There is a tremendous about of misunderstanding regarding what God meant when He said that women must submit to their husbands. Does this mean that God supports domestic violence? Does this mean that husbands are to be the lord of the castle and every peasant that lives within submit to his every wish? If scripture also says that we are created equal and must submit to one another – is that a contradiction? What are the gender roles in scripture and why are they important?
The Egalitarian view of marriage holds that God created male and female equal in all aspects, not just ontological equality but also in their functional roles. Egalitarians view any gender-based hierarchal roles as illegitimate, sinful, and a result of the fall. They claim that in Genesis 3, the Bible says that the false hierarchy has been abolished through Christ.
Egalitarians translate a few verses quite differently than Complementarians. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, when Paul is discussing that the husband is the head of the wife, Egalitarians view this word to mean “source.” That the woman owes her existence to the fact that Adam was created, and that it has nothing to with authority. Then when Paul apparently is commanding wives to submit, Egalitarians 5:23, says that Paul is just giving an illustration to where he commanded everyone submit to one another. Other Egalitarians say that this verse is just referencing a cultural norm and not a biblical mandate. Complementarians do not
While a large number of progressive’s view Complementarianism as oppressive patriarchy, an outdated system, or belittling to women – the truth is, complementarianism is actually very supportive of women. This Biblical view affirms that God created men and women in the image of God – equal in value and worth. In that equality, we see that men and women each have unique and beautiful roles and functions. The roles and functions as defined by their God-given gender do not negate their value before God. We will use a fork and spoon differently, but both have their purpose and both are equal in value, just different in functions. It is the same with men and women.
A Sliding Scale
In Evangelicalism, we are seeing just how widely the terms Egalitarianism and Complementarianism can stretch. It is quite a sliding scale with different shades of each along a spectrum. Therefore, defining terms is critical.
Someone can be an Egalitarian without being an extreme feminist just as someone can be a Complementarian and not be in favor of the Patriarchal view that states all women should submit to all men. So, when discussing these views with a brother or sister in Christ who has a difference of opinion, it is very important that we speak with grace, as we seek to understand exactly where they fall on the spectrum.
What’s important is to focus on what the Bible says about marriage. Submission is not a dirty word. Submission does not have any belittling connotation – after all, the Holy Spirit Submits to the God the Father and to Christ.
What Does the Bible Say?
In this passage, we will discuss verses that speak directly to marriage. While there are other verses that elaborate on how this interplay within the church, we will not delve in that for this article.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:26-27
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
This verse can’t possibly be translated to mean equality in marriage. That is using bad hermeneutics and taking it completely out of context. In Galatians 3, Paul is discussing justification by faith and not works. He elaborates on the differences between the Law and the Gospel. So here, Paul is referring to salvation – that our social status, gender, race, etc are not factors in regards to our salvation. Salvation is given freely to all types of people
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another.” Romans 12:10
In these verses we can see clearly that man and woman are created as Imago Dei, the image of God. They are to be respected and valued as equals in that regard. We also are all equal heirs of the Kingdom, and we need to treat each other equally well. There is no distinction in worth or value. Men and women are equally cherished by God. But these verses are not about roles or function.
And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So, Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam, there was not found a helper comparable to him. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept, and He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:18-24
Here in Genesis, the Woman is given the title of ‘ezer. The NASB translates this as “suitable helper” and the KJV translates it as “helpmeet”. In Hebrew, it is a masculine noun. ‘ezer means to help, to support. The title is given to The Holy Spirit and to Women – it is no small title. ‘ezer is also a term used in military contexts or to describe God’s helping Providentially. The word comes with it a connotation of power – a strong, powerful help. This is not a weak word. God created a strong companion for Man.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So, God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28
Why was a strong companion needed? Because there was work to be done. Man and Woman were to work side by side; equal in value, worth, and dignity. They were to work the land together, having dominion over all creation. When they were together, God gave them a mandate – have lots of babies. God told them to raise up children to join in the work.
“Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and He is the savior of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourished and cherished it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless, let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverences her husband.” Ephesians 5:21-33
Both parties are to live respectfully of one another, out of respect and admiration of our Lord. In Ephesians, we can see that wives are to place themselves in a subordinate role under their husbands. Hupotasso is the Greek word used here for “submit”. It is a military term meaning to rank oneself under. It has no connotations of lesser value or dignity. Just a different position. A necessary position for the whole to function properly. “As unto the Lord” – meaning in line with Scripture. A husband cannot ask his wife to do something that is contrary to scripture or to her conscience. This phrase also shows us what is at the heart of Hupotasso: submitting to the Lord. It is out of love and obedience to her God that she places herself in a submissive rank under her husband’s authority. Please note here that wives are to submit to their husbands – women are to only submit themselves to their own husbands. And thusly the unmarried daughters place themselves under the authority of their father. Women are not by nature all to be submissive to every man. Just like a church congregation submits itself to the eldership of the church, and the church submits itself to the authority of Christ – so a wife is to submit herself to her husband.
What is remarkable about this passage is how descriptive it is about the husbands’ role. The husband is not some maniacal dictator. Or a king demanding the household bow and kiss his ring in servitude. The husband is to be a servant leader. Someone who dies to his desires, his wishes, his dreams for the betterment of the family. A husband who knows his wife’s heart and serves her so that she may bloom into a fragrant flower for Christ. For it was Christ’s servant leadership who took it upon Himself to bear our sins and taken Gods wrath upon Himself so that we may be united with Him in eternity. That is the type of unconditional love that a husband has to show his wife. That is the kind of husband that a wife can revere. She can trustingly submit herself to him because of how selflessly he loves her.
Then in 1 Peter we see another beautiful description of this harmonious complementary union. In the first few verses, we see a family who has a bit of a problem. The husband is being disobedient to God’s commands. We don’t know the extent of it. We do know from other passages that this is not about submitting to physical abuse. That mindset is not only dangerous but contrary to other aspects of scripture. More on that in another article. Here, it is commanded that if a husband is living contrary to scripture that the wife does not nag him. Her job is not to be his Holy Spirit to convict him of his sin. Her job is to live a respectful life in obedience to Christ. It is through her obedience, her joy, her respect that he can see the impact of the Word in her life and be won over. This does not mean that a woman can’t be her husband’s helper and even vocalize her opinion or give a verbal warning when she notices something – but there is a marked difference between being a respectful helper and trying to fix the situation.
“In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” 1 Peter 3:1-9
In 1 Peter also we see that the husband is to live with his life in an understanding way. He is to know her – to know her heart, her fears, her dreams – he is to know everything about her and live in a way that loves her for all of who she is. He is to be her protector, to shield her, to care for her, to lay down his life for her. And here is the fascinating part – he is to do it so that his prayers are not hindered. If a husband lives his life with little regard for his wife's heart, just pursuing his dreams at the expense of his wife’s heart – then his prayers to God will be hindered.
As we saw in First Peter, the goal of all of this is that a husband and a wife live in a harmonious, complementarian relationship. They are commanded to be sympathetic of one another. To live in a brotherly fashion – which is to be friends. Husbands and wives are to be kindhearted to one another. All of this is to be done with an humble spirit. When discord arises – and it most assuredly will while we are still in the flesh on this earth – we are to remember to not fight by insulting one other or returning evil for evil. Instead, we are to be a source of blessing to one another. In this passage it says we were called for this very purpose, to be a blessing to one another.
Check out the Theology Gals podcast episode discussing Submission!