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

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 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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