Authority: Is It Really the Biblical Counterpart to Marital Submission?

Authority: Is It Really the Biblical Counterpart to Marital Submission? |
Photo Credit: © George G. Shubin (Rachel’s husband)

The other day my husband George burst into the room with his camera in hand and shooed me out to the neighboring field of tall grass. He’d been wanting try taking a golden hour shot using his umbrella flash modifier for fill light, and twilight shots are always a race against the setting sun.

After seeing the final image (to the left there), my Mom commented about me sneezing the rest of the night; but I’m not allergic to grass, and I’ve been taking meds extra faithfully this summer because pollen counts in our area are terrible and I am allergic to cottonwood. So, what if George had asked me to go stand in front of the cottonwood tree for a picture in May when it’s blowing its cotton? Would I have done it?

The Litmus Test

While this is an extremely mild example, this type of question comes up constantly when I talk to people about complementarian/egalitarian issues. When I say I think the Bible talks about husbands and wives each submitting to and loving one another as opposed to husbands leading and wives submitting, they often present a question like this: “If your husband asked you to do {insert some utterly ridiculous/offensive/painful/horrible/dangerous thing here}, would you do it?” I’m not talking about everyday things on the scale of standing in front of a tree; the hypothetical question always involves  some entirely unreasonable request that the inquirer assumes would get an automatic “no” under any other circumstances. The question is a ringer, a Catch-22, and the intent is to trap me into saying the expected “no” so they can then point out that I’m not for submitting after all, mutual or otherwise.

Love – The True Counterpart to Marital Submission

Here’s the problem. That entire line of reasoning is predicated on the idea that the marital counterpart to submission is oppositional, interlocking authority. When I read, I don’t see that at all. When I look at Ephesians 5:22-24, it talks about the wife submitting to her husband in the way that a body is joined to its head. The usage of “head” throughout the entire passage is as a body part, not an authority. There is a Greek word for authority, but Paul doesn’t use it once in this passage, and when he talks to the wives he never refers to the husband as an authority but as a head. A head to a body.

In the verses immediately following, Ephesians 5:25-31, Paul switches from wives to husbands and talks about the husband loving his wife in the way that a head is joined to its body. Paul never once tells the husband to be the authority either or explains what that should look like. What he does tell the husband to do is to love his wife and what that should look like. When I read this passage and the others like it, what I see is not authority and submission as oppositional forces tied together, but love and submission as cooperative forces tied together. Love, not authority, is the Biblical counterpart to marital submission. When I think about how that would play out in real life, the two start looking extraordinarily close to the same.

Metaphorical Usage

Since the same “submit” word is used elsewhere in the New Testament in relation to governing authorities, many people lump that meaning in with marital passages (Rom. 13:1-6 uses the word for authority, not head, to describe the government) . In Ephesians, three verses are spent on wifely submission while the following seven are spent on husbandly love. Three verses comparing a husband to a body’s head and seven connecting a wife to that head’s body. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about how your physical body should submit better to your head or how your head should love your body better? The overriding image seems to be one of unity, not hierarchy.

This extended metaphor doesn’t show up with passages on governmental structures, nor do those passages have counterpart exhortations in their sections for the government to love its subjects (although the parts of the Bible written to rulers definitely requires that in the forms of  justice and mercy); but Paul does use the same type of body metaphor in I Corinthians 12:15-27 to explain relationships within the church, and it is always recognized as a metaphor for unity there. The teaching of love (not authority) and submission being the operating structure within the body of Christ is everywhere in the New Testament (more on most of this here). With that backdrop in mind, the problem with the “If your husband asked you xxx?” becomes clearer.

Bad Presuppositions

“Would you do xxx?” is the wrong question. Not only is it the wrong question, but it is asked of the wrong person. If a wife comes into the pastor’s office or if she elsewhere complains that her husband is asking her to do things that are not loving toward her, the response should not be to ask her why she isn’t doing them. The question should be put to the husband asking why he would request or require such a thing of her in the first place.

When you see the marriage dichotomy as authority/submission, the “If your husband…” question makes sense because any refusal is a challenge to his perceived authority. When you see the marriage dichotomy as love/submission, the question makes no sense because love would never ask someone to do such things in the first place and it would certainly never require compliance if the question were posed. The questionee is not the problem; the questioner misunderstands both his own duty to love and how beneficial authority works in general and in what situations it applies.

My Answer to the Question

So, if George asked me stand in front of the cottonwood so he could take my picture, would I do it? The first and arguably the most important point is that he wouldn’t ask me to because George loves me. If he did ask me, I would say, “Umm, George, my eyes will swell up and I’ll be sneezing for days if I stand there.” At that point he would say, “Oh! Sorry, I forgot. Let’s do it in the field instead.” If later he still wanted a shot by the tree, he would just find someone else to use for the shot. No power struggle over who is not exercising their authority correctly or who isn’t submitting properly because the issue is not one of authority. It is an issue of love.


  • Final note: If George suddenly became other than who he is and insisted upon my standing in front of the allergy tree after I reminded him that it would make me sick, I would tell him “no.” For us, this would be a complete rarety; however, if your spouse (male or female) consistently asks you to do unreasonable things that put you in danger or show blatant disregard for your personhood in mind or body, please consider reading through a screening for abuse and getting help if necessary. 

18 comments found

  1. So, basically, you read the Ephesians 5:22-24 passage, rejected the notion of headship of the husband to the wife, and then ignored the clear meaning in the following phrase — that Christ is the head of the church (i.e., the church is in submission to Christ, the meaning of headship). That, my dear, is clearly eisegesis — and badly done at that — rather than exegesis.

    1. No, that’s not what I was saying at all. You pulled Ephesians 5:22-24 out from the rest of the passage. Let’s try pulling Ephesians 5:25-31, the section Paul writes to husbands out and seeing if that clarifies things a bit more:

      “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

      Do you see anything about headship or ruling in there? It starts by telling husbands to love and ends with explaining how husbands and wives are one flesh, which is exactly what I’ve been saying: head and body – one flesh. On top of that it talks about how Christ loves the church the same way and nourishes and cherishes it. If you read this without the preceding three verses that you posted, you don’t come away with any sort of impression that this passage is about leadership or submission or any of that at all.

      That’s what my post was about – the counterpart to the wives’ section on submission is the husbands’ section on love. Love is the corresponding part, not leadership or authority.

    2. comreich,

      “So, basically, you read the Ephesians 5:22-24 passage, rejected the notion of headship of the husband to the wife, and then ignored the clear meaning in the following phrase — that Christ is the head of the church (i.e., the church is in submission to Christ, the meaning of headship).”

      There is no headship of the husband to the wife in Ephesians 5:22-24. At least not in the way you seem to imply. The husband is only called the head of the wife in direct apossition to being savior of the body.
      Direct Apposition in Greek grammar is a relationship between two or more words or phrases in which the two units are grammatically parallel and have the same referent. Concerning the word head in Ephesians 5:23, the husband is called the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, in direct apposition to being “savior of the body.” It is according to this criteria only that the parallel between husbands and Christ are drawn. This is not talking about personal spiritual salvation as in being born again. The word used for savior is soter and in the Greek it means to aid, rescue, help, deliverer, preserver, and it is a continuing process.

      If one studies Biblical symbolism, they would quickly find that oftentimes symbolism and metaphors that were used in the surrounding culture were transported into the New Testament and sometimes interchanged with Christ or other concepts. One has to go no further than Revelations to see this importation and interaction between culture, symbolism, and its influence on Biblical language and metaphor.

      In Colossians and Ephesians Christ as the head of his body saves it by nourishing it with the sustenance needed for its survival. He also fights its enemies to protect the church. He is depicted as being powerful and operating with authority, but not over His Church, rather over outside forces on behalf of and for the sake of the Church. This is a symbolic language for Roman patronage. Patronage was a system of caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with resources and being a guardian and protector for a weaker party, this is how Christ as head of His body is depicted. It is symbolism for aid and rescue, not leadership. It was what Phoebe offered Paul in Romans 16:1-2. In Greek, she is called (prostatis).

      A patron, or benefactor, held a highly respected and influential position in the household. In fact, leadership and benefaction often went hand in hand, BUT leadership only followed due to benefaction. The leadership and directives given to others by the Head/ Patron were centered around benefaction. This is not raw authority, or personal authority over another, nor the type of authority that controls others out of their personal agenda. It is mission driven leadership in order to offer aid to those weaker and dependent. Thus Ephes 5:21 that says to submit one to another out of reverence for Christ. The Head does not escape mutual submission when appropriate. Reference 1 Clement 37:5-38:1-2a.

      “Let us take the body as an example. The head without the feet is nothing, likewise, the feet without the head are nothing. Even the smallest parts of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body, yet all the members coalesce harmoniously and unite in mutual subjection, so that the whole body may be saved. So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each of us be mutually subject to our neighbour, in proportion to each one’s spiritual gift. The strong must not neglect the weak, and the weak must respect the strong. Let the rich support the poor, and let the poor give thanks to God because he has given him someone through whom his needs may be met. . . . ”

      Roman marriages ran off a system of patronage, and with few exceptions, it was the husband who was the Patron of the wife. In the Roman-Greco Empire, husbands were in front of the weaker wife offering them military protection, finances, food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. Husbands also had to represent their wives in all legal matters and were the face and voice of the wife to the outside world. A wife depended on her husband for her whole livelihood. Therefore, in Ephesians, husbands were symbolically called the head of the wife on account of saving her body. The Romans gave metaphysical meaning to the word “head” and what it provided to the rest of the body in order to save it, they also considered the head of the body to be preeminent. In exchange for the services offered, in the marriage, the weaker party offered domestic services, submission, and honor to their Patrons. A Patron was not in authority on account of their gender, they were a higher power figures on account of their resources and social status that gave benefits to the weaker.

      Husbands tended to exploit their weaker wives on account of this system, so they are called upon to imitate Christ’s humbleness on the cross in order to elevate their wives and love them as they love themselves. What Christ gave up on the cross was status and power, not just His life. Husbands were being called to humility. 1 Peter 5:5 says that mutual submission is to be clothed with humility. Wives were already expected to submit according to the culture, but now they were enjoined to do so on account of the aid husbands offered them, it was an apologetic for why they should continue and submit. Elsewhere in the NT they are called to do so for missional reasons so that the Word of God is not mocked, or to win husbands over. All reasons are cultural and you do not find any of this in Genesis 1 & 2.

      So there is no “headship” in Ephesians 5 the way complementarians believe. We have no references to Christ practicing headship over His body when He is called its head. You can look through all of Col and Ephs and you will not find it. It was only used as a head body methapohor with the head saving the body. Also, exactly how is the Church in submission to Christ? It is only in theory because Christ does not issue commands to Churches when they meet for board meetings or decisions as seen in the fact that we have over 30,000 denominations.

      1. This is brilliant and extremely helpful background information. Thank you so much for posting it!

  2. I love this! And I think it has application beyond the marriage relationship, too. I see that authoritarian church leaders who insist that people submit to them are failing to follow the example of Jesus, who led by loving and serving, not by demanding that people obeyed his commands.

    1. Right! Every time I hear people talking about “servant leadership,” I cringe now. It seems what they mean is really, “You serve; I do the leading, thanks.” Jesus never does that. He serves; people follow the man who heals the sick, tends to the hurting, and protects those in misfortune. Even then just as now, people crave the real thing.

  3. I think i get what you’re trying to say here, but there’s the risk of a form of “head” as “source” issue which suffers the semantic range fallacy. Regardless, Christ is the perfect example of both leadership and submission in His life of earth. These are heavy and solemn verses for men as they struggle to demonstrate their understanding of these passages. And yes, many do struggle.

    Is the headship of Christ metaphorical to where He is loves us but has little or no authority over our life and daily practice? If He’s not in charge who is? metaphors are ok, but not at the expense of intended meaning.

    So, the field or the tree for my allergic wife? The field. Bonus if there’s wildflowers, Not all decisions are the same as that, though.
    Married couples face much more serious decisions.

    1. I think you’ve almost got what I’m trying to say here but not quite. I don’t think the “head” means source in this case. I think that “head” means head. Like on top of your body. The unified nature of the body is the metaphor for the relationship between a husband and wife. It’s not “head” means husband and also source, and body means wife and also… ??? I don’t think “head” means husband and also authority and body means wife and also… ??? I think that the head and body together are the metaphor for the relationship between husband and wife. I think I’ve almost figured out how to explain this graphically. I’m going to think about it a little bit more and hopefully have something together for next week.

      What you are talking about with relation to headship of Christ isn’t his “headship” by rather the kingly aspect of his nature. When the Bible talks about Jesus as head, it seems to usually be talking about how we are united with him or partakers in his body or something like that. It denotes unity as it seems to in Ephesians 5. When the Bible talks about his ruling authority, the talk about him being king. Ephesians 5 does not talk about the husband being king nor does it instruct the husband to rule.

      Yes to wildflowers! And no, certainly not all decisions are the same nor as lightweight as that. We’ve been married 21 years. I’m aware of this. But if the stakes were even higher for your wife than swollen eyes and sneezing, would your response not be to afford her even more grace and love? And if the stakes were higher for you, would she not want to afford that same grace and love to you?

  4. Thank you, Rachel, for this wonderful post.

    Yes, Jesus is the head of the church, AND our Savior, AND the lover of our souls. Why wouldn’t husbands want to emulate His example?

    Our Lord is not a brute and does not use His authority to demand submission; it is His love that draws us to Him. It is this same wondrous kind of relationship that should also be seen in marriage. But as we can see, this truth creates conflict with the scowling legalists. How very sad.

    For my part, I am thankful to have been brought out of an abusive marriage to a “Christian” man who demanded all authority and my complete submission. I was expected to forfeit my value, my needs and desires and blindly submit. It was like living in hell.

    Even when I dared to share my experience with fellow believers, no one told me that I didn’t have to live like that. No one said that our marriage was abusive or unbiblical. They were wrong. I was a shell of a person by the time I left, yet many would say I’m the one who failed. My only failure was to remain with the man who did not love me as Christ loves His bride.

    I am now married to a man who loves me in a godly, balanced, biblical way. How could that possibly pose a problem?

    1. Cindy, I’m so sorry to hear both of the grief you endured in your marriage and the terrible response you received when you asked for help. Your story is not an uncommon one, and it is to the great shame of the church at large that such things happen within our body, Christ’s body. I am so glad that you are now with a man who loves you and reminds you of Christ’s love through his own example. Thank you for sharing your story. May your heart be at peace.

      1. Hello, Rachel, and thank you so much for your kind response.

        Yes, I am very much at peace now and live in the knowledge and freedom of the truth. As a result of my own experience, my husband and I began an outreach to women in abusive relationships called I am the author of “Why Is He So Mean to Me?” and “God Is My Witness: Making a Case for Biblical Divorce” and also provide one-on-one coaching to help abused women (mostly believers) to understand the abuse dynamic.

        My intent is to give hurting women what I did not receive – validation and emotional support.

        Thank you for sharing the powerful truth about godly marriage here. There will always be antagonists, but there are also many who are hungry for the truth and are deeply grateful to find it… I had to respond here because one of your commenters tossed out the kind of heartless legalism that causes many victims to remain with their abusers.

        If you would like copies of my books, you can reach me through my website. I would be happy to send them to you.



      2. WOW!!! Great stuff you’re doing over there. I’ll come bug you through your website, but I love the coaching service idea and have often thought that would be hugely helpful. Awesome work!! <3

  5. Love this, Rachel. I’m new to your blog but I will be sure to check out more posts. You have hit the nail on the head with this one! I’m in the middle of writing a book on the role of women– and my book on Jesus and women (Unexpected Love) was published a few years ago (Thomas Nelson, 2013). I have a feeling I have found a kindred spirit.

  6. This is interesting and I will certainly have to give it some thought and consideration. I’m not sure if I’ll land exactly where you are at, but I’ve seen things in those passages that also doesn’t jibe with what the “thy husband is thy god” crowd teach. (Oops. Did I just write that?) What you’ve written makes more sense in some ways, but I need to study more.

    One thing that makes me cringe whenever I see it is women (especially young women) writing that fathers are the heads of the daughters. I cannot think of and have not found a place where the scripture says that the father is the head of the daughters, or his family for that matter. Saying that would be so offensive to some people, but if God didn’t say, we surely shouldn’t!

    In the context of what you’re saying, this is even more inappropriate. If you are essentially right in your interpretation, the father as the head of the daughters (or even family) is even more bothersome and inappropriate. Plus, I always wonder how far that alleged “headship” goes when it’s with the daughters and is compared to his headship over his wife, especially after reading so much about fatherly “authority” run amok. (You see where the cringe comes in.)

    This is my first visit here, so I’ll poke around again later, Lord willing, and see more of what you’re about – for better or worse. hehe 🙂 Thanks for making me think.

    1. Mary, thank you so much for your comments! Yes, the whole fathers as heads of their daughters often seems to spread out to some real weirdness. And no, I don’t see it supported anywhere either. The places that talk about training children talk about both parents doing it.

      Poke around all you want. I don’t mind if you don’t agree with some or most are any of what’s here, and I think the Bible affords plenty of room for honest discussion and disagreement (note the seven zillion denominations currently in existence). If something I wrote is making you ponder things, that is the best compliment I could ever ask for. 🙂

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