Wives, submit to your husbands. (Ephesians 5:22)
That is a misquote of Paul.
“What?!? That’s exactly what Paul says! Here it is from the King James Version—God’s own translation of the Bible:”
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.
“And in the New Revised Standard Version:”
Wives, be subject to your husbands.
“And in the New International Version:”
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands.
“And in the English Standard Version:”
Wives, submit to your own husbands.
“Paul absolutely says that wives must submit to their husbands!”
No, he does not.
Every single one of those “quotes” is a misquote of Paul. There is no period after “husbands.” What Paul did say was:
Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.
Paul never tells wives to submit to their husbands.
In Ephesians 5:22 (as well as in Colossians 3:18 and similar passages elsewhere), Paul is telling wives in what way they should submit to their husbands.
There’s a huge difference.
“Students, drive a car.”
Students, drive a car.
That is a misquote of a driver’s education teacher.
You see, there is no period after “car.” Here is what the driver’s education teacher actually said:
Students, drive a car as if I were always sitting next to you.
If I said, “The driver’s ed teacher is telling students that they must drive cars,” you’d say, “Don’t be ridiculous!”
And that’s exactly how I respond to those Christians who insist that Paul said wives must submit to their husbands: “Don’t be ridiculous!”
The driver’s ed teacher simply assumes that his students will drive cars. Why else would they be taking a driver’s ed class? In our culture, people drive cars, and in many ways the culture is structured around driving cars.
What the instructor is telling them is in what manner they should drive a car: “When you drive a car, do it as if I were always sitting next to you”—meaning, “Always drive safely and follow the rules of the road.”
In the very same way, Paul simply assumes that wives will submit to their husbands. That’s just how it worked in the culture of his day. In most marriages in that day and age, young, uneducated teenage girls married adult, educated (or at least experienced) men. The culture simply expected them to obey their older, more educated, and more experienced husbands. And given that many of them were barely teenagers when they got married, that was probably a good idea. Most marriages in the ancient world were more like a parent/child relationship.
Paul didn’t have to tell wives to submit to their husbands. That was simply assumed in his culture, because the whole culture was structured around that type of marriage relationship.
No, here is what Paul was saying: When you submit to your husbands, here’s how to do it: Do it in the same way you submit to the Lord.
Even that requires some unpacking. What does it mean to submit to someone in the same way we submit to the Lord? We’ll get to that.
Meanwhile, the simple fact of the matter is:
Paul did not tell wives to submit to their husbands.
Nowhere in the entire Bible are wives commanded to submit to their husbands.
“. . . and he will rule over you.”
“Oh yeah? What about God’s curse on Eve???”
First of all, the Bible never says that God cursed Eve or Adam. See: “Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?”
Here is what God did say to Eve after she had disobeyed and eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil:
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you will bring forth children,
yet your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
“See! God said that husbands are supposed to rule over their wives! That means wives must submit to their husbands!”
No. God said no such thing.
God did not say husbands must rule over wives. He said that husbands will rule over wives.
Once again, there’s a huge difference!
It does say that God will increase Eve’s pangs in childbearing, so that she will bring forth children in pain. But it doesn’t say God will cause her to desire her husband or cause her husband to rule over her. It just says that’s how things will be.
It wasn’t God who made this happen. God was simply telling Eve what would happen because of her disobedience. God was saying to her: Because of what you’ve done, you will no longer be equal to your husband as I originally created you. Instead, you will feel desire for him and he will dominate you. (For more on this, see: “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?” and “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”)
And that’s exactly what happened. From that time until very recently, marriage has almost universally been an unequal relationship in which the man is dominant and the woman is submissive legally, socially, and interpersonally.
It is very clear from the Genesis account that this is not how God designed things to be. Rather, it’s what happened because we humans departed radically from the way God originally created us and our relationships.
Similarly, if you read very carefully the various passages in the Bible that talk about wives being subject to their husband’s will, you will see that it doesn’t say this is how it must be, nor does it command women to submit to their husbands. Instead, it simply says that’s how things are. (Unfortunately, many translations introduce words like “should” and “must” into the translation where there are no such words in the original Greek. So it’s best to consult a very literal, word-for-word translation to get closer to what the Greek actually says.)
In other words, when the Bible talks about wives submitting to their husbands, it is simply describing the situation that has existed ever since the Fall of Humankind. It is not speaking according to God’s ideal for marriage, but according the realities of marriage as it actually existed (and in many parts of the world still does exist) among fallen human beings who have departed from God’s ideal for man, woman, and marriage.
Paul geared his teachings on marriage toward that sort of unequal marriage because it was the only kind of marriage that existed in the culture of his times. To read Paul’s words as if he was saying that wives must submit to their husbands is to completely misunderstand both his message and the culture in which he delivered it. Paul was a practical teacher. He addressed the practical situations and relationships that his listeners were actually experiencing.
And his message was that everyone in every relationship—including people in highly unequal relationships—can express in that relationship the love and faith embodied by Jesus Christ.
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
That is an actual quote from Paul.
It is traditionally translated as the final statement in a previous series in Ephesians 5:1–21. In more contemporary translations, however, it is often translated as the beginning of a new series in Ephesians 5:21–6:9. Either way, it still serves as the heading for what comes after it.
And what comes after it are six examples of how we are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
- Ephesians 5:22–24 says how wives should submit to their husbands out of reverence for Christ.
- Ephesians 5:25–33 says how husbands should submit to their wives out of reverence for Christ.
- Ephesians 6:1–3 says how children should submit to their parents out of reverence for Christ.
- Ephesians 6:4 says how fathers should submit to their children out of reverence for Christ.
- Ephesians 6:5–8 says how slaves should submit to their masters out of reverence for Christ.
- Ephesians 6:9 says how masters should submit to their slaves out of reverence for Christ.
These verses don’t all use the word “submit.” But if we read the entire sequence of Paul’s teaching here, which covers Ephesians chapters 4–6, rather than snatching a few verses out of context, it is abundantly clear that Paul is introducing a principle—that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”—and then illustrating that principle with examples of how people in various relationships are to do this.
The first two examples just happen to be of how wives and husbands should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. If we lose sight of Paul’s main point, we can (and many Christian preachers do) draw some very wrong conclusions from Paul’s words.
Does Paul endorse slavery?
Further, if we yank Paul’s statements out of the context of the culture in which he delivered them, we can (and many Christian preachers do) draw some very wrong conclusions from his words.
For example, in this same sequence Paul says:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. (Ephesians 6:5)
Does this mean that Paul endorses the institution of slavery? Does this mean that any truly Christian society today should continue to practice slavery?
Of course not. Slavery was simply a fact of life in Paul’s time and culture.
What Paul was saying to slaves, rather, was, “When you obey your masters, here’s how to do it.” Specifically, he says to do it “just as you would obey Christ.”
In the very same way, when Paul says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), Paul is not endorsing the institution of marriage as it existed in his day. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7:8–9 he makes it clear that he thinks marriage itself is merely a concession to people who can’t control their passions. However, marriage as an unequal relationship between a man and a woman was simply a fact of life in Paul’s culture.
What Paul was saying to wives, rather, was, “When you submit to your husbands, here’s how to do it.”
- Paul is not saying anything at all in Ephesians 6:5–8 about whether or not the institution of slavery as it existed in his day (or ours) is a good thing.
- Paul is not saying anything at all in Ephesians 5:22–24 about whether or not the institution of (unequal) marriage as it existed in his day is a good thing.
Both of these were simply societal facts in the culture of Paul’s day. Paul neither endorses them nor rejects them. Instead, he gives practical and spiritual advice to ordinary people who live in that very hierarchical culture, in the types of very unequal relationships that exist in such a culture.
Bring Christ into your relationships
And what Paul said, in essence, was: Don’t pattern your relationships after the servile, power-based norms of the world. Instead, pattern them after the love, faith, and self-sacrifice that Jesus Christ showed through his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection.
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”
Let’s read Paul’s first two examples with these things in mind.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22–24)
If we take this statement out of context, as many Christian preachers do, it seems as though Paul’s message is that wives should submit to their husbands.
But in fact, there is no “should” in the original Greek of that final sentence. Here is the whole passage in Young’s Literal Translation:
The wives! to your own husbands subject yourselves, as to the Lord, because the husband is head of the wife, as also the Christ [is] head of the assembly, and he is savior of the body, but even as the assembly is subject to Christ, so also [are] the wives to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22–24)
The original Greek doesn’t say wives should be subject to their own husbands, but simply that they are subject to their own husbands. As explained above, that’s simply how things were in Paul’s day.
What’s revolutionary about this passage is that Paul redefines how that unequal relationship should work, using the relationship between Christ and the church as a model. No longer are husbands to rule imperiously over their wives, nor are wives to submit in a servile, demeaning way. Rather, they are to respond to their husbands as the church (the community of the faithful) responds to Christ: with love, faith, and joy that come from within the wife’s own spirit through her relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is very different from those Christian pastors who say that wives must submit to everything their husbands say, even if it is stupid and wrong, because submission is (as they believe) the primary virtue of a good wife. Here is what Jesus Christ himself said about his relationship to his followers:
You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:14–15)
Jesus does not consider his followers, the people who form his church, to be servants, but friends. Why, then, do so many Christian pastors make women into servants to their husbands? That is not the pattern Jesus Christ gave us for the relationship between Christ and the church.
Paul is telling wives, who in that culture were required to submit to their husbands, to follow the pattern of how the church submits to Christ. And that is a very different kind of submission than the usual one where a ruler gives commands to subjects who must unquestioningly obey them. Jesus Christ himself tells us that he considers us friends, not servants.
Friends do what the leaders among them lead them to do, not out of servile obedience, but out of a love, affection, and respect for the person in the leadership position. And if their leaders are about to lead them into something stupid and foolish, real friends don’t just go along with it. They say something about it. They point out to their leaders just why this would not be a good idea.
Once again, none of this means Paul said that husbands must lead and wives must follow. Rather, it means that given that in his culture husbands do lead and wives do follow, wives who are followers of Christ are to follow their husbands in an entirely different spirit than what existed in the marriage relationships of the pagan or Gentile world.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.”
This becomes even clearer from Paul’s instructions to husbands on how they are to submit to their wives out of reverence for Christ:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:25–33)
Once again, there is no “must” in the original Greek of that final sentence. Here it is in Young’s Literal Translation:
But ye also, every one in particular—let each his own wife so love as himself, and the wife—that she may reverence the husband. (Ephesians 5:33)
Paul goes into much more detail here about how husbands are to submit to their wives out of reverence for Christ. Perhaps that’s because husbands in his day and age were much more likely to take their wives for granted and mistreat them than wives were to disrespect and mistreat their husbands. After all, if the man was the ruler in his house, why shouldn’t he treat his wife like a servant and an underling?
Paul says: No, that is not how you are to treat your wives. You are to love your wives.
To our ears today, this may sound so obvious that it couldn’t possibly be Paul’s point.
But as strange as it may seem, the idea that love is an essential part of marriage came along only in the past few hundred years, and became widespread only in the last half century or so. For most of human history, marriage was primarily a financial, social, and business relationship. If there was love in the marriage, it was a pleasant add-on, but certainly not critical to the success of a marriage. For more on this, see Stephanie Coontz’s excellent book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.
For Paul’s readers, the idea that husbands should love their wives, and not only that, love them in the way Christ loved the church, with a willingness even to give up their own lives for them—that was revolutionary!
What man would treat his wife, who was basically a servant to him, in that way?
And yet, that’s exactly how Paul was telling men to treat their wives.
In Paul’s instructions to husbands there is not a single word about “male headship” or a man ruling over his wife and giving her orders that she must obey. It is all about loving his wife as he loves himself and his own body, and giving himself up for her.
This is how husbands are to submit to their wives out of reverence for Christ.
The Bible does not teach that men must rule and women must obey
Christian pastors and teachers who insist that the Bible teaches that men must rule and women must obey have completely missed the point of Paul’s teachings in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere. In fact, they have completely missed the point of the teachings of the entire Bible about the relationship between man and woman.
Instead, the Bible as a whole, and Paul in particular, speaks to us fallen human beings, with our fallen, unequal marriage relationships, and seeks to elevate marriage above the old, fallen pattern of a man ruling over his woman the way a king rules over his subjects.
And do you know what? We humans have actually made some progress in the 2,000 years since Paul preached his message to a lot of newly converted pagans, seeking to change their ways of thinking about human relationships.
In particular, in the last few centuries, and especially in the last few decades, we have started to make some real progress toward the kind of loving, spiritual marriage that God originally had in mind for us.
If we follow the arc of Paul’s teachings away from the hierarchical and servile marriages that reflected the hierarchical and servile culture of his day, we eventually arrive at marriage as God originally intended it. And what God intended was not a master/servant relationship, but a relationship of friends and partners who lead each other forward on a shared path of love, understanding, and service to each other and to their fellow human beings.
For further reading: