Growing up in a very patriarchal culture, this phrase, extracted from Ephesians 5:22, always daunted me. My dad’s friend at church once told me I was wasting my time getting so many degrees, because, ultimately, my job would be to support my husband at home from the kitchen!
In many African cultures, this perspective is often applied broadly such that women are often told to submit to all menbecause that is what the Bible says. This assumes that, in the Ephesians passage, wives is synonymous with womenand husband with men.
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Confusion also comes from the definition of the word submit. I’ve been part of conversations in which people use words and phrases such as slave, shadow, without an opinion, silent, and docile as substitutes for submit.
In Ephesians 5, Paul lays out guidelines for different members of the body of Christ, including wives and husbands. Speaking specifically to wives, Paul said, “Wives, submit to your own husband, as to the Lord (ESV, emphasis added)." Paul’s words were specifically for couples, and not aimed at making women less than men.
If you backtrack to Ephesians 5:21, there Paul instructs us all to “submit” to one another out of reverence for Christ. If we are each asked to submit to one another, is there then an extra level of submission expected of wives?
The definition of submission is to yield to another’s authority. This means putting the other person’s needs above yours and putting yourself in a position of service.
As Christians, we are called to be a part of the ultimate relationship: the one between God and us. We are also called to submit to God. To give us an example of what this means, Jesus Christ himself chose to submit to God.
In his book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, pastor and theologian Timothy Keller highlights the fact that Jesus’ choice of submission was rewarded with love and exaltation by God.
In the same manner, when we submit to God, we are also rewarded. We do not lose our voice. We are not enslaved and are not made to feel less than. In fact, quite the opposite occurs. When we submit to God, we become royalty, sons and daughters of a King (Galatians 4:7; Psalm 82:6). We are protected (Psalm 121); we are empowered (Luke 10:19); we are loved (Romans 5:2-5).
Thus, for wives, submitting to your husband does not mean becoming silent, docile, or a slave in the relationship. Wives are called by God to put their husbands first. Putting someone else before yourself or thinking of someone else’s needs before yours does not disempower you. You can only submit to someone when you are empowered to choose to serve them.
I think Kathy Keller, wife of Timothy Keller, sums it up nicely in The Meaning of Marriage: “I discovered here that my submission in marriage was a gift I offered, not a duty coerced from me.”
Coming to this understanding has been important for my own sense of independence. If I do get married, God has called me to voluntarily offer the gift of submission to my husband in the same way I choose to submit to God.
The biblical call to submission does not devalue me as a woman but asks for a humbling response to God’s call. With this perspective, I feel more hopeful about marriage and have a better understanding of God’s design for it.
I can’t say I fully understand what it means to be a submissive wife. At the very least, however, I know that, contrary to my dad’s friend’s words, it is okay for me to have and use my degrees and still obey God’s calling.
Yimi Omofuma has been part of The River Church family for almost four years. She is a Nigerian international PhD student of psychology with a passion for global mental health. When she is not being a graduate student, she loves to travel, explore different cultures, and learn new languages. A student by day and a writer/couch potato by night, Yimi has always considered writing a major part of her life. She is currently finishing up her phase of life as a student and is looking forward to God’s next steps.