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Christian Submission in Relationships

Submission is fundamental to Christian living and healthy relationships that honour God. However, the concept of submission has been misunderstood and distorted by many people, including many sincere Christians. The New Testament teaches that relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ should be characterised by humility, meekness, goodness, and especially kindness and love. These traits are the hallmarks of Christian submission and are expressed in various New Testament verses.

In humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3b-4

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honour one another above yourselves.Romans 12:10

Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. 1 Corinthians 10:24

Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Colossians 3:12

… Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV

Christian Submission in Marriage

What about submission in marriage?

In Ephesians chapter six, Paul instructs children to obey (hypakouete) their parents (Eph 6:1) and slaves to obey (hypakouete) their masters (Eph 6:5). The word used in relation to wives in Ephesians 5:21-22 is a different word that means “submit yourselves” (from hypotassō). Strictly speaking, Paul never tells wives directly they should obey their husbands (despite the incorrect translation of Titus 2:5 in the KJV). Furthermore, it’s not just wives who should be submissive.

Hopefully, this next bit is not too hard to follow.

In Peter’s first letter, he tells his whole audience to submit to every secular authority (1 Pet 2:13).

Then he tells slaves to submit to their masters (1 Pet 2:18).

Then he tells wives, “in the same way submit yourselves to their own husbands …” (1 Pet 3:1).[1]

Then he says, “Husbands, in the same way live together with your wives …” (1 Pet 3:7).

There is no verb in the Greek text of verse 7, so the theme of submission carries over from previous verses and is implied in verse 7. Check for yourself and compare the very similar language in 1 Peter 3:1, 7 and also in 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV where the theme of submission is reintroduced with the phrase “in the same way”: “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” [2]

Just in case you think that last argument was a bit of a stretch, Ephesians 5:21-22 is similar in that the Greek participle for “submitting yourselves” occurs in verse 21, but there is no Greek word in the older surviving manuscripts that means “submit” in verse 22 when talking about wives; it is implied, just as in 1 Peter 3:7.[3] (More on this in my article on Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8 here.)

Serving vs Ruling

The instructions in Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1 are for wives to volunteer submission to their own husbands. Nowhere in scripture does it teach or imply that, generally speaking, all women should submit to all men.[4] Furthermore, the scriptures never tell husbands to make sure their wives are “in submission.” It is the wife’s prerogative.

The instructions to husbands are for them to selflessly love and care for their wives, but also to treat them with honour as they would their own male bodies (Eph 5:25-33 cf. Col 3:19).[5] Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33, and he never tells them to lead their wives or exercise authority.

The idea of husbands ruling their wives came as a consequence of sin entering the world (Gen 3:16b). However, Jesus came to deal with sin and its consequences. God’s ideal is for husbands and wives to have harmonious, loving relationships where each partner serves and prefers the other in an interdependent, mutually submissive, loving union (cf. 1 Cor 11:11-12).[6]

Submission vs Rebellion

But what does the word “submission” really mean? And why did Paul and Peter instruct wives to be submissive to their husbands? Perhaps the “submission” of wives encouraged by Paul and Peter in Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5 and 1 Peter 3:1 should be seen simply as the opposite of “rebellion”?

A cognate of the Greek word for “submit” (hypotassō) is used a couple of times in the Greek New Testament with an alpha privative prefix. (This prefix is equivalent to an English “un,” denoting the opposite, or more accurately, the absence or negation of something.) In this case, the alpha prefix is denoting the absence of submission.[7] The KJV translates this particular word as “unruly” in Titus 1:6 & 10. The NIV translates it as “wild” (Titus 1:6) and “rebellious” (Titus 1:10). A related word is translated as “rebels” in 1 Timothy 1:9. Being unruly and rebellious is the opposite of Christ-like behaviour and undesirable in either men or women.

Were Paul and Peter simply instructing wives to be loyal and cooperative?

Far from the oppressive submission that the church has demanded of even well-behaved women in the past (and present?), Paul and Peter may have been asking the wives not to alienate themselves from their husbands by being rebellious or resistant, but to remain faithful (Eph 5:33b).[8]

Peter explains that by being loyal and cooperative, their unsaved husbands might be won over to the Christian faith (1 Pet 3:1). Paul explains that wifely submission will prevent the church would not get a bad name (Tit 2:5). It is important to comprehend these evangelistic reasons behind some of Paul’s and Peter’s exhortations for submission! (See also 1 Tim 5:14 cf. 1 Tim 6:1.)[9]

Furthermore, wifely submission in the first-century Greco-Roman context of the New Testament, especially where one partner is an unbeliever, may well have looked different from submission in healthy modern Christian marriages.

Christian Submission vs Military Submission

The original language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, developed as men from all over the Greek world joined the armies of Alexander the Great. Several Greek dialects merged to form a common Greek language that all the soldiers could understand. Koine Greek started primarily as a language with a military purpose. As the language developed, several words developed military and non-military usages.

Bible Study Tools makes a distinction between military and non-military usages of hypotassō. 

Hypotassō: 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.’ (Bible Study Tools)

We must make a distinction between military and non-military usages of hypotassō (“submit”) if we are to understand Peter and Paul’s intention when they use the word in their instructions to wives. The submission of a wife to a husband does not entail subordination to a higher-ranked officer as it does in a military context. It is grievous that some Christians apply a military context in the precious and intimate relationship of marriage.

Jesus, Our Example

I propose that being submissive (hypotassō) in Christian relationships means “humble, loyal, and loving deference and cooperation.” I include the word “loving” in my definition because all Christian behaviours should include, and be motivated by, love. And, as is the case for humility and meekness, being submissive should be a normal trait and behaviour for all Christians.

Every follower of Jesus Christ, regardless of gender, race, social or church position, should endeavour to live in submissive harmony with others. Jesus exemplified this submission and humility during his earthly mission. Our aim should be to intentionally follow Christ’s example found in Philippians 2:3-8.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,
But in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests
But also to the interests of others.

Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who being in the very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
Taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in the likeness of man,
He humbled Himself and became obedient to death
Even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:3-8.


[1] Like Peter, Paul’s letters contain several instructions for submission in various circumstances (e.g., 1 Cor 14:32; 1 Cor 16:16). His instructions for submission are not confined to wives. Why don’t we hear more about these other submission verses?

[2] Peter uses the expression “in the same way” or “likewise” (Greek: homoios) three times in his first letter: in 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Peter 3:7 and in 1 Peter 5:5. In 1  Peter, homoios is always used in the context of submission. In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter tells the young men to be submissive to the older men, then, in some Greek texts, this is followed by call for all to be submissive to one another (1 Pet. 5:5 KJV). (More about mutual submission in 1 Peter 5:5 here.)

[3] This is true for some older Greek manuscripts, but not for the much-handled Textus Receptus. (I have more about the Greek grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22 here.)

[4] Some Christians who support the concept of male hierarchy (patriarchy or complementarianism) state that all women should be submissive and responsive to all “worthy” men (e.g., John Piper in Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). This is a dangerous and unbiblical doctrine!

[5] In Paul’s instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33, Jesus is given as a model of service and love, not leadership and authority. Furthermore, as my friend MaryAnn has pointed out, “to love your wife as your body is to love her as your equal” (Eph 5:28). Moreover, in the first century, male bodies had a higher status than female bodies. So Paul wanted husbands to treat them highly. (I quote Beth Allison Barr on Ephesians 5:28 and “male bodies” here.)

[6] 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, including verses 11-12, is not addressing “family order” but the appearance of the heads, or hair, of both men and women who were praying and prophesying in the Corinthian church. In this passage, Paul comments on the mutual interdependence between men and women. (I have more on this passage, here.)

[7] BDAG gives the possible translations of independent, undisciplined, disobedient and rebellious to the noun anupotaktos, which is the nominal antonym of the verb hupotassō.
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,
3rd Edition by Walter Bauer, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000) 91.

[8] We have lots of evidence that many upper-class women were becoming Christians in early church times, but that many of their upper-class husbands remained unbelievers. The context of Peter’s first letter shows that Peter was thinking of upper-class women with unsaved husbands when he wrote 1 Peter 3:1-6. Only upper-class women could have had the gold jewellery and the fine clothes that Peter refers to in 1 Peter 3:3. Peter wrote this whole letter to people experiencing slander, persecution and fear, this included the wives of unsaved husbands. Peter was trying to encourage the wives to remain faithful and courageous and live lives that would show their husbands the beauty of Christ-like spirit.
Peter, however, did not directly tell the wives that they were to obey their husbands. The norm in first-century Greco-Roman society was that wives were to worship the same gods as their husbands. Peter does not tell the wives to abandon their Christian faith because of loyalty or obedience to their husbands. There are limits to wifely submission.

[9] One of the real reasons behind Peter and Paul’s call for wives not to be unruly, but to be submissive to their own husbands, was so for the sake of mission. This is especially clear in 1 Peter 3:1 and Titus 2:4-5. Churches that over-emphasise and even romanticise submission are giving the church a bad name in contemporary society where male primacy is considered unethical. Moreover, the oppressive and restrictive views of some men and the overly romanticised and passive views of some women, in regard to submission, do not truly represent the freedom and equality, or the mission, of the Good News of Jesus.

Here is every verse in New Testament letters that contains the verb or participle of hypotassō: Romans 10:3; Romans 13:1 and 5; 1 Corinthians 14:32 and 34; 1 Corinthians 15:27 and 28; 1 Corinthians 16:16; Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 5:21, 22 and 24; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5 and 9; Titus 3:1; Hebrews 2:5 and 8; Hebrews 12:9; James 4:7; 1 Peter 2:13, 2:18, 3:1, 3:5; 3:22; 5:5.

Please note that I do NOT advocate that women stay in abusive marriages. Domestic violence is a crime in Australia. If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help now! There are many agencies that can offer worthwhile, sympathetic help.  If you need assistance in finding help in Australia, contact your local hospital which should have specially trained counsellors.

© Margaret Mowczko 2009
All Rights Reserved

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Explore more

(1) Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:1-6
(2) Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:7-8
The Household Codes are Primarily about Power
A Close Look at Colossians 3:18 (Wives)
A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)
Leading Together in the Home
A Suitable Helper (in Genesis 2:18 & 20)
Double Standards in the Promotion & Practice of Submission
Power Struggles in Christian Marriage?
God wants women to be happy in marriage
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22-33 are here.

Ephesians 5:22-33 Christian marriage submission

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

19 thoughts on “Submission in Marriage

  1. Thanks Elaine. 🙂

  2. I’ve read a lot of articles on submission, and I’d have to say that yours is the best yet!
    So many new understandings!

  3. Thanks Cynthia.

    I wrote this a while ago, but I’ve added bits and pieces as I’ve come across new information.

    Because of these later additions I thought the writing style of this article might be a bit clunky. And I’ve been meaning to edit it. But I’m glad you liked it and learnt new things. I’m still learning new things too.

  4. Margaret, I love your scholarship.

    Christians also learn from society. We cannot accept advancements in science, medicine, ethics, education, law and democracy without also accepting advancements in understandings of relationships, gender equality, equal opportunity and issues of justice.

    It must be said that Christians who only focus on Scripture will be out of touch with pressing issues that we face each day. First century gender dynamics in the Middle East are significantly different to that of today in Australia.

    I argue that we should relate the Christian engagement that has always occurred with society, but it seems that this framing is new for many. This just means that this ‘new’ framing has to be ‘put out there’ over and over for it be incorporated.

    1. A bunch of feminist destroying marriages by creating rebellious women. Submit or divorce

      1. Not sure who you are referring to in your comment, Jooni.

        Comments should be about the content of the article, rather than a vague criticism of people.

        Did you read the article?

  5. I agree. I am quite sure that if Peter and Paul were writing to us today they would be explicitly teaching about the full equality of men and women.

    Did you see my note right at the end of the footnotes? I think Christians who are hanging on to the idea of unilateral submission from wives and women (and even their subordination) are giving the church a bad name in societies that value equality. And Peter’s and Paul’s aim was to avoid giving the church a bad name.

    I also think that many Christian organisations who claim that they are teaching biblical principles of manhood, womanhood, marriage, and family life are kidding themselves. (Marriage and family life in Bible times was so different to our’s today. Do we really want to take our cues on marriage and family life from biblical marriages and families?) And some of the views of these Christian organisations on women and their supposed “place in society” have more in common with the views of Aristotle and other ancient pagan writers (e.g., Plutarch) than with the teachings of Christ and the apostles.

  6. It really shows the problems that can occur when people take things out of context. The same could be said for words taken out of their culture and time period too…!

  7. I left Christianity because of these verses. Your interpretation is better than the master/slave marriages that many Christians espouse. If churches would come to your interpretation of Bible, not as many women would be leaving. And when women leave religion, men and children follow. I think that these verses cause many people to leave religion. I was so saddened by these verses, and the fact that god hated me so fully, that god wanted me to become a slave. It caused me to hate men, and to hate myself. No one should be a slave to another, that has been abolished. Maybe if your views were advocated, I would not be a damaged person wishing to die.

    The Bible causes so much damage to so many people. I think the only positive message to come out of the Bible is to treat one another, as one wishes to be treated. I don’t think this means making a virtual slave of your wife, or making an absolute master of your husband.

    Please keep preaching your interpretation so that other girls arenot irrevocably damaged beyond repair by these negative messages. Too late for me, though.

    1. Leeanne, You’re right: Treating other people as you want to be treated does not mean suppressing and limiting another person and treating them as a slave (Luke 6:31).

      The problem is not the Bible. The problem is that that too many people understand and interpret a few verses incorrectly, and at the same time ignore other verses which show that women, as well as men are made in God’s image. And they do not see that God uses women for his purposes which includes leading his people.

      God loves his daughters. He does not look down on them or limit them. His daughters are precious and valuable to him and he is grieved that some ignorant and selfish people treat them badly. Gode knows that his daughters are capable of amazing things, and he gives women as well as men the gift of his empowering Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18).

      I can hear your dismay and lack of hope; however, Jesus is about hope and he is about love. I know that he wants to heal and restore you to be a person of hope and love.

      I hope that you can find some Christian friends who will regard you in the same way that Jesus regards you.

  8. I loved your article and this video my friend just showed me reminded me so much of what you wrote!


  9. Thanks for the link, Adrienne. I like the last bit the best, “Everyone just calm down.”

    People make way too big a deal about submission. I believe that, especially in modern contexts, submission is simply courteous and considerate deference. This is something all Christians should have in all our relationships.

    I do wonder about her husband’s desire to “always have the final say on just about everything.” This does not sound considerate, kind or even useful in marriage and family life.

    I also think it doesn’t make sense to compare a marriage of two capable people to the positions and roles/ranks of the president or leaders in the military. The president is in charge of an entire nation, and the military are sometimes involved in life and death situations. Organisations of more than a few people need leaders, a marriage doesn’t need one person to always be the leader unless one of the people is incompetent.

  10. I agree with everything you have said in this post.

    I, too, have researched the words kephale and hupotasso and have learned there is a military and non-military translation for both. The question is: why is the military translation(authority,obedience) used on a non-military relationship? (And if the military translation is correct, then God must be saying a husband and wife are comparable to an Army Sargeant and Private First Class. It’s absurd! It would only make sense to a complementarian! 🙂 )

    Do you believe Paul/Peter were trying to cleverly confuse the authorities of their time by making them believe he was upholding the existing patriarchical marriage structure when in reality, he was turning it on its head?

    By the way, I believe “male headship” is chivalry, not authority. Men are supposed to empower women, not relegate them to a life of mindless obedience. Bible references to how Christ is the head of the church prove this. Christ’s headship and his treatment of the church is a lesson to men on how they are to treat women.

    Count me in as an egalitarian! I just wish I could find an egalitarian church!

  11. Hi Anna,

    Yes, it doesn’t make sense to employ the strict military usage of hupotasso but also say that the husband and wife are equal in rank. Absurd, as you say.

    I don’t think Paul and Peter were trying to confuse husbands, but they did introduce the idea of submission from husbands, very carefully, and framed with the idea of honour, so that the idea would not be immediately dismissed by men who had never in their life been taught or shown that they should be submissive to their wives.

    I believe that the Bible does not teach a clearly defined doctrine of “headship”. I believe the two verses that speak about the husband/man being the head of the wife/woman are speaking about two separate issues.

    If we look at Ephesians 5:22ff it seems that headship involves unity, sacrificial giving, and nurture. Leadership or authority is never mentioned here. I suppose the sacrificial giving of one’s self can be equated with chivalry.

    If we look at 1 Cor. 11:3ff, the only other verse on this topic, it is about origin or source.

    I’ve written about “headship” here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/

    I am so grateful that my husband and I go to an egalitarian church where everyone can, and does, minister according to their gifts and skills, and not according to whether they are male or female.

  12. Just re-read this now! We throw around the word submission SO much but you rarely hear it defined! I think how you defined it really does fit well with how we are called to honour and love one another! Also, I find it very interesting that Paul closes off that section by telling wives to respect their husbands. He could have just repeated for them to submit but instead he restates everything he has been saying with the word respect. That fits well with your picture of submission looking more like being on the same team! Thanks again Marg for your hard work! Your blogs bring healing clarity in a bunch of depressing demeaning confusion on this topic!!

    1. Yes, the Greek verb for submission can have a strong force or a gentler force. It can mean “Submit!” or “Be cooperative”.

  13. The distinction between military submission and non-military submission is one I rarely see in complementarian writings. I’ve seen the two conflated, and I just took it at face value that it must be the same. I wish more people would distinguish the two. But I was wondering if you have another link to Kroeger’s “A Comprehensive Understanding of Wifely Submission”? The link in the article is broken, and it seems like a worthwhile read.

    1. Hi Taylor,

      I tried to find another online source for the article but was unsuccessful. (I’ve removed the broken link.)

      This section (pages 83-86) in “Responding to Abuse in Christian Homes” looks like it covers much of the same material that was in the article.

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