Is a wife's submission to her husband like slavery?

by Shelley Poston

The word submission has been misused and abused in our culture.  Most think of “slavery” and a woman becoming a “doormat” when the word is used.  It is easy to allow culture to change the meaning of a term.  Culture views submission as a weaker person allowing a stronger person to use them, a person of lesser value giving up his rights to someone of greater value.  This is not what the Bible means when referring to submission.  Sinners often twist and pervert the term, but that does not change the biblical concept of submission.

First, submission is actually a voluntary action by the wife.  Wives are commanded by the Lord to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1).  This is a commandment from the Lord.  However, there is nowhere in Scripture in which husbands command their wives to submit.  A wife chooses to follow her husband’s leadership.  Slaves, on the other hand, choose nothing.  Their decisions are chosen by their master.  When a woman submits to her husband, she is actually submitting to the Lord.  It is an act of worship and love for her Savior, not as one of a weakened slave.

Second, a woman is not bound to submit to everything a husband desires.  When a husband desires his wife to “go along” with something that is unbiblical, she is bound to obey the Lord instead.  Peter and John made this clear in front of the High Priest, Council, and Senate of Israel after being released from prison (Acts 5:17-42).  When they were commanded to not speak the name of Jesus anymore, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men,” (v.29).  They were being asked to do something contradictory to Jesus’ words (Matthew 28:18-20).  They were not bound to obey this request.

An unbelieving husband may ask his Christian wife to stop attending church.  She is not bound to obey in this circumstance.  Her higher allegiance is to the Lord, and community among believers is biblical.  Some women are pressured to allow pornography into the marriage relationship.  However, pornography is paper adultery-- a woman is not bound to submit to his sinful request.  Slaves are bound to any desire of their master; a wife is not bound to desires that reach outside of biblical obedience, and therefore she is not a slave to her husband.

The question may be raised as to why a husband does not have to submit to his wife?  If men and women are created equal in the image of God and are therefore of equal value, why then is only the woman commanded to submit?

It should not be concluded that a man is free to do anything he chooses.  He is to submit unto God, and to a certain extent, the authority of the church (1 Corinthians 11:3, Matthew 18:15-17).  A man is held to a high obedience standard.  He is not only to submit unto God but also lead his wife in a self-sacrificing manner (Ephesians 5:25).  Not every husband does this, but a wife can know that her submission “as unto the Lord”—as obedience to God—has eternal significance and will be a testimony of the Gospel to her husband (1 Peter 3:1-2).

God has created a relational structure in which the husband is the head (leader) of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3).  This has nothing to do with value, for husband and wife are created in the image of God and they are both co-heirs of the Gospel.  But if there is a leader, there must be a follower.  This relationship of husband as the leader and wife as the follower is actually a portrait of Christ and His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32).  When a woman voluntarily submits, she points to that portrait, bringing glory to God.