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What Does Submissive Mean In The Bible?

The concept of submission isn’t trendy these days. Many folks consider it an archaic idea that doesn’t fit today’s reality. Does submission mean a person loses their autonomy? Shouldn’t husbands and wives be equal partners in a marriage? What if a husband is ungodly? Should his wife still submit? What if he asks her to stay home from church or participate in activities she believes are wrong? Does submission open a wife up to abuse?

Let’s explore these questions! First, we’ll examine what submission actually means. We’ll unpack what it doesn’t mean. Why is submission so crucial in all aspects of life? What does submission within a marriage involve? How does it bless a marriage? When the Bible tells a married couple to submit to each other, how does that work? Aside from the marriage relationship, who else are we supposed to submit to?

A biblical definition of submission

The word usually translated as “submission” in the New Testament is the Greek word hupotassó. It carries the idea of recognizing those in authority or obeying them. Some examples of hupotassó in the New Testament are:

  • At age 12, Jesus was submissive (subject, obedient) to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:51).
  • The demons submitted to the disciples in Jesus’ name, based on the authority Jesus gave them (Luke 10:17-20).
  • The Israelites did not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:1-3).
  • We are to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7).

Submission is a stabilizing force in society. Even as a teenager, Jesus submitted to the authority of His earthly parents. It’s the natural order of things. Submission is for our protection and ultimate good. If children don’t obey their parents and teachers, they run wild with no discipline. They place themselves in harm’s way and are unlikely to succeed in life. If society fails to submit to the police and laws, we have mass chaos, which we’re seeing in some cities today.

Who should a woman be submissive to?

  1. Women (and men) should submit to God.
  • “Submit therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)
  • “Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)
  • Women (and men) should submit to the government.
  • “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
  • “Every person is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Romans 13:1)
  • Women (and the rest of the church) should submit to others in the body of Christ
  • “and subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
    • Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13)
    • “Consider others more important that yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)
    • “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5)
  • Married women should submit to their husbands.
  • “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:24)
  • “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.” (1 Peter 3:1-2)

Remember this: God trumps any earthly authority. If anybody tells you to do something God has forbidden, you must obey God. If they tell you not todo something God has commanded, you must obey God.

For instance, if the government tells you not to go to church, you should still go because God’s Word tells us not to abandon meeting together with other believers. (Hebrews 10:25)

The apostles Peter and John faced this dilemma regarding authority when the rulers and priests commanded them not to teach in the name of Jesus. Peter and John answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, make your own judgment; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

Shortly after, the apostles were all together in the temple, and God performed astounding miracles through them. People were healed when Peter’s shadow passed over them. The high priest threw them all into prison, but an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and led them out. He told them to go stand in the temple and speak the whole message of life, which they did.

The temple guards hauled them back before the Council, and the high priest said, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet you have filled Jerusalem with this teaching.”

Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

What does it mean to submit to your husband?

The 1 Peter 3:1-2 passage above talks about “chaste and respectful behavior.” “Chaste” is an old-fashioned word for pure, inside and out. It also means holy or sacred. This verse speaks to a wife whose husband is not a Christian or who is disobedient to God’s Word. The Bible says a wife can win her husband over through her behavior. Remember, there’s an enormous difference between being “holier than thou” and simply holy and pure.

It’s far easier to submit to a husband who is a loving and vibrant Christian, which is why the Bible tells us not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14). But sometimes a wife gets saved after she gets married, or her husband might be a Christian who has strayed away.

John Piper calls such wives “women of valor.”[i] Being submissive certainly doesn’t mean accepting one’s husband just as he is. If he is disobedient to God, that’s unacceptable.

But suppose a wife treats her husband with loving respect, with a gentle and quiet spirit. In that case, her husband is more likely to listen to her than if she’s critical and condemning. Remember, we tend to mirror the behavior of those around us. Suppose a wife genuinely lives out the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). If she does, she’s bringing her husband closer to God without saying a word (Galatians 5:22-23, 1 Peter 3:1-2).

As R. C. Sproul once said, “We go back to creation, and we see that man is made in the image and in the likeness of God (Genesis 1:26, 27), not in the sense that God has a body, but in terms of our nature. You are called to be living images that reflect and communicate the character of God Himself.”[ii]

Ways to be a submissive wife?

A submissive wife promotes her husband’s authority and leadership over the family. She trusts him enough to let him take the lead. That’s tough to do because no man is fallible. If she has reservations about something, she expresses herself tactfully. Yet, she makes it clear that he makes the decision.   

She is gentle, tranquil, settled, and fearless. She isn’t silent, but she speaks calmly and gently. She has the “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4).  

A submissive wife maintains peace within the marriage. Rather than reacting in anger, she responds calmly. If her husband is anxious or stressed, she reassures him.

A submissive wife anticipates her husband’s needs, including his sexual needs (and her own). She makes sure they’re being met. She doesn’t withhold intimacy as a punishment.

A submissive wife is a listener. She encourages her husband to share his feelings, fears, and goals. She listens closely and offers insight without dominating the conversation.

What is mutual submission?

Christianity, in general, is all about submission and self-sacrifice. Selfishness is the antithesis of Christ-likeness. We submit to God, who gave His Son as a sacrifice for our redemption. Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. He willingly offered himself and became a servant. He humbled himself to death on the cross. (Philippians 2:1-8)

In turn, we submit to our fellow believers in the church, considering them as more important than ourselves, honoring them, and serving them in love. We do the same in our marriages, following Jesus’ example. As John MacArthur says, “That is at the core of truly Christlike character, and it is also the single most important principle governing all personal relationships for all Christians.”[iii]

Mutual submission means that both the husband and the wife consider the other’s needs, desires, and goals. Mutual submission means deferring to the other. It means asking the other for their opinion and advice. It means helping the other achieve their goals and rejoicing when they succeed. It means picking up some of the chores usually done by one’s spouse if they are especially busy or feeling unwell. 

How being submissive blesses your marriage

The marriage relationship is a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:21). As the wife submits to her husband’s leadership, she reflects the church’s obedience to Christ. As the husband cherishes his wife and meets her needs, he demonstrates the love of Christ for the church.

This mutual submission blesses your marriage in a thrilling way because each acts toward the other thoughtfully, considerately, and lovingly. It’s hard to fight and be considerate at the same time. It’s hard to be simultaneously selfish and submissive. Mutual submission kicks the enemies of marriage out the door. When you’re mutually submissive, you propel the other toward greater confidence, peace, and hope. That comes back to bless you.  

What submission does not mean

Piper points out that being submissive doesn’t mean a wife has to agree with everything her husband says. It doesn’t mean a wife can’t use her brain. A woman can think for herself and still be submissive. A submissive wife doesn’t live in fear – we have that example in the relationship of the biblical Sarah with her husband Abraham. She respected him and called him “lord” (sir), yet she expressed her opinion. She advised her husband. God even told Abraham to listen to her (1 Peter 3:5-6, Genesis 21:12). 

Submission doesn’t mean the wife is inferior. It doesn’t mean weakness. It also doesn’t mean blind obedience. A woman must first be obedient to God. As long as the husband is walking in obedience to God, all is well. But if he’s leading the family into disobedience, she must obey God. For instance, if he wants her to watch porn with him – she should gently and calmly say, “no.”

The humility of submission

Let’s face it. For many of us, submission isn’t our first instinct. We’re used to standing up for ourselves, trying to run the show, and getting easily offended. The world tells us our personal ambitions trump the needs of others. But Jesus taught and modeled that humility and submission are essential.

The only way humility and submission can happen is to be driven by the Holy Spirit. We must humble ourselves before God and submit to His Spirit’s redeeming and renewing work. Then, we can peel off all the ugly stuff that holds us back. We can reject the world’s lies and follow the example of Jesus. Then, we can exhibit the humility of submission. We humble ourselves to serve the other, elevate the other, and minister to the other.

[i] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/women-of-valor-for-non-promise-keepers

[ii] The Purpose of God, An Exposition of Ephesians, Christian Focus Publications, 1994, p. 120.

[iii] https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B150410/mutual-submission

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