Understanding Submission in Marriage (Ephesians 5)

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on davidwilber.me. Tabernacle of David considers this ministry trustworthy and Biblically sound.

Author: David Wilber

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). If you just read that verse out loud, then you might hear a faint, high-pitched noise. That sound is every feminist worldwide shrieking about how Christianity oppresses women. Feminist author Valerie Tarico cites this verse as evidence that the Bible regards women as human “chattel.”[1] But is this instruction in Ephesians really oppressive toward women?

To give some historical context, Ephesians 5:21-6:9 addresses “household codes,” which were cultural standards for what was considered honorable relations between household members. From Aristotle on, household codes took a basic threefold form: exhortations to the head of the household regarding husband-wife, father-children, and master-slave relationships. This is the same format we see in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. According to Craig Keener, “Paul borrows this form of discussion from standard Greco-Roman moral writings.”[2] But contrary to the household codes of ancient secular philosophers who stressed the husband’s dominance and the wife’s obedience, Paul “places [the wife’s] submission squarely in the context of mutual submission, and qualifies her husband’s position of authority as one of loving service.”[3]

As we’ll see, Paul’s instructions for husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 uphold the dignity of women and express the oneness and equality between husband and wife (5:28, 31). 

Mutual Submission

To understand Paul’s instruction to wives in Ephesians 5:22, we have to start at Ephesians 5:21, which instructs all believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. The verb “submit” in 5:22 is absent in the Greek source text and must be carried over from 5:21. According to numerous scholars,[4] this textual detail indicates that the instructions for husbands and wives in the subsequent verses are specific examples of the mutual submission prescribed to all believers in 5:21. Additionally, the repetition of the word φόβῳ (reverence, respect) indicates that 5:22-33 is tied to 5:21. As Klyne Snodgrass explains, “Writers in the ancient world often began and ended sections with the same theme as a rhetorical device to bracket that section as a single unit.”[5]

Why is this significant? Because it means that the wife’s submission to her husband is, as Craig Keener puts it, “an expression of the kind of submission all Christians render to one another, the kind that Christian husbands would thus also need to render to their wives.”[6] This fact does not minimize the wife’s responsibility to submit to and respect her husband; it simply highlights the husband’s responsibility to also sacrificially love and serve his wife (5:25, 28, 33). Once again, all believers are to submit to one another (5:21), and the instructions to husbands and wives are specific examples of that mutual submission required of all believers.

Some object to this interpretation because they understand submission to mean obedience to another’s authority, which would apply only to the wife since the husband is the head of the household. However, the Greek word used in Ephesians 5:21 for “submit” (hypotassō) has a range of meaning. The word literally means to “arrange under” (hypo, “under,” tasso, “to arrange”).[7] It can mean involuntary obedience to another’s authority, particularly when used in a military context. However, when the word occurs in the middle voice (that is, when one does the action to or for oneself), as it does in the context of all believers submitting to one another and husband-wife relationships, “the verb hypotassō can take on the sense of a voluntary submission to another person out of humility, compassion, or love.”[8]

To put it simply, in the context of relationships between believers, submission is best understood as voluntary servanthood fueled by love. This is also the case with the relationship between husband and wife. All believers submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (5:21), our perfect model of servanthood (more on that below). For a clearer picture, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul says believers are to “count others more significant” than themselves and look not only to one’s own interests “but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3). As Alan Padgett writes, “without using the word submission Paul is speaking here about submission.”[9] Believers submit to each other by serving one another in humility. In the same way, mutual submission between husbands and wives involves putting the needs of the other before one’s own needs.

To be clear, the husband does function in a leadership role as the “head.” This leadership role is not incompatible with mutual submission but instead functions within that framework. As Darrell Bock notes, “submission is to apply to both partners in the marriage, even as rank is also discussed.”[10] Submission is “a term designed to give order to social relationships, but is also one that in a Christian context gets reframed in relationship to humility.”[11] The husband’s leadership role is expressed in sacrificial love and service toward his wife rather than dominance. Klyne Snodgrass puts it well:

The important point in focusing on mutual submission is that the husband’s being head does not result in some position of privilege. It is a position of responsibility in which the husband is to love his wife and give himself for her, care for her, and nurture her (Eph. 5:25, 28-29). If the wife is asked to submit to the husband and the husband is asked to love and give himself for his wife, is the wife being asked to do more in submitting than the husband is in giving himself? I certainly do not know what it would be. In the new reality revealed by Christ, what the world sees as the polar opposites, authority and submission are collapsed together and work together in service and love for others.[12]

Scripture places the husband in a leadership role so that he can serve his wife in this role for her benefit. It’s a position of responsibility, where the husband cares for and protects his wife. As Snodgrass writes, “the biblical model of authority is service for rather than over another.”[13] Paul’s household code emphasizes not the wife’s obedience and the husband’s dominance but the mutual submission, love, and servantood between husband and wife.

Paul’s analogy between Christ and the church

Recently, a blogger[14] who advocates for modern patriarchy and polygamy objected to the Bible’s teaching on mutual submission after skimming the section of my book on the topic. He seems to agree with feminist characterizations of the passage that see no difference between Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5 and the Greco-Roman household codes of the time. While Paul undoubtedly adopts the same standard format from Greco-Roman writings, I’ve argued that Paul’s “household code” differs significantly from the broader culture of his day. My blogger critic says that’s “absolutely absurd” and instead insists that Paul’s instructions promote only the wife’s submission (in the sense of obedience) and the husband’s supremacy.

This blogger’s main objection to the biblical view is that the concept of mutual submission logically demands that the Messiah be in submission to the church since Paul describes the husband-wife relationship as analogous to the Christ-church relationship. This logical implication, the blogger argues, proves the “absurdity” of mutual submission.

Now, if “submission” (hypotassō) were to be understood as involuntary obedience to authority, as it is used in military contexts, then I’d agree that Christ did not submit to the church. But if we understand the term as Paul intended it in Ephesians 5 (that is, as voluntary servanthood fueled by love), then the objection is defeated. Christ did do that. Christ took up the role of a servant toward his disciples when he washed their feet, pointing to himself as an example to be followed (John 13:3-17). He freely “took the form of a servant” and was “born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7) so that he could serve his people through the work of redemption: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Of course, Christ’s role as a servant was only temporary, as he is now the “highly exalted” Lord to whom every knee should bow (Philippians 2:9-11). Nevertheless, Christ’s example of voluntarily taking the form of a servant in his earthly ministry and death on the cross for us, as described in Philippians 2:5-8, is the basis for Paul’s teaching about mutual submission between believers in Philippians 2:1-4. We see these same themes in Ephesians 5. As Padgett explains:

After calling for husbands to love their wives, Paul writes that this should be done “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). Jesus makes his bride holy and washes her “with the word,” which makes her clean (5:26, a reference to being cleansed from sin). Here we find an echo of the Gospel narratives, in which Christ takes up the role of a servant in order to wash away or redeem us from the stain of sin.[15]

 Out of love for us, Christ “took the form of a servant,” even to the point of sacrificing his life for the church. Therefore, we lovingly submit to Christ and “to one another” (5:21) out of reverence for this Christ, who showed us what servanthood is all about. The relationship between husband and wife is also to reflect this humble servanthood fueled by love.

Furthermore, Paul’s instructions regarding the relationships between children and parents and between slaves[16] and masters (6:1-9) likewise function within the framework of mutual submission. As Keener points out, “submitting to one another (5:21) and doing the same things to them (6:9)…sets submission in a new context: the example and teaching of our Lord, who invited us all to serve one another.”[17] Once again, unlike the household codes of ancient secular philosophers, Paul “never instructs the male householder to rule; instead, he is to love his wife, serving her by offering his life for her (5:25), to avoid proving his children (6:4), and to treat slaves as fellow servants of God (6:9).”[18]


I get concerned when I see false teachers like our blogger friend obsess over wifely obedience and male supremacy. To me, that reflects a self-centered perspective on marriage, focused only on what the husband should be receiving from his wife. But marriage cannot flourish in a self-centered environment. Having a blessed marriage that glorifies God and reflects the life and teachings of Christ means being attentive to your spouse’s needs before your own, as the apostle Paul teaches us in Ephesians 5. Generally, when a husband loves his wife well, he doesn’t have to worry about his wife meeting his needs. He doesn’t have to use bad exegesis of biblical texts to force her into compliance. She will voluntarily lavish him with respect and love. That’s the apostle Paul’s ideal vision for marriage.

In conclusion, wives should submit to their husbands and husbands should sacrificially love and care for their wives. These are examples of the mutual submission required of all believers. In the context of relationships between believers, submission is best understood as voluntary servanthood fueled by love. We love and humbly serve one another out of reverence for Christ, our perfect model of servanthood. Contrary to the objections from both feminists and weird male bloggers with a fetish for obedient slave-wives, the Bible’s teaching on submission in Ephesians 5 is not oppressive but based on mutual loving service toward one another.

[1] Valerie Tarico, “Owned: Slaves, Women, Children, and Livestock,” Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith—and for Freedom. Karen L. Garst, ed. (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2018), 113

[2] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 552

[3] Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 148

[4] F.F. Bruce, Ephesians (Claverton Down, Bath BA2 6DT, UK: Creative Communications, 2012); Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992); Klyne Snodgrass, Between Two Truths: Living With Biblical Tensions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004); Francis Foulkes, Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic); Thomas B. Slater, Ephesians (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2012); Darrell L. Bock, Ephesians (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic); Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2011)

[5] Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996)

[6] Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, 169

[7] “hupotasso,” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary

[8] Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2011), 39

[9] Ibid., 46

[10] Darrell L. Bock, Ephesians (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Klyne Snodgrass, Between Two Truths: Living With Biblical Tensions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 92-93

[13] Ibid., 92

[14] I will not link to this false teacher’s fringy blog because I do not want to give it credibility with search engines. However, if you really want to be exposed to his bad arguments and bizarre rants, his name is Pete Rambo. Just search his name and you’ll find about a hundred articles and videos obsessively attacking me directly because of my stance against polygamy and male supremacy.

[15] Alan G. Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church, 65

[16] See my article on making sense of biblical slavery.

[17] Craig Keener, “Mutual Submission—Ephesians 5:21,” Bible Background: Research and Commentary from Dr. Craig Keener. www.craigkeener.com

[18] Ibid.

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About David Wilber


David is first and foremost a passionate follower of Yeshua the Messiah. He is also a writer, speaker, and teacher.

David’s heart is to minister to God’s people by helping them rediscover the validity and blessing of God’s Torah and help prepare them to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15)…

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