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).
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.” 
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 that means “submit” in verse 22 when talking about wives; it is implied, just as in 1 Peter 3:7. (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 women should submit to all men in general. 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 and sacrificially love and care for their wives (Eph 5:25, 28, 33a; Col 3:19). Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33, and he never tells them to lead 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). For some, submission is seen as a sign of weakness, but it takes a generous, secure, and mature person to willingly and graciously submit.
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. 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 instructing wives to be loyal and supportive of their husbands?
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).
Peter explains that by being loyal and supportive, 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.)
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 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 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 non-military meanings as well as keeping the initial military meaning.
The resource Bible Study Tools makes a distinction between the military and non-military usage 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)
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
Like humility and meekness, being submissive should be a normal trait and behaviour for all Christians. I define Christian submission (i.e. submission between fellow believers including believing husbands and wives) as “humble, loyal, and loving deference, cooperation and support.”
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!
 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?
 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.)
 This is true for some older Greek manuscripts, but not for the much-handled Textus Receptus. (More about the Greek grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22 here.)
 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. (John Piper, Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) This is a dangerous and unbiblical doctrine!
 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). (More about Ephesians 5:28 here.)
 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. (More on this passage here.)
 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.
 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.
 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 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.
© Margaret Mowczko 2009
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(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
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.