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What Does Submissive Mean in a Christian Marriage?

One of the most controversial words in the Bible that is a hot topic in the world today is the word submission. When I think about the word submit, I imagine a student in the classroom, an employee, or even a dog obeying his owner. These examples do not exactly get a woman out of bed every day celebrating that Scripture says wives are to submit to their husbands. Defining a word and learning the context of a word enables us to gain a greater understanding of the application. What does submissive mean? How do we apply this concept to our lives as Christians and our lives as women of God?

As a teen girl, I had a well-meaning mentor who was a wife and a mom of many children. We went through a book together on what it meant to be a woman of the Lord. Although there were great nuggets of info in the study, had I not learned of my identity as a Christian person with a calling and purpose as an individual, I would have crumbled post-college when I was single. As a woman who was not married until the age of 27, I know good and well what it is like to feel a little out of place in the Christian community. Whether married, divorced, single, or widowed, all women need to first remember that their identity is in Christ, not a relational status.

What Does Biblical Submission Look Like?

Submission Models Jesus

Biblical submission is for all believers and is modeled in the life of Christ. Jesus said in John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”

When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he did not look forward to the cross. He prayed that His situation could be different but accepted the will of God. He submitted His life to God the Father.

Matthew 26:42 says, “He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.’”

Submission Is Humility in Action

If we submit to one another in love, we are choosing humility. When we put others ahead of ourselves, we are living the opposite of our flesh and choosing to live a spirit-filled life representing Christ. This might look like choosing to follow instructions at work even if you do not like the job. This could be choosing to play a game with your child even though you have a lot of laundry left in the dryer. Humility can be submitting to someone else’s feelings if you have hurt him and apologizing for your mistakes. Any time that we choose to love someone else and do what is best for them instead of ourselves, we are submitting (1 Peter 2:13-14).

Submission Is Strength Unleashed

Submission is not a call for the weak. It takes great strength to place someone else’s needs ahead of our own. It takes courage to trust another to lead you down the right path. Submission takes a lot of inner strength. It would be easy to say, “My will God, not yours,” but Jesus said, “Your will Lord, not mine” (Mark 14:36).

Ultimately, when we are in any relationship of submitting to a leader, we are entrusting ourselves to their will. This is why it is vital to remember that we submit first and foremost to the Lord. If anyone ever asks you to submit to anything that is disobedient to God, it is more important to submit to the Lord. As long as that person is not causing us to sin against the One, we ultimately submit to, we are to obey. However, in the context of a healthy relationship with a husband or an authority figure, it is actually honoring to the Lord to submit (Job 22:21, Romans 8:7).

What Does it Actually Mean for a Woman to Submit to a Man in Marriage?

Ephesians 5:21-25 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 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. 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.”

Denise Larson Cooper from Crosswalk shares, “Further, Paul exhorts the husband to love his wife as he loves his own body and equates the husbands care of his wife with that of Christs for His church (Ephesians 5:28-30). A loving husband submits his will to that of Christ, and, in doing so, imitates Him in the marriage relationship. In this context, the wife willingly surrenders to her husband just as her husband chooses to surrender his will to Christ. Submission based on love brings peace and harmony to the family.”

We see examples of roles for the man and the woman in marriage from the beginning of time. Eve submitted to Adam when he gave her a name in Genesis 3:20. All the way from the Old Testament into the New Testament, Scripture teaches of submission within a marriage. 1 Peter 3:5-6 says, “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.”

I take great comfort in the fact that Jesus never asks us to do anything in which He has not done Himself. When we look at the relationship of the Trinity, we see a clear picture of three equal members with varying roles. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all equal. Jesus provides an example of submission to the authority of the Father. When God asks us to submit, He is asking us to be like Jesus. Yes, that is a tall order, but when we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we are able to live our lives according to that model Christ (Colossians 3:18-24).

Notice that Jesus still had a voice when He was going to the cross. He asked God for “the cup to pass,” but accepted the Father’s plan. A couple of months ago my husband and I were making a decision on the location of our next year of ministry. We both shared our thoughts and I really wrestled with the idea of staying another year where we currently are living as I dreamed of other possibilities. In the end, we prayed, sought the Lord, and Drew felt led to stay another year here. I felt bummed, but not broken. I chose to see this as an opportunity to submit to my husband, knowing that he was following Christ and I could trust him and ultimately trust the Lord. I agreed and prayed for a great community while we are here, and within the month, I saw God’s blessings over our decision and over my obedience to Him in submitting to my husband. I had an equal opinion and voice in the decision, but in the end, where Drew was leading was approved by God and the Holy Spirit changed my heart and grew me in the process.

In life and in marriage we will hit junctions. A junction is defined by Webster’s dictionary as, “An intersection of roads especially where one terminates.” Although you and your spouse might have differing opinions on a direction for your life together, you are in the same car (so to speak) and decisions will need to be made. The husband might be in the driver’s seat, but the wife could have a really great sense of direction.

I could say to Drew, “Hey, I think this route would be the best because…” Where he might say, “That is great Emma, but I really think this other way could be better…” We could talk through it and pray through it, then God could very well move Drew’s heart to drive the way I suggested. Or the Lord might change my heart to agree on his route. The struggle is when it is the times when we disagree at the junctions, but that is where the power of prayer, time in the Bible, and trust comes in. If I need to yield my path for his, then I do so knowing that he leads our home and the Lord is leading him. A husband is responsible to God for his wife and family. May we not neglect the knowledge of how great a weight of responsibility that is on a man. The importance of a wife is trusting your husband. You might be responsible to submit to him, but he is responsible to submit to God.

How Have Christians Misinterpreted Submission in Marriage?

Submission does not mean silent. Many people take a verse from Scripture and attempt to apply it to life. God’s Word is completely accurate and perfect. I love the Bible. However, if we ignore the context of what we read, the application can become harmful. Let’s recognize that we are all sinners and sometimes it can be easy to pull out a fluffy or even a harsh verse and use it in a situation that it has no business speaking into in such a way. This is one area in which the church has failed as a whole. Unhealthy people have tried to claim that submission is full acceptance with no choice in the matter. We must be careful when applying this word.

Deuteronomy 4:2 says, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” When we add rules that are not in Scripture or when we take away part of the context of a verse, we are spiritually endangering ourselves and others.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth from Crosswalk says, “The word used in the New Testament for submission”—referring to the orderly fashion of following a leader—speaks of an act that is voluntary. In a proper understanding of marriage, no husband should ever force his wife to submit to him through coercion or manipulation. Submission is her willing decision not only to follow him but ultimately and supremely to follow in obedience to her Lord.” She goes on to share, “Your ultimate allegiance and loyalty are to Christ. If your husband abuses his God-given authority and requires of you something that is contrary to the Word and will of God, you must obey God rather than your husband.”

The Bible teaches us that the goal of marriage is to be a witness to the world of Jesus’ love for them. If your marriage is not in a healthy place or you believe that your spouse is abusive in his or her role, please seek help. Talk to a counselor, a trusted friend, or a pastor. The concept of submission should be a blessing and help to a marriage. If you are feeling overlooked as a wife or undervalued, know that you have a great purpose, and the Lord sees you. If you are reading this and your marriage is thriving within your roles, keep going! Watch out for ways in which the enemy would like to irritate or destroy your relationship. May we all use the gift of marriage and the joy of submission as an offering of worship to the Lord for His glory. May our marriages be testimonies of the Gospel of Christ.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jacoblund

Emma DanzeyEmma Danzey’s mission in life is to inspire young women to embrace the extraordinary. One of her greatest joys is to journey with the Lord in His Scriptures. Emma is a North Carolina resident and green tea enthusiast! She is married to her husband Drew and they serve international college students. She enjoys singing, dancing, trying new recipes, and watching home makeover shows. During her ministry career, Emma recorded two worship EP albums, founded and led Polished Conference Ministries, ran the Refined Magazine, and served in music education for early childhood. Currently, she is in the editing stages of her first two writing projects: a Bible study on womanhood and a non-fiction book on singleness. You can visit her blog at emmadanzey.wordpress.com

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