“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). Feminism has undoubtedly achieved a number of positive changes for women. Lately, however, it has taken a different direction, attacking traditional marriage and gender roles. Because of this, there are several Orthodox Christians who either are going to be or are already married, who have no understanding of the dynamic between husbands and wives in marriage. Saint John Chrysostom tells us: “The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together.” Feminism, among many other things, has worked to tear that bond of love between men and women apart. And now our society is crumbling down around us. In this post, we focus specifically on the biblical role of wives in a heterosexual Christian marriage: submission.
The spirit of obedience
In Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he writes:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.Ephesians 5:22-24
This passage has a tendency to ruffle the feathers of many women, even those who claim to be devout Christians. Why? Because our society exhorts them constantly to be independent and look after themselves. That they don’t need a man, that they are beholden to no one but themselves. This incessant messaging to “do our own thing” diametrically opposes the purpose of an Orthodox Christian marriage. The goal of marriage is eternal life with the Lord, while the aim of secular life if pleasure and self-indulgence. In a healthy heterosexual Christian marriage, the husband and wife deny themselves for the sake of the other. They submit to one another in obedience. That obedience simply looks different for the husband than it does for the wife.
The “s” word
In our modern culture, submission is somewhat of a dirty word, indicating degradation, subjection, or slavery. Many seem to believe that a wife submitting to her husband means she must grovel at his feet, lose her own will, and become a spineless slave with no dignity or authority. Submission has become the proverbial “s” word.
Biblical submission, that which is counseled by the Apostles, is not the type of subjection described above. Rather, it is the wife’s recognition of her husband’s leadership within the family.
What does “submission” mean for a Christian wife?
“When you yield to your husband, consider that you are obeying him as part of your service to the Lord.”St. John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians
First, we must emphatically state what submission does not mean. Submitting to one’s husband does not involve accepting abuse or violence, especially without protest or self-defense. Indeed, we should always protest injustice and challenge abuse, as Christ and St. Paul did (John 18:23; Acts 22:23-29; Acts 16:37-40).
Biblical submission to her husband also does not negate the wife’s authority in her home. In 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul speaks of her as “ruling her household” (Greek οἰκοδεσποτέω/oikodespoteo, translated poorly in the NASB as “keep house”). Wives are not slaves, mutely and passively subjecting themselves to every word that comes from the husband’s mouth. This understanding of submission is nothing but a crude caricature of Christian marriage. Domestic authority is nuanced and diffused between husband and wife.
Biblical submission is an expression of love
A married Christian couple should strive to be a visible reality of the mystery of Christ’s love for all of us. He does not love us because we are perfect, sinless, and flawless. He loves us despite our faults and failures. That is how a Christian husband and wife should love each other. If we love someone who is perfectly loveable and perfect, our love isn’t really a choice, but an instinct. In marriage, as in life, our love is a choice. We are all flawed, but we love one another anyway.
In Orthodox Christian marriage ceremonies, we read aloud the passage from Ephesians 5, as it tells the newly-weds how they are to live in relationship to each other. They are to love each other, and that means denying the self, putting the other ahead of the self, of subjecting one’s own will and desires and wishes to the good of the other. Notice that this is a two-way street. The only difference here is what submission actually looks like for the wife versus the husband.
For the wife, this means accepting the husband’s headship in the family. For the husband, this means serving and loving his wife. St. Paul says this four separate times!
Submission means accepting the headship of one’s husband
St. John Chrysostom beautifully explains this notional of the husband’s headship:
‘Notice that after saying ‘the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church,’ he immediately says that the Church is His Body, and He is Himself its Savior (Ephesians 5:22-23). It is the head that upholds the well-being of the body. In his other epistles, Paul has already laid the foundations of marital love, and has assigned to husband and wife each his proper place: to the husband one of leader and provider, and to the wife one of submission […] You have seen the amount of obedience necessary; now hear the amount of love necessary [from husbands]. Do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care of her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. […]
Even if you see her belittling you, or despising or mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness, and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, the source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience.
What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.St. John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians
A husband’s headship, then, is not complete subjugation of his wife. It does not mean the husband does not consult his wife when the family must make major decisions, nor does it diminish her responsibility and authority in the household. Even a general does not possess every authority as if no other authority in the army exists apart from him; nor does the leadership of the king undermine the authority of his queen.
Submission is mutual between husband and wife
A wife’s submission to her husband should not be removed from its wider context: we must all “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). This mutual submission does not (and should not) degrade the wife. Because everyone has a head, including Christ. St. Paul not only says that the husband is the head of the wife, but that Christ is the head of the husband, and that God is the head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). Obviously, therefore, headship has nothing to do with worth or ontological equality, for Christ is the ontological equal of God the Father (of one essence with Him), and yet He still submitted to Him. Submitting to one’s head does not degrade, for Christ did not degrade Himself by submitting to the Father.
Scripture and Tradition have revealed that obedience is actually a catalyst for Christian perfection—that is, submission actually helps us acquire virtue in our lives. On the other hand, self-will greatly increases the passion of pride and eventually alienates an individual from a Christian way of thinking and living.
Any understanding of the woman’s obedience must be understood within the frame of the man’s love for her. The obedience is the answer to love. As our Lord says, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Husbands, love your wives…
While St. Paul writes only three sentences to wives, he spends far more time speaking to the husbands, impressing upon them that they should love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25-30). And it is in his wife’s imperfections that the husband must love her. As St. John Chrysostom writes:
Remember that the Church received everything from her Lord’s hands: by Him she was made glorious, by Him she was purified and freed from blemish. Don’t turn your back on your wife because she is not beautiful. Listen to what Scripture says: ‘The bee is small among flying creatures, but her product is the best of sweet things.’ Your wife is God’s creation. If you reproach her, you are not condemning her but Him who made her.Homily 20 on Ephesians
In the Song of Solomon, we can see just how the marital relationship ought to look. It is not adversarial. Instead, it is based on mutual love, a dynamic that transcends the struggle for power over another person. The submission of wives to husbands finds its root in the service of husbands to their wives. Christ laid down His life for the Church, and husbands must do the same for their wives (Ephesians 5:25). The wife declares to her husband, “I belong to my beloved”, because he first said he belongs to her (Songs 6:3).
Transposing this relationship of love into one of power utterly distorts its dynamics. Submission is never demanded in a truly Biblical dynamic. It can only be offered freely, as a gift. Thus Christ submits to the Father, and thus all His Church submits to Christ, and in this submission we find our true freedom. As Peter reminded us in the epistle he wrote reflecting God’s liberating Word, it is through our voluntary submission to God that we become His slaves and become truly free (1 Peter 2:16). Though the world will never understand this, His service is perfect freedom.
In our hierarchically-ordered world, there are many forms of submission that often overlap. Children must submit to parents (Ephesians 6:1), slaves to masters (Ephesians 6:5-8), laity to clergy (Hebrews 13:17), those in society to their rulers and to the king and his delegates (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14). And as Christians, not only should wives submit to husbands, but husbands to wives. And each of us to one another.
Keep Reading: Should Christian Women Wear Head Coverings