The Beauty of Biblical Submission

The unique roles men and women have in marriage are a living message of the gospel.

Have you ever played one of those word association games where someone says a word and you say the first thing that comes to mind? Well, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word submission? Is it positive or negative?

In our culture, submission is a word that often incites controversy.

I believe one of the main reasons for this strong emotive response is what people think of when they hear the word submission. For many, the first things that come to mind are words such as inferior, doormat, or controlled. I know that response well. For me, the word submission once conjured up negative memories from my childhood of put downs, anger, threats, rejection, and fear.

I viewed the call for wives to submit to their husbands solely through the lens of my personal experiences. In fact, upon leaving home and attending college, I feared men and even the idea of marriage. I vowed to never find myself in a place where I was belittled, pushed around, or threatened. As a result, when I first met my husband-to-be in college, my heart was skittish and resistant. I panicked at the thought of reliving my childhood experience all over again.

In my journey to understand the biblical call of submission in marriage, I’ve had to travel far. I’ve had to go back into my past and revisit painful memories. I’ve had to study God’s Word and seek wise counsel. I’ve had to look back to the cross and then forward to my own marriage. Though it’s been a long journey, it’s been a good one. Now when I hear the word submission, my first thoughts are not fear or threats, but beauty and grace.

Does that sound strange to you? Maybe it does, but stick with me. I hope to explain how biblical submission is beautiful. And in order to understand God’s call for wives to submit to their husbands, we need to explore and understand what submission is and what it’s not.

Understanding Christian submission

First, submission in Scripture is not isolated to wives. It’s something Christ did when he yielded to the will of the Father to lay down his life for us. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Submission is something all Christians are called to do. For example, we are all called to submit to the governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13–17). Children are to obey their parents (Colossians 3:20). And in the body of Christ, believers are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

Then there are a handful of key passages in Scripture where we see the specific call for wives to submit to their husbands: Ephesians 5:21–33, Colossians 3:18–19, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1–7. When we read these passages, it’s important that we have a proper definition of what the word submission means in the context of Christian marriage. John Piper defines submission as “the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It’s the disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership.”

Let’s use that definition as we explore further what this call to submission is all about. Ephesians 5 contains a lengthy description of the marriage relationship. Here Paul instructs husbands and wives in their unique roles in marriage:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:22–28)

Paul shows us that the purpose of marriage is to reflect the gospel. A husband’s call to lead and a wife’s call to submit reflect the relationship between Christ and the church. The unique roles that men and women have in marriage serve as a living message of the gospel. The husband models the love that Jesus portrayed in laying down his life for the church. And a wife then models the church’s submission to her Bridegroom — the church’s trust and respect.

As a wife yields to her husband’s leadership in their marriage, she reflects the heart of faith that characterizes Jesus’s people. The church follows Jesus as her head and uses her gifts to carry out his mission in this world. Likewise, the wife respects and yields to her husband’s leadership as she uses her gifts to complement his good purposes for their marriage and family.

This reflection of the gospel in the marriage relationship is where we begin to see the beauty. The gospel is the glorious story of a King who comes to save his bride from slavery to sin. By his own sacrificial death, he redeems her and restores her back to his kingdom of light. The gospel is a story of love and grace, of humility and sacrifice. And this bride is the church, who is irreversibly united to the King by his unfailing covenant.

Because the gospel of grace is beautiful, the marriage relationship reflecting the gospel is beautiful. As a husband and wife live out their unique callings in marriage, they share in this beauty. They shine a light in this dark world, pointing to Jesus and his grace.

What submission is not

When it comes to the kind of submission that lingers in my memory from childhood, it is not the kind of submission that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5. Submission is not about forced control. When a man leads his wife, he is leading her to depend on Christ, not on himself. The kind of leadership a husband provides his wife is to encourage her growth in grace and prepare her to be a coheir in the coming kingdom. As Piper and Grudem point out in their book Fifty Crucial Questions:

Any kind of leadership that, in the name of Christlike headship, tends to foster in a wife personal immaturity or spiritual weakness or insecurity through excessive control, picky supervision, or oppressive domination has missed the point of the analogy in Ephesians 5. Christ does not create that kind of wife.

Submission is also not about belittlement, inferiority, or worthlessness. Scripture teaches that we are to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). It also says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). And “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19).

A wife’s submission is also not blind and absolute. Ultimately, Christ is the wife’s final authority. As a part of Christ’s church, she is his bride chiefly. As a wife follows her calling to submit in marriage, she is ultimately submitting to Christ. She also gets her spiritual identity and ultimate strength and meaning through Christ and not through her husband. Though her husband’s role is to encourage her and build her up in the faith, Christ is the sole source of her faith.

Marriage and the Gospel

Now that we have looked at what submission is and what it’s not, how do we view the challenges we face in marriage? How do we as wives live out this call to submit? And how can the beauty of the gospel shine through in our everyday lives?

The gospel really is central — not only because marriage reflects the gospel to the world, but also because our marriages must rely on the gospel in order to do so.

When we struggle in our God-given roles in marriage, it is the result of sin. When spouses respond in anger toward each other, rather than love, it is because of sin. When one spouse rejects or discounts the other, it is because of sin.

But that is why Christ came.

He came to redeem and restore all that has been broken by sin, including marriage and all its details. When we fail in our marriages, the only place we can find restoration and healing is through the gospel of grace. We have to return to the cross. Christ’s blood is effective to cleanse and heal all our brokenness. Here is where we are compelled to repent, to turn from our sin and to embrace our Savior.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Content taken from Designed for Joy edited by Owen Strachan and Jonathan Parnell ©2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Christina Fox
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