What Biblical Submission in Marriage Really Means

Biblical Submission

Whenever 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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  • LH on

    Well said! It’s good to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance isn’t it!

  • LMH on

    Yes, it does seem to be a selected set of scenarios this relates to. I can relate to some of the comments presented, living within a matriarchal family – where the husbands are mostly directed by the wife who’s (in these cases) better suited for certain roles purely because the wife had better decision making skills, relational interests, better family communication skills, and with some couples, higher educated than their spouse. There’s a place for ‘role reversal’ to other traditional marital beliefs. There are couples whose skill set, personalities lend to the woman being the one who seems to exercise authority: spiritually, discipline, etc. There are cultural differences with us in interracial marriage covenants too. When I read the word submission, I think of humbling oneself to keep the peace and be respectful to hear not just listen but to come to an amicable agreement. Sometimes it’s just easier to let go the fight and see how things pan out. Let what will be will be. Pick your battles, as they say. When we love the other person greatly, we really do want to move forward, together, not cause a division.

  • kLo on

    Hi, I’m reading Henry Cloud’s “Changes That Heal.” I strongly recommend. The book discusses setting boundaries. Maybe it will help you in your relationship with a mother and wife who cross your boundaries. God bless.

  • Melisss Tilley on

    I was in a marriage wjen i was a slave to a man i have fared christian men because of it that man beat me demanded his way if i didnt do what he wanted me to he’d hit me he also forced himself on me i have started to read this book boundaries in marage i dont want to dominate any man i want to be given the right to say no if it is reasonable example if say my husbend asked me to come home and fix him dinner and i do all the things he asks me to do 28 days a month and 2 days a month i laeve to hang out with my friends i would set my boundery there i should be able to enjoy time with friends and not be at a mans brck and call thst is slavery to expect your wife to come running everytime the huband wants her to take csre of him any way this book gives me peace thst im not a mans slave because i was one i love this book and will follow it it stops the fear of men makong me into a slave i actually for a long time thought God’s ideas are evel but this book helps me see God and thst he doesn’t want me to be a slave i was one i understand submission better i still dont have it all understood but in time God will help

  • Alana Childers on

    Hi Rachel! I recommend you check out CBE International and check out some wonderful theology about women being made in the image of God. Margaret Mowczko also has a great website… she wrote, “Genesis 2 tells us that Adam, who was all alone, needed help, and that a woman, Eve, was created to provide this help. The Hebrew word for “help” used here is ezer, and it is mostly used in the Hebrew Bible for God’s help.”

    Woman was created as an equal partner for man. Gender subordination was never God’s plan for humanity, but sin resulted in a curse of men subordinating women, and women accepting this perversion of God’s original plan. Jesus came to redeem us from the curse restore both men and women to equality in the home, church and christian community.

    There’s also a great Facebook group called “Biblical Christian Egalitarians” that has a lot of great information about how to understand mutual submission from a biblical perspective. Hope to see you over there!

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