What Biblical Submission in Marriage Really Means

Biblical SubmissionWhenever I (Dr. Townsend) talk about a wife setting boundaries in marriage, someone asks about the biblical idea of submission. What follows is not a full treatise on submission, but some general issues you should keep in mind.

First, both husbands and wives are supposed to practice submission, not just wives. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (see Ephesians 5:21). Submission is always the free choice of one party to another. Wives choose to submit to their husbands, and husbands choose to submit to their wives.

Christ’s relationship with the church is a picture of how a husband and wife should relate: “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” (see Ephesians 5:24–27).

Whenever submission issues are raised, the first question that needs to be asked is, What is the nature of the marital relationship? Is the husband’s relationship with his wife similar to Christ’s relationship with the church? Does she have free choice, or is she a slave “under the law”? Many marital problems arise when a husband tries to keep his wife “under the law,” and she feels all the emotions the Bible promises the law will bring: wrath, guilt, insecurity, and alienation (see Romans 4:15; Galatians 5:4).

Freedom is one issue that needs to be examined; grace is another. Is the husband’s relationship with his wife full of grace and unconditional love? Is she in a position of “no condemnation” as the church is (see Romans 8:1), or does her husband fail to “wash her” of all guilt? Usually husbands who quote Ephesians 5 turn their wives into slaves and condemn them for not submitting. If she incurs wrath or condemnation for not submitting, she and her husband do not have a grace-filled Christian marriage; they have a marriage “under the law.”

Often, in these situations, the husband is trying to get his wife to do something that either is hurtful or takes away her will. Both of these actions are sins against himself. “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” (see Ephesians 5:28–29).

Given this, the idea of slave-like submission is impossible to hold. Christ never takes away our will or asks us to do something hurtful. He never pushes us past our limits. He never uses us as objects. Christ “gave himself up” for us. He takes care of us as he would his own body.

I have never seen a “submission problem” that did not have a controlling husband at its root. When the wife begins to set clear boundaries in marriage, the lack of Christlikeness in a controlling husband becomes evident because the wife is no longer enabling his immature behavior. She is confronting the truth and setting biblical limits on hurtful behavior. Often, when the wife sets boundaries, the husband begins to grow up.

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Comments

  1. Roland Thomas says

    That is good, there is so additional thought that I haven’t considered – is my wife living under the law. Powerful!!!

  2. Lisa says

    Unfortunately we do not always chose to grow up when given the opportunity. My husband chose to discard me when I began to set boundaries. I am sad that he divorced me but the freedom in Christ to be who I am and live free surpasses the loss of the relationship and his love. Which actually wasn’t really love for me at all. The truth can be so hard but it is always worth it. I only pray that the truth will set him free one day as well. Thank you for sharing truth.

  3. Fellow says

    “I have never seen a “submission problem” that did not have a controlling husband at its root.”

    My wife was taught by generations of women that wives are the true heads of the family: women should control the husbands with an iron fist, and the teaching continues that it is normal for wives to fight and fight until they successfully force the husband to do as the wife wishes.

    These same women were taught Christianese that it’s desirable to use and exploit a husband; the husband’s loss is the wife’s gain (“he’s supposed to lay down his life for me, isn’t he, after all?”)

    This training kicked in soon after marriage and in one instance my wife fought very strenuously (unsuccessfully but incurring pain to us both) in attempt to force me to do something that would have been illegal if it had been done her way.

    Dr. Townsend, I believe that if you really have “never seen a “submission problem” that did not have a controlling husband at its root,” then your experience may be too limited or perhaps some blinders induced by western culture. Either way, I experience the article you wrote here as making assumptions about the wife and husband that are stilted.

  4. Wes says

    You set an unhealthy precedent here by specifically referring to the man as being the controller in your article. Example; “I have never seen a “submission problem” that did not have a controlling husband at its root.” Sure sets one heck of an undertone; doesn’t it? I wouldn’t touch this book with a 10 ft pole as I don’t think you even have an MFT designation…as anybody with an internship would never write an article with this much slant as you have. Nothing edifying scripturally about your piece; and it has nothing to do with marital boundaries!

  5. Adam Perry says

    The head of every woman is man, the head of every man is God. The example is Christ as the groom (man) and the Church as the bride (woman). The modern church has become femonized, we joke happy wife, happy life like what matters to the man doesn’t matter at all. Men are a laughing stock, portrayed in the media as a stupid dullard in need of his brillant wife to swoop in and rescue him from his stupidity.

  6. Jo says

    Gosh, this wonderful article of Godly truth seems to be exposing some angry controlling men… thankyou for such a helpful article.

  7. Stephen Burr says

    John,

    I’m going to have to agree with the other guys here, the problem is not always a controlling husband. Case in point, I had a mom who was controlling, and I have a wife who is controlling, and if that control is challenged, she gets bent out of shape. It’s also carrying over into the older (teen) girls in their attitudes. They both have a serious lack of respect for their parents, especially me as their father.

  8. Tim says

    This is an example of the Scriptures being interpreted through 21st century Post-modern Gender Feminist driven culture rather than letting Scripture speak for itself and interpreted with integrity. Both husbands and wives have a sinful nature. Women are just as capable of being controlling and self-willed, as men are capable of being controlling and unloving. God has provided an authority structure for the family in which men are to exercise unselfish headship and women to exercise submissive “helper ship”. Couples reject this pattern to their own peril.

  9. Nigel Hamllton says

    Thank you so much for this helpful explanation of submission in a marriage. I was meditating on what the Bible teaches about headship, having come to understand that male dominance comes from the fall and equality is restored in Christ. I felt that the Lord said to me, “The problem is that you don’t understand submission and you don’t understand authority. You think that having authority gives you the right to boss someone around and submission means that you allow yourself to be bossed around.” He went on to say that I should look at Jesus – and I saw that in His life, authority was always about empowering (Who gave you the authority to do these miracles?) and submission was about putting another’s interests before your own. (Philippians 2).

  10. Laura W Smith says

    This is what the religious people may never understand. People who use the Bible to demand submission and spiritually abuse people must be exposed. This has gone on for waaaaaaay too long and God is no it pleased when we become slaves to other people or attempt to enslave anyone else. I am so very thankful for the Lord opening my eyes to my relational idolatry issues. Which by the way is sin. He has healed me of this wound and I pray for those who need to step into the light and be set free from this lethal weapon of the enemy! God is able! It’s why Jesus came, to set the captives free!!!

  11. Mary says

    The writer talks about what “he has seen”. That doesn’t mean the other side doesn’t exist, however, as a senior woman who has done through 2 manipulative marriages with one with adultery and other with abusive background, I am in many women’s groups where men continue to abuse in one way or another and the church does NOT care for her and hold the man accountable. I am sorry for the men who are facing certain dilemmas with over-zealous wives, but I still believe overall, men do not have a clue how to be a Christian leader, shepherd, husband, lover and the church is not doing their job to teach. Women are made to respond. I am not a feminist, I was a stay at home mother for many years, SS teacher, Awana, now Grandmother, daughter pastor’s wife. I do not agree with modernism, legalism, secularism. But, I have lived long enough to have seen much, beginning in my own original home and the dynamics of men who control and have fear. To have boundaries is not sinful, it holds that man accountable before God.

  12. Karen M says

    The sad truth is there are many more Christian women living in abusive unloving marriages with controlling Christian husbands than the other way around.

    If it’s the women that are the slave masters as these men seem to be implying, why is it that men statistically find a new mate much sooner after divorce or bereavement; but women on the other hand wait much longer to remarry, and frequently determine not to remarry at all?

  13. Lael says

    I am a single woman who has never been married. The truth is, I am much more afraid of being with somebody who tries to control me, belittle me, abuse me, or make my life miserable, than I am of being alone. These are the behaviors that I have seen far too daily interactions with men, not just relationships. When a woman is repeatedly harassed,, leered at, groped, threatened, for doing such mundane things as walking down the street, appearing in pubic, or being in the same vicinity as men, it is very hard to see them as being anything more than monsters to be avoided at all costs. Modern feminism didn’t shape my negative view of marriage, and relationships, the behavior of men did that. I know that not all men are like that, and that there are some godly, decent ones who would never mistreat a woman. But, it is hard for me to see past that at this point.

  14. says

    I am blessed to have been married to a very considerate man for almost 20 years. We have several children and have always been active in a church. You would think by now, as a middle aged woman, I would understand how submission is supposed to work. However, I am more confused than ever.

    We left a church several years ago in search of a more conservative body of believers, as we could not agree with that church’s stand on several political issues. While I believe submission is Biblical, I am concerned that what we are observing in our new church is extreme. If a husband is to lead, when and how often does he take his wife’s input? When does submission become control? If the wife obeys in “all things”, how does she keep her identity?

    Here is some examples (with names changed).

    Steve relocated his family across the country to begin a new job. Kate never thought this was a good idea because the family was already in debt and the new job was risky. Could they not stay put for awhile, especially with a new baby, two toddlers, and no connections in the new city? Should both spouses be on board in a decision this big? I thought so. But Steve moved the family on, and his wife was willing to trust him in all submission.

    Bill, who does not have health issues or struggle with obesity, got on an strict diet of meat and vegetables. Ann, his wife, diligently prepares his meals each day, in addition to the regular meals the rest of the family eats. Ann has a large family, with several small kids, but manages to fit in time to make special home cooked meals just for her husband. Is this too much on Ann, who also homeschools several older children? I thought so. It would be one thing if they were empty nesters or the whole family was on this diet, but Ann is already has an exceptionally full plate.

    Mark made an unwise purchase without a home inspection. Mark never asked his wife Sue what she thought of the deal, as he had control on the finances. With the help of an attorney, Mark recovered some of the money. During the process, however, Sue kept all concerns to herself, only saying that she trusts her husband and God was going to meet all their needs. Should Mark have had some kind of accountability before investing the couple’s life savings?

    Ok, so I could go on with other examples. I found the Boundaries chapter on spouse relationships very helpful. My thinking is that my church takes submission too far. It is difficult because we do not feel comfortable in a liberal church either. But we do not live this way…I cannot be a clone of my husband. I am not a machine to just do whatever he wants. While this is not true of everyone in out fellowship, far too many couples do not mutually santifying each other. Rather, it is the husband who goes ahead with decisions and the wife just follows.

    Has anyone else been in this situation? We are getting close to leaving, but are unsure where to go and what path to take.

  15. Wayne says

    The sad truth is that there are many women who have been controlled along with many men who have been controlled or brow beaten with the Bible just as women have been.

    Your use of scripture is in Ephesians is a great point. The point of that passage (5:is Paul is telling us that the 2 basic needs of men and women are Respect(for men) and Love(for women).I do not know the Greek but I would assume the original translators found the words for spouse not as neutral but masculine and feminine and translated as such. ( I will show more reasonable proof later). To back up the passage that the roles can be flip flopped is dangerous I suspect. For if we so do that then by the same line of thinking we could say that the church is the head of Christ…..which is the very opposite of what 5:21 says ( of which I think Paul is talking about Brothers and Sisters in Christ…..though wife and husband are also brother and sisters…..also we would be able to say that 6:1 says parents obey your children)
    IN the following verses:
    o Titus 2:3-5
    o Colossians3:18
    o 1 Tim 2:11-13
    o 1 Peter 3:1-6
    o 1 corinthians14:34-35
    o 1 timothy 2:8,11
    Paul gives the same instruction to wives to submit/respect. But he gives varying ways for the husband to love his wife. I do not think Paul would have repeated the same command to wives had it not been what he actually meant.
    Now this being said I do not think that the husband should “LORD” his authority over the wife, just as Elders should not LORD their authority of the church ( 1 peter 5:2), but being examples to the flock so that when the Chief Shepherd appears we may get our reward. ( As husbands should do for their wives)
    In 1 Peter 3 , it is commanded that the wife be submissive to the husband even if they do not obey the word…trusting in God …..being submissive to their own husbands……whose daughters (of God) they are if you do good and are not afraid in any terror.
    That being said, I must agree with some of the men above, your overtones are problematic. By saying that the root of the problem is a controlling man, is erroneous in my opinion. This may be one of the problems. This may be the acting out of a man whose basic need of respect is not being met. He may not be meeting the basic need of his wife of being loved. But to put the blame solely on the man is taking a big leap with liberties and assumes much, as the other men pointed out above.
    I do believe each have their importance in the relationship of marriage. I do believe we are to Love others as Christ loved us. I do believe that husbands are to give honor to the wife as the, hold your breath, weaker vessel. But I believe God spoke clearly through Paul and Peter with repetition as a statement of importance of the need of a man to be respected, and a woman to be loved. God created us this way, he knew those would be our needs, he therefore gave us the solution to meeting those needs very clearly in the husband and wife relationship. The Word directs us as to how the marriage is best seen, just as the relationship with Christ and the church is best seen.
    I do not believe that abuse-mental, physical, or sexual is implied by the word submission. I do believe some men take things to far. I believe some women take things to far as well. We are ALL sinful creatures, still in the flesh.
    What if he is washing her with the WORD and she is refusing to listen to the word and be cleansed. Are we to cast her out? As the church does to a brother or sister caught up in sin who does not listen to rebuke by the church? If we are to treat our wives and husbands in the direct manner you say in Eph5:21 as we should brothers and sisters in Christ, then one could assume by your line of reasoning that this is acceptable too. Is this a boundary? I believe it is according to your definitions of boundaries.
    I married a woman with 2 children. These children were very poorly behaved. Daily occurrences of disrespect, dishonesty, and disobedience. Stealing from us, other family members, from kids at school, and from the church. Being disrespectful to teachers at school, at church, to other kids at school, at church, and to us at home. Lying to us on a daily basis about things as minor as chores not completed, cheating on allotted TV time, Stealing and hiding food in their rooms after being forbidden, and on and on. Also, some very inappropriate instances involving pornography and sexual immorality.
    After many instances of bringing this up with my wife and being pacified with reluctant half-hearted solutions (because we had to be in agreement, the husband “shouldn’t be in authority”) and even more half-hearted follow through (and many try and fails that I submitted to), It became more and more clear that she did not agree that the children’s behavior was all that bad. A final showdown got it out of her, as I asked, “DO you really think that their behavior is normal and acceptable?”. Her reply was “Yes, it IS normal and it IS acceptable, and you are going to have to DEAL WITH IT” She set her boundary that she wasn’t going to be under any LAW, but full of grace.
    Well John, I must with true heart broken saddnes say, we are now divorced, as I set up a boundary and “dealt with it” ……Thanks for the great advice. The kids continue in their dishonesty, disrespect and disobedience. But I got my boundary and my wife is no longer being “mentally or emotionally abused” by me the husband who was trying to be the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. But hey, we both have our boundaries and we are both in control of our own lives now, as do the kids, and they are in control of their lives as the Bible says conversely and we are obeying their wants. She is no longer under my “Law” as you stated, and no longer has any guilt as she shouldn’t according to you…..well if that can be flip flopped, then neither should I have any guilt, right?
    All of this to say, I think you can see how dangerous it can be to try to derive more out of scripture than what MAY have been originally intended.

      • Wayne says

        I have read the book “Boundaries”–So you are saying I should have continued to submit to my wife and sit there with a glorious, stoned in happiness, look on my face and watch the children continue to walk all over us and everyone else they came in contact with…..and die off from a lack of personal responsibility; guess that fits since if we can switch around what God’s word says in wives respect/submit to your husbands, we can say parents obey your children…….think i will call up ole Jesus too while i am at it and tell Him I think he got a couple things wrong and we the church should be doing things like we want and He should do things a little different also….His way crosses my boundaries……that kind of balance?…..so i guess I am one of those guys at fault that you mentioned…… I doubt i will be reading anymore of your books, but thanks for the “wisdom”

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