Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Professor of Theology and Church History,
Few Biblical injunctions can stir up as much emotion and
controversy as the command for the wife
to submit to her husband (Eph 5:22, 24; Col 3:18, 1 Pet 3:1). Both liberal and evangelical feminists are shocked and offended
by this command. They view this command as a basic denial of women's rights to equality with men. To correct this alleged
evil, the women's liberation movement is promoting marriages where roleless partners match their career goals. The very titles
"husband" or "wife" are obsolete in such marriages. Each spouse has a right to terminate the relationship when it is no longer
beneficial to his or her self-fulfillment.
The traditional roles of wife, mother, and homemaker are being deliberately and systematically dismantled, especially through
influence of the Women's Libaration Movement on the public media.
James Dobson offers a most graphic description of this process, saying: "The image of women now being depicted by the media
is a ridiculous combination of wide-eyed fantasy and feminist propaganda. Today's woman is always shown as gorgeous, of corse,
but she is more-much more. She roars around the countryside in a racy sports car, while her male companion sits on the other
side of the front seat anxiously biting his nails. She exudesself-confidence from the very tip of her fingers, and for good
reasons: she could dismantle any man alive with her karate chops and flying kicks to the teeth. She is deadly accurate with
a pistol and she plays tennis (or football) like a pro. She speaks in perfectly organized sentences, as though her spontaneous
remarks were planned and written by a team of tiny English professorssitting in the back of her pretty head. She is a sexual
gourmet, to be sure, but she wouldn't be caught dead in a
wedding ceremony. She has the grand good fortune of being perpetually
young and she never becomes ill, nor does she ever make a mistake or appear foolish. In short, she is virtually omniscient,
except for a curious inability to do anything traditionally feminine, such as cook, sew, or raise children. Truly, today's
screen heroine is a remarkable specimen, standing proud and uncompromosing, with wide stance and hands on her hips.
yeah! This baby has come a long way, no doubt about that."
Have Women Been Really Liberated? A fundamental problem
Women's Liberation Movement is that it assumes to liberate women by doing away with divine plan for successful
marital relationships. The plan consists, as we have seen, of a relationship based on loving leadership and loving submission.
Women's libbers reject this divine plan, promoting instead a contractual inter-relationship where each partner is free to
come or to go, to live in or to live out.
In their struggle for women's rights, women's libbers, including some evangelical
Christians, have made the mistake of absolutizing their
own freedom. They have failed to realize that real freedom is to
be found, not by becoming centers of absolute will, but by living according to the order of relationships established by God.
result of the women's liberation movement has been not a
greater liberation for women, but a rise in women's frustration,
delinquency, and divorce rate. Elizabeth Achtemeier offers the following perceptive description of the results
of feminist ideologies: "Some modern so-called 'liberated' women have absolutized themselves by being so concerned about their
own rights that they have trampled over the rights of their husbands and children. There is nothing more tragic these days
than those homes in which the marital relationship is being destroyed by feminist ideologies. The wife has suddenly realized
that she is an 'incomplete' or 'unfulfilled' person. So she has precipitously rushed out and found a job, or is spending hours
in women's meetings, or has abandoned all those little courtesies, amenities, and mutual services which make the life between
a husband and wife possible. She has become an absolute center of self-assertion, with no regard for the welfare and feelings
of her husband.
Marriage is not possible under such circumstances, and it is not surprising that many of the militant feminists are also
Finding Life by Losing it. Militant feminists have forgotten Christ's counsel that we find our lives by
losing them (Mark 8:35); we find
a "better relationship" not by fighting for our rights but by assuming our God-given responsibilities.
Biblical faith is concerned not with rights but with responsibilities. A woman who insists on fighting for her rights may
eventually end up losing protection, sympathy, love, security, and even her husband.
From a Biblical perspective, we have no rights. All that we have-life, love, forgiveness, freedom, companionship, and salvation-are
precious gifts offered to us by our gracious Savior so that we may use them
to bless others. This applies to God's command,
"Husbands, love your
wives" and "Wives, be subject to your husbands" (Eph 5:21, 25). They were given not to secure our
rights, but to ensure a harmonious, happy relationship.
"When God said love and submit," writes Don Meredith, "there
only good intended! Without love and submission, God cannot meet our 'aloneness' needs. Without love and submission,
Christians are divided and the cause of Christ is seemingly thwarted. If I do not submit myself to you in humility, then I
am a threat, a discouragement, a source of rejection and judgment in your life. Unless I love you unconditionally, it will
be hard for you to submit to me. There are no agape relationships without both love and submission."
The Model of
Submission. Christ is the perfect model of both loving headship and loving submission. Both of these roles function in
not as limitations but as opportunities for greater service and
blessings. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts
us to follow the
example of Christ's submissive attitude to find oneness with God and
others: "Your attitude should
be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance
as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on the cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to
the glory of God the Father." (Phil 2:5-11, NIV).
Christ's submissive mental attitude enabled Him not to question his
Father's headship or to grasp for equal authority,
even though He shared the same divinity of the Father. He did not question the right of His Father to function as His head,
nor did He attempt to redefine the notion of headship and submission through a "careful exegesis." Instead, he submitted Himself
to the Father by being obedient to the point of death on the cross. The result of Christ's obedience is that the Father exalted
Him to the highest honor. Christ's example teaches us that in God's order, submission is the way to glorification. The submission
of Christ to the headship of His Father provides us a model to understand the nature and manner of a wife's submission to
Submission as Loving Response. The headship of a husband consists,
as noted earlier, in providing
a sacrificial and loving leadership to his
family members. Such a leadership provides the basis for a loving and
submission on the part of the wife. The common abuse by men of their headship as a "club" over their wives has led many women
to see God's command to submit as irrational and discriminatory. Some women will submit to their husbands half-heartedly;
that is, as a necessary divine requirement rather than as a loving response. They hope that God will reward their unwilling
submission. Such legalistic submission is joyless, frustrating, and often results in the dissolution of marriage.
Legalistic submission fails to see that headship and submission
were given by God not to deprive us of something but
to ensure a happy and harmonious marital relationship. Without loving leadership and loving submission, no successful relationship
can be maintained. The fundamental cause of legalistic headship or submission is self-centered, unyielding wills clashing
with God's commands. When by God's grace the battle of the wills is dissolved, then we are able to accept and experience God's
command to love and submit, not as a source of strife, but of joy, order, blessing, and security. The conflict over roles
in marriage is caused not by a mistake in God's job description of husbands and wives, but by sin, manifested in self-centered,
God's plan for husbands to be loving, sacrificial heads and for wives to be loving, respectful helpmates is designed to
promote not competition and conflicts, but completion and harmony. The two roles can be compared to the lock and the key.
If the lock wants to be the key or
the key wants to be the lock because either or both of them are unhappy with their assigned
roles, both of them become useless. It is only when the lock and the key function as designed that they work properly. In
the same way, it is only when husband and wife function as loving head and responsive helpmate, that their marital union will
work properly in accordance with God's design. Each spouse is unfulfilled alone, but together they make a whole.
as Respect. The submission of a wife to her husband is
manifested especially through her respect for him. Paul summarizes
exhortation to husbands and wives, saying: "Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that
she respects her husband" (Eph 5:33). Respect is something that must be gained through proper conduct.
When a Christian husband exercises a loving, sacrificial headship, his wife finds him worthy of trust, honor, and respect.
Respect is an essential quality of love. If love is to grow
through the years, it must be based on mutual respect. In
his epistle to Titus, Paul encourages older women to teach younger wives "to love their husbands" (Titus 2:4). The fact that
Paul exhorts wives "to respect" their husbands in Ephesians and "to love" them in Titus shows that in the apostle's mind,
love and respect go hand in hand.
A wife can show respect toward her husband in different ways: by
accepting and affirming his moral and spiritual leadership
in the home; by deferring to him certain decisions, questions, or problems; by admiring and praising him for his achievements;
by putting him first when planning activities; by supporting his financial plans. When a man knows that his wife respects,
supports, and admires him, no sacrifice will be too great for him.
Submission as Acceptance. The submissive wife accepts
the way he is, without conditioning her love to changes in his behavior.
We learn to accept and love unconditionally our husbands or our wives by realizing how God accepts us: "God shows his love
for us in that whle we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).
At times a wife may feel that it is impossible
for her to accept her husband the way he is. Humanly speaking this may well be true, but as she accepts and experiences God's
unconditional love, she is empowered to accept and love her husband unconditionally.
In her book, You Can Be the Wife
of a Happy Husband, Darien Cooper
says: "When you accept your husband the way he is, you will give him the freedom to be
the man he wants to be. He will have freedom to come and go as he pleases and to make his own decisions. In other words, true
love is letting go! Your husband will love you freely as he did when he chose to marry you unless you stifle that love with
As a plant needs good soil, water, and sun to grow healthy, so a
man needs the unconditional
love and acceptance of his wife to live a
healthy, happy, and satisfying life. When a husband feels that he is
on trial, that he has to constantly prove himself worthy to his wife, he becomes discouraged and tempted to look for another
woman who will accept him the way he is.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict a person of his or her
(John 16:8-11). When we take upon ourselves the job of
convicting our spouses of their mistakes, we get in God's way and
hinder the work of His Spirit. This does not mean that a wife should ignore her husband's wrongdoing. To do so would be morally
irresponsible. The submissive wife can and must express her concerns and views freely. In fact, a mature husband will want
her to do so. But once a wife has told her husband in what way she thinks he is wrong, she should not continue to nag him
on that matter. Instead, she should place her trust in God's ability to convict and change her husband.
be comforting to realize," rightly observes Darien Cooper, "that negative traits are distorted positive traits. If negative
can be modified or channeled in the right direction, they can become strengths. Stubbornness can become perseverance. Cowardice
can be turned to gentleness. Tactlessness can be turned to frankness. If you trust Jesus Christ to take care of your husband's
problems and fix your mind on his assets, you can help him turn bad traits into good ones."
Submission as Putting
Husband First. As believers, we submit ourselves to Christ by placing Him first in our lives. Our submission to Christ is
presented in Ephesians 5:24 as the model of the wife's submission
to her husband. When Jesus is first in a woman's life,
He will enable her to place her husband first in her thoughts and actions. A man who has the assurance of being first in his
wife's life will be able to face
challenges with greater courage and self-confidence.
Placing your husband first
means avoiding certain negative attitudes and actions. One of these is criticism of your husband's character or performance,
especially in front of others. This can hurt him even more than a slap on the face. True "love does not delight in evil but
with truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes,
always perseveres" (1 Cor 13:6-7).
attitude to avoid is selfishness. A submissive wife will consider her husband's likes or dislikes when purchasing clothes,
a meal, accepting or rejecting an invitation to a program or
social function. Darien Cooper asks wives: "Do you plan your
so you can stop and visit with him if he should need to talk when he gets home from work? Remember, he can easily
tell if he does not have your complete attention when he talks to you. The uninterested look on your face, glancing at the
clock or out of the window, or yawning will give you away. Your interest must be sincere."
A submissive wife will also
avoid jealousy and possessiveness.
She will not deny her husband some legitimate pleasures that could draw him away from
her. A wife who resents the time consuming career or activities of her husband may be loving herself more than her husband.
your husband first means also centering all your activities
around the husband. Good things such as children, homemaking,
in-laws, appearance, church or civic functions can easily get out of balance, controlling the time and interest of a wife.
It is therefore essential for a wife to learn to balance her activities in such a way that they are the spokes circling the
hub, which is the husband, and not vice versa. If the spokes are well-proportioned and balanced, the wheel, that is, marital
life, will roll smoothly. On the contrary, if the spokes are out of adjustment and unbalanced, the wheel will wobble and eventually
will smash in pieces.
Putting your husband first means also supporting his financial plans. This may require making
the dollar stretch by being thrifty, as
described in Proverbs 31:13-14: "She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing
hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides
food for her
household and tasks for her maidens."
Submission as Role-Acceptance. Headship and submission are roles
by God to ensure order, peace, and harmony in the home.
The submissive wife accepts her role as homemaker and mother, finding joy in fulfilling such roles creatively, efficiently,
Radical feminists belittle the role of homemaker and mother,
promoting instead the male's roles. For
them, the only life worth living
is a man's life. To be successful, a woman must strive to achieve the
and performances of a man. In their striving to be like men, women are in danger of losing their feminine qualities which
make them attractive to men. Women who become hard and aggressive in competing with men often discover to their sorrow that
they are treated as if they were men. Competition damages something which is basic and precious to a right relationship between
men and women.
Our families, churches, and societies need women who are willing to
accept their vital role as wives,
homemakers, and mothers. God has
equipped women with unique biological and spiritual resources needed for the survival
and growth of the home. Biologically, God has endowed every woman with the marvelous capacity to conceive and nourish human
life in her womb. Spiritually, God has endowed every woman who becomes a mother with the unique power to mold her children's
characters for time and eternity.
A woman who willingly and joyfully accepts her role of wife, mother, and homemaker
can experience greater reward and fulfillment than
any academic or business career can provide. No greater joy and
can come to a woman than to have her children rising up and calling her "blessed" and her husband praising her, saying: "Many
women have done excellently, but you surpass them all" (Prov 31:28-29).
Submission as Acceptance of the Husband's
Leadership. God's order
for the home is for the husband to serve as a loving leader and for the
wife to accept his leadership
(1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23). This order has
been divinely established to ensure harmony, happiness, and protection. A home
with two heads or with the wife as the head is an abnormality because it distorts the distinctive male-female roles.
homes have become more wife-dominated," writes Darien Cooper,
"there has been a rise in juvenile delinquency, rebellion,
the divorce rate, and the number of frustrated women because the home was designed by God to run efficiently
with the man as the leader. Ignoring this principle of his leadership or devising substitutes creates untold problems."
wife who accepts and responds to her husband's leadership finds
protection and satisfaction in the role God designed for
her. She enjoys freedom from pressures and problems she is not supposed to carry. A major concern of my wife when I am away
from home is that she may have to deal with some unexpected problems that I usually handle: a burned water pump, a stalled
furnace, malfunctioning air-conditioning, leaking faucets or roofs, flat tires, disciplining children. It is reassuring for
her to know that "I am around" to take care of such unexpected problems. This gives her peace of mind and freedom to pursue
her various activities which do not conflict with her role of wife and mother. By accepting my leadership in the home, my
wife is relieved of many worries while I am challenged to develop my God-given strengths and abilities.
Is Not Slavery. A Christian woman, who by God's
enabling grace submits to her husband, is not in danger of becoming a
On the contrary, she may discover that her submissive attitude
inspires her husband to be more thoughtful and kind toward
her. Usually, a submissive wife enjoys a happier relationship with her husband than does a dominating wife. She will certainly
enjoy a closer walk with God when she knows that she obeys God's command by being submissive to her husband than when she
disobeys God by dominating her husband.
Domineering wives have caused great misery to themselves and to
A woman who is aggressive and dominates her husband in the early years of marriage may discover to her disappointment that
later in life, she will loathe the man she has trained to be submissive to her because she has no one to lean upon.
does not mean that a woman cannot voice her opinion.
Rather, it means that she will speak "the truth in love" (Eph 4:15)
comply with her husband's decisions to the best of her abilities.
"Always remember," writes Tim LaHaye, "you reap far more than you sow. If you sow submission in obedience to God, you will
reap blessings in abundance; if you sow rebellion in disobedience to the will of God, you will reap abundant misery."
rejection of the Biblical view of role distinction within
marriages is a major cause of marriage break ups today. Scripture
clearly presents the headship of the husband and the submission of the wife as an order established by God to ensure unity
and harmony in the home.
Practicing headship does not mean lording over the wife or family members but rather providing
a caring leadership which ensures the physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual needs of our wives and children.
Similarly, practicing submission does not mean serving the husband as a slave but rather willingly and joyfully to accept
the husband's loving leadership.
The fact that God has given a different roles for husbands and wives to fulfill does not mean that one is inferior to the
role is equal in importance though different in function. The role of a
husband complements that of a wife
as a key complements a lock. Either is incomplete without the other. Respecting the husband/wife role distinctions is essential
to ensuring the stability of the marriage