Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Biblical Submission

In my most recent Dogwood Digest, a reader asks a question about submission in a marriage. I get a lot of hits on this blog when people Google the words "doormat mentality." Obviously submission is a controversial topic! The following is the result of my study on the Biblical concept of submission within the marriage relationship.

There are three places in Scripture that tell wives to submit to their husbands: Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, and Titus 2:5. Looking at the context of these passages gives us some clues as to what Paul meant by asking wives to submit.

Many people equate the word submit with obey. I do not believe Scripture supports this interpretation. In Ephesians 5, the instruction to the wife is preceded by a command for all believers: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The Greek word, hupotasso, is the verb used in both this and the command to the wives that follows. Therefore submit cannot be synonymous to obey here, since obviously everyone can’t obey everyone else. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the wives to submit to their husbands. Two verses later, he instructs children to obey their parents. The Greek word translated as obey, hypakou┼Ź, is a different word than submit. If Paul meant obey in both cases, why would he use different words?

So if submission does not necessarily mean obey, what does it mean?

The word hupotasso originally came from a military term, which meant to put the troops into order under a commanding officer. Eventually it took on a non-military usage as a “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, or carrying a burden.”

From the contexts in both Ephesians and Colossians, that second nuance of meaning makes a bit more sense. I like the idea of cooperation or bearing a burden. If we as wives did everything in our power to enable our husband to fulfill what the New Testament defines as his role, what would that look like? There is no doormat mentality there. Rather, it is an idea of partnering together to help each other be obedient to the Word of God.

I don’t think submission in a marriage is about obedience at all. Instead, it is the decision on the part of the wife to support her husband in a sacrificial way, with no thought to herself. It is placing her husband’s needs above her own, with the purpose of enabling him to fulfill his role as her husband. It is just another opportunity to die to self. “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11)

In order to better understand the wife’s role, we must look at the husband’s part in the relationship. Paul states in Ephesians 5:23 that the husband is the “head of the wife as Christ is head of the church.” There are two Greek words for “head”: one is arche, which denotes “first” in terms of power and importance. Paul did not use this word. He used kephale, which means foremost in terms of position (like a cornerstone in a foundation). It was also a military term, indicating the one who went first into battle. Kephale was never used to mean leader, boss, or ruler. It describes the person who is out in front, serving those who follow him.

Submission is a voluntary act on the part of the wife. Husbands are never told to make the wife submit. In fact, the biblical definition of a leader is far removed from a dictatorial figure: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care...not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

I think that we as wives sometimes can hinder our husbands from obeying God’s commands. When we second guess everything he says, or contradict him in front of the children, or even show a lack of faith in his ability to be head of the family as Christ is head of the church, we make it difficult for him to fulfill the Scriptures defining his role. Yet when we love and support him in his efforts and respect him as the head of the home, he is enabled to love us as “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for her.”(Ephesians 5:25)

A wife, by her submission, sets the tone in her home. A wise older woman once told me that it was my responsibility to teach my children to respect their father. I took that advice very seriously. I determined to never speak disparagingly about my husband to my children. The larger part of that instruction, however, occurred as I lived out my commitment to love my husband in front of the kids.


I did a message on the idea of submission based on 1 Peter 3. You can hear it by clicking HERE. The message title is: Relationships that Reflect Hope: In the Home.

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