Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
These words from Paul in Colossians are probably among some of the most contentious in a Christian marriage. The images they often conjure in the minds of many husbands and wives are not pretty.
Picture this: A subservient wife, waiting loyally for the man of the house to come home from work, with his favourite drink. Perhaps she is preparing dinner, and hoping that her husband will pay her some attention.
Or this: A cowering wife, backing off in fear as a drunken, violent husband raises his fist.
These days, submission is almost a bad word. Google “submit”, and you’ll get something like “to accept or yield to a superior force or to the authority or will of another person”. The mention of “superior force” certainly adds to the impression that submission is often involuntary or coerced. One would hardly “submit” to a weaker person, surely?
The Greek word for submit also means exactly that—to obey, place, or rank under someone, or subject oneself to someone.
So was Paul expecting wives to subject themselves to their husbands even in the scenarios mentioned above? Is this what submission is all about in a marriage?
What Biblical Submission Is
As some preachers and Bible teachers have pointed out, Paul’s instructions cannot be pulled out of context of the whole of Colossians 3, or read in isolation. Colossians 3:1–17 paints a holistic picture of how a follower of Christ is to behave, both in relation to God and to others.
These verses portray a Christian who relates to others with nothing but the purest love that comes with the fruit of the Spirit. Such a believer . . .
- Puts away earthly and unholy behaviour, including “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (v. 5).
- Does not indulge in “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language” (v. 8).
- Remembers that all men and women are equal in the eyes of God, in whose image they are made (vv. 10–11).
- Treats others with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (v. 12).
- Is always ready to forgive (v. 13).
- Allows Christ’s peace to rule in his or her heart, and seeks peace with all (v. 15).
- Does everything in a way that glorifies Jesus (v. 17).
Biblical submission takes place in the context of Colossians 3:1–17—in an environment of mutual love, humility, and peace. It is done out of love—as a conscious, willing choice, not out of coercion.
Consider this: if all these characteristics are true of both parties in a relationship, then no one party would force the other to submit, for there will be no manipulation, threats, or guilt-tripping. Rather, if there is any submission, it is obviously given voluntarily.
Indeed, biblical submission takes place in the context of Colossians 3:1–17—in an environment of mutual love, humility, and peace. It is done out of love—as a conscious, willing choice, not out of coercion.
How Biblical Submission Works
Ephesians 5:21 tells that we are all to submit to each other: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” You might ask: If all of us are to submit to one another, then why does Paul single out wives in particular, and urge them to submit to their husbands?
We all know that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all God. All three are equally God. Yet there is an order, or hierarchy of sorts, in the trinitarian relationship: as 1 Corinthians 11:3 notes, “the head of Christ is God”.
While this concept can understandably be confusing to some of us, it is the model of the order that God gives us in a marriage relationship. Both men and women are equal in God’s eyes, for they are both made in His image, just as Christ and God are equal. But just as the head of Christ is God, “the head of the woman is man” (v. 3).
This order does not come about because one party is better than the other; it is not related to the question of worth, superiority, value, or importance. Rather, this order is based on role, function, and responsibility. In the trinity, the Father is the one who sent the Son to die for us, and the Spirit is the one who lives in us and transforms our hearts.
Submission is given because one party recognises that the other party is made for or better suited for a certain task.
In a marriage relationship, too, husbands and wives play different roles which determine when they take the lead; the order of authority and leadership is not absolute. When it comes to giving birth, for example, only women can take the lead. Men traditionally led in war because of their physical strength, but as the book of Judges shows, there has been at least once when this role was undertaken by a woman—Deborah.
It is in this context that submission takes place. Submission is given because one party recognises that the other party is made for or better suited for a certain task. But both parties remember that all are equal before God and answerable to Him.
As 1 Corinthians 11:11–12 makes clear, “In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
When Submission Has Limits
Unlike forced submission, which results from a superiority in strength and often ignores the question of whether it is right or not, biblical submission is done in a God-pleasing, God-honouring way.
Ephesians 5:22 offers the model for submission in a marriage: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (emphasis added).
We do not submit ourselves to the power of sin, to abuse, to immorality, or to evil, for this is not what a holy God wants. We do not submit ourselves to violence and harm, for this is not what a loving God would want for us. Rather, we submit ourselves to a good God and all that is good.
We do not submit ourselves to the power of sin, to abuse, to immorality, or to evil, for this is not what a holy God wants.
True submission thus has limitations. It does not call people to submit themselves to physical or emotional abuse, for example. This is why God also gave us civil authorities, whose function is to take abusive spouses (and other leaders) to task.
It’s No Easier for the Husbands
If Colossians 3:18 is sometimes overstated and often quoted, then Colossians 3:19 is probably just as often conveniently forgotten or downplayed.
This verse calls on husbands to “love your wives and do not be harsh with them”. Some husbands might think they got off with the easier deal than wives, because they don’t have to submit.
But Ephesians 5:25, which elaborates on this instruction further, shows that it’s just as onerous an instruction: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (emphasis added).
Paul in Ephesians 5:25 is expecting husbands to give their wives—a love that gives all of oneself, seeks to provide and protect, and is willing to perish for the other’s sake.
The Greek word translated as “love” in this verse refers to an unconditional, sacrificial love—just like the love that led Jesus to give up His place in heaven and come down to earth as man, and to suffer pain and die for us.
This, then is the Christlike standard of love that Paul in Ephesians 5:25 is expecting husbands to give their wives—a love that gives all of oneself, seeks to provide and protect, and is willing to perish for the other’s sake.
Submission and Sacrifice
If women are called to love their husbands submissively, then men are called to love their wives sacrificially. And, if you think about it, submission and sacrifice are two sides of the coin called love. To love submissively, we need to love sacrificially—and vice-versa. Jesus, because of His love for us, chose to submit and sacrifice himself.
Obviously, both submission and sacrifice are difficult, if not downright impossible to do perfectly. As humans, we will fall inevitably short in submitting and sacrificing ourselves.
But this is where love comes in. It enables us to give ourselves willing and gladly, even when the other party may be reluctant to do the same. It does not count, calculate, or keep score. It is unconditional.
If women are called to love their husbands submissively, then men are called to love their wives sacrificially.
And, this is also where grace comes in. Where submitting and sacrificing seem impossible, God’s grace makes it possible to forgive and encourage each other.
Wives, will you choose to submit to your husband out of love, as you would to Christ? And husbands, will you commit to love your wives sacrificially as Christ loves you?
Based on a sermon by Rev. William Chee, Lay Training Coordinator and School Leader, St. Peter’s Hall at Trinity Theological College.
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