The problem of “Wives submit to your husbands”

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“Whitlock, L. G., Sproul, R. C., Waltke, B. K., & Silva, M. (1995). The Reformation study Bible: bringing the light of the Reformation to Scripture: New King James Version (Eph 5:22). Nashville: T. Nelson. You see – it’s not about the husband dominating the wife.  It’s abo…”

Wives submit to your husbands?  Seriously?  Isn’t that outdated?  Sexist? Wrong?
Well, actually, no – but …
For one thing, it’s taken out of context.
For another, there are also conditions attached that aren’t met.
And all of that is because it’s also incomplete.
There is so much more to consider before it’s true.

Wives submit to your husbands“Wives submit to your husbands”

I’d guess “Wives submit to your husbands” is something that some husbands would be all for.  Until they found it what it really meant.

I’d also guess that “Wives submit to your husbands” is something that few wives would go for.  Until they found out what it really meant.

The first missing piece

Here’s the first thing you need to know about the title.  Wives submit to your husbands is from the Bible.  I’m not going to tell you where.  Not yet.  

The second missing piece

The second missing piece is this:

Husbands, love your wives.  It’s not a one way thing.  Not a case of the husband can command anything at all and the wife has to do it.  There’s that little requirement of love.

The third missing piece

I realize that we humans have a warped sense of what love is all about.  So, not surprisingly, defining what love is all about is also covered.  By the way – it’s not even close to what most people would think love means.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Whoa.  Guys – how many of you love your wife so much that you’d die for her?  And I mean a horrible death.  Torture, almost to the point of death.  And then when death does come, it will be a relief.  Honestly – are you willing to do that?  Do you love your wife that much?  Because that’s what’s being asked for. 

It’s a condition for your wife submitting to you.  And when that happens – it’s nothing like our normal view of love.  And nothing like our normal view of submission.  Is it even really submission – by our normal definition – when that kind of love is attached to it?

The fourth missing piece

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

Yes – even the first sentence – the title – is incomplete.  Ladies – are you willing to love your husbands the same as you love God?  If you are – then the question of submission arises again.  How much submission, in our normal sense of the word, is really involved?

The fifth missing piece

It should be obvious by now that belief in Christianity is assumed in all of this.  Maybe you already are a believer, but are learning more about how to emulate Jesus.  Maybe you’re not a believer, and all of this wives submit to your husbands stuff is part of the reason.  All I can say is – read on.  Please.


I’ve talked about submission.  One, being our normal definition – as in being forced.  The other, in the way we would submit to Jesus – willingly.

Now, I’d like to show you the Greek word that Paul used.  The one we translate as submit, in the NIV and many other translations.  However, I can’t do that.  Here’s why:

Look at the image to the right? 

Isn’t that fascinating?

There are no Greek words underneath “submit yourselves to”.  None.  

Here’s some relevant information from the societal norms of that time, and how Paul is addressing the change that should take place based on following Jesus.

At least as far back as Aristotle (fourth century B.C.), Greek ethics had addressed relationships within the household in a familiar pattern: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. Consistently, the interest was to help the male head of household learn to govern his family and slaves. In their treatment of such rules, Paul and Peter transform the question from how husbands, fathers, and masters dominate to how they can imitate the love of Christ they know in their own lives by nurturing those in their care. Simultaneously, as wives, children, and slaves define their roles in terms of service to Christ, they turn from being passive objects in a social world that devalues them, and become instead active partners with God in His plan to bring unity to a race divided by gender, age, and economics.  <fn>Whitlock, L. G., Sproul, R. C., Waltke, B. K., & Silva, M. (1995). The Reformation study Bible: bringing the light of the Reformation to Scripture: New King James Version (Eph 5:22). Nashville: T. Nelson.

You see – it’s not about the husband dominating the wife.  It’s about the husband loving his wife in the way God intended.

BTW – since slavery is included in this passage, I feel I need to say something about it here. Especially in light of Sessions cites Bible passage used to defend slavery in defense of … Slavery is wrong.  Period.  Slavery in Biblical times was, however, different.  For the Jewish people, there were laws about it.  It was something entered into voluntarily and for a limited amount of time.  Having said that – anything that forces one person to be a slave to another is just wrong.  In fact – when you read the excerpt above, you see that the changes being set in place were also aimed at the master – slave relationship as well. 

Even then – we need to remember that the target audience was Jews who were converting to Christianity.  It was the beginning of changing attitudes about people towards each other – based on societal views of different positions in life.  Any attempt to use this to justify slavery is just plain missing the point.

Submission – again

Let’s move a bit further ahead and look at this:

In this verse, we see again there are no Greek words where the English translation says “should submit to”.

What we do see is a comparison of relationships.  Paul is saying that the relationship a wife has with her husband should emulate the relationship that Christians should have with Christ.  

When Paul writes “church” – he’s not talking about our local church.  Or a denomination.  He’s talking about the relationship we – Christ’s followers – should have with Him.  And that’s the relationship wives should have with their husbands.

Submission – where does it come from then?

5:22–24. Wives are to submit to their husbands. (The verb “submit,” absent in Gr. in v. 22, is borrowed from v. 21.) As to the Lord does not mean that a wife is to submit to her husband in the same way she submits to the Lord, but rather that her submission to her husband is her service rendered “to the Lord” (cf. Col. 3:18).  <fn>Hoehner, H. W. (1985). Ephesians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 640). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

So – what is verse 21?

Unfortunately, due to the way the 1984 NIV and other translations are written – it’s something that’s probably missed.  There’s a subtitle / heading stuck in between verse 21 and the verses we’ve looked at so far.  Unfortunately, that tends to make us think the two have nothing to do with each other.  Truth is – there are no subtitles / headings in the original text.  They are a modern attempt to make the Bible more understandable.  Not always successfully.

Anyway – here’s the verse:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This really starts to bring the whole thing together.  It would have been so nice if the passage – as divided up in our translations today – actually had this verse at the beginning of the passage.  Instead – it’s at the end of the prior passage.  As a separate sentence.

Now we can really see that this passage is actually about all of the various relationships.  The wife to the husband.  The husband to the wife.  All modeled around the way our relationship should be with Jesus.

Husbands love your wives

When we complete this sentence – you’ll see that in some ways, the men got the hardest part of all this.  We already saw how the husband should love his wife so much that he’s willing to die a horrible death for her.

But there’s more:

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.

Like I said – not easy.

It was supposed to have been the husband’s responsibility to be the spiritual leader of the family.  The one who makes sure that the family is living a holy life.  It’s the husband who was to be sure that his family was acceptable to God.

What went wrong?

There’s a whole bunch of stuff that went wrong.


Husbands and / or wives don’t love each other.  It’s too easy to walk away from a marriage.  One needs only to read the Old Testament to see it, even in the Bible.

Here’s what Jesus had to say about that.

Mt 19:1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

Mt 19:3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Mt 19:4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Mt 19:7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Mt 19:8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Mt 19:10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Mt 19:11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Again – this relationship thing – wives and husbands emulating the relationship of Christ’s church to Himself – it was a major change.  And us going back to the days of easy divorce – it’s not supposed to be that way.  It’s not loving. 

One note though – this is not at all to say a woman should stay in an abusive relationship.  Why not?  Because the husband is not fulfilling his side of this arrangement.  There’s no way to say the husband loves his wife if he’s abusing her.  It’s the abuser who has split the “one” back into “two”.  

What does love mean?

As I already said – we have a warped view of what love even means.  We think about love in one way.  When we look at the relationship that Paul is writing about – it’s like this:


And now I will show you the most excellent way.

1Co 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1Co 13:4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1Co 13:8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1Co 13:13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Think it doesn’t apply?  Like maybe all that “churchy” stuff is irrelevant?  Think again.  Remember, this is all about relationships between Christ’s church and Christ Himself.  And this section was right after one where Paul was explaining how the church is made up of many people.  And each of the people has a role to play.  If the roles don’t get done right – the church fails.  

It’s the same way for husbands and wives.  If the roles are all messed up and there’s too much fighting – the marriage fails.  I’d say the high rate of divorce gives us the obvious conclusion – too many times the roles are messed up.

Single parent families

Of course – that thought leads to the far too common situation today where there is only one parent.  

Obviously, there are times when there’s no choice.  But no matter the reason for a single parent home – it’s really hard to model any kind of husband / wife relationship when one or the other isn’t present.  It makes it even more critical to show the relationship that should exist between us and God.

Families with no Christian parents

Another obvious one.  When no parent is Christian it is impossible to model the relationship that should exist between us and God.  Sure, many non-Christians are good people.  That’s good people under a meaning that doesn’t include Christian relationships.  At least not the way they are supposed to be.  Again, refer to something Jesus said.

Love for Enemies

Mt 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Once again – it comes back to the concept of Christian love.  Something we fail at way too often.  That’s why I keep saying the way it’s supposed to be.  I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason we fail so badly is that our parents did as well.  And theirs before them.  We’re so far off the path that it’s sometimes even hard to find it.  However – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Families with two parents, but only one is Christian

This is another hard one.  There are likely to be disagreements over anything related to Christianity.  Maybe the Christian parent gives in.  Maybe the non-Christian parent goes through the motions – for the kid(s).  But either way – the true relationships are not modeled correctly.

The whole passage

Now that we looked at various scenarios – although not all of them – let’s look at the passage we’ve been studying.

Eph 5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives and Husbands

5:22-6:9 pp — Col 3:18-4:1

Eph 5:22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Eph 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Conclusion – Wives submit to your husbands

So – there’s the whole passage.

Don’t get lost in the words.  

Do pay attention to the thoughts.

Sometimes I wish there was a Bible translation that did a better job of covering all the societal, language and cultural meanings behind the words.  But I have to admit, it would be so long that hardly anyone would read it.  It’d probably make War and Peace look like a short-story.

There are times though, when we are really looking to the Bible to answer tough questions, that we need to go deeper into what the author wrote.  What did it mean at the time?  And how does that relate to us today?  All the while – not losing the intent.

Wives submit to your husbands is one of those topics that tends to cause a lot of issues.  I hope this helps to straighten some of it out.  And that we can see why a wife doesn’t need to worry about “Wives submit to your husbands”.  And that it’s not a one way street.  The husband has a lot to live up to in order for the wife to want to even listen to “Wives submit to your husbands”.

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