the 21st Century, I am not seeing the upside for women of this kind of “relationship.” Can you tell me what that would be?

Sally
Guest
I read your posting with interest as I am seeking relevance and guidance with my own marriage, one where I did follow the black and white rules of the bible. I moved to the US, gave up all I had and became “one” with my husband’s life and his daughters.. He called all the shots, he was the sole decision maker, I was not allowed children by him, and I lost a part of myself because he lived without recreation or time off. After 16 years he had an affair that went on and off for 2 years, and I… Read more »
Beryl
Guest

Scott,
Why would you tell her to rekindle her love for this man…..after she just told you he cheated on her. Did you not read all the stuff she said he did to her and what she went through?
Do you really believe God wants wives to suffer, but not the husbands stand suffer???? Reread her comment please.

Scott
Guest

Hi Beryl

I think you have misunderstood my comment, so perhaps I might not have been clear. I don’t believe wives are called to stand by husband’s who are unfaithful and controlling. I do believe that before terminating a marriage the partners should seek reconciliation. This is a two way street. It can only happen if Sally’s husband repents and if Sally is able to forgive and they sre able to forge a new pattern of relationship. This is why before talking about rekindling love I suggested renegotiating the pattern of the relationship.

Thomas
Guest

Great post! Have nice day ! 🙂 zuqit

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