Does the Bible really teach that a Jesus-believer husband is ruler over his wife? The head of the household? The Lord of the manor? Must a Jesus-believer wife really be wholly, docilely, meekly subservient to her husband?
This teaching will very briefly summarize some interesting biblical scholarship about the subject of the roles of Jesus-believer husbands and wives in their marriages. Ephesians 5: 21 – 33 (and related passages) is one of the most controversial and contentious passages in the New Testament, a passage which has had Bible-believers fighting about it for many years, especially since the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611.
The entire matter of a Jesus-believer wife’s “submission” to her husband intensified when the publishers of the King James Bible imposed English meanings upon Greek words, instead of imposing Greek meanings upon the Greek words. If they had done the latter, the whole controversial issue of a wife’s submission and a husband’s rule over her might never have become so heated. Also, keep in mind the Bible was written in a primarily patriarchal setting, and England in 1611 was also a largely patriarchal society. Let’s begin our thoughts by pointing out a very interesting parenthetical matter: there is no passage in the entire Old Testament where a wife is enjoined to submit to her husband.
The Rule of First Mention
Speaking of the Old Testament, there is a basic rule of Bible study called The Rule of First Mention. It goes something like this: wherever a subject or topic is first mentioned in the Bible, all subsequent mentions of that subject or topic will agree (at least in principle) with that first mention. It’s just the way God planned the Bible—to make it harmonize and be consistent throughout its 66 books. For our current subject, the first mention of the relationship of a godly man and woman is found in Genesis 2: 18: “And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his equal, comparable, complementary partner.'”
The word helper in the Hebrew language is ezer, meaning a strength or a power. The word comparable in Hebrew is kenegdo, meaning an equal counterpart, a complementary counterpart. Thus, Eve was created as a power-full, equal partner to Adam, complementing him in all necessary ways. The same word for help(er) is used in Psalm 121: 2, where God is called a helper of human beings. Is God a subordinate helper to us? No. Just as God did not intend for Eve to be a subordinate helper for Adam. Adam and Eve were created mutually interdependent, mutually submissive to one another.
We should not overlook Genesis 3: 16 which can be summarized in this manner: Because of sin, Eve’s desire would be to control Adam. Also, because of sin, Adam would rule over Eve. Let’s give some further thought to this matter . . .
The Far-reaching Impact of Sin
The impact of sin caused many things to change after the fall of Adam and Eve; many things were turned upside down, 180 degrees opposite of what God had originally intended. So it was with the relationships mentioned in Genesis 3: 16. Originally, God intended Adam and Eve to be helpful, equal, mutually interdependent partners with one another. But with the entrance of sin into their lives, now Eve would seek to dominate or control Adam, and Adam would seek to rule over Eve, as would all their descendants, all having also fallen into sin.
A rubber-hits-the-road definition of sin is simply where humans set their minds and their wills to live self-filled, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-fulfilling, self-focused lives rather than God-filled lives. Thus, our human desire to control others, dominate them, and exert authority over them comes from choosing to live self-filled lives rather than God-filled lives.
In the light of the Bible’s clear teaching, this world as a whole is a sinful kingdom of darkness. In that dark kingdom, husbands often lord it over their wives with fists of iron. Wives are often forced to submit to husbands under the penalty—in some cases—of a cruel death if they do not submit. Often, wives are reduced to being nothing more than mere slaves to their husband-masters, with few or no rights of any kind.
Only whenever and wherever that harsh, evil kingdom of darkness is pushed back by the offensive onslaught of the Kingdom of light do we see significant changes between the roles of husbands and wives. We who are Jesus-believers have been born as citizens into a new Kingdom, a Kingdom of light under the servant-leadership of King Jesus. In that Kingdom of Light, husbands are also to be servant leaders, modeled after King Jesus’ pattern and style of leadership. Wives in that Kingdom of light will not hesitate to submit—willingly and voluntarily yield and give way—to husbands who are loving servant-leaders.
No Longer Under The Domination of Sin
When Jesus forgives and cleanses us of our sin and makes us entirely new creations, we are no longer to live under the domination of sin. A Jesus-believer wife is no longer to seek to dominate or control her husband as was told would happen to Eve; a Jesus-believer husband is no longer to rule over his wife, as did Adam—and as is all too often the case when husbands and wives are not citizens of the Kingdom of Light, still living under sin’s dominion.
Jesus-believer husbands and wives! Check your hearts and your motives . . . Are you still living under sin’s domination? Wives, if you are still living “in sin,” to the extent you are doing so, to that same extent you will seek to control or prevail over your husband. Husbands, to the extent you are still living under sin’s dominion, to that same extent you will seek to lord it over your wife.
But, we are no longer living under sin’s rulership; we are no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we are called to live “in Christ,” nullifying the effects of sin’s domination in our lives. The “model” in Genesis 3: 16 points out what happens when men and women live under sin’s cruel dominion, not what happens to those living in Jesus by the inner power of the Holy Spirit. The positions of the man and woman in Genesis 3: 16 resulted from their shared disobedience of God; that model shows the consequences of sin.
Our old sinful lifestyles of domination and rulership, like worn-out clothing, must be replaced by a new lifestyle of living in Christ, free from sin’s domination. To free ourselves from sin’s dominion and rulership requires constantly turning away from our old sinful ways of life on a day-to-day basis and living our new life in Jesus.
Let’s Look At Some Definitions
In the New Testament, there are 42 uses of the Greek word, hupotasso (and its derivatives), which have most often been translated as submit or be subordinate to in the English definition of the word, i.e., to be subjected to the control of another. On the other hand, the Greek definition of the word is to arrange in an orderly manner under something, or to voluntarily yield, defer, or give way to another. At the very least, the Greek word for submit certainly does not require Jesus-believer wives to accept degrading, unchristlike forms of subjection.
But . . . to gain greater understanding of the word hupotasso, we must first examine the Greek meaning of another word, head, in the New Testament. In the Greek language, head is kephale (and its derivatives). The word occurs 73 times in the New Testament. In most such occurrences, head carries its traditional meaning: that part of the human body above the neck and shoulders.
In other instances elsewhere in the New Testament (such as in Ephesians 5), the broader Greek meaning of the word head is source (as, for example, the source of a river, or the headwaters of a river). In a narrower sense, the word head means source of life, nurturer, servant-provider. For example, Jesus is head of his wife, the Church. That is to say, He is its Source, providing its nourishment and LIFE; He is the Church’s provider; He is the Church’s servant-leader.
The word head ( as it applies in Ephesians 5 to either Jesus or to a husband) does not carry the meaning of a domineering male superior, ruler, master, or lord to whom his wife is to be involuntarily subservient. Instead, it carries the meaning of a nurturing, life-giving, servant-provider. Those are the Jesus-like characteristics of a true head of a Jesus-believing wife and household.
Taken as a whole, the New Testament portrays Jesus as the “model husband,” unselfishly giving of Himself to enhance, serve, and nurture his “Wife”, the Church. He is constantly looking out for his wife’s highest good; constantly seeking for ways to please her; continually teaching her and promoting her growth and development; continually feeding her with the Bible, the Word of God; always looking out for her welfare; constantly giving of Himself because of his great love for her; continually interceding non-stop for her; constantly serving her in manifold and variegated ways throughout time and eternity.
As to the Jesus-believer husband, he is to treat his wife the same way Jesus treats the Church, He is to be the “head cheerleader” for his wife’s spiritual growth and development, loving and cherishing his wife in the same manner Jesus loves his wife, the Church. As her head, the husband is to be the source of LIFE for his wife (infusing God’s LIFE into her); he is to nurture her, provide for her all-around well-being, and be her loyal servant-leader. Only then can he truly be considered the head of his wife.
God’s Type Of Love
In Ephesians 5, the Greek word admonishing husbands to love their wives is a derivative of the Greek word agape, meaning God’s type of love (as distinguished from purely human types of love). God’s agape love is an infinite, eternal, unconditional love. That is the type of love with which Jesus-believer husbands are to love their wives. They can do so only by daily living in Jesus by the inner, empowering work of the Holy Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 13 for a “model” of how husbands should display and exhibit agape love in their day-to-day relations with their wives, and vice versa).
In response to such loving and nurturing care, the wife is to willingly and voluntarily yield, defer, or give way to her husband and align herself alongside him as his complementary and equal helper and partner. In fact, a close examination of the passage actually teaches that husbands and wives are to voluntarily, mutually submit to one another in the exact manner each voluntarily submits to Jesus, their mutual head.
The Bible does not teach here that submission can be required by one human being of another; it can only be given voluntarily on the basis of mutual love and trust. If a Jesus-believer husband chooses not to be the type of loving, nurturing, self-giving head God wants him to be (yielded to, directed, and empowered by the Holy Spirit), then nowhere does the Bible teach that a Jesus-believer wife is required to submit to that type of unwilling husband’s lording it over her! For too long, we have thought of the relationship of Jesus-believer husbands and wives in this manner:
Instead, we should come to view their relationship in this manner:
Husband – Wife
(Parenthetically, an international ministry named “Christians for Biblical Equality” hosts the premiere Christian website about such matters, where you can enjoy spending many, many hours of fascinating reading and scholarly teaching: cbeinternational.org.)
Suggested “Model” Prayer For Husbands and Wives To Pray for One Another
Below is a suggested model prayer Jesus-believer husbands and wives can use to pray for one another. I suggest it be prayed out loud a minimum of once a week so that both Satan and God can hear the prayer. Fold it up and carry it in your purse or day planner. Just insert your spouse’s name in the blank spaces and cross out “him” or “her, or “man” or “woman,” wherever appropriate:
“Heavenly Father, you have stated in the Bible that one who finds a godly [spouse] finds a ‘good thing.’ I believe you have ordained the marriage ____________ and I have as being the most complete illustration you could create in the entire universe of the relationship between you and your Spouse, the Church. I thank you for ___________, this totally other person who is, nonetheless, as much ‘me’ as I am me. Who can comprehend such oneness?! Yet, it is true: we together are one just as individually we are one with You. Help me to serve ____________ in the same manner You serve your Spouse, the Church. Help me to find ways to please ___________ daily. Help me to put ____________ before all others and everything else except for You. Help me to be open and listening in my spirit daily for ways to serve and help ___________.
If during the course of our marriage I find myself thinking ___________ needs to change, I leave such change up to you; my role is not to change ___________, but only to please him/her and help him/her to be a total man/woman: in spirit, soul, and body, and intellectually and emotionally. I affirm I am satisfied with _________ just the way he/she is, just as I was satisfied with him/her when we met and married.
Please don’t let me ever, ever fall into the insidious trap of concentrating on his/her faults and weaknesses and trying to change him/her! Rather, let his/her faults and weaknesses be my strengths, and vice versa, so we always genuinely complement one another. Help me to see my love for __________ is not merely something I feel, but it is something I do. By acts of love day by day, I show I love him/her, and in the doing, love him/her all the more, until at last one of us lays the other in your arms at the end of a long, loving, happy and successful marriage. Amen!”
Life Enrichment Services, Inc.
Revised and Updated October 2020