Who Submits in Marriage?

When Camilla and I were writing our wedding vows, my future wife told me that she had a problem with the word submit. We had dug up some traditional vows based on Ephesians 5:22: “I promise to love, cherish and submit to my husband as to the Lord.”

“I’m not going to say that,” said Camilla.

I didn’t really think she would. Danish women are fiercely independent. They don’t submit to anyone anywhere.

In the end, we opted for a watered-down version of that passage. But if we were to redo our vows today, neither one of us would have a problem saying the word submit. In fact, we would relish it because we have learned the true meaning of submission.

What does it mean to submit?

When we think of submission, we tend to think of the strong dominating the weak. We picture wrestling holds and being beaten into submission. We think of kings ruling over subjects, and husbands lording it over wives. But this is not the sort of submission that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.

Want to know what submission is really like? Look to that wonderful union we recognize as the Godhead. See God the Son submitting in all things to God the Father. See God the Father giving the Son a Name above all names. See the Son bragging about the Spirit, and the Spirit testifying of the Son.

Surely submission is one of God’s most beautiful ideas. It is the very essence of other-focused love.

Who submits?

In a marriage, who submits to whom? Do husbands submit or wives?

Many churchgoers familiar with Ephesians 5 would say that wives submit, but the biblical answer is both. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Husbands put wives first, wives put husbands first, and that’s the recipe for a happy marriage.

At least that’s the theory.

In reality, what sometimes happens is that only one of the partners submits, and the result is an imbalanced relationship. Whenever you have a meek wife submitting to a domineering husband or a gentle man yielding to a strong-willed woman, you have a marriage that’s out of whack. It will take considerable effort from the long-suffering partner to keep the marriage going.

And this is why Paul speaks to both husbands and wives.

Like a director dispensing lines in a play, he wants both actors to understand their roles. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved his church, and wives are to respect and submit to their husbands, as to the Lord.

As long as the husband concerns himself with his part, and the wife concerns herself with hers, all will be well. But as soon as the husband starts reminding the wife of her lines—“Woman, submit!”—there will be trouble.

And trouble there is, because the church teaches only half of Paul’s message. It tells wives to submit but it rarely says the same thing to husbands. Which is surprising because in Ephesians the emphasis is the other way around. Paul spends more time talking to husbands than to wives. Wives get three verses; husbands get nine.

If we are to teach submission, let us do it the way Paul did it. Let us right the imbalances of history by encouraging men to lead the way.

Extracted and adapted from The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice

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15 Comments on Who Submits in Marriage?

  1. Read the WHOLE passage. Husbands have responsibilities too. Both are to submit to God and each other.

  2. Amazing, the woman was made from man as Equal, side by side
    A help-mate
    As in a marriage the two become one
    Sometimes the man gives more and then so does the wife
    Balanced in each other, even when not agree with each other. Strength in not making issues out of things,
    My wife very strong willed warrior.
    I love it!
    Submit is true fellowship
    Thanks Paul for seeing what submit truly means

  3. I’m sorry but I don’t like that word “role.” Even if I weren’t to be reminded of my lines, I would still have it in mind that I’m pretending to be someone different from who I actually am. I don’t want to play house, I want real life, where people don’t fit neatly into boxes. I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, but sometimes I wish it would’ve put things in different words, ‘cause for all our talk about husbands loving their wives, telling only the wife to submit leaves the verse very vulnerable to abuse.

    • Hi Rachel, the Bible doesn’t say role, I did. It’s a metaphor, and evidently not a good one. What metaphor would you use to describe how Paul speaks to both husbands and wives?

      • I honestly don’t think a metaphor is needed. Just that marriage is about both spouses preferring each other before themselves. A husband is not Jesus in the life of his wife. A Christian husband is part of the church, the Bride. The only reason Paul relied on metaphors is because the Romans had a social caste system that we in modern America don’t (mostly).

  4. Let’s also remember – submit is another word for empower. They didn’t seem to have a verb form for paraclete, so Paul loads the passage with “uplift” words and imagery to get across the idea of being each other’s wingman and lifting each other up. Being the person who is “under” is about giving a boost, not about being sat on.

  5. Amen, Paul. I once had a pastor say he wished the men could only see their verses and the women could only see theirs. That way we would focus on doing our part and not spend all our time telling our spouse how they are failing at their part.

    I also remind myself that the way Christ loved the Church was to lay down his life for it. However you define submit, it would be easier for women to do that if their husband is daily laying down his life for her.

  6. So submitting to God’s love, giving into believing and trusting that He 100% unconditionally loves you (thankfully the Holy Spirit works here), then we are able to give to our spouse. People notice a difference when we are convinced that God loves me. Because we now have something to give without feeling “used up.” And if you feel used up, it’s time to do what Jesus did. Spend time with your loving Heavenly Daddy. Let Him re-convince you of how He feels.

  7. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Whenever I am doing marriage counselling and using the passage, Ephesians 5:22-33, I always start with verse 21. The couple should see this submission, as an aspect which is really a quality of the Christian life. Certainly we have to agree that Jesus, giving His life for the church, was total submission. I have always taught that if the man shows the thoughtfulness and the love Christ had for the church to his sweet wife, then her action of submission becomes a natural response. It will happen automatically.
    My wife is with the Lord, but we were married over 36 years. She was a very strong person, a wonderful woman in ministry. I would tell her she is like a kite. I would say, “You can fly very high and very far and I will always be holding the string and bring you home.” She took advantage of her spiritual gifts to soar by using them. But, when she was at the end of her day, our home was her place of rest and refreshment by my side.

  8. I love this!! It’s such a passion of mine 🙂 To help me understand, God explained it like this; submission is to let someone love and care for you. To receive from them. Allow them in. The verse in Colossians is inviting women to open themselves to their husbands and inviting the men to treat her well when she lets him in. It’s an invitation to vulnerability and great intimacy. ‘Submit yourselves to one another’ ‘ is like that team-building exercise where everyone stands in a circle and leans backwards onto the lap of the person behind them for support. The whole circle is sustained by mutual leaning and mutual support. On your own, you can’t lean backwards for long holding your own weight. But this way you can hold it for a long time. But it requires trust and ‘submission’, letting someone else carry your weight. It’s to let them love you and support you and an invitation to do that for each other. One for the other. Together letting go, together bearing the weight. And to submitting to God… is to let him love you. To let him in to know you, and receive his care for you, to carry your weight. He promises when you do, just like en encourages husbands to be, he’ll never be harsh with you. 🙂

  9. “Let us right the imbalances of history by encouraging men to lead the way.”

    Perhaps that is a problematic statement that’s at the core of the problem. Men and women are equal moral agents and must bare responsibility for their personal conduct, it’s actually misogyny to see women as lessor moral agents. I’ve lived a life where I (as the husband) was expected to “lead the way” even though my own damaged upbringing left me with little understanding how to do so. When things went wrong it was my fault because “you’re the husband”, when I objected to her poor conduct it was often “you’re oppressing me”. When my marriage failed and my wife renounced her faith it took years to stop blaming myself because of this mentality – was I responsible for her walk with God?
    Was i the perfect husband?, no, but i loved my wife and on some level I still do, I wish we could have figured out our broken pasts together with Christ.
    Don’t ignore the growing number of broken men that have been harmed by bad theology/social culture, if God didn’t get through to me, I would have become another suicide statistic and I am not being over dramatic about that, the healing process continues. Thank God every day for the healthy relationship you have with your beautiful wife because some of us have faced a living hell of deep emotional and spiritual pain. Now much of “the church” tells me that as long as she lives i must remain alone, something i struggle to know who is right about. It has often been a miserable, hard existence since she left, at times the loneliness is unbearable. I understand what you are trying to do Paul, but i can tell you, there are a disturbing number of broken men that have fallen victim to bad teaching and continue to suffer in a culture that doesn’t care. Women that struggle after a relationship failure are considered victims, men that struggle are considered losers, that is how society and the church often see it.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Daniel. As I say in the book, sexual discrimination hurts everyone, men and women alike.

    • Good thing that for broken men/women, the gospel brings new life and when that takes place, it is an amazing walk for sure! Grace and peace to you brother Daniel, I can relate to what you say/lived, yet the answer is the same: Jesus. Keep shinning your light bro!

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