submission Ephesians 5 gender roles

Biblical Submission

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 well-meaning, sincere Christians. The Bible teaches that our relationships should be characterised by humility, love, and respect. These are the hallmarks of submission.

In humility consider other 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, gentleness 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

Biblical Submission in Marriage

What about submission in marriage?

In Ephesians chapter six, Paul instructs slaves to obey (hupakouete) their masters (Eph 6:5), and children to obey (hupakouete) their parents (Eph 6:1); but the word used in relation to wives in Ephesians 5:21-22 does not mean obey, but to be submissive (from hupotassō.) The New Testament does not teach that the relationship of a wife to her husband is one of obedience (despite the incorrect translation of Titus 2:5 in the KJV), but of submission. Furthermore, it’s not just the wives that should be submissive.

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

In Peter’s first letter he tells all his readers 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 waybe submissive[1] to their own husbands (1 Pet 3:1).

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

There is no verb in the Greek of verse 7, so the theme of submission continues. Check for yourself and compare the very similar language in 1 Peter 3:1, 7 and 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV.[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 “being submissive” is mentioned in verse 21, but the word does not reappear in verse 22[3] when talking about wives; it is implied, just as in 1 Peter 3:7. [More on this in my article on Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:7-8 here.]

Moreover, the instructions in the Greek New Testament are for a wife to volunteer submission to her own husband (Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18; Tit 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1). Nowhere in Scripture does it teach or imply that women should submit to all men in general.[4] Furthermore, the Scriptures never tell the husband to make sure his wife is “in submission”. It is the wife’s prerogative. The command to the husband is to selflessly and sacrificially love and care for his wife! (Eph 5:25, 28, 33a; Col 3:19).[4]

Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33, and he never tells husbands to lead or exercise authority.

Serving vs Ruling

The idea of a husband ruling his wife came as a consequence of sin entering the world (Gen 3:16b). However, Jesus came to deal with sin and its consequences. Interestingly, the concept of a “ruling” husband is not picked up anywhere again in the Scriptures after Genesis 3:16; male authority is never put forward as an ideal in the Bible.[6] Mutuality and equality are the ideal.

God’s ideal is for a husband and wife to have a harmonious, loving relationship where each partner serves and prefers the other in an interdependent, mutually submissive, loving union (1 Cor 11:11-12). For some, submission is seen as weakness, but it takes a generous, secure, and mature person to willingly and graciously submit. But what does the word “submission” really mean? And why did Paul and Peter instruct to wives to be submissive to their husbands?

Submission vs Rebellion

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” (hupotassō) 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. 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).[7] 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.

In her 2011 article, A Comprehensive Understanding of Wifely Submission, Catherine Clark Kroeger has pointed out that Polybius, a 2nd century BC politician and writer, used cognates of the word anupotassō (the opposite of hupotassō) “to designate individuals who were not integrated into the group, dissociated from others, confused or difficult to comprehend. By contrast, he sometimes used hupotassō to indicate associations or relationships that led to greater understanding.” (Polybius, Histories III.36.4; 38.4; V.21.4.) In the same article, Catherine Clark Kroeger writes that hupotassō has a broader range of meanings than just “submit.” It can also mean: “to support,” “join with,” “identify or associate with,” “behave responsibly toward” or “relate in such a way as to promote meaning and understanding.” All of these meanings fit very well with the concept of a healthy marriage.

Were Paul and Peter instructing wives to be supportive and loyal to their husbands, and to have the desire to create a meaningful marriage relationship?

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). Paul and Peter explain that by being loyal and supportive, their unsaved husbands might be won over to the Christian faith,[8] and also, the church would not get a bad name.[9] 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; Tit 2:4-5 cf. 1 Tim 6:1.)

Furthermore, wifely submission in the first-century Greco-Roman context of the New Testament, especially where one partner is an unbeliever, would have looked very different to submission in a modern Christian marriage.

Military Submission vs Non-military Submission

The original language of the New Testament (Koine Greek) developed as men from all over the Greek world joined the army of Alexander the Great. Several Greek dialects merged to form a common Greek language that all the soldiers could understand. Koine Greek started off primarily as a language with a military purpose. As the language developed several military terms, including hupotassō, developed a non-military meaning, as well as keeping the initial military meaning. Thayers Bible Dictionary makes the distinction between the military and non-military usage of hupotassō.  “

Hupotassō: 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’.”

It is essential that we make the distinction between the military and non-military usage submission if we are to understand Peter and Paul’s intention when they used the word in their instructions to wives. The submission of a wife to a husband does not entail subordination to a leader as it does in a military context. It is grievous that some Christians try to apply a literal, military understanding of submission in the precious and intimate relationship of marriage.

Jesus, Our Example

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.

Your 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 many instructions to people for submission in various circumstances (e.g., 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 “likewise” (homoios) three times in his first letter; In 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Peter 3:7 and in 1 Peter 5:5.  It is always in the context of submission (or at the very least, respect). In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter uses “likewise” (homoios) while telling the young men to be submissive to the older men. In some Greek texts this is followed by call for all to be submissive to one another (1 Pet. 5:5 KJV).

[3] This is true for the older Greek manuscripts, but not for the much-handled Textus Receptus.

[4] The context of Ephesians 5:21-33 is not primarily about Christ’s leadership and authority, but about his sacrificial love and care for the Church, as well as unity. For this reason, it is unlikely that this passage is asking for women to submit to “the leadership” of husbands. As my friend MaryAnn recently pointed out, “to love your wife as your body is to love her as your equal” (Eph 5:28). [My article on Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters here.]

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

[6] 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is not addressing family order but the appearance of the heads or hair of both men and women who were praying and prophecying in the Corinthian church. More on this passage here.

[7] BDAG gives the possible translations: 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 a lot 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 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 that the wives would behave in a culturally appropriate way and the church would not get a bad name. The churches who 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.

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 get help now! There are many agencies that can offer worthwhile, sympathetic help.  If you would like assistance in finding help in Australia, please do not hesitate to contact me, or contact your local hospital, which should have specially trained counsellors.

© 1st of November 2009, revised 28th of September 2010, Margaret Mowczko

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Related Articles

(1) Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:1-6
(2) Submission and Respect in 1 Peter 3:7-8
Leading Together in the Home
A Suitable Helper
Double Standards in the Promotion & Practice of Submission
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Advice to Newlyweds
Power Struggles in Christian Marriage?
God wants women to be happy in marriage
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
The household codes are about power, not gender
Various articles on Ephesians 5:22-33 are here.

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