This article has been updated and moved to my new site dedicated exclusively to the topic of sexuality from a Biblical perspective. You can find the updated version here.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.