Does a Christian Wife Have to Submit to an Unbelieving Husband?

“Does the bible say anything about women being with men who aren’t followers of God? Is a man who doesn’t even believe in God still entitled to a submissive wife or am I now exempt from that?” – These questions and others were recently asked to me in an email I received from a newly married young Christian woman calling herself “D”.

D’s Story

“Hi there, If you don’t mind may I call myself “D?” I am a 27 year of woman and I have been quietly reading your blog for a while after I stumbled upon it while I was seeking out some answers online about my lifestyle. While I cannot say that I live a lifestyle that is completely working in tandem with the things you talk about, I do find your insight interesting and honest. I appreciate the thought and honesty even if I don’t always understand or want to agree with some of the things being said. If you don’t mind, I was wondering if you could help lend some insight on something that has been troubling me? I don’t really know where to go to find answers as it seems society throws people left and right, often even shaming people for wanting to understand.

I would like to start by explaining my lifestyle dynamic first so you can gain an understanding of where I am coming from. This might seem long and drawn out but stay with me, it’s sort of complicated. I do not attend church, well I have not committed myself to a church yet but I do go from time to time. I would consider myself a Christian, even if my choices didn’t always show that. While believing in God there has always been a somewhat liberal understanding of how things worked for me. As I grow older I realize how confused I really am, I was brought up one way, society tells me something else, while my heart yearns for more knowledge.

I have been happily married for 2 and 1/2 years, but here is where most Christians are going to frown down on me…

My husband doesn’t believe in God, we are intermixed in that way and I know that’s not the ideal circumstance! I will clear things up by mentioning it’s basically a mirror image of how my dad was, not believing in God while my mother did, it’s what is normal to me so I felt comfortable doing it. I wonder, did I mess up, am I wrong for this?  I love my husband and I would NOT like to be one of the couples that ends up in a divorce due to our differences and arguing over stupid petty things. I hope that one day he can change his mind about God, I really have hope for that. Still in the back of my head I wonder am I wrong to be with him because of our religious differences, will we fail for this reason? I want to ensure that I won’t end up in a divorce, we really only fight about petty things for the most part.

Generally he tells me that “I don’t listen” or that “I argue with him too much.” His solution is just that I should do what he says. I feel that isn’t a reasonable for our situation for us though because our marriage isn’t exactly founded on those biblical principles, so why is he still asking for them? It frustrates me and even angers me sometimes.

Does the bible say anything about women being with men who aren’t followers of God? Is a man who doesn’t even believe in God still entitled to a submissive wife or am I now exempt from that? How do I deal with this? This is just such a strange situation and I don’t know what to do. Part of me says “I should do what he says so he is happy and we don’t fail in our marriage” while the other part says “well he is clearly wrong he doesn’t even believe in God, therefore he has no idea what he is talking about.” Also, I wonder which is worse for a Christian to be married to a non-Christian or for that couple to get in a divorce?

I would like to thank you for your time, I hope this didn’t sound too confusing. I know that you base most of your dealings with couples who are both Christians but it would mean a lot to me if you could look into my situation as well as it has been eating a way at me for a while now. If you’d like to use my story as a concept for your blog, I would be okay with that too. I wonder if there are other people struggling with my situation.”

Below are the answers to D’s concerns.

The First and Most Important Question Is Are you a Christian?

D’ Statement of her faith:

“I would consider myself a Christian, even if my choices didn’t always show that. While believing in God there has always been a somewhat liberal understanding of how things worked for me. As I grow older I realize how confused I really am, I was brought up one way, society tells me something else, while my heart yearns for more knowledge.”

I have said many times on this blog that the most important doctrine of the Bible and really the most important question of life is this:

Have we truly accepted the one true God, the God of the Bible and his Son Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior believing that he died for our sins, was buried and rose again on the third day?

So, if you cannot answer with a clear and resounding yes to that question I encourage you to reach out in faith to God today and place your faith and trust in Jesus Christ today as your Lord and Savior.

The Gospel is NOT the Only Important Doctrine We Need to Accept

Just because the Gospel is the most important doctrine in the Bible does not mean it is the ONLY important doctrine in the Bible.  Many Christians and Churches today falsely believe that if they are preaching the Gospel and the Gospel alone that they are doing all God requires.  They believe everything else should be left alone for each individual Christian to figure out on his or her own.  But God did leave us to wonder on our own as believers and the Scriptures tell us he gives us teachers to teach us in his Word:

“11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”

Ephesians 4:11-13 (KJV)

While the office of Apostle was temporary to start Christ’s Church and true Prophets will probably not appear till the end of days we do today still see God call men to serve him as evangelists, pastors and teachers.  I believe God has placed a calling on my life to be a teacher of his Word and this how I minister to his people through this blog.

The Bible also tells us that husbands are to be spiritual teachers of their wives:

“34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

1 Corinthians 14:34-36 (KJV)

The Scriptures exhort husbands to follow Christ’s example and wash their wives with the Word of God and again this requires teaching, correction and sometimes rebuke:

“25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 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.”

Ephesians 5:25-27 (KJV)

Also, Christ when speaking to his Churches of which the Bible pictures him as their husband stated this:

“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”

Revelation 3:19 (KJV)

Having started with this as our foundation, let us now move on to questions for true believing Christian wives who are living with unbelieving husbands.

Which is worse for a Christian to be married to a non-Christian or for that couple to get in a divorce?

There are three ways a Christian could end being with an unbelieving spouse:

  1. They were not a Christian when they married and neither was their spouse. Then they became a Christian after marriage.
  2. A Christian marries another person who claims to be a Christian but the person reveals later that they never truly were a Christian.
  3. A Christian willfully and knowingly marries a non-believer.

There is no sin on the part of a Christian who ends up with an unbelieving spouse because of the first two scenarios.  However, if a Christian knowingly marries a non-believer than that Christian has a committed a sin against God according to the following passage:

“14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

2 Corinthians 6:14-16 (KJV)

However, the Scriptures tells us this if we find ourselves with an unbelieving spouse (not matter the circumstances of how we came to that position):

“13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace…

39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

I Corinthians 7:13-15 & 39 (KJV)

So here is what the Apostle Paul is stating by the inspiration of God in the above passage.  If a man or woman find themselves with a spouse that is not a believer and that unbeliever wants to stay married to them they must stay in that marriage.  However, if the unbelieving spouse wants to depart then they may let them depart and the believing brother or sister are not bound to that marriage in those cases.

When we look at verse 39 in the context of verses 13-15 of this chapter as well as passages like Exodus 21:10-11 then we understand that if a Christian woman’s unbelieving husband provides her with food, clothing, shelter and sexual relations and he wants to remain married to her she is bound to him for life and may not leave him.

So, if your unbelieving husband matches that criteria – you cannot leave him.  You are bound to him for life.

So, even if you willingly married a non-believing husband (which was a sin) if you divorce him without just cause that God allows for you are compounding that sin and doing something even worse.  The fact is God can forgive you of the sin of marrying a non-Christian and he may even use you to win him to Christ as we will talk about in the next section.

Is a man who doesn’t even believe in God still entitled to a submissive wife or am I now exempt from that?

The Bible directly answers this question of yours in the following text:

“1 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; 2 While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.

3 Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: 6 Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”

I Peter 3:1-6 (KJV)

So, the Scriptures tell you as a Christian woman to do something that very much goes against your sin nature.  If your husband is doing something your believe is disobedient to God whether it is how he conducts various aspects of his personal life or even how he treats your or your children your sinful response is to try and correct him, rebuke him and then free yourself from his authority.

But the Scriptures tell you to attempt to win your husband into obedience to God whether by accepting Christ as his savior or getting his life right with God if he is a Christian.  It tells you to win him without the word, without preaching at him and instead win him by your subjection to him, your living a pure life before him and your reverencing him.

The False Teaching that I Peter 3:1-6 Only Applies to Unbelieving Husbands

The key phrase “if any obey not the word” refers to husbands who are disobedient to the Word of God.  This would cover unbelieving husbands who “obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:8) as well as those husbands who claim Christ as their savior but are disobedient to his Word in various ways.

I have heard many Christian women say “if any obey not the word” is strictly speaking about unbelieving husbands and does not apply to Christian husbands who are disobedient to the Word in various ways.  So, they literally try and have us believe that I Peter 3:1-6 does not apply at all to wives married to Christian husbands and they have thereby nullified the Word of God.   In other words, they believe if their Christian husband is disobedient to God in his lifestyle in anyway they deem too serious they have the right to free themselves from his authority.  His spiritual authority in their view is now forfeit.

The problem with this interpretation is that verse 5 blows it out of the water:

“5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: 6 Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”

After Peter describes the type of submission that wives are to have to their husbands who are disobedient to the Word he then writes a key phrase “For after this manner” and then he goes on to talk about the holy women of old times like Sara who obeyed Abraham calling him lord.  Was Abraham an unbeliever? We know he was not an unbeliever as the Bible presents him as a man who “believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

Therefore, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt based on the full context of this passage that the phrase “if any obey not the word” absolutely applies to both unbelieving as well as believing husbands who are disobedient to the Word of God.

Can My Unbelieving Husband Demand My Submission to Him?

Another false teaching among egalitarians and sadly even most complementarians today is that a husband (whether he is a believer or not) cannot in any way compel his wife’s submission to him.  In fact, that is why most complementarians in our modern times reject a husband’s authority to discipline his wife for her failure to submit to his authority.  They teach the Biblical submission of a wife to her husband is completely voluntary and the part of the wife and this should not be any concern of the husband.

This false teaching comes from a faulty understanding The Greek word hupotasso which is translated as “submit”, “subject”, “subjection” and “obedient” in our English translations of the Bible.

This is the definition of hupotasso according to Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary:

    “to arrange under, to subordinate

to subject, put in subjection

to subject one’s self, obey

to submit to one’s control

to yield to one’s admonition or advice

to obey, be subject

A Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.”

So, like many words in the Bible, the context in which hupotasso is used determines if it is a voluntary attitude of giving in and cooperating with someone who is an equal verses the military use of the word which is an involuntary submission to one’s authority.

In Ephesians 5:19-24 we read the following:

“19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; 20 Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; 21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”

If you notice above I have put a separation in the text between verses 21 and 22.  In the NIV and many modern translations they will be put a separation between verses 20 and 21 and the NIV even puts a note above verse 21 making it seem as though verse 21 is speaking to the husband wife relationship.

Again, just like we discussed with I Peter 3:1-6 context is key.  Here in Ephesians 5:1-21 Paul is speaking to Christians in the Church in general about holy living.  He then ends his general call to holy living for Christians with a call for Christians to submit to one another – this is not the military type of submission of one under authority to another, but it is the voluntary submission of equals serving and cooperating with one another.

Then he turns to the subject of marriage and the family in Ephesians 5:22.

First and foremost you will never find one passage in the Scriptures that tells a husband to submit to his wife.  Not one. You will see egalitarians try and throw smoke up about God telling Abraham to listen to Sarah regarding Hagar (Genesis 21:12).  But this was not God telling him to submit to his wife, but rather for him in this instance to act on her advice.  Nothing in the Scriptures forbids wives from making requests of their husbands and giving them advice.  And sometimes God will lead us as Christian husbands to act on our wife’s advice but this is not a husband submitting to this wife.  This is no different than a King who grants the request of one his servants or follows the advice of one his advisors.

So how do we know what kind of submission it is that God calls wives to regarding their husbands? The found in the words surround the call for wives to submit to their husbands.  First in verse 22 God calls wives to submit to their husbands “as unto the Lord”.  In no other passage of Scripture do we find God calling someone to submit to a human authority as unto God.  But only in the husband wife relationship do we see this comparison.  Verse 23 further bolsters this by telling wives that their husbands are their head as Christ is the head of the Church and then in verse 24 he tells wives to submit to their husbands as the Church is to submit to Christ in everything.

So which kind of submission is God calling for? The voluntary type of serving submission between equals or the military type of submission where one is called to submit to and obey the one in authority over them? The answer is clear and indisputable.  God is calling for the military type of submission from a wife toward her husband.

When egalitarians and even complentarians say that a wife’s submission in this passage is the voluntary submission between equals they are breaking the model that is being setup here.  God is basing a wife’s submission on the model of our obedience to him and the Church’s obedience to Christ.  Are Christ and the Church equals? We know they are not.  Christ is the authority of the Church and he demands his Church’s obedience to him.

Therefore, we can say beyond a doubt that the submission that God calls wives to toward their husbands is the military type of submission which is mandatory. And just as commanders in the military must be concerned with and compel the submission of those under their authority so too husbands must compel their wife’s submission to them.

A husband who refuses to compel his wife’s submission to his authority is just as delict in his duty before God as the wife is who refuses to submit to her husband’s authority.  They both are failing to model the relationship of Christ to his Church where he compels the obedience of his Church and the Church submits herself to Christ.

Conclusion

You stated this regarding your unbelieving husband’s insistence that you stop arguing with him so much and simply do what he tells you to do:

“Generally he tells me that “I don’t listen” or that “I argue with him too much.” His solution is just that I should do what he says. I feel that isn’t a reasonable for our situation for us though because our marriage isn’t exactly founded on those biblical principles, so why is he still asking for them?”

Based on all the Scriptures I have presented to you in this article I hope you realize that your husband’s motivation for asking for your submission is irrelevant in God’s view.  God wants you to submit to him whether he asks for your submission or not.  Your husband may want you to submit for totally selfish reasons but God wants you to submit to him, not to make him happy, but for two reasons.  The first is just as I Peter 3:1-2 states that you may be able to win him to Christ by your submission, pure life and reference for him. The second is that by submitting to him you fulfill your role to model the Church’s obedience to Christ even if your husband is not fulfilling the role of loving you as Christ loves his Church.

So, D – you should absolutely listen more, talk less and don’t argue with your husband.  It is one thing to give him respectful advice or make a request and let him decide what to do.  It is another to argue with him.  D – do you realize how if you completely changed your attitude on this and truly just talked less and submitted more that this change could cause your husband to inquire of you what happened? Then you could share with him how God changed your heart on this matter and that God showed you he wants you to submit to your husband and serve him as the Church submits to and serves Christ.

This will also remove a lot of your frustration.  Because then you will realize this is not about you.  This is about Christ.  In way you are being just as selfish as you believe your husband is being.  You are making your marriage about you.  It’s not about you and your personal happiness.  It’s about God and his plan for your life.  Your service and submission to your husband is your service and your submission to God.

I pray that you and all Christian women who read this and who live with disobedient husbands will humble themselves today and truly submit to their husbands as unto the Lord.

Should a Christian husband make his wife submit?

Is a wife’s submission to her husband voluntary? Does God want or allow a husband to compel his wife to submit to his leadership through various disciplinary practices? Does a husband’s headship over his wife come with enforcement powers?

There has been a debate in recent decades amongst those who believe in male headship about whether a husband has any ability to compel his wife to submit to his headship. The topic of “voluntary submission” is often raised in these discussions.

Does the Bible show that a wife’s submission to her husband is voluntary?

Carm.org (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) has a post that is a good example of this disagreement. CARM definitely believes in and advocates for male headship in marriage and they strongly encourage women to submit to their husbands as seen here:

“Women are not commanded to submit to their husband’s because God insures that men will be just or loving. When a woman submits unto her husband, she is actually submitting unto God (Ephesians 5:22). A woman, therefore, does not submit because her husband deserves it in his own merit. She submits because she knows it is pleasing to her Lord. There will be times when a woman needs to submit and her husband does not deserve it from a human perspective. But by divine right, God set the man as leader, and a woman can trust that God is good. She can also know that nothing escapes God’s notice, and a wicked man will be held accountable for his actions.”

https://carm.org/apologetics/womens-issues/what-does-it-mean-wife-submit-her-husband

But in this same article and another article on the topic of submission CARM takes the position that this submission by a wife is voluntary and cannot be compelled by her husband:

“The Greek word for submission is hupotasso, “to subordinate . . . put under . . . ” God exhorts women to voluntarily follow their husband’s leadership (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1). A woman is actively doing this–choosing to put herself under leadership, choosing to be subordinate in a circumstance or relationship. This is not forced upon her by the recipient.”

https://carm.org/apologetics/womens-issues/what-does-it-mean-wife-submit-her-husband

“First, submission is actually a voluntary action by the wife. Wives are commanded by the Lord to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1). This is a commandment from the Lord. However, there is nowhere in Scripture in which husbands command their wives to submit. A wife chooses to follow her husband’s leadership. Slaves, on the other hand, choose nothing. Their decisions are chosen by their master. When a woman submits to her husband, she is actually submitting to the Lord. It is an act of worship and love for her Savior, not as one of a weakened slave.”

https://carm.org/apologetics/womens-issues/wifes-submission-her-husband-slavery

Before we continue on here let me say where I agree with CARM on the issue of a wife’s submission to her husband. I agree with them that a wife submits to her husband, not because he necessarily has earned or deserves her respect, but because she respects the leadership position God has given him over her. I also agree that Biblical submission does not mean a woman is treated like a slave where she can say nothing and has no opinions about anything. A wife Biblically speaking is not a doormat.

But where I and other advocates of Biblical headship disagree with CARM (and others in their camp) is about the enforcement and disciplinary powers of a husband over his wife. CARM maintains that a husband has no power to compel his wife’s submission and that if his wife will not submit to his leadership a husband is powerless to act against his wife’s rebellion.

But before we can proceed we need to understand what the Greek word hupotasso means as it is used in the original language of the New Testament.

What does hupotasso mean?

The Greek word hupotasso is translated as “submit”, “subject”, “subjection” and “obedient” in our English translations of the Bible.

This is the definition of hupotasso according to Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary:

“to arrange under, to subordinate

to subject, put in subjection

to subject one’s self, obey

to submit to one’s control

to yield to one’s admonition or advice

to obey, be subject

A Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.”

So there are two uses of the hupotasso, one had the idea of military commands like dividing units under leaders and the other is a more voluntary or cooperative type of submission.

Hupotasso, not unlike many words changes its meaning based on the context in which it is used. CARM has chosen to take the second meaning of hupotasso in regard to a wife’s submission. But we need to look at the Scriptures to see if their application of the second meaning of hupotasso to submission in marriage is correct.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians actually illustrates both uses of the Greek word hupotasso

First it is important to remember that the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible were added many centuries after the Bible was completed (Stephen Langton divided the Bible into chapters in the year A.D. 1227 and Robert Stephanus divided the chapters into verses in A.D. 1551). So the chapter and verse divisions are not given to us by divine inspiration and sometimes they actually cause confusion in understanding the meaning of many passages of the Bible.

In Ephesians chapter 4 Paul is speaking on the unity of the Church as well as the different gifts and offices God gives in the Church:

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ…

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:” – Ephesians 4:4-7 & 11-13 (KJV)

Paul continues his discussion on the unity of the Church and the proper behavior of believers in the body through Ephesians chapter 5 verse 21:

“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” – Ephesians 5:19-21 (KJV)

Then in verse 22 of Ephesians Paul goes from his discussion of believers and their relationship to one another in the body of Christ to the family. Paul’s discussion on the Christian home begins in verse 22 of chapter 5 and does not end until Ephesians 6:4. So here is Paul’s jump from speaking on Church relationships to speaking on family relationships in context:

“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; 21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

22 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 saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.

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 nourisheth and cherisheth 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 reverence her husband.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” – Ephesians 5:19-33 & 6:1-4 (KJV)

So now let’s go back and revisit Paul’s use of the word hupotasso in Ephesians 5:21-24:

“21 Submitting [hupotasso] yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

22 Wives, submit [hupotasso] 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 saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject [hupotasso] unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”

Many who reject the concept of male headship in marriage attempt to soften Paul’s command to wives to submit with verse 21 that precedes his call to wives to submit to their husbands in verse 22. They teach a false doctrine of mutual submission and partnership in marriage.

I agree 100% that verse 21 of Ephesians chapter 5 is talking about mutual submission amongst believers within the assembly because of the context of the previous verses in which hupotasso is used.

But in the context of marriage hupotasso is not used in the “voluntary, cooperative” sense of the word, but rather it is used in the context of the military use of the term in which family members are given their various roles and responsibilities.

Wives are commanded to hupotasso their husbands because their husband is their head(leader) in the same way that Christ is the head(leader) of the Church. Wives are to hupotasso to their husbands in “every thing”.

Children are later told to obey both their mother and father in Ephesians 6:1.

“submit and obey” – a distinction without a difference

Ephesians 6:1 uses a different word than hupotasso, instead it uses the word “hupakouo”.

“Children, obey [hupakouo] your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” – Ephesians 6:1 (KJV)

This is the definition of hupakouo according to Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary:

“to listen, to harken

of one who on the knock at the door comes to listen who it is, (the duty of a porter)

to harken to a command

to obey, be obedient to, submit to”

Some have tried to seize on the use of this word to show that women don’t have to “obey their husbands”, but rather “submit to their husbands”. What they say is “obedience is mandatory, while submission is voluntary”.   But in the Apostle Peter’s first letter he writes:

“For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection[hupotasso] unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed [hupakouo] Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.” – I Peter 3:5-6 (KJV)

The Apostle Peter’s uses hupotasso and hupakouo interchangeably when speaking to the relationship of a wife to her husband. This tells us that those who try and say a wife is to submit to her husband, but not obey her husband are truly guilty of making “a distinction without a difference”.

Even in the case of a master and servant relationship hupotasso and hupakouo are used interchangeably in the Scriptures and no one would argue that slaves had no choice in obeying their masters.

“Exhort servants to be obedient [hupotasso] unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;” – Titus 2:9 (KJV)

“Servants, obey [hupakouo] in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;” – Colossians 3:22 (KJV)

Just as a side note – Marriage is also pictured in Scripture as a type of Master/servant relationship – see my post “Is Marriage a Master/Servant relationship?”

In the context of Biblical authority structures whether they be kings, governors, church leaders, masters and yes even with husbands and parents the Bible interchangeably uses hupakouo and hupotasso – there is no difference. In the context of authority and subordinate relationships hupotasso ALWAYS means “mandatory submission” which is also synonymous with obedience.

Now that we have established that within the context of marriage submission by a wife to her husband is just as mandatory as obedience is from children to parents we will look at a husband’s role in regard to his wife’s submission.

So should a husband compel his wife to submit to his authority?

CARM says “there is nowhere in Scripture in which husbands command their wives to submit”. Really? While there are no passages in Scripture where a husband commands his wife saying “submit” there are passages in Scripture where a husband compels his wife’s obedience.

“Only acknowledge your guilt—

you have rebelled against the Lord your God,

you have scattered your favors to foreign gods

under every spreading tree,

and have not obeyed me,’”

declares the Lord.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion“ – Jeremiah 3:13-14 (NIV)

Throughout most of the Old Testament prophesies God is pictured as the husband and Israel as his wife. God compels his disobedient and unfaithful wife to come back to him and turn to obedience to him.

So it seems in Scripture we have an example of a husband commanding his rebellious wife to return to him and obey him and whose is our example husband as Christian men? Is it not God himself?

In a followup post to this “7 Ways to Discipline your wife” we will discuss more Bible passages that prove that a husband can and should discipline his wife. In that post we will also discuss some practical ways that a husband can and should discipline his wife.

Conclusion

A Christian wife’s submission to her husband is not voluntary, it is mandatory and synonymous with obedience. A Christian husband has not only the power to discipline his wife, but he has a duty to do this.