“Wives, submit to your husbands.” Christians might be familiar with this phrase from the bible in Ephesians 5:21-33 written around the first hundred years A.D. But what does it really mean, and does it hold up in today’s society?
What does “Wives, submit to your husbands” mean?
At face value, when the Bible tells wives to “submit to their husbands,” it’s instructing them to view their spouses as authority figures in the relationship. It defines men as the heads of their household and commands wives to be followers.
Christian social ethicist, preacher, and religious studies professor at Elon University Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters, tells O.school that it’s important to look at the Bible as a collection of texts written in a very different time period and culture. Many of the teachings are no longer relevant to us today.
Many Christians argue that the passage is not actually intended to mean wives must obey everything their husbands say. Some say the passage is only highlighting that men and women are simply different, and although they’re equal in worth, they play different roles in life and in marriage. Though this reading can be problematic as well.
“[Some] Christians are really committed to a very gendered understanding of the world and a very hierarchical understanding of the world,” Rev. Dr. Peters says. But she adds, “There are a lot of Christians who say ‘No, that is a disordered way of thinking about creation.’ That’s a historically marked, contingent, patriarchal way of reading the Christian narrative and story and the Bible.”
Is it sexist to think wives should submit to their husbands?
Implying that husbands should always be the leaders in their marriages is unquestionably sexist. “It's worse than toxic,” Christian pastor and ethicist Sara Wilhelm Garbers, M.Div., tells O.school. “It's abusive and dehumanizing. It has no place inside of Christian faith in our time.”
This isn’t to say that Christianity itself is toxic or sexist — it just means it’s important to consider the history of certain teachings, particularly those that are notably unjust. The idea that husbands should be a leader and authority figure over their wives is an outdated teaching best left to the history books.
“There’s nothing in God’s teachings that can harm women. If there is anything that someone is telling you that harms women, that is not holy. That is not sacred,” Rev. Dr. Peters says. “Even if it maybe made sense in that cultural context, that doesn’t mean it’s holy today.”
Should we, instead, submit to each other?
Some Christians believe submission in marriage doesn’t apply to any one gender but rather to all spouses. Ephesians 5:21 does instruct people to “submit to one another,” perhaps implying that both spouses in a marriage should honor and serve each other.
“Fundamentally then, the idea is that everyone is supposed to submit to one another (e.g. don't be a jerk and check your ego and live in love),” Garbers tells O.school. “They were arguing for mutual submission, and I'm all about us all checking our egos so as to participate in full humanity as full people in equal relationship with one another. Anything less than the full affirmation of all (yes, I mean all) humans as bearers of the divine and equal for all the rights and privileges afforded to humans is anti the Christian message.”
Garbers believes Ephesians 5:22 wasn’t only talking about mutual submission but also specifically about husbands “giving themselves up” for their wives. “At that time men would be told to give up their power like Jesus did to submit himself to be in a relationship with us,” she explains.
“Imagine a world in which all of the men who were nominated for Best Director at the Oscars were like, ‘Um, no. Men have had too much privilege for forever, so I'm not going to accept this until you nominate all women one year.’ Revolutionary. That is the gospel message.”
Such a gospel message serves us better as a society as plenty of research suggests that the happiest and most stable marriages are the ones that are more equal in terms of sharing the housework and making financial decisions.
The bottom line
Contrary to what the “Wives, submit to your husbands” teaching may suggest, women are leaders. Just like husbands, they can lead the household, be the head decision-makers and breadwinners, and be the spiritual guides of their families. Women also do not exclusively marry men, and men do not exclusively marry women. No matter what kind of relationship you’re in — whether you split roles and responsibilities, have a totally equal partnership, or have one partner take a lead role — if the dynamic is working for you and your partner, then it’s right for your relationship.