Words of Healing “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” – Jesus (Matt 24:35).


Is “Mutual Submission” Biblical?

There is a movement today which teaches that the Bible commands mutual submission between a husband and wife.  The argument states that Ephesians 5:21 commands this mutual submission because it states, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV).  Then, in the following verse, it tells wives, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (NIV).  The word, "submission" is not actually in the Greek in verse 22, but is borrowed from the previous verse, and in fact, in the Greek, they are one and the same sentence. These two facts, to some, compel them to believe that the Bible in effect is teaching that husbands and wives are to submit to each other rather than the wife submitting to the husband and the husband submitting to God. This, however, is a fallacy of thinking...for it contradicts the rest of scripture.

Now, previously, I believed and even taught this argument,1 because emotionally, I want to believe something along these lines.  My beliefs on how a marriage should look are not all that dissimilar from what I hear many of the advocates of mutual submission teaching, and I have to admit being very influenced by modern society.  However, the words that we use must be carefully chosen, for to say that husbands and wives are to submit to each other is a fallacy that is not substantiated by scripture.  Rather scripture teaches that husbands and wives have very different roles.  Wives are commanded to submit and respect, while husbands are commanded to love and serve.  Nowhere in scripture are husbands commanded to submit and respect their wives, and wives are never commanded to love and serve their husbands. Am I saying that wives shouldn't love and husbands shouldn't respect? Of course I am not teaching anything of the sort. Rather, I am pointing out the fact that scripture, interestingly enough, gives very different commands to husbands and wives because each has very different needs.2 To tell men that all they have to do is “mutually submit,” is to let them off the hook of having to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ laid down His life for the church, and some people would use also use it to let wives off the hook from having to obey their husbands.

Sound Doctrine

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-- with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:1-3, NIV, empahsis added).

As I have studied the scriptures, and as I have studied this passage in particular, I cannot justify such poorly built arguments as that of “Mutual Submission.” The argument for mutual submission is built on shaky ground and can lead to an emotional doctrine rather than sound doctrine...a doctrine more influenced by what we want to hear than what scripture clearly teaches. Therefore, since I am commanded by scripture to teach sound doctrine, when I am faced by the reality that the arguments I've used in the past are contradicted by scripture, I must change my beliefs to line up with scripture rather than change scripture to line up with my beliefs.

In context, the early part of Ephesians 5 is speaking to the entire congregation of the church at Ephesus.  So, in context, it teaches the church members to “[Church members] Submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, and wives [do likewise] unto your husbands as unto the Lord.”  It is borrowing the word, “submit” from the previous verse, but it is changing the context from the church to that of wives. Church members are to submit to each other as one body under Christ, and wives are to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord.  There is no justifiable reason that you can change the meaning of this to say that it is telling husbands to mutually submit to their wives because husbands have not even been mentioned yet.  If this were the case, we would surely find evidence of it elsewhere in scripture--for everything is established on the testimony of two or three witnesses--but as is:

  1. This Greek twist is only found one place in scripture, and is refuted by the fact that other scripture also clearly commands husbands to lead and wives to submit even when the husband is ungodly.
  2. It is refuted by the fact that husbands are commanded not to treat their wives harshly, which would make no sense if they were commanded to submit to their wives in mutual submission.
  3. It is only understood if you ignore the context that it is speaking to the church about submission, and then includes the godly submission that is required of wives on top of what is required of the church.
  4. It requires a lengthy explanation in order to be understood, whereas the Bible should be read at face value unless there is good reason to read it differently, such as when it contradicts another part of scripture, which is not the case in this matter.
  5. The Bible gives an extremely clear picture of the husband being the "head" of his wife just like Christ is the Head of the church, and it would be a heresy to say that Christ must be in mutual submission to us.
  6. Not only does it command wives to submit to their husbands, but it commands wives to submit to their husbands in everything. However, the same cannot be said of men. That does not sound very mutual to me, and in fact denies the very nature of what anything being mutual stands for.

So, does Christ mutually submit to us?

“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5:24, NIV, emphasis added)

Are Christians not to obey Christ implicitly? So, what part of "as the church submits to Christ" do we not understand? The verse just before this one, 23, states, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Eph 5:23, NIV).  Therefore, wives are to submit to their husbands the same way that Christians are to submit to Christ, and this is confirmed in the fact that husbands are then required to lay down their lives for their wives and be like Christ, serving their wives. Are we now going to say that Christ also submits to the church, in “Mutual Submission”?  That would be a grave error to make, it is heretical, and yet it is the logical conclusion when “Mutual Submission” is taught, there is no way around it.

A wife's submission to her husband is talked about throughout scripture such as in Col. 3:18.  However, Paul, who some say was sexist and/or influenced by his Rabbinical training, is not the only one who teaches wives to submit, but Peter also teaches the same thing, for in 1 Pet. 3:1, it tells wives to submit to their husbands even when the husband is not a believer.  It continues and gets even worse (worse according to American philosophy).  1 Pet 3:3-6 reveals that women are to be beautiful by having a gentle and quiet spirit, obeying their husbands like Sarah did, who called Abraham her “master.”  Now, this is quite a culture shock for American women who are raised to be independent, but it IS what scripture talks about. No, it is not politically correct, but the Bible never has been.

Those who deny that the Bible teaches wives to submit and husbands to lead are ignoring scripture and teaching doctrines taught by men rather than by the Word of God.  To ignore this is to ignore God’s Word, and to ignore God’s Word is to ignore God.  We Americans think we can pick and choose verses and make our own definitions.  We give lip service to the Bible, saying it is God’s Word, but we have lost respect for the very same.  We are like the Pharisees in Jesus' day, we love our rules, and with our rules, we also love our loopholes, except that now, we are more concerned about how we feel about it and about what’s politically correct than we are concerned about the truth.  This should not be!!! Can we, just because it doesn’t fit with what’s politically correct in America, change the scripture to suit our own desires.  Isn’t that what the verse --2 Tim. 4:3-- warned about? Yes, it tells us what our itching ears long to hear, but is it the way God created things...No!

Biblical Submission

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.  For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.  You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (1 Pet 3:3-6, NIV).

Now, I admit, this doesn’t sound like a good marriage to me just from reading this.  This sounds like the Arab countries where husbands are allowed to beat their wives, and do whatever they wish to “keep their wives in line.”  However, I realize that I am influenced by my own culture, and so I must align myself with scripture instead of aligning scripture with what I feel is right.  I must change my outlook to line up with what scripture teaches, and as a result, I must state that the idea of “Mutual Submission” is not a scriptural idea, but rather an American idea.

One thing I would like to call attention to is where Peter wrote, "if you do what is right and do not give way to fear." Over the last year, I have talked to a number of women that are very afraid of submitting to their husbands...and it is understandable. What if you are submissive to your husband and he abuses that power? What if you are submissive, and all you get in return is pain? What if you love, but get nothing in return? What if all you do is give--give--give, and he never gives anything back? These are understandable fears, but that is the risk of marriage, it is the risk of obeying God, it is the risk of taking up your cross and following Christ, which is what God has called all Christians to do. Christ laid down His life and was obedient to God to the point of death, even death on a cross. He asks wives to also be obedient to the Father to the point of death, to the point of sacrificing their own needs in order to obey Him. That is what 1 Peter 3 is talking about, giving up your right to be treated justly in order to show the love of God. Is it fair? No, but neither was God being put on a cross by His own creation.

On the other side of the coin, what about some men who lay down their lives for their wives and do everything they can to serve them? Shouldn't a husband do that regardless of whether or not his wife is submissive? Yes! However, what if she goes out and has an affair, but because he loves her like Christ loves the church, he forgives her again, and again, and again, and again. You think that wouldn't happen, and that God wouldn't ask a man to go through his wife abusing him like that??? If you think God wouldn't make a man go through such a horrible experience, just read Hosea. Hosea married an adulterous woman, and God told him to keep taking her back after she would commit adultery because that was how God loved Israel. Since then, husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, in many ways, God is asking them to love their wives in this way. In my opinion, a man should be as afraid of serving his wife as women should be of submission, but the fact of the matter is that God commands husbands to lay down their own lives for their wives, and he commands wives to submit.

Taking a look at just these scriptures may make the Bible seem like God wants men and women to be abused.  However, that is not a balanced approach, the balanced approach is that God has commanded each spouse to do their part, and He will hold each spouse accountable for either doing or not doing what they were supposed to do. Husbands and wives who abuse their spouses' love will suffer consequences.  The Bible does not teach “Mutual Submission” but it does teach that each person will give their account to God for what they did or didn't do. Wives are to submit, they are to obey, and they are to respect their husbands as the head over them just like Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:23-24). Husbands, in contrast, are commanded to love and serve their wives as Christ loved and served the church:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25, NIV).

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph 5:28, NIV).

“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Col 3:19, NIV).

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet 3:7, NIV).

The scripture does not teach “Mutual Submission,” but neither does it teach that husbands have a right to do anything they want.  Rather, as the leader, they are held to a stricter standard by God, and are expected to serve their wives, which is more difficult than submission.  For the wife is only commanded to submit to her husband, but the husband is commanded to be proactive, to serve his wife, to meet her needs, to love her, to cherish her, to give to her of himself.  Now, this is a much harder task than submission, because submission is passive, you only have to do what’s asked, but serving is active and means that a husband is required by God to seek out what his wife needs and then meet those needs, like Christ did for the church.  My favorite verse on marriage is this, for this is the kind of husband I want to be:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church--for we are members of his body.  "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."  This is a profound mystery-- but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Eph 5:25-33, NIV).

As I focus on these scriptures, and allow God to mold me into the kind of man that will lead his family wisely.  As I focus on allowing God to make me the kind of leader and Father that He is, then I will naturally begin to serve my wife as Christ served the church.  As I focus on letting God make me into the husband he wants me to be, this is the kind of leader He will make me into.  It is not my job to focus on whether or not my wife is submitting, my only responsibility is to serve her--whether or not she submits.  I can do this because I know that Christ served me even when I didn’t submit to Him and didn’t deserve His love.  Christ died for me even though I was in rebellion against Him. I in turn have been asked by God to pick up my cross and follow Christ in His suffering.

Likewise, as my (future) wife focuses on letting God make her into the kind of wife and mother that God wants her to be.  As she submits to God, and seeks His will over her own, she will naturally begin to submit to me because she seeks to honor God through her submission, much like I will seek to honor God through my serving.  It is not her job to focus on whether or not I am serving her like I am supposed to, for she has already been served by Christ, and even if I am a less than perfect husband, she can still submit to me because she knows that her reward is with God.3

Then, so long as we focus on our own relationship with God, I will continue to serve her and she will continue to submit to me.  To bring in the idea that things are supposed to be of “Mutual Submission” is to give wives and husbands excuses to do evil in the eyes of God.  For if  “Mutual Submission” is what the bible teaches, then one spouse wouldn’t have to submit if the other one didn’t.  That is watered down Christianity--it is not the Christianity that I see in the Bible, where people went to their death rather than live an ungodly life.  The Bible in reality teaches husbands to serve their wives, to die for their wives, and it doesn’t say “if they are submissive” anywhere. The Bible also teaches wives to submit to their husbands, and it doesn’t say “if he serves you like he should” anywhere.  Rather, each of us is called by God to do what God has asked us to do whether or not our spouse is doing what they are supposed to do.  That is what the Bible teaches, that we will hold an account of ourselves before God, and we are responsible to do what is right whether or not the other person does their part.

So, in my mind, and from what the Bible teaches, “Mutual Submission” can actually be damaging to marriages. Some people will use it as an excuse not to do what they are supposed to do because “things are supposed to be mutual.” Then, since one spouse isn’t doing their part, the other will think that they don’t have to do theirs either since things are supposed to be "mutual."  Wives could use it as an excuse not to obey their husbands and thus violate the commands of scripture, and husbands could use it as an excuse not to have to serve their wives and also violate the commands of scripture.

We need to stop giving lip service to the Word of God and start obeying it. We need to stop tickling our ears with doctrines that have been made using emotional arguments like, "But God wants me to be happy doesn't he?" and return to the truth of scripture. When we return to scripture, we do not find what we want. The Bible does not give us excuses to go our own way and do our own thing--in fact it calls that very thing, going our own way, sin. The Bible is, however, remarkably balanced. The Bible has a balance of service and submission that works. Women need to be loved and cherished, and men need to be respected. As the husband serves his wife, and then in turn sees his wife submitting to him--not just because she has to but because she wants to...and as the wife submits to her husband and sees that he is responding to the respect that she is giving him and cherishing her, affirming her, and serving her without grief--but with joy...Then, both spouses receive a precious gift, a taste of Heaven.

On a Side Note:

I want to say that anyone who teaches wives to submit without teaching husbands to serve is teaching man’s doctrine and is not following the scripture.  So, since I am speaking about submission, I will put this statement here, so that it is clear that I expect more from men than from women, for that is what the Bible teaches.  If men are to be the leaders, they must be expected to obey God even better than their wives and be an example of Christ’s leadership to their wives, for the scripture commands husbands to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ laid down His life for the church.  Husbands are to "wash their wives’ feet" as Christ washed those of His disciples, for He did "not come to be served but to serve".  So, husbands who want to be godly, must realize that as the leaders, God has asked them to be the servant of their wives.  Being the head of the household is not sitting on the recliner asking your wife for another beer expecting her to serve you, but rather, being the leader is taking out the trash without being asked, taking the kids off of your wife's hands, and doing the things that you hate because you love your wife. Especially since I myself am a man, I want to be certain that this is made clear by me, for I in no way want to be part of the group of men who have used scripture to gain power for themselves. Rather, I want to be a servant leader like Christ was, to lead people by laying down my life for them. That is what my savior did, and that is what I long to do, for Him and for those I love.

Comments (9) Trackbacks (5)
  1. I too have had to struggle with different passages in Scripture because what “I’ve always been taught” doesn’t seem to match up with what I’m reading. The “mutual submission” teaching is something that really has bothered me when I hear it because I know that’s not what Scripture says.

    I understand your side note, and believe you are correct, but it’s also tough. Once you start saying “a husband should take out the trash, and a taking the kids, etc.” you are close to falling back into the “mutual submission” mindset which says “she should obey because he’s doing X, Y, and Z.” I’m not saying a husband shouldn’t do these things. I’m not saying husbands shouldn’t be reminded that they have the harder duty. I am saying that man needs to be a leader that serves and if you start doing so many things and she has no responsibility or you start doing everything for her, she has become the leader and you the servant.

    Defining Biblical married life is difficult because of the edge cases!

    • @MinTheGap. If I am to love my wife as Christ loved the church, is it possible to go TOO FAR??? That’s simply not possible. How much does the church “do” in the salvation process? Nothing. Christ did EVERYTHING! So, if I did everything, I would surely be burned out, but I still wouldn’t have scratched the surface of what Christ did for me. It is not possible for me to bend over too far for my wife. SERVING is not even close to the same thing as submitting. When Christ died on the cross, when Christ washed his disciples feet…in fact, he fairly well commanded his disciples to let him wash their feet…that was not submission–mutual or otherwise. The difference between servant leadership and submission can be summed up quite easily: a leader is followable. If I do what my wife asks of me, I may be a nice guy, but I’m not leading and it’s probably “mutual”. However, if I proactively serve my wife, I am servant-leading. It doesn’t matter how much work I do or how much work she does. Again, Christ did ALL the work of salvation, he only asks us to follow Him…and he never forces the issue, it’s always our choice to do the work beside him and follow him.

      Trust me, I know the difference because: I PREFER TO SUBMIT. I prefer to let my wife do the relational monitoring and tell me when we have problems. I prefer to wait until she asks me to help her before I help her. However, taking out the trash (and doing it with JOY), not because I’m asked but because I love my wife and proactively seek out ways to help her…that’s leadership…and it’s hard…and I don’t do nearly as much for my wife as Christ did for me. The funny thing about my wife is that she hates the word “submission”, but she wants me to lead, and she enjoys the safety and the freedom of worry that comes off of her own shoulders when she follows me and I actually lead as Christ did.

  2. The best metaphor for servant leadership is a shepherd and his sheep. A shepherd serves his sheep by fighting wild animals that go after the sheep. He leads them to drinking water and lush pastures. He selects the best path to go and ensure no sheep is lost. This is the role of the husband.

    The sheep on the other hand submits to the shepherd and follows him everywhere he goes in complete obedience. The sheep allow their wool to be used by the shepherd for his comfort. This is the role of the wife.

    • @will, I was with you in the first paragraph, but the second sounds demeaning to women. Yes, we should provide a hedge of protection for our wives, but in order that they might become all that they can be. When we submit to Christ, it is actually to our glory…it is our crown of glory…when you say things like “allow their wool to be used,” it sounds like a de-glorification of women…it actually sounded somewhat like you were saying they were sex objects. However, I’ll assume it’s simple mis-communication that so easily happens in text.

      In any case, I would say that the marriage and Christ/Church analogy is BETTER than the sheep/shepherd. Servants/Sheep do not know their master’s business, but we are now “friends” of Christ and do know about his business…and we are partners in the Kingdom of God (See John 15:15). The shepherd and sheep analogy is used between God and people because the Father is at an altogether different level than us. We can never completely understand his ways…and we all, like sheep, have gone astray. However, my wife is NOT a lower life-form than me…between Christ and the church (because Christ chose to become lower than the angels in order to be in a marriage-like union with us by becoming one of us)…and between a husband and wife, there is a more intimate union that cannot be portrayed by the sheep/shepherd analogy. My wife and I are on the same level and just happen to have different roles. We are ONE! A shepherd and sheep are NEVER “one”. She is my “help-meet”, which is “ally in battle”. My wife is not someone that I can sheer for my own comfort. Without the sheep, the shepherd is fine and has more sheep…without my wife, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

  3. I am also with you most of the way – I don’t think any of it sounds demeaning to women.

    I do have some reservations as to how far you go with men serving women. Jesus did not wash everyone’s feet. – and the disciples were also not “the church.” A man is supposed to love his wife as he loves himself. If you would not ask yourself to do it, then you would not demand it of your wife. It is that simple. To “actively seek out what she needs” is going farther than the scripture says to please her. We remedy ails of our own body, make sure you do the same for your wife. You make sure you are clothed decently, do the same for your wife. When you are hungry, you feed yourself – in turn we do not neglect the well-being of our wives.

    Your immediate jump to send the wife for a beer is what tips me off to your “old way” of thinking still coloring this new-found clarity. What ardent studier of scripture sits around drinking beer?

    • The Church is simply those who follow Christ. The disciples are a great example of the Church. In fact, they left everything they had, even their source of income to follow Him (Hallelujah).

      Serving someone is not the same as asking them to do something. Therefore, when you say that a husband should love his wife as himself(an act of service) but then talk about him not asking her to do something that he wouldn’t ask of himself (not an act of service) there is incongruence.

      True service is actively seeking out what someone needs and meeting those needs… How can we serve if we don’t even know the need? Plus, Jesus knew our needs well and that’s how He served us well. He knew the needs of us all when He told Peter that only His feet needed to be washed (because He was already made clean) (John 13).

      This is why it is important to not be quick to marry and depend on God, not loneliness or any lies of the world (ex: “your biological clock is ticking”…God will surely open a womb when He desires, “you need someone to make you happy”…your husband’s job is not to replace God who is your true and only fulfilled happiness). Also, we need to know our future spouses that must stay rooted in Christ. This is why the Bible warns us about being unequally yoked.

  4. Good article in general, now comes the BUT! Paragraph two says that women are not commanded to love their husbands. However, read Titus 2:4. Also, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, does that leave out husbands? Also read I Corinthians 13 and many other passages that say to love everyone, even our enemies.

    • As to Titus 2:4, to be nit-picky on semantics…it’s commanding older women to urge younger women to love…technically that’s not commanding the younger women to love.

      However, I agree, and I concede your point that everyone is to love everyone else. I was never disagreeing with that, which is why I said, “Am I saying that wives shouldn’t love and husbands shouldn’t respect? Of course I am not teaching anything of the sort.”

      Wives do not have the command to “love as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” So, my point–still standing–is that the Bible makes clear distinctions, and those distinctions don’t overlap enough to provide room for a doctrine of mutual submission.

  5. I fully agree with your article, but you missed ONE MAJOR ARGUMENT that is the most powerful one I use all the time: ALL LETTERS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT ARE ALWAYS WRITTEN AND ADDRESSED TO MEN! We wrongly read the NT through our modern filter in thinking that Paul talked to both men and women and we do not see that whenever he wrote that we should submit to each other, it is addressed only to men submitting to other men!!!!!! So Eph. 5: 21 is a submission of men to other men! If Paul does not want to talk to men in general, then he singles out a group with a specific name (women, children, slaves, etc….)

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