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Who Submits to Whom?

Seeking the truth about marriage roles.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. (Ephesians 5:22-33, NIV)

I can already hear the frustrated sighs and harrumphs at the very mention of this passage. These verses have been picked apart for years by pastors, scholars and theologians.

I am, however, none of those things. I am a woman and a wife, and these verses are important for me to understand. As someone who has a deep relationship with Christ, I can’t simply ignore the parts of the Bible that make me uncomfortable. So, what do I do with this passage about submission?

I read the whole thing—and I read it in context.

The same Greek word Paul uses for submission concerning wives in verse 22 is used earlier in verse 21 when he’s describing all relationships. "Submit" was a Greek military term meaning "to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader." In non-military use, it was "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden.”

Look, I’m not trying to say these verses aren’t controversial, nor am I trying to twist them to fit some agenda. What I am saying is all this bickering about the specificity of wordings is missing the point. The passage as a whole is addressing mutual submission within a marriage relationship.

Maybe we get stuck trying to pick apart semantics because neither husbands nor wives want to admit the Bible calls both of us to submit. In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson states most spouses get stuck in what she calls “Demon Dialogues.” These are circular arguments where, she says, “Couples cannot connect safely with [their] partner. [They are] dead-end patterns of mutual blame that effectively keep a couple miles part, blocking reengagement and the creation of a safe haven.” When we get stuck in these Demon Dialogues, neither spouse is submitting. We are digging in our heels and staunchly defending our own positions, mindful of only our feelings.

Maybe the Bible knows what it’s talking about, then.

Dr. Johnson goes on to suggest married adults need to have the same kind of emotional bond that parents and children have. In fact, having this bond is crucial for the survival of the marriage. She says, “Forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached and dependent on your partner … for nurturing, soothing, and protection. Adult attachments may be more reciprocal and less centered on physical contact, but the nature of the emotional bond is the same. [We should] focus on creating and strengthening this emotional bond and by identifying and transforming the key moments that foster an adult loving relationship: being open, attuned, and responsive to each other.”

I don’t know about you, but if my husband were always open, attuned and responsive to me, he’d definitely be submitting. And vice versa. If we could both do this all the time, our marriage would be awesome.

Sadly, the beginning verses of this Ephesians passage have been used by husbands to oppress wives—to make them feel less intellectual, capable and equal. Even in Baker’s Commentary of the Bible, it says a husband should not “burden the wife with the decision-making responsibility … but rather make decisions according to her needs and welfare, even when it means making a decision she may not like.”

I disagree wholeheartedly with this interpretation. It just doesn’t make a good marriage when one person is the decision-maker. My husband and I make decisions based on mutual submission (which I believe is supported by the verses in Ephesians) and on prayer. If we can’t agree, we put off making the decision indefinitely. We take the time to ask for God’s guidance, talk it through and consider the other person’s opinion. And we always end up in agreement, even if one or both of us have changed our minds along the way.

When this passage in verse 23 says the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, my mind immediately goes to 1 Corinthians 12:21, which says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” God very pointedly directs the Church body to work together and makes it clear that no one part is better than the other; all the parts deserve equal honor and consideration. Isn’t that what Ephesians is talking about?

Despite how the word “submit” has been abused over the years, it actually isn’t negative. It’s a picture of joyful, freeing, healthy Christian living. In its purest application, the word draws us out of ourselves into thinking about other people, loving them, listening to them and putting their needs ahead of our own. "Submit" only becomes a negative command when it’s one-sided. When the wife submits but the husband doesn’t. When the husband submits but the wife doesn’t. That’s where things get all screwed up. Both the husband and wife are called by God to be submissive to each other.

Men and women are different. They don't always experience love in the same way, and so the Bible sometimes gives gender-based remarks for how to best treat one's spouse. The fact that Ephesians lumps the expectations together is a big deal. Marriage is to be done as a team. We work together, sacrifice for one another and submit to the needs of each other. We're different but equal.

And for me, this is what this passage is all about. It's the way a marriage partnership works, the way God wants it to be healthy and life-giving for both husband and wife. Marriage takes the submission of selfish will; there is no way around it. Husband or wife, you will be challenged daily to have your mate’s best interests at heart … when all you really want is to have your own way.

I trust that when God gives me commands about my marriage relationship, He has my best interests at heart, even when the things He tells me to do are difficult. Christ submitted to the Father’s will out of love, not forced obedience. That is what God wants for a marriage—for husband and wife to lovingly submit to one another and create a bonded, secure partnership.

Melissa Kircher, along with her husband, Jake, write about relationships and marriage at You can also follow them on Twitter @marriageismessy


Crowd Linx


Crowd Linx commented…

Mutual submission? If me and my wife agree on mutual submission, she will abuse that term to get me to submit 100% of the time. 'The woman will always try to rule over the man.'

Alejandro Gonzalez


Alejandro Gonzalez commented…

Friends, to seek answers outside of the scripture is a recipe for disaster. Mutual Submission? Is that what Paul really meant? How has this author trailed to this conclusion? The greek word for this is that, Dr. Jane says that about this....therefore its mutual submission. The head tells the body this and vise its all equal.

Really? So if Jesus gives the Church a command, whats the church going to do? "No no, wait Jesus, we need to discuss this".

Stick to the bible folks. Just because you dont like what He says to you sometimes, doesn't mean your going to get a better answer by deciphering a very simple command.

The man is the authority. As long as he holds his end of the bargain (love you and treat you with respect), hold up yours. Don't over rule his decisions.



spawkwingdiamond commented…

All these cranky dudes demanding deference from their inferiors are totally cracking me up. Something tells me they wouldn't know what "putting the needs of someone else above their own" looked like if it bit them in the behind.

Cameron Coule


Cameron Coule commented…

I want to encourage the author, and anyone who comes across this article to test what is written here. Differing gender roles in marriage are supposed to be beautiful, God-ordained metaphors of Christ and the Church, and not oppressive stereotypes to be leveled out.

To hold to this type of "submission" is to miss out on the beautiful metaphor of Christ and the Church that is marriage. Christ never submits to the Church. He leads with radically SERVING love. That is the picture Paul paints here for husbands. Radical, selfless, servant leadership.

The next two verses say "now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

Paul could have taken this opportunity to make "mutual submission" crystal clear, but he didn't. He called husbands to rely on God in their radically serving leadership just as Christ relies on God in his radically serving leadership of the Church. With that in mind, he calls wives to trust their husbands in submission, just as the church trusts Christ in its submission to him.

Obviously, the husband will fail and fail frequently in leadership because he is a sinful human being, but if done right, this is beautiful, not oppressive.

Elizabeth Hallman


Elizabeth Hallman commented…

The Council of Nicaea took place in round 450 A.D. Books like The Da Vinci Code counsel that at that time a group of church leaders got collectively and decided what books to incorporate in the Bible and what books to reject. Purchase books which have been transformed right into a movie.
The World At Your Feet

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