The Priority of Wifely Submission vs Mutual Submission


I believe that the church’s emphasis on wifely submission is misplaced. Wifely submission is never mentioned in the Old Testament or in the Gospels.[1] It is mentioned, however, in a few of the later New Testament letters, letters that were written to churches set within Greco-Roman society.[2] These few mentions have typically been given priority over verses about mutuality in marriage.

Unilateral submission from wives was a feature of pagan Greek society where women were viewed as ontologically and morally inferior to men. The Bible never states or implies that women are in any way inferior to men,[3] yet the low view of women held by the Greeks influenced church leaders after the time of the first apostles, And so, from the post-apostolic period onwards, the church held its women in a lower, subordinate position to men.[4]

With their teachings on love, honour, and mutuality, Paul and Peter hoped to soften the effects of patriarchy (male rulership) that was typical of Greco-Roman marriages and society in general. However, they were also concerned that Christians not give the church or the word of God a bad name by behaviours that were culturally inappropriate. So they did not openly denounce social dynamics such as patriarchy and slavery.[5] In western society, which mostly aims at equality, Christians who insist on subordinating women are giving the church a bad name, the very thing the apostles wanted to avoid.

One-sided submission from women was not a dynamic at Creation and it is not a dynamic of the New Creation. Mutual submission, one to another, is the ideal (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV). It’s a shame that the church has not given priority to verses such as Genesis 1:27-28 and Genesis 2:21-25, or to Jesus’ teaching about relationships, or to Paul’s teaching about the New Creation ideal of equality (e.g., Galatians 3:26-28; cf. 2 Cor. 5:16-17 NIV). Why have correct interpretations of these verses and teachings been largely ignored, but the verses about wifely submission highlighted when forming ideas and doctrines about Christian marriage?

A marriage of two competent people simply does not need one person to always be the leader and the other person to always be the submissive follower.[6] In fact, Christian marriages work better without a gender hierarchy.

A marriage may not need a leader, but families with young children do. I firmly believe that God’s ideal is that families and households are to be led jointly by parents, “where the family responsibilities and resources are shared, not according to rigid gender roles and cultural expectations, but according to each person’s skills, abilities and temperaments; where neither the husband nor the wife is ‘the boss’ because the real leader is the Lord Jesus Christ, leading and guiding through the Holy Spirit.”[7]

A gender hierarchy of male primacy and privilege and female subordination and submission is not God’s best intention in marriage. God’s ideal is that husbands and wives mutually submit to each other, preferring and honouring the other.

Which Bible verses mostly inform your ideas about Christian marriage?


[1] In Genesis 3:16 it says that one of the consequences of sin was that the husband would rule the wife, but this is far for God’s ideal. In Esther 1:20-22 (esp. v.22) the Persian king Xerxes decreed that husbands should rule their households. But Christians should not take their cues for living from the curses and consequences of the Fall or from decrees of pagan kings. (The Bible narratives are set in a patriarchal culture, but patriarchy is never endorsed by God.)

[2] The verses that mention wifely submission are Ephesians 5:21-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1ff. (There are just as many New Testament verses that mention wifely submission as there are verses that direct believers to greet each other with a holy kiss. More on this here.)

[3] The Bible never says that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men. In fact, it says a lot of good things about women. More about this here.

[4] Despite the Bible saying good things about women, too many Christian theologians have seen women as morally inferior and they have said some terrible things about women. Here is a short selection of terrible quotations from Church fathers and Christian theologians.

[5] Paul may well have written his instructions about wifely submission so that the first-century church would not get a bad name among their pagan neighbours. (See Tit. 2:4-5; cf. 1 Tim. 5:14; 6:1.) The Romans were highly suspect of groups that caused social unrest and disturbed the peace in the Empire, so Paul recast traditional social roles, including wifely submission and slavery, with a Christian component (e.g., “as to the Lord” in Eph. 5:22). Peter specifically directed his instructions to Christian wives with unsaved husbands, hoping that they would stay loyal to their husbands and that their virtuous behaviour might bring about the conversion of their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1-6). Peace and evangelism appear to be the primary reasons for wifely submission.

[6] The idea that the man is the leader or authority in marriage is based on a faulty and biased interpretation of Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3. More about this here,  here and here.

[7] From “Leading Together in the Home” here.

This post was written as a contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ synchroblog series “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes” here.

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