What Is Submission in Marriage?

Now, let me say one more thing before we move on — before we turn to the husbands. What is submission not according to this text? When I preached on this probably twenty years ago, I found the women in my church found this really helpful because we bring to the text presuppositions from our experience like: “Okay, submission means this, this, this, and this,” and five of those look horrible to you, and two look okay.

And if you bring to the Bible your preconceptions, you might just throw the baby out with the bathwater, and say, “If that’s what it means, I’m out of here.” Which would be very, very sad. You may be right, you may be wrong, but it would be sad. So here I wrote six of them down, and I think you’ll be able to see them in the text — what submission is not.

1. Submission is not agreeing on everything.

Submission is not agreeing on everything like the Christian faith because this guy’s an unbeliever. So if in that culture he said, “You can’t have that religion. We worship ISIS (or whatever),” she says, “I’m sorry,” which means it is possible to be submissive and refuse to think what your husband says you should think. Has to be. I mean, this text doesn’t make sense without that.

She has sworn allegiance to Jesus. Jesus is now her Lord, her King. She’s an alien and an exile in this marriage. This husband belongs to another God, and she is called to live with him. Don’t get divorced over issues of religion, which means if he says, “I don’t want you to be a Christian.” What does she say? She says, “I love you. I want to be submissive to you. I intend to be submissive to you, but on this point, I have no choice. I belong to Jesus.” And he may send her away. That happened in 1 Corinthians 7. The unbeliever splits, which would be a great tragedy.

So submission does not mean you must agree with the opinions of your husbands. Even on things like the Christian faith, God has made you with a mind. You have to think. You are a person, not a body and not a respondent mechanism here. You are a thinking being who is able to process whether the gospel is true. And if it’s true, you believe it. And if he says, “You can’t believe that,” you humbly and submissively don’t submit to that. You see that? That’s implied here clearly.

2. Submission does not mean leaving your brain at the altar.

Now, maybe that’s the same thing, but it needs to be said that way — leaving the brain at the altar. Any man who says, “I do the thinking in this family” is sick, and there are sick views of authority.

I dealt with a couple one time, and she said, “He demands that I get permission to go to the bathroom.” That’s real. I just looked at him and said, “You’re not well. You have such an unbelievably distorted view of this fellow heir of the grace of life. You don’t get Bible texts. You’re taking a word like ‘authority’ or ‘lead’ or her word, ‘submit,’ and then you’re stepping away from the Bible and filling it up with stuff you want to do. You’re not getting this from the Bible.”

So when I say submission does not leave the brain at the altar, I mean all through the marriage, he is reckoning with an independent mental center that has thoughts that are worth listening to. The one flesh union leadership does not mean don’t listen. Leadership doesn’t even mean always get the last word. Leadership often says, “You were right. I was wrong.”

Leadership is taking initiative. Sometimes I say, “Who says ‘let’s’ more often in your relationship?” “Let’s go out to eat. Let’s try to get our finances in order. Let’s get to church on time next Sunday.” A hundred “let’s.” Who says it most often? If it’s the wife, you got a problem, and the problem is with the guy. If it’s the guy, she’s probably happy because she’s tired of having to say “let’s” over and over again. “Can we get the car fixed, please?” I said that last week. “Let’s get to church on time, and you’re always late.” Wives don’t want to say let’s most often in general. I know I’m generalizing.

Leadership means a bent towards initiative that women thrive under, not dictation, never listening, not even having the last word. My wife, if she were here and you ask her, “So what’s submission look like for you guys?” One of the things she’d say is, “Okay, we settled the principle early that if we can’t agree, Johnny’s going to make the call.”

That’s real basic, almost never happens, almost never happens. One of the reasons it almost never happens. We’ve been together a long time, we know what each other thinks, but it’s because I yield often. I yield. I don’t need, don’t have to have the last word. We’re putting in a counter in the basement, and I thought 72 inches would be right. She said, “I think that’s too long. I think that creates a space that’s too small there.” I said, “Yeah, but it’s more space on top for putting out the dishes and stuff.” And back and forth, back and forth. I called her yesterday and said, “Just call it. Deal.” Little things like that, hundreds of them.

3. Submission does not mean you do not try to influence your husband.

It does not mean avoiding the effort to influence or change the husband. The whole point of the text is with him, with him. Her life is devoted to changing this husband from an unbeliever to a believer. I mean, can you imagine if somebody said submission means”Stop trying to change your husband”?

Well, I get what they might be saying. I mean, I already said if you’ve tried twenty years to change each other, put in the compost pile. But if your husband is living in sin or your wife is living in sin or unbelief, you want them to change, and you wouldn’t be a loving person if you didn’t. And that may sound insubordinate to some. It’s not, biblically.

4. Submission is not putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ.

Submission is not putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. Christ is her Lord now. And for the Lord’s sake, she will submit to the husband, but he’s not her Lord. And so wherever the two have to be chosen between, she chooses Jesus.

If he says, “Let’s get involved in a scam. Let’s have group sex.” Her choice is clear. “I go with Jesus on this.” And she would say it not with a haughty arrogant. He will be able to discern in her a longing that he not do that so that she could enjoy him as her leader. You feel that? “I will not follow your lead on this, and I’m not following it with a demeanor that makes you know I want to follow your leadership and I can’t in this moment this way.”

5. Submission does not mean getting all of her spiritual strength through her husband.

Submission does not mean getting all of her spiritual strength through her husband. He’s not giving her any spiritual strength in this text, and she’s got lots of it. Her hope is in God. She’s probably going to church on Lord’s day morning before he gets up. Getting her strength elsewhere, getting her worldview elsewhere.

6. Submission does not mean living or acting in fear.

She’s fearless. So I love the Scriptures. I’m a complementarian. I believe that men are called to unique kind of leadership in marriage. I believe that women are called to unique kind of submission in marriage, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. And I think if we probe the depths and keep digging into the Scriptures, even though they’re written in another time, they will shape a marriage into a beautiful thing.

Submission Defined

So I would define submission like this. Submission is the defined calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership, and so help to carry it through according to her gifts.

So she’s saying to him when he says, “You can’t be a Christian,” she is saying back to him, “I want to honor you and affirm you as my leader. On this point, Christ has called me to believe. Therefore, if you say, ‘Don’t believe,’ I have to choose Christ.” But she affirms his leadership in that very act.

Honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and to help carry it through according to her gifts. I think that’s the point of Genesis. He made a helper fit for him. This world is called into being to have a husband and a wife in a marriage pulling together with her gifts that are so different from his. She may outclass him in five things, finances, perception of other people and how to relate to them, gifts of hospitality, intelligence for dealing with stupid theological positions, just on and on. She may be his superior. I got no problem with that.

Compenecy Doesn’t Matter

I had a couple in my church; he had an 8th-grade education. She was a college graduate. They’re still married. They’ve probably been married now for 45 years, and he was very simple. He had dyslexic difficulties in reading. She’s verbal as can be. And they heard me preach on this thirty years ago that a wife should submit to her husband. And they came to see me, and he just said, “She’s better than me at everything. She’s better than me at everything.” He was a painter, so I didn’t argue. I said, “You can probably paint better,” but that was beside the point.

And I said, “Okay, I totally get that. My wife’s better than me at lots of things too. I think that has zero to do with who’s a leader.” He’s like, “Wow. Competency doesn’t matter?” No, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. The whole world has gone the competency route: “If she’s smarter, she’s the leader.” That’s not the Bible way.

I said to him, “Look, let’s do this.” They had three kids, little kids at that time. They’re all grown now. I said, “Okay, so it’s devotions time. You do devotions?” “No, I try.” “Okay, we’re going to start having devotions — family devotions. You’re the leader.” And he said, “I have a hard time just reading out loud.” I said, “I know that. I know that. Not a problem, not a problem. We’re not talking about giftedness and competencies here. Can you say, ‘Hey, James. Hey, Sally. Hey, Michael. Hey, wife”? I don’t want to give the name away. Those weren’t the real names of the kids.

“Come on in here. Can you do that? Can you say that?”

“Yeah, I can say that.”

“Good. Okay, that’s leadership. And now sit them down in the living room. You got a Bible?”


“You know how to get it?”


“Okay, go get it. You get the Bible, say, ‘We’re going to have devotions. We’re going to start having devotions after supper every night.’” (Everybody said, “Whoa. Way to go, Dad.”)

And I said, “Okay, next, take the Bible and say, ‘Anybody got a favorite verse? A favorite verse?’ Yeah, okay.” He’d go, “Jane,” that’s the wife. We’ll call her Jane. “‘Jane, read that verse for us.’ Can you do that?”


“Can you say, ‘Let’s pray’?”


“Can you say, ‘Thank you Father for Jesus who loved us. Amen.’?”


“Done. That’s all I want. Just do that every night. It’s over. You don’t need to see me again.”

I totally do not believe that leadership is dependent on competency. Most of you women are ahead of your husbands. I get that. I mean, I went to Wheaton College. The admission standards of women at Wheaton College, they’re so off the charts in relation to men. They all break the curve. They’re all intelligent beyond words. They’re all physicists, canvas and literary scholars and whatnot. I went to that school.

I was 19th in my graduating class from Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, and all the people ahead of me were women — 18 of them.

My dad was gone all the time preaching the gospel. My mother did everything. She taught me how to cut the grass. She taught me how to make pancakes. When the bubbles appear around the edge, you know it’s ready to flip over. She taught me to make the french fries. We had a big french fries thing. “It’s got to be boiling before you put the fries in. Otherwise, they’re going to be soggy when you take them out.” And how to get Bermuda grass out and how to push a wheelbarrow and how to do a checkbook. My mother taught me everything. She was omnicompetent.

So here’s my mom. Here’s Wade Hampton High School. Here’s Wheaton College. Women are smarter. I know this. I get that. It just has nothing to do with leadership in the home at least. Smart women are happy to have less smart men say, “Let’s have devotions.” At least if they’re Christian, they are. Okay. I’ve probably spent too much time on the women here.