The word “submit” isn’t a very popular one.
For many people, submission registers as a tragic loss of individuality or power. If I’m submitting to you, then I can’t possibly be living my best life or following my aspirations. At the very least, I’m giving up part of myself.
In a culture that celebrates the voice, strength and ableness of the modern woman, Ephesians 5 hits us like a ton of bricks with this six letter verb: submit. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (5:22).
I kid you not, I’ve seen women physically twitch while reading this passage. It’s one that a lot of us struggle to reconcile in our own hearts and marriages. Some get defensive. Others just get confused. And still others try to ignore it altogether. God made me a strong & independent woman, so this passage must not be for me.
But I don’t believe in cherry-picking around the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable. I think it’s important for both women and men to work out how this passage informs our relationships. The person who asked today’s question seems to agree.
What’s the balance between wives submitting to their husbands and working together as a team in marital decisions?
With less than two years of marriage under my belt, I decided to call in for reinforcements on this one. I sent this question to a handful of women in my community and asked them to share their own responses to it. These women represent a broad spectrum of thoughts and experiences with this topic. Their responses have helped me think through this passage in new ways. I hope they do the same for you.
Mary T., 2 years married
“A lot of times, we think that being submissive means that our husbands “win,” but marriage takes two people and at the center of it is God. I have learned that the ‘I know best’ attitude doesn't get me very far and that it's important for me to speak my mind in a loving and respectful manner. “
Charissa B., 3 years married
“Looking at physical balance lends itself nicely to understanding the balance within a marriage. First and foremost, it is important that the husband and wife share a common goal, direction, or vision. This goal should consider the needs and desires of both individuals.
Having moved to 3 different states within the first 2 years of our marriage, my husband and I have had to figure out what our focal point is, and how to have discussions that inform this ultimate goal without ignoring the needs of each other. These decisions were never made in one definitive moment. Rather, they were the result of a culture of mutual service and sacrifice within our marriage.
The Bible calls for wives to submit to their husbands and for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, by laying down his life for her (Eph 5:22-26). Practically speaking, this looks like mutual and perpetual sacrifice on both ends.
Within a marriage, two individuals come together and become one new creation, not one pre-existing creation with a tag-along. Norman Shidle, author of the books Formula for Harmonious Action and The Art of Successful Communication, once said, “A group becomes a team when each member is sure enough of himself and his contribution to praise the skills of others.”
When you celebrate each other’s gifts and strengths within a marriage, and aim to put the others’ needs before your own, submission naturally falls into place. I know that my opinion has a place in our marriage, and I know that ultimately my husband has my best interest in mind; he knows the same.
Though conversations surrounding big decisions can be heated at times, the end result looks like mutual give and take. Because I know that I am heard and my needs are acknowledged, I trust my husband’s leadership and direction within our marriage. My prayer is that he feels empowered to lead as a result of his needs being understood and respected as well.”
Emily T., 4 years married
“There is no ‘balance’ between submission and unity in marriage. They are not opposites of each other or ends of an extreme. They aren’t mutually exclusive. By the world’s definition of these concepts we see conflict. It is almost impossible for us to not see one’s position as fully influencing importance or value. In this context, leadership and submission become loaded terms.
We have to understand the terminology as the Bible uses it. The church and the body are used as the descriptors of marriage. The body cannot be at odds with itself and function well. The head can’t make selfish decisions without affecting itself, it has to love and serve the body to sustain itself and vice versa. The head is not a separate entity from the body, but it has a role as part of the body. The body exists as one, moving together toward a common goal.
This analogy has been so helpful in terms of realigning my thoughts when I’ve struggled to apply this passage. We don’t refer to the body and head as a team. It would sound silly to praise someone’s body for good team work. The body and brain communicate and the head instigates action which the head and body carry out as one. When spouses don’t communicate well, the body can’t be productive because disunity makes the body dysfunctional.
My husband and I are extremely different and sometimes we cannot come to an agreement after communicating at length. In those moments, I have a few options. If I believe that’s what my husband wants is actually sin, then I can submit to God’s ultimate authority and not comply with my husband. If it’s just a different opinion—and let’s be real, it’s usually a difference of opinion, not a sin issue—then I can allow my husband to make the final decision and walk with him in the outcome of that decision. Or lastly, I can just choose to do my own thing, and lose out on the gift that is oneness in marriage. That last option will make both of us less effective and prevent us from reflecting the unity of Christ and the Church in our lives to the world around us.”
Grace S., 6 years married
“I’d always had trouble with “Wives submit to your husbands” until it was pointed out that the passage also heavily highlights for men to submit to their wives. It was a topic of discussion during our premarital counseling that made me realize how this verse was taken out of context quite frequently!
When it comes to marriage, it’s ultimately about trust, communication, and being prayerful about the matter at hand. It’s never been about me cowering in submission as my husband declares his choosing, but more of us talking out our points and coming to an understanding of how to best navigate what is in front of us. There are times that even after praying about something and giving it to the Lord that I am still struggling. In those instances I trust that my husband will make the best decision for the opportunity. I say opportunity and not issue because I know God will provide a way for it— whatever “it” is—to work out albeit unclear in the moment.
In marital decision-making, it’s not about who has the upper hand but rather about trusting that your God-given partner is going after what will have the best outcome for that matter. Thomas and I do our best to make decisions together regardless of how significant or mundane the opportunity may be.”
Anonymous, 7 years married
Ah, the timeless verse from Ephesians 5, "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do the Lord." When I first was married, I strived to be the perfect wife, submitting to my husband in all decisions, from the little mundane decisions about what to make for dinner, to the grandiose financial decisions. Now, I feel like I've hit a healthy homeostasis, through many trials and a few errors, balancing knowing when to consult my husband in decisions and when to make decisions on my own. I have come to understand that I need to submit to my husband in all things and that is when the Lord is truly honored.
As my love for my husband and my trust in the Lord has grown, I have grown in worship of my Lord, in turn growing in my to desire to submit to my husband, rather than doing it out of legalism and people-pleasing. Trusting that the Lord has put my husband as my shepherd and caretaker has helped me make decisions with him humbly and graciously. He shows his care and trust of me, building me up as his wife and affirming that I am my own person. In turn, I consider his well-being in my heart, as I make decisions for myself and my family.
We balance our decisions by always remembering we are on the same team. We remember our bond as a family as we make decisions together or apart, journeying through life and striving to honor and glorify God.
Anonymous, 9 years married
“My husband and I actually tag team A LOT. I think it’s part of the respect we have for each other and the love and care we show toward one another with our sacrifices to and for each other. He still makes the last call on things but we definitely have an open dialogue with whatever we are going through. I submit by considering and accepting his advice on things. I know that he has a Christ-honoring perspective, so I’m willing to submit the decision making into his hands. That’s a big reason why it’s so important to be equally yoked.”
Silva M.E., 17 years married
“Submission is a tricky word. In our society it has explosive undertones of oppression and power and control. Is this what we want to bring into our marriages? As someone who studied women’s lib and considers herself a feminist, I really had to step back when I got engaged–from myself and my own thoughts–into a Christ-focused mindset. I had to retrain my thinking away from myself and toward Christ. I had to remind myself that Christ is holding the scale and that my husband and I are of equal weight to Him.
In marriage, it’s not husband against wife or wife against husband in a power struggle over who will “wear the pants.” Do we even realize how ridiculous that sounds? Marriage is a team, with a coach, a captain and a player. Jesus is the coach, the husband is the captain, and the wife is the player. In many ways, she’s a STAR player. But there can only be one coach and one captain.
The mistake we make is in thinking that we are losing our voice, or don’t have a say, or aren’t as important. Those are the devil’s lies. The Bible says to wives, “Be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The Lord loves us, cares for us, protects us, wants to hear from us, wants to give us the desires of our heart – and so should a good, God-fearing husband.
In my own marriage, I have no shortage of opinions about anything. My husband and I discuss everything and usually come to decisions together. He values what I bring to the table. However, if we disagree, he will have the final say. I am okay with that. I know that he loves the Lord, he loves me and he wants the best for our family. If he made a decision that drew us away from Christ, I would definitely object and stand my ground. We’ve had lots of disagreements and many lively “debates” about matters affecting our family. But in our years of marriage, my husband has pulled the “I’m the head of our family so what I say goes” card once–ONCE. And he was right to do it.
The weight of a family’s spiritual life is on the husband, not the wife. It is the husband who will answer to the Lord for how he lead his family. And so I will joyfully submit to my husband in all matters with the comforting knowledge and trust that he will lead me and our sons toward Jesus. It took me a long time to reach this point.
Honestly, I still sometimes feel a twitch of “you don’t own me!” But that is my childish, worldly reaction to not always being in charge, and that is my own sin to deal with. Knowing God, knowing His word, and most importantly, choosing a godly husband, will help smooth the path to a Christ-centered marriage in which willing submission is a natural part of making marital decisions.”
Mariet S., 27 years married
“Submission of wives to their husbands has usually been emphasized, but sometimes we forget that there is a harder responsibility on the husbands’ shoulders. They need to love their wives, just as Christ did. They need to love them selflessly and should be willing to give their all for them.
“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 his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church…” (5:28-29 NIV). “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (5:33 NIV).
When your husband loves you selflessly and cares for your emotional and physical needs, as a wife, you also are willing to do your all to please him and to show your love, gratitude, and respect. In this kind of relationship, both parties try to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10 ESV). It is not a matter of power struggle anymore, but each one tries to consider the interests of the other side first. Of course, this needs sacrifice from both sides, which in turn strengthens the relationship and mutual love.”
So now what?
There seems to be an underlying message in all of these responses: submission in marriage is a lot more about love than control. It requires sacrifice from both parties in service of a greater goal to glorify God as a team. A give and take that’s rooted in a mutual desire to honor Him and each other.
Whether you’re married, dating or single, I hope that these personal stories help you think through this topic in a very tangible way. Please share your own thoughts and responses in the comments below.