Submission in Marriage

Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, recently wrote an article carried in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age about submission in marriage.  He wrote in response to recent coverage of a new Anglican Prayer Book which has a set of vows (there are a number of vows that a marrying couple can choose from) in which the bride says she will “submit” to her husband.  Granted that for centuries brides have been promising to obey their husbands and these words are synonyms, you would think that it is no big deal.  You’d be wrong.

It’s safe to say the article caused a stir – it had over 900 comments within half a day, and that’s quite possibly a record for the Herald / Age website.

Whilst the vows require the woman to say that she submits to her husband the man makes no such promise.  Instead he promises to love his wife.  The vows are based on the passage in Ephesians 5:21-33 in which wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, and husbands are commanded to love their wives as Jesus loved the church by dying for it.  You really have to read the Ephesians passage to understand why the vows are the way that they are.

Here’s what I think Jensen is saying:

  • Marriage is important;
  • Marriage is based on promises;
  • Men and women are different;
  • Their promises should be different;
  • The husband has the very onerous task to love his wife as Christ loved the church.

That flow of logic is all well and good, but I think that the main point is missed.  The main point is that the vows say what they do because Ephesians 5 lays out that pattern for marriage.  I am aware that different Christians have different interpretations of that passage.  But for the sake of the argument let’s say that Jensen’s is correct.

What Christians believe, being based on the bible, will sometimes make sense to the world, and sometimes will not.  At this point in time the world loves the bit where the bible says, “love is patient, love is kind…”  And the world doesn’t like the bit where the bible says, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”  In centuries past it might have been the other way around.  The church has to cling to the bible consistently, regardless of whether its views are in fashion or out of it.

These vows simply make no sense in the West in the 21st century.  There is no way that you can adopt them unless you accept that the way that a marriage should look is the way that the bible says that it should look.  In the modern world very few people are concluding that wives should submit to their husbands because it is a good idea.  The people who argue that are those who accept the bible as their authority.  The real issue is the authority of the bible.  Evangelical Christians believe that God has revealed himself through Jesus, and that God has inspired the authors of the bible to reveal truth in its pages.

I don’t think that you can really persuade people that they should follow what the bible says about family relationships on the grounds that it makes sense.  If it does make sense then fashions might change and it will no longer make sense tomorrow.  The best defence of vows that reflect the bible and are at odds with modern thinking is this:

  • God made marriage;
  • God knows how it works best;
  • God has spoken about how it should look;
  • What he says is that there is a different role for men and women;
  • The role of the wife is to submit to her husband;
  • The husband has the very onerous task to love his wife as Christ loved the church.

If people don’t accept the very first point above then they won’t accept the conclusion.



13 Responses to “Submission in Marriage”

  1. John – AMEN! Thankyou for this blog. Your discernment is correct. If you don’t beleive that God made marriage, then you won’t believe in his design of marriage.

    I have blogged on much of what you shared above here:

    I hope you find it an encouragement.


  2. Dear Tim, yes I think you’re advocating control, as was Jensen as was John in his statement that men are not required to submit to their wives. I haven’t said a woman shouldn’t submit nor that a man is not the head. But you would rather debate and throw scriptures at me (which we’ll disagree on again) than admit that you’re required to submit to your wife, something I would have thought you’d want to do while you’re busy loving your wife as Christ loved the church.

  3. Dear Tim, If I take you’re argument to its full illogical point, then wives don’t have to love their husbands because God doesn’t clearly directly tell them to do this. Surely you can see how ridiculous that is? It seem far more obvious that God is pointing out what is harder for both sexes to do and thus implying that submission actually comes easier to a man than a woman. Yes it does say a man is the head, but that doesn’t make him the boss but the one the one who lays down his life the most, goes first and makes the biggest sacrifice. It continues on with “a man leaves his father and mother (read submits his life) and the two are united into one” How can one unit not be equal together in its fullness. Its beautiful to see a man so in love with his wife that he would do and give anything for her, but there’s nothing uglier than a man who wants his wife to submit so he can dictate and control her to feel better about himself – there is nothing of God in that.

    • Hi Anonymous,

      1. I think that’s true, in part at least. Wives are not called to love their husbands in the same way that husbands are called to love their wives in this passage, i.e. as Christ loved the church. What I mean is, allthough the church certainly loves Christ, it’s not the same way that Christ loved the church. The church doesn’t ‘look after’ and ‘provide for’ Christ as Christ does for the church. Instead, the church accepts and submits to Christ’s loving sacrifice for her, and in the same way wives are taught to accept and submit to their husbands’ loving sacrifices for them. Wives don’t love their husbands in exactly the same way that husbands love their wives.

      2. I don’t understand where you see submission in a man leaving his father and mother. In my mind, that shows that he has become an adult, and is therefore no longer in submission to his parents, as he himself now takes responsibility for his own family. He is leaving his submissive role of child, not moving into a new submissive role.

      3. Apart from what I said in 2. above, I agree with what you’ve written from “Yes it does say a man is the head…”. I think you’ve given a good summary of what that means, and I especially agree with “there’s nothing uglier than a man who wants his wife to submit so he can dictate and control her to feel better about himself – there is nothing of God in that.” But I never argued in favour of a husband dictating and controlling his wife, and the Bible certainly doesn’t argue that. Did you think that’s what I was advocating, or were you just making a point?

  4. Very well written. Whole heartedly agree!

  5. Hi John. Thanks for your post. Regarding your comment that we can’t persuade people to follow what the Bible says on the grounds that it makes sense, how would you apply this to the current debate about changing the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples? Should Christians argue to protect the current definition? If so, is there any way we can do so on the basis that it makes sense (i.e. is good for society), or is this the wrong way to approach it?

    • Thanks Tim. I am not nearly as concerned about this issue as some other Christians that I know. Personally, I would like to see the defintion remain as it is because in my mind that is what marriage is and should be. But I don’t have an argument for my local MP. I don’t have an argument that society will be better off with a certain definition of marriage. All I can say to my MP is that I personally would like it unchanged, because of my own convictions on the issue.

      But I do not expect politicians to legislate in line with the bible. They are a secular government and I think that lobbying them to legislate in a Christian way is of very limited use. No one in the New Testament spent time lobbying governments (as opposed to people acting as judges in criminal matters) – as far as I can tell they were too busy making disciples.

      • Thanks John, that’s a bit of food for thought for me. I guess my thinking is, taking your example in your blog, if God made marriage, and if He knows how it works best, society is better off following His design whether they believe in its origins or not. But I’m not 100% sure. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. I’m sure you’ll get lots of comments on this one. My two cents is should get your facts straight – “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV). Men are also called to submit to their wives. I’d like to see Jensen stick that in his vows. These sort of articles make me happy to be single.

    • Anonymous – In the case of Eph 5:21, ‘one another’ does not indicate perfectly reciprocal submission, I.e. It doesn’t mean that sometimes the wife submits to the husband and other times it’s the other way around. Take the phrase “they killed one another,” referring to a large group. ‘One another’ here does not mean every individual killed every other individual, and then was killed by every individual. Rather it means that as a group, some individuals killed others. Likewise submit to one another means that as a church group we should be characterised by submission, and then Paul explains the relationships and directions in which this submission should occur.

      • Dear Tim, if you want to make up stuff, a logical discussion isn’t possible. I think it’s abundantly clear God is specifically talking about a husband and a wife here in this context.

        • Hi Anonymous,

          I’m thinking you mean that 5:21 applies specifically to husbands and wives. I certainly don’t think that’s clear.

          Firstly, all of what Paul writes right up to verse 20 is addressed to the church in general – it logically flows that 21 is addressed also to the church. It doesn’t become specific until v22.

          Secondly, Paul doesn’t only teach husbands and wives about submission and headship in this context, immediately after this he teaches children and parents (6:1-4) and slaves and masters (6:5-9). It would make sense then, for 5:21 to be an overall direction to the church in light of the three specific applications he follows with.

          Thirdly, wives are given a specific reason for submitting to their husbands – “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church.” How are we supposed to apply this if v21 makes it reciprocal? You can’t have both husbands and wives being the head any more than you can have both Christ and the church being the head.

          Lastly, if 5:21 is a direction for husbands to submit to wives in the same way that wives submit to husbands, don’t you find it odd then that wives are specifically directed to do this in 5:22-24, yet husbands are instead taught to love their wives? We find very similar distinctions between husbands’ and wives’ roles in Col 3 and 1 Peter 3 as well. At least 3 times wives are taught to submit to their husbands, nowhere are husbands specifically taught to do the same. If 5:21 applies to husbands submitting to wives then, it’s unusual considering both the rest of Ephesians and the NT.


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