Few commands in scripture hit our modern ears as more offensive than those commands to submit. Read through Ephesians, for instance, and you can’t avoid Paul’s commandment to wives: “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24).
For some women, Paul’s instruction to submit to your husband’s just about makes your heads wants to explode. At the very least, it's not something you want to scream proudly about your faith, because it feels it goes against who you are as a strong independent person.
Much of our angered response against submission, however, is a result of the ways that the idea has been twisted. We hear “submission” and immediately add in ideas of inferiority, tyranny, and abuse. We are not understanding what God means by submission, and are allowing the secular world to twist it into something it isn't. Even many churches can get it wrong.
Submission in marriage, Paul says, was a gift of God designed to help us grow and make us more like Him. God’s call for you wives to submit to your husbands, far from diminishing your worth, is an invitation for you to reflect Jesus in how you submit to that leadership. Here is what submission does and does not mean, so you can follow God's Word without feeling like you are losing yourself.
Submission is not agreeing on everything.
Submission does not mean that you always agree with your husband on everything he says. It’s possible to be submissive and refuse to think what your husband says you should think. There are things that are more important than what your husband's final word is. For example, if he says, “I don’t want you to be a Christian,” what should you say? A wife would say, “I love you. I want to be submissive to you. I intend to be submissive to you. But on this point, I have no choice. I belong to Jesus.” He may send her away. That happens in 1 Corinthians 7. The unbeliever splits, which would be a great tragedy, however the wife should always obey God first. God has made you with a mind. He granted you the ability to think, feel, and process the world for yourself. You are a person, not a body and not a machine.
Submission never requires a wife to follow her husband into sin.
Your ultimate allegiance and loyalty are to Christ. If your husband abuses his God-given authority and requires of you something that is contrary to the Word and will of God, you must obey God rather than your husband. For example, your husband may own his own business and start dealing in shady business practices that you know God would frown down upon. You, as a wife, have the power to stick up and say no to that. For many wives, however, the problem in the marriages is that often their struggle is with being led in a way they don’t prefer to go or just don’t think is best, rather than in a way the Bible and conscience forbid. It’s important to distinguish between the two in responding to a husband’s direction.
Submission is not to men in general.
Every person—man or woman, young or old—has relationships that require submission, whether to parents, a boss, civil authorities, or spiritual leaders in the church. All of us as believers are to have a humble, submissive attitude toward one another in the body of Christ (Eph. 5:21). However, when scripture instructs wives to submit, it is specifically to “their own husbands,” who have been established by God to serve as the head of their wives and to love them and lay down their lives for them. They are not to be a weak vessel that any man can latch on to and take for his own satisfaction. Women have the power and strength through Christ to stand up to men in the world.
Submission does not mean a wife is inferior to her husband.
A wife does not exist as a serf in her house to cater to her husband’s whims. Just a few verses after Paul’s command to wives, he tells the husband to lay down his life for his wife and love her “as Christ loved the church” (verse 25). Scripture affirms unequivocally that men and women are both created in the image of God and therefore have equal worth. They have equal access to the Father and are equally coheirs with Christ, sharing equally in the Holy Spirit, equally redeemed and baptized into Christ, equally partakers of His spiritual gifts, and equally loved and valued by God.
Submission does not justify abusive relationships.
When Paul says to submit to the husband “as to the Lord,” that means “as a way of serving God”—not “in the place of God.” This means that if your husband tells you to do something that would make you disobey the Lord or if his leadership ever puts you or your family in harm’s way, you need to get out of there, and you need to get some counseling to help you heal. No amount of twisting God's Word will ever allow for justification of an abusive relationship. Women should feel empowered to leave a marriage where they are mentally or physically being harmed.
What submission to your husband does mean is that you allow him the space to steer the family. Kathy Keller, wife of Redeemer Presbyterian’s Tim Keller, explains it: “Submission means that in matters of disagreement, I yield to Tim the deciding vote. I get a vote; he gets a vote; he gets the deciding vote.” Spiritual leadership means the husband has the burden of responsibility. Its counterpart is the sort of submission that encourages and equips the husband for that leadership. Spiritual headship is not license for men to do what they want to do. It is empowerment to do what they ought to do.