As we look at Paul’s first set of instructions on the responsibility of mutual submission in marriage, it is important to remember that his writings have divine authority. I know it’s become popular today to dismiss anything that Paul says about women and marriage because his teaching often contradicts popular cultural aspirations about gender and egalitarian concepts of marriage. Nevertheless, we mustn’t forget that Paul’s writings represent the mind of God. As the apostle Peter says, “Paul writes with the wisdom God gave him. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). So Peter makes it clear that the apostles believed Paul’s writings had the status of Scripture.
When it comes to Paul’s instructions to women, he says that their responsibility within marriage is regulated by the command in 5:21 that all Christians should submit to one another. His command to wives is as follows, “wives to your husbands as to the Lord.” The word ‘submit’ is missing, though it’s clearly implied. This is obviously deliberate on Paul’s part. The fact that he does not repeat the word, ‘submit’, suggests that wives are not being singled out and given a subservient status. Instead, they are simply called to do the same as everyone else in the church, that is, submit to one another.
It should be of interest to us that Paul starts and finishes this short section by specifying whom wives should submit to: “their own husbands” (v24). Paul does not envisage women as a group coming under the authority of men in general, nor are men automatically elevated to a position of authority over all women. There is nothing inherently wrong with a woman being a political, educational or business leader. Paul only speaks of submission in terms of a married woman’s responsibility to her own husband’s headship. In other words, a wife’s submission is seen in the love, service and cooperation that she offers to her husband.
What exactly does a wife’s submission involve? The Greek word for ‘submit’ (hupotasso) means to place oneself in a lower rank than someone else. In other words, it means the wife should seek to please her husband before herself. We should notice that in a Christian marriage, this is a reciprocal responsibility of both the husband and the wife. Each must serve the other. A Christian husband is meant to give himself up for the wife as Christ gave himself up for church. This requires that a husband must not serve himself, but must devote himself to serving the best interests of his wife. The wife’s responsibility, in turn, is to offer her husband cooperation and loving devotion.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that the idea of submission is not exactly the same as that of obedience. The Greek word for ‘obey’ is hupakouo. This is what Paul required of children and slaves (Ephesians 6:1, 5). However, a wife is neither a child nor a slave. She is an equal partner in the most personal and intimate relationship in the world. She is involved in a union where the two parties offer themselves to one another in mutual devotion. They belong to one another and the Christian pattern in the marriage relationship is that both husband and wife should serve each other’s needs before their own, based on the example of the relationship of Christ and the church.