Is a Wife's Submission Culturally Outdated?

In our egalitarian culture, the debate over a wife’s submission to her husband is not going away anytime soon. Of course we start with Scripture, and the Bible is clear in calling the first-century Greco-Roman wife to submit to her own husband (Ephesians 5:22, 24, Colossians 3:18, 1 Peter 3:1). But is this command now applicable to 21st-century Christian wives?

Many say no, and one opposing argument goes something like this:

Paul commanded Greco-Roman slaves to submit themselves to their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18). It is in those same contexts that Paul commands a woman to submit herself to her husband (Ephesians 5:22, 24, Colossians 3:18, 1 Peter 3:1). Therefore, since these words to slaves and wives comprise one unified Greco-Roman household structure, and since a slave’s submission has obviously passed away, therefore the call for a wife to submit has likewise ended.

To respond requires that we take a careful look at both the theology of slavery and the theology of marriage — which is what Everett Berry does in a 2008 journal article critiquing the egalitarian views of Gordon Fee. Berry writes the following:

When Paul addresses slavery, he instructs believers on how to emulate a Christ-like spirit. We see this in his admonishment to Philemon as a slave owner to forgive and receive his former servant Onesimus back as a brother (Philemon 16). Obviously this makes perfect sense because this is a virtue that is indicative of all believers regardless of whether they are slaves or masters. Likewise, in another setting Paul claims believing slaves have permission to obtain their freedom if the opportunity presents itself (1 Corinthians 7:21–22). For Paul then, choosing to become or remain a slave is optional for believers, but the proper conduct as a Christian slave is not.

This means Fee is right to assert that Paul did not endorse slavery as a practice. He instructed believers on how to live in relation to it. What Fee refuses to acknowledge, however, is that Paul never claims that Greco-Roman slavery has its institutional roots in the theological fibers of creation or eschatological expectation. Only the family and the church are described as such (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:7–9; Ephesians 5:31; 1 Timothy 2:12–15) because marital and ecclesiological concerns have theological strings attached to them that slavery does not.

When it comes to marriage, for example, Paul does not speak to husbands and wives in the same way he does to slaves or masters. He does not endorse a husband seeking freedom from his wife or vice versa in the same way that he advises Christian slaves to possibly obtain release (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21, 27). Nor does he call a master the head of his slave as Christ is the head of the church, or command slaves to obey their masters as the church obeys Christ.

But he clearly interprets the marriage relationship with such constructs. Husbands typify Christ by sacrificially loving their wives, and wives typify the church by following their husbands. And as they do so, the balance between leadership and trust not only highlights the original reciprocation that Adam and Eve forfeited, but it also points to the unending submission that the church will experience under Christ’s headship (Ephesians 5:24–25). The eternal relationship that Christ will always have with his people is to be exemplified currently through the temporal relationship between husbands and wives.1

In other words, Paul does not root Greco-Roman slavery in creation or in eschatology. But the marriage pattern is clearly rooted in both. Thus, the Christian complementary relationship between husband and wife is established by God in a way that the Greco-Roman hierarchical relationship between slaves and masters is not. Therefore, Paul’s message to Christian husbands and wives remains timeless and valid. Paul treats marriage and slavery differently.

Meanwhile, some Christian men and women may believe submission is intuitively correct because it is a practice rooted in traditional American culture (rather than in Scripture). That would be a wrong basis. And submission may emerge out of a chauvinism or kind of patriarchalism that believes men are superior to women. And that most certainly contradicts the equality of men and women in God’s eyes. Worse, submission may be abused by men who use it as permission to abuse their wives. Such men are acting from cowardice, and not from the Christ-like sacrifice and love the gospel calls for.

But in the end, a wise wife will not take her cues about submission from ancient Greco-Roman cultural history. She will find her conviction rooted in something that stretches back to the beginning of time and that stretches into a future beyond her. And that is where a conviction about submission is to be found. In Scripture submission is embedded in the marriage pattern established in the pre-fall marriage of Adam and Eve, and remains to this day a bold and counter-cultural drama to our watching world of the Church’s submission to Christ.

  1. Everett Berry, “Complementarianism and Eschatology: Engaging Gordon Fee’s ‘New Creation’ Egalitarianism [PDF],” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 13.2 (Fall 2008), 64–65.