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There is a sense in which I address this issue with a measure of reluctance and hesitation. It isn’t because I’m in doubt about what Scripture says on the subject or because I’m uncertain about my own beliefs. It has to do with the widespread misunderstandings about the nature of headship and submission.

Many think that headship and submission mean that a wife must sit passively and endure the sin or the abuse of the husband, as if submission means she has no right to stand up for what is true and good or to resist her husband’s evil ways. Perhaps some of you come from families in which the husband was an insensitive bully and where it was assumed that it was the wife’s “duty” to tolerate this silently. God’s word does not call upon a wife to acquiesce to brutality or thievery or abuse.

Some of you may think that a husband can get away with whatever he wants in the name of headship, as if that word or concept endorses and encourages his sinful behavior, such that the wife has no recourse but to “submit” to his dictatorial and destructive ways. I utterly reject and grieve over such a terrible distortion and misapplication of these biblical concepts.

I know there are both men and women who look at someone like me or other complementarians and say to themselves, or perhaps to others, “My dad is a mean and abusive bully who belittles my mom and ignores her needs and those complementarians hold to a view that says it’s ok or that there’s nothing she can do but quietly ‘submit’ and put up with it; after all, he’s the head of the house.” It’s hard not to be offended by such a horrible distortion of the truth. I assure you of this one thing: that is not biblical headship; that is not biblical submission.

On more than one occasion I’ve had women tell me horrible stories of neglect, tyranny, abuse, abandonment, and even adultery on the part of the man, the husband, and then say: “How could you possibly embrace complementarianism, a view that permits and perhaps even encourages such sinful behavior.” Let it be said once and for all: I don’t! Can complementarianism and the notion of male headship be perverted and distorted by selfishness and sinful oppression? Yes. Even as egalitarianism and the denial of male headship can be perverted and distorted into a rejection of any differences between male and female.

My prayer is that if nothing else is accomplished in our study of this passage, perhaps I may be of some help in clarifying the meaning of these ideas and how they actually work within a marriage.

The verb translated "submit" (Col. 3:18; Greek, “hupotasso”) carries the implication of voluntary yieldedness to a recognized authority. Biblical submission is appropriate in several relational spheres: (1) the wife to her husband (here and in Eph. 5:22-24); (2) children to their parents (Eph. 6:1); (3) believers to the elders of the church (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12); (4) citizens to the state (Rom. 13); (5) servants (employees) to their masters (employers) (1 Pt. 2:18); (6) each believer to every other believer in humble service (Eph. 5:21). So what does it mean? First, let’s note what it doesn’t mean.

Submission is not grounded in any supposed superiority of the husband or inferiority of the wife (this is clear from Gal. 3:28 and 1 Pt. 3:7). The concept of the wife being the "helper" (Gen. 2:18-22) of the husband in no way implies her inferiority. In fact, the Hebrew word translated "helper" is often used in the OT to refer to God as the "helper" of mankind. Surely HE is not inferior to us! Rather, this passage means that (1) the husband, even before the fall into sin, was incomplete without his wife and that (2) the husband will never reach his full potential apart from the input and support of his wife.

Submission does not mean a wife is obligated to follow should her husband lead her into sin. The biblical principle that we owe obedience to God first and foremost applies to Christian wives as well. If there must be a choice between obedience to God and obedience to the state, God is to be obeyed (Acts 5:29). The same would apply in a marriage. However, as Susan Foh has pointed out, "This qualification of the 'traditional' concept of wifely submission does not mean that the wife has an excuse to follow her 'better judgment' when she disagrees with her husband. The wife's submission to her husband is qualified by God's commands, not her own preferences, opinions, or even expertise."

Submission does not mean the wife must suppress her creative energy or adopt a passive approach to life in general. One need only read Proverbs 31 to put this myth to rest. Note especially the emphasis in that paragraph on her initiative, creativity, tireless industry, etc. There is no biblically prescribed “personality” for wives, anymore than there is one for husbands. Husbands who exercise godly leadership can be introverts and wives who submit can be extroverts.

Neither does submission entail silence. Many mistakenly think a wife is unsubmissive if she ever (1) criticizes her husband (constructive criticism that is lovingly motivated and corrective in nature is not inconsistent with godly submission); or (2) makes requests of him (in particular, that her husband and family act responsibly in private and public; submission of the wife is not an excuse for sin or sloth or sloppiness in the husband); or (3) teaches her husband (cf. Prov. 31:26; Acts 18:26; it is not inconsistent with godly submission that a wife be more intelligent or more articulate than her husband; on a personal note, I’ve probably learned more from my wife than from any other living soul).

Finally, submission does not mean that everything a wife does must be directly dependent upon or connected to her husband. Submission does not mean the wife can never do anything for her own benefit or for the benefit of others or that she should never become involved in activities or ministries outside the home. It simply means that nothing she does should bring harm to her husband or undermine her primary responsibility to her family.

What, then, does submission actually mean or entail? The following is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few suggestions. First, submission is the disposition to honor and affirm a husband's authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership. John Piper put it this way:

"[Submission] is an attitude that says, 'I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don't flourish when you are passive and I have to make sure the family works.' But the attitude of Christian submission also says, 'It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know I can't do that. I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond creatively and joyfully to your lead; but I can't follow you into sin, as much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage. Christ is my King.'"

Second, submission is fundamentally an attitude and act of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is clear both from Colossians 3:18 and especially Ephesians. 5:22.

Third, submission is a commitment to support one's husband in such a way that he may reach his full potential as a man of God. This may involve several things: making the home a safe place, free from the sinful influence of the world; striving to be dependable and trustworthy (Prov. 31:11-12); providing affirmation and encouragement; building loyalty to him in the children (differences of opinion about discipline should be settled in private, away from the children, lest she be seen as taking sides against her husband); and showing confidence in his decisions.

But what happens if the husband is not a Christian? Is a believing wife still obligated to submit to him? Before you read my answer, be sure to read 1 Peter 3:1-7. This passage suggests that submission does not mean she must agree with everything her husband says. 1 Peter 3:1 indicates that she is a believer and he is not. Thus she disagrees with him on the most important principle of all: God! Her interpretation of ultimate reality may well be utterly different from his.

This indicates that submission is perfectly compatible with independent thinking. The woman in this passage has heard the gospel, assessed the claims of Christ, and embraced his atoning work as her only hope. Her husband has likewise heard the gospel and "disobeyed" it. "She thought for herself and she acted. And Peter does not tell her to retreat from that commitment" (Piper).

Submission does not mean giving up all efforts to change her husband. The point of the passage is to tell a wife how she might "win" her husband to the Lord. Strangely enough, Peter envisions submission as the most effective strategy in changing the husband.

Submission does not mean putting the will of one's husband above the will of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter in no way suggests she should abandon her commitment to Christ simply because her husband is an unbeliever. This wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband.

Submission to an unbelieving husband does not mean a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength from him. When a husband's spiritual nurturing and leadership is lacking, a Christian wife is not left helpless. She is to be nurtured and strengthened by her hope in God (v. 5).

In conclusion, that the wife should submit to her husband “is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18b; “in the Lord” = “for those who belong to the Lord,” i.e., “as Christians,” or “according to the way of Christ”). This should forever put to rest any suggestion that godly submission is inherently oppressive or offensive or contrary to the spirit and life and teachings of Jesus.

Obeying any biblical command, whether it be a wife’s submission to her husband or a husband’s love for his wife, is an appropriate, indeed a beautiful thing. It is “fitting” or “proper” not because it conforms to the culture of that day but because that is what God has ordained for our marital relations (Eph. 5:23-24; cf. 1 Cor. 11:3,7-9). In the final analysis, it is the Lord Jesus himself who determines what is and is not “fitting” or “proper” for his people.

And what of “headship” on the part of the husband? That’s next.

Grateful for a godly and submissive wife,