Should Wives Submit?

A colleague of mine was recently engaged. And the question arose, as it often does: "How are we going to resolve conflict? Who gets the final say? Who has to submit?"

The linguistic structure of Ephesians 5 yields a helpful insight.

Under the overarching missional heartbeat of this passage (v.15-16 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil) is the reality that before we ever get to instructions for husbands, wives, children, slaves and masters, we get another instruction for all that follow:

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."

In the Greek it is unmistakable that submission applies to all who follow, because the word "submit" in "Wives, submit to your husbands" is actually absent. In ancient Greek when a verb is missing from a statement, you pull down the previous verb ("Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ"). This is grammatically true for wives, but structurally true for the rest of them as well. The verb 'submit' is intended to be pulled down on not only wives, but also husbands, children, slaves and masters. So you might interpret it:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, (submit) to your husbands....
Husbands, (submit and) love your wives...
Children, (submit and) obey your parents...
Slaves, (submit and) obey your masters...
Masters, (submit) to your slaves...

This is the origin of the popular phrase among proponents of egalitarian marriage "mutual submission." Submission, it seems, ought to characterize the relationships between ALL persons in Christ.

Note that wives don't get an EXTRA command with the 'for-everyone' command to submit. Husbands are to love AND submit. Children, to submit AND obey. Slaves to submit AND obey. Notice that wives were not told to 'obey and submit' as the clearly hierarchical relationships of Parents-Children and Masters-Slaves. Obedience is not the meaning of "wives, submit to your husbands."

So who gets the final say? Well, Paul would say "Christ," because ultimate submission is to him.
Who should submit? Wives, definitely wives. And husbands. And children. And slaves. And masters. In short, everyone. Everyone should submit.

Beyond this, a practical solution may be helpful. Lindsay and I practice what a Christian counselor advised: when you face a decision with conflict, each person rates the importance of the decision on a scale of 1-10. If the decision is more important to me, and I feel more passionately - then I make the call. And if Lindsay does, then it's her call. If you're both at a 10 - you need a mediator (or one of you is just being stubborn, acting like its a 10 for you when it's really not).

This works much better than what someone insisted Lindsay and I do. She implored us to follow the biblical way and told Lindsay flatly she must submit to (obey) my decisions. After imparting this wisdom, she went on to tell about the time she submitted to her husband's decision, and how it was "one the dumbest decisions" they'd ever made, with a significant financial downside. And yet, she concluded, "That's the price we pay for doing things God's way."

There is a price to pay in doing things God's way, but I think it is in giving up power, not eschewing the collective wisdom.

How's your submission going?

Other Posts in this series: 
Good Looking Gospel: The Missional Heartbeat of the Household Codes
Submit to Authority: The Biblical Agenda (and Ours)
Who Wears the Pants? Unlocking the Household Codes


  1. Andrew and I (Quinn) were talking about this and I'm having a hard time with this part:

    "The verb 'submit' intended to be pulled down on not only wives, but also husbands, children, slaves, and masters."

    Eph 5:22 reads:
    Hai gunaikes tois idiois andrasin ws tw kuriw

    When the verb gets pulled down, shouldn't it only be applied to the noun in the nominative case, i.e., the subject?

    If we do that, we get "wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord."

    But since husbands is in the dative, we can't pull the verb down and say "husbands, submit to your wives."

    What do you think?

  2. It's a fabulous question and I'm glad you brought it up so I can clarify. I love that it's sparked conversation.

    You are right, grammatically speaking "submit" is pulled down only to wives.

    But grammar is not everything here - literary structure is. This passage is like a simple outline. Submit to one another is the header, everything that follows includes this, but expands upon it.

    The fact that wives pull down submit grammatically but husbands do not is to be expected. I believe it would be highly unusual to gramatically pull down something multiple times over several paragraphs. On the other hand, it is not unusual to pull something down by virtue of the literary structure of the passage.

    Bottom line: Paul clearly intends that v21 "Submit to one another" applies to all who follow. The ensuing instructions are expansions upon the nature of this submission.

    Also important to note is the company "husbands" are keeping in this household code. Other household codes of this time rarely (if ever?) gave instructions to husbands. Household codes were for those under authority; they were for submitters, not rulers.

    Any 1st century 4th grader playing Sesame Street's "Which one of these doesn't belong" would have identified that husbands were out of place in a list like this - a list of those called to submit.

    For more on Ephesians 5 see: and the articles it references.

  3. "Bottom line: Paul clearly intends that v21 'Submit to one another' applies to all who follow."

    That's the part I don't get. Why do you think that?

    I agree, it is good we are having this conversation. Too many people in the church are unwilling to dialogue on things like this.

  4. One of the disciplines we learned in seminary was mapping out sentences in an outline. This was to be informed by the grammar and the literary structure and flow of ideas. When you do this, you see that v21 is the inclusive command for wives, husbands, children and slaves.

    I'm not sure which translation you're using, but the NIV's outlining misses the point, while newer translations clearly reflect my understanding. Take a look at the NRSV and TNIV, who both begin the "Instructions for Christian Households" section with v21. [You may know that neither the chapter and verse numerations nor the section headings are in the original manuscripts, and therefore must not be considered 'inspired.' These reflect the work of early (chapter and verse) and contemporary (section headings) scholars. Today's scholars agree that Paul's intent in v21 was for everyone in the Christian household.

  5. I agree that husbands should recognize the value of our wives as helpmeets and humbly consider what they offer, espeially when they strongly disagree with us. But never is a wife held responsible for decisions of the family, only the husband is. Men should no more submit to their brides than Christ submits to his.

  6. Right, I guess that's what I need to research more. When I read the passage, I just don't get what you're getting from it. Since there is some disagreement in the church, we probably ought to disregard both the heading the NIV gives and the heading the NRSV and TNIV give, and do our own exegesis.

    I'm not sure I agree that today's scholars agree on that. Maybe most of them do. But I don't think J.I. Packer would, and I think you'd agree he's a scholar.

    Anyway, when I read the passage, I get something else from it: namely, that wives should submit to their husbands, and not vice versa. I'm somewhat prepared to argue for that position if you want to continue the discussion, but if you have more to say for your position, I'm happy to hear you first.

  7. Thanks for explaining the literary structure--good argument!

  8. Chris, how do you explain Ephesians 5:22-24? "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands." That's the ESV. Here's the KJV: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing." And the NASB: "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything."

    I could keep posting more...

    They all seem pretty clear. You make very educated commentary regarding the greek, but in doing so you also take the debate away from anyone who doesn't know greek. Certainly, a working comprehension of Greek and Hebrew is not required to study and understand the Bible. And even more certainly, many brilliant scholars—fluent in Greek and/or Hebrew—contributed to the English translations we have today. When these translations all say the same thing in clear language, you are basically presuming your Greek better and more informed than that of those who gave us the ESV, KJV, etc. You also presume that they somehow made an error in translation.

    All due respect, but I'll go with the corroborated translations and the collective wisdom of the scholarly crowd that has created them.

  9. Daniel B. Wallace (professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary) says this in Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, page 659:
    "...v 21 is a programmatic statement ("being submissive to one another in the fear of Christ"), applicable to all in the church in a general sense. Only by exegetical gymnastics can it be made directly applicable to both halves of the three groups in 5:22-6:9 (should parents be submissive to children?).... The house tables thus do not advance the argument per se, but answer an implicit question growing out of 2:11-22, viz., If Jew and Gentile are on equal footing in the body of Christ, does this mean that all social hierarchies are abolished? The answer seems to be a resounding 'No.'"

  10. Anonymous, thanks for the comment. I certainly don't think my greek is better than the host of scholars involved with those translations - though on one point, I side with more recent translation committees in delineating a section break, before, rather than after 5:21. (You'll notice this difference between the NIV and TNIV as well as others.)

    I do hope you'll read the others posts in this series (links above) since they indicate what I think is the larger issue than translation - application. We must ask ourselves why we don't apply directly the clear teaching on slaves submitting to masters as found here and several other places. Was Paul really endorsing slavery? How we explain these passages illuminates the whole of his approach to the ethics found in household codes. In a word - Paul was missional in his ethics. So we can say that Paul was in a way reinforcing the hierarchical mode of marriage in his time, but he was doing so in a way very much like the way that Jesus reinforced the payment of taxes to Caesar - a form of subversive submission apparent to his contemporaries, but lost on us. I'll be posting on the "render unto Caesar" passage very soon.

    Andrew - While Wallace is an unquestionably formidable scholar, I dare say he is missing the point here. Of course, Paul is not suggesting that parents submit to children in the same way that children ought to submit to parents. The same could be said of his vision of the relationship between husbands and wives. Nonetheless, I believe the clearest passage on Paul's view of the implications for the gospel on social hierarchies is Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." What Paul is teaching in the household codes isn't the intrinsic validity of these hierarchies - but rather the necessity of avoiding social chaos for the sake of making a good name for the gospel. (See the other posts in this series for further examples.) Thus, Paul here introduces incremental social change into these social relations setting a trajectory toward their radical eschatological reorientation.

  11. Wow this is a really good conversation. This is something for me to chew on. I agree that Paul is "introducing incremental social change" but how far can we let that context break down the validity of those hierarchies? Ephesians 5:22-24 and a few other passages come to mind to where I can't at the moment see the total egalitarian view as biblical. However this conversation is motivating me to search out the scriptures on the matter.

    I agree that we are to "Submit to one another out of love for Christ," so I'll submit to my wife and she likewise will submit to me. However, I see an added emphasis on the wife to submit to her husband. So for me this looks like a partnership marriage walked out in community under the ultimate headship of Christ. I still see the husband as the bottom line leader according to the scriptures, but if we're trying to "submit to each other out of love for Christ" and we're searching out wisdom from one another and from the community around us I think we won't really bump into many situations where I have to make a bottom line decision. So far in three years of marriage I've had zero problems with it.

    Chris, I really like your comments and I can see the fruit of the Spirit in your life. I'm going to search the scriptures out on this matter and I'm going to stay open to letting the scriptures change my view point. I don't agree with you on this matter now, but I'm going to prayerfully seek out how I can read the scriptures in the proper context on this matter.

    BTW, this is Daniel not Crystal

  12. Daniel,

    Thanks for reading, and for your kind comment. As I said above I think the key to understanding Paul's teaching on this matter is clearest not through a linguistic analysis, but a missional one that asks WHY he is giving these instructions. He and the other authors of household codes (Peter and Titus) tells us why in the other passages I engage in the other posts in this series, which I invite you to read as you search the scriptures on this matter. Links are listed at the bottom of the post. Blessings!

  13. Chris-
    I have wrestled with all of this language for twenty years. I certainly take the Bible as authoritative in all aspects of life. But I totally agree with you about Paul's intent.
    Often the Holy Spirit guides my understanding of scripture by posing this case: Why would Paul commend a code of household ethics that already existed in both Jewish and Gentile families? What is the Kingdom corrective in that? He is obviously talking about an ethic that is exclusively Christ's...that just as Christian should submit to Christian, Christian family members should as well.
    This is a minor aside, but having recently taken the keys away from an elderly father..I am thankful that for his Christlike ability to submit to his children's wisdom.
    Thank you for your temperament in debate as well as your wisdom.
    I would sign my comments t.pate but I don't know what a URL is. :)

  14. t.pate - thanks for your comment. I appreciate the thought you're adding: why would Paul simply reiterate the norm? Clearly he must be saying something new. It's my belief Paul was, first and foremost, a missionary. His guidance for households and churches all drives in one direction: we need to make the gospel look as good as it really is.

  15. Hi Chris,
    Your lovely wife forwarded me on to your blog. I live out here in Cali and go to MPPC and met her via Jason Stinger on FB. I just wanted to give a brief intro:

    My story: I was in an abusive relationship/marriage for 11+ years. I know that I have my own personal issues for ending up in this marriage...but I do think that the complimentarian view definitely plays a huge part into why women like me stay in these threatening relationships. Let me explain my view.

    I come for a "complimentarian" view of the bible...and while I for my 15+ years as a Christian espoused the "husband's as head of household" doctrine...I now have to say that I think this view can possibly lead to the set up of domestic abuse.

    While I have been taught all my life (prior to following Jesus as well) that I am "equal" to men in ability, living in a culture that still has the undercurrent of male superiority as well as the houses I grew up in...I have come to realize that I never "felt" equal to men on a conscious level. This has set me up to release my individual "freedom" to men time and again. I was taught verbally and non-verbally that I must "submit" to their authority in my life, pushing my needs and my voice aside. Instead of being a team with the opposite sex ...I have always felt they were the enemy and that they look at me as the enemy. A power struggle was bound to explode sooner or later. This "set-up" has wrecked havoc on my emotional, physical and spiritual life that I am now trying my hardest to repair.

    As part of my repair, I know that some how I have to learn to trust men again. It is not easy, but I know that I am missing a big part of God and His character if I do not do this.

    I mention all of this because I feel this is the damage that the Complementarism view has propagated not only on my own life, but on many women, children AND men in our culture.

    Earlier this summer, after listening to some sermons by John O. and Scotty S. and talking with a friend, I learned that there is a different view on the sexes and these verses you mention...that there was something called "egalitarians". I set out to start learning more about it. I got Philip Payne's Book "Man and Woman: One in Christ". In the first chapter my heart about stopped when I was reading about how some of the ancient men looked upon women. He says something along the line that women are mere vessels for men to carry their feelings, for they are not worthy to have their own. That a man had a right to “own” not only the woman physically but basically own her soul as well...tell her what to think and feel.

    In my research to understand my relationship and my husband...I read several books by Patricia Evans. In her book she talks about how men who control their women generally think. Her comments lined up almost exactly, word for word with Philip's comments about what ancient men believed about women that I mention above. This is why my heart stopped when I read Philip’s comments months later. Again, if this system was around so long ago - why would God continue it yet today?

    On a personal note: I actually am starting at Fuller in the Summer of Fall and cannot wait to learn how to dissect the original language like this so I can see for myself. So much to learn, so little time. Looking forward to hopefully having more time to read your other posts soon!

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