Wives: Love, Respect, and Submission

love respect submit

God calls wives to love, respect, and submit their husbands, as to the Lord, and that probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.

A Wives Only Wednesday Post

As I said in Monday’s post, Husbands: Love, Lead, and Serve, God designed marriage to be a mysterious kind of one-flesh partnership, which Paul’s describes in this powerful verse:

“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.

Ephesians 5:31-32

I recently started describing myself as a “megamysterian” to avoid the baggage-laden complementarian vs. egalitarian debate. For me, the only valid scriptural framework for solving the “profound mystery” of marriage comes from examining the relationship between Christ and the church.

With this bridal paradigm understanding in mind, and acknowledging that there are many more instructions for wives found in the scriptures,  I boil it all down to these three essentials: wives are to love, respect, and submit to their husbands.

Caveats and Disclaimers

I appreciate that not everyone agrees with what the Bible says about differing roles in marriage. My position is that these “roles” (not a term the Bible uses, by the way) are not intended as an organizational structure but point to the attitudes and responsibilities husbands and wives should embrace to best love and serve each other.

Because submission in marriage is a sensitive topic, let me first state what it is not:

  • Submission is not enslavement.
  • Submission does not imply not having a voice.
  • Submission is not being a doormat.
  • Submission is not subservience.
  • Submission is not even obedience.

Let me also say that fully functioning, genuinely biblical marriage requires both of you to operate in accordance with what the Word of God says. While I believe that husbands and wives are called to fulfill their biblical marriage mandates regardless of the response they receive from their partner, I also believe that a one-sided marriage is not sustainable for the long haul.

One more essential note. This post does not apply to a marriage that involves verbal or physical abuse, addiction, serial infidelity, or mental illness. If that’s you, seek safety and get professional help.

What the Word Says

I’ll start with one of several scriptures giving instructions for wives.

Wives, submit to your husbands as 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

(I’ll remind any husbands that might be lurking here that this passage is directed to your wife. Nothing about this passage implies that you are to get her to submit to you! Your corresponding instruction is to love her!)

What Does it Mean?

Let’s examine what the Greek words used here actually mean.

I’ve read dozens of commentaries, blog posts, and articles on this passage, some of which draw vastly different conclusions about the meaning than I do. Because this is such a critically important marriage passage, the words are important. What I say here is a very brief synopsis of where I come down on these words, which are packed with meaning.

Strong’s Concordance defines the Greek word often translated into “submission,” hupotasso, as “to arrange one’s self under,” and “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” I hope you sense the extent to which this is a choice made out of love, a gift to be freely given, not an obligation performed out of duty.

The term translated as “head,” kephale, in the passage above, does not carry the connotation of boss (there is a different Greek word that Paul would have used if that was what he meant). In this context, it means something more like “leading by being out front.” I think of something like the lead goose in a flying formation. J. Parker, who blogs at Hot Holy and Humorous, recently described it this way, “We’re walking into the woods with a narrow trail that goes somewhere we haven’t been…and my husband chooses to go first, leading and protecting me and expecting I’ll follow.”

A right understanding of headship is essential for accurately grasping God’s intent for submission.

More than anything else, submission is really an attitude of the heart that says, “I respect you as my husband and acknowledge the leadership that God has called you to in our marriage. I want to keep myself arranged behind your protective, loving care, to follow your lead, and to partner with you as we move along our marriage journey together. I submit to God first, and he has asked me to submit myself to you. I do so willingly and in much the same manner I do this unto Jesus in my spiritual journey.”

Respecting Your Husband

Your husband probably desires your respect more than he wants to have sex with you. Yeah, really. That much!

Given a choice between feeling unloved or feeling disrespected, three-fourths of men will choose to feel unloved, according to a survey performed by Shaunti Feldhahn for her book For Women Only. My own poll, taken a few years ago, clearly showed respect as the number one need for most husbands – by a significant margin.

It is very likely that your husband needs your love for him expressed as respect and admiration in the same way that you need his love for you expressed through emotional intimacy and feeling cared for.

The Bible expresses it this way:

However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.Ephesians 5:33

Strong’s defines the Greek word for respect, phobeo, as “to reverence or treat with deference.” Dictionary references include: holding in honor or esteem, to pay proper attention, and to show consideration for.

“But you don’t know my husband!” you say. “He can be such a pig-headed idiot sometimes.”

No, I don’t know your husband or the details of his pig-headedness (or whatever you see as his weaknesses), but I am well familiar with my own long list of shortcomings. Still, I greatly appreciate it when my wife approaches me with a respectful attitude, and I’m more likely to be open to what she has to say if she does.

You see, showing respect does not imply unconditional agreement or endorsement of every action, but it does imply that in all things and at all times wives should strive to maintain an atmosphere of honor in their marriage. (Yes, of course, wives need and deserve to be shown respect too, but for most wives, this is way down the list of their most important needs.)  Respect means not putting him down when you disagree. It means not talking badly about him to your friends or family. It means not browbeating him when asking him to do something. It means not assuming he will do the wrong thing or do things wrong.

The gift of your submission (remaining under his protective covering and supporting his leadership) is the action that flows from an attitude of honor and respect. This is a powerful principle that says “I love you” to your husband. Conversely, dishonoring or disrespecting your husband is a blow to his heart that says to him, “I don’t love you.”

Loving Your Husband

If respect is the attitude and submission is the action, love is the motivation.

Loving your husband means loving him on his terms. Because the top marital needs of men and women tend to differ greatly, it’s likely that you’ll need to express love to him in ways that are very different from the ways you want him to express love to you. Loving your husband how he needs to be loved will require you to become a student of your husband, learning what delights him.

Don’t neglect the little things. Little acts of love, expressed frequently, will do more to sustain your marriage than occasional grand gestures. Here are some little things most husbands would gladly receive as love:

  • Tell him how proud you are of him (about something specific)
  • Tell him he is your hero
  • Ask him about his day, and tell him how much you appreciate how hard he works
  • Strive to support and agree with the decisions he makes
  • Flirt with him and tell him how attracted you are to him
  • Tell him how blessed you feel to have a husband like him, and tell him why
  • Appreciate the way he partners with you in parenting the kids

The best way to find out what says I love you to your husband is to ask him. Keep your eyes open for the things that matter to him, and do them.

Most wives want their husbands to step fully into the mantle of loving leadership God has placed on them. The best way to encourage him in that endeavor is to do your best to let him know you believe in him, that you respect him, and that you honor him as the loving leader God has called him to be. If your husband is good-willed, as most are, then whether he is walking in the full maturity in his role right now or not, you can help him be the husband God wants him to be (but realize that his choices aren’t your responsibility).

Women who embrace the biblical notions of love, respect, and submission toward their husbands are not repressed, but actually free and full of power. It’s one of the many ways in which the Kingdom of God is upside down from what the world says.

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