Wives, Don't Submit to Your Husbands

Be one with them.

That's not what the Bible says. The Bible says, "Wives, submit to your husbands... husbands, love your wives." And it doesn't just say it once, it says it three times through two different authors. Doctrines built on single passages are rarely credible, but the Bible seems repeatedly clear: wives submit, husbands do not.

Many women accept that without question. It might sound like men and women are unequal--that God created woman inferior to man, but that's because they have different roles. And, apparently, we should take some sort of comfort in these delineations.

Perhaps you have been told that God made men to be responsible for their families both spiritually and physically. We're the leaders and providers. In ancient agrarian societies, that meant we tilled the fields, hunted game, and defended against threats. In modern industrial societies, it means we work our office jobs or trade jobs, sometimes multiple ones. We do whatever it takes to care for our people at home.

Likewise, women were made to administrate their families. You raise the children, manage the household, and support the leadership of your husbands. Unlike men, your role looks relatively unchanged from centuries past, but that doesn't matter. You still do whatever it takes to care for your people. So long as your husbands approve.

I'm not trying to convince you that women in this situation are slaves in their own homes. All I'm saying is that women who accept this arrangement are accepting the roles of nannies, maids, nurses, and secretaries. And it would be intellectually dishonest to argue that these roles ensure equality.

Is a nanny equal to her employer? Can she decide what's best for the children without consulting their parents? Is a secretary equal to her boss? Can she make decisions on his behalf without his signature?

No. You can certainly be a stay-at-home mom who shares the leadership and decision-making with your husband (the daily activities are not the point). But as soon as the buck stops with him and him alone, you're a subordinate, not a partner. You're no longer an equal.

Maybe you're ok with that too. After all, we're not inherently equal in experience, ability or even faith. Each one of us is made differently, so it could be that we're made differently along gender lines because, as our physiology indicates, God has a specific purpose for male and female.

But this assumes that God created husbands and wives to be independent agents who are united in name only. To the contrary, our very origin story teaches us that we are one. We were created as one and then divided so that our reunion would foster more creation. Children are, by nature, the incarnation of two becoming one. Thus, our current distinction is partly functional as our eternal state will not include marriage. It's also symbolic of the oneness shared between the father, son, and spirit and the oneness we have with him as new creatures.

In this way, complementarians (those separate but equal gender roles folks), have the right idea: male and female complement one another, they make each other complete. But unfortunately, that's where their own analogy ends.

Innate to complementarian thought is hierarchy. Men are in charge. God made us this way because, as male and female, we reflect his image and part of that image is a hierarchy within the Godhead. They'll point to Paul's words to the Corinthians where he says that God is the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, and man the head of woman.

Ironically, many of us accept this interpretation without reservation even though it directly contradicts the nature of the trinity. As Lucy Peppiatt recently wrote:
Any hint of subordination in the Godhead, or the idea that the Son was/is 'lesser' than the Father was comprehensively challenged in the 4th Century when Arianism (the name of this heresy) was eventually ruled out, as affirmed in the Creeds. I understand though how the idea that the Son is somehow below the Father has a certain comfortableness about it, even if it's wrong.
Some will point to Jesus subordinating himself while on earth and the fact that he didn't even know the hour of his return, but Paul isn't talking about that Jesus. He's talking about the resurrected and glorified Jesus--the co-eternal, co-existent, co-equal Jesus. And this passage isn't necessarily about hierarchy.

It's true that the Greek word for "head" (kepahle) usually means master or lord, but as Lucy notes, it can also mean first principle, or as she prefers, cornerstone. We find this concept elsewhere in Scripture as Jesus is said to be the only-begotten son of the father and woman is described as coming from man. What exactly this means is a good question that even Lucy is hesitant to answer. But what it cannot mean is that the son is inferior to the father.

More importantly, if the son isn't inferior or subordinate to the father, then that erroneous paradigm can't be used to subjugate women to men. Again, the father and the son are one. That's the paradigm men and women are supposed to follow. Otherwise, Paul wouldn't have said that wives have authority their husbands' bodies just like husbands have authority of their wives' bodies. The authority isn't hierarchical, it's mutual and shared.

Only flawed human nature dictates that authority must be an individual responsibility. We have this desperate wisdom that declares shared decisions folly and weakness because, ultimately, someone has to have the final say. But marriages don't need someone to have the final say, they need two people to live and act as one. God doesn't care about submission; he cares about unity. And just because the only way we know to promote the latter is to assert the former, that doesn't make it God's way.

So what do we make of the Bible's injunction to wives regarding submission? The same thing we make of its endorsement of slavery. In fact, all three of those "submit to your husband" passages are part of a series on different kinds of submission, and all of them include slaves submitting to their masters.

Since slavery has such a long history in human society and the Bible repeatedly tells slaves to submit, shouldn't the church require slavery among its congregations? Of course not. Paul expected slaves to remain in that evil institution until their freedom could be secured; however, he still encouraged them to seek freedom when possible.

In this way, patriarchy isn't any different than slavery. It's an ancient institution that justified selfishness through oppression as both natural and societally healthy. And no matter how pretty complementarians try to make it, oppression should never be perpetuated by the church under the guise of clear teaching and biblical tradition.

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  1. I don't have much to say about the main topic of the article - submission of wives was not a thing that was ever talked about in my church. That being said, I think your post is good.

    I do want to check a little language use - are you personally acquainted with Lucy Peppiatt? I ask because you refer to her by first name in your article.

    1. I do not. It's a language preference on my part. I'm not a fan of formality, so I tend to use first names rather than surnames and titles. But only for my own blog, not if I were writing for someone else.

  2. A husband should seek Yahweh for wisdom and strength in leadership for the marriage. A wife should not.


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