In our time and place, the apostolic commands that wives submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1) have become some of the biggest stumbling blocks in the Scriptures. Many Christians in a Western context find it hard to square these verses with their convictions about women’s rights and equality—convictions that are indeed born of a biblical worldview, even if most have now “emancipated” themselves from it. People today ask, “How can a woman value herself and her dignity at the same time that she chooses to submit to her husband?”
There is an answer to that question, but we will only find it acceptable to the degree that we have embraced the “folly” of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). The biblical calling for a wife to submit to her husband is a calling to fulfill God’s creation pattern in the recognition that it will mean self-humbling and righteous suffering in imitation of the Lord—which is the highest calling any Christian can pursue.
Submission and the Cross
That Christ’s suffering is the model for a wife’s submission is clear in 1 Peter 3:1: “Likewise”—or “in the same way” (NIV)—“wives, be subject to your own husbands.” In the same way as what? In the same way as all that we read about in 1 Peter 2. Immediately preceding this command for wives, we read about how Christ suffered righteously and entrusted Himself to God’s care and vindication:
Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
Wives submit to their husbands, then, in a way that imitates Christ, who displayed a submissive spirit; in the same way as Christian bondservants, who, within the everyday routine of life, were called to commit themselves to upholding the principles and priorities of the framework; in the same way as we are called to do in relationship to civil government.
In 3:2–4, Peter goes on to say to the wife with a non-Christian husband—that is, to the one who has no reason to expect Christlike love (Eph. 5:25) in return for her godly submission—essentially, “I want to tell you how you can live with your husband so as to be a witness to Him of the Gospel: by respectful and pure conduct and by a gentle and quiet spirit.”
The Christian wife may say, “Wait a minute! How do you expect me to do that? That is an insufferable position to put myself in.”
“Well,” Peter might reply, “I’ve already outlined that for you. Christ went to the cross for you. He knew what it was to be insulted, and He didn’t retaliate. He knew what it was to suffer, and He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.”
God’s intention for marriage is that each spouse would serve the other in love, but the corruption of sin means that husbands—and Christian husbands, too—often are self-serving. For the Christian, though, our calling is not to respond in kind to the wrong done to us but to respond with love and to do good regardless (1 Peter 4:19). A wife is to submit to her husband—even though many husbands don’t deserve a submissive wife—so long as submission is not contrary to God’s wise, loving instruction in the Bible. To the degree that she has grasped the significance of the challenges and trials associated with submission, she can rejoice (1 Peter 4:13).
As we come to understand biblical submission in this way, at least four things follow from it.
1. This Instruction Is for Christians
First, the biblical instruction regarding wives’ submission to their husbands is an instruction to Christian wives.
In their letters, the apostles follow a pattern of presenting Gospel doctrine first and then the moral implications that arise from it. Paul addresses people who are “saints” and “faithful” (Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:2) and Peter those who are “born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). The recipients of these commands, then, are Christians and therefore are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). They will now need to be new kinds of wives because of the change brought about by the Gospel.
Submission in marriage begins with understanding God’s will for marriage and being committed to obeying it.
Marriage is, of course, a creation ordinance, not simply a Christian ordinance; the goodness of authority and submission are not exclusive to believers or irrelevant to wider society. But the biblical mandate for wives to submit comes in so many words to women who are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who put their trust in Christ’s authority, who hope in Christ’s redemption, and who can therefore submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22) and “in the same way” that the Lord submitted Himself; and this is “fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18). It is no surprise that such commands would seem foolish and wrong to those outside of Christ.
2. The Instruction Is to Be Received as God’s Word
Secondly, the biblical instruction is to be received as part of the indwelling Word of Christ, as Paul says in the immediate context of the household commands, in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (See also Eph. 5:17.)
Submission in marriage begins with understanding God’s will for marriage and being committed to obeying it. No one will be able to live this way unless the Word of Christ dwells in them richly, so that there is first of all submission to God’s Word and love for it and thus a preparedness to obey it even at a high cost.
Our culture begins from the supposition that we are to live for ourselves and that the purpose of marriage, if it has any purpose, is to serve ourselves. But those who believe in Jesus “no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). To be in Christ means that we have been set free from old and lesser ways to serve Christ, who indeed loved and served us. Christ has asked us to serve Him through, among other ways, loving service to others and appropriate submission to the God-established authorities that are a part of His creation.
3. Obedience Is Impossible without the Spirit’s Power
Thirdly, obedience to the biblical instruction is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians, where the instructions for family life follow on what Paul has already said: “Be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). It is living in that dimension of spiritual fullness that we may “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21).
When the instruction comes, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” an immediate and understandable response is “I can’t do it. How can I live like that?” In one sense, that is exactly the right response. No one will ever be able to live this way by trying their best to make it work! We need a power from outside of us to come and make it possible.
Because the instruction comes to Christians as God’s Word, though, we can trust that God’s Spirit will give His people the power to obey it and a supernatural joy that comes from doing so. As we live Spirit-filled, Word-indwelt lives, we will find God’s power to gladly obey.
4. The Principle Is Not for Wives Alone
Finally, part of the problem we face in accepting the biblical command has been the prevalent idea that submission is “women’s work,” so to speak—an attitude for wives to show to their husbands but that husbands need not embody themselves.
The imperatives in Scripture are given to those who are to take the initiative. The imperative in the text in question is to the wives: “Submit to your husband.” Yet so many Christian husbands feel the need to take the initiative in applying it, demanding that their wives submit and expecting to be waited on hand and foot.
In Scripture, the imitation of Christ’s self-giving, suffering love is set in a mutual context. There is no greater self-sacrifice than that of Christ for the church, which is exactly the sacrifice that husbands are commanded to imitate for their wives’ sake (Eph. 5:25), giving up all the authority that is theirs in order to serve (Phil. 2:5–11). Thus husbands, far from insisting that their wives serve them, are to love and serve their wives at the utmost cost to themselves.
It is crucial to remember that wives are not asked to submit because they are intrinsically inferior, nor are husbands expected to exercise headship because they are intrinsically superior. Rather, the apostles call all to the same imitation of Christ’s suffering, only within the context of their ordained roles in a marriage. Husbands and wives alike share in the greatest dignity the apostles knew of: to take up their crosses and follow after the Lord through sacrificial servanthood.
This article was adapted from the sermons “God’s Pattern for Marriage — Part One” by Alistair Begg.