Colossians 3 is an amazingly helpful chapter, showing in practical detail what it means to be mature in Christ–Paul’s goal for everyone from the first chapter (1:28). Towards the end of the third chapter, Paul explains what Christian families should look like. That is, as God’s people, having put on Christ (3:1-10), he explains what these gospel-shaped families should look like. Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. 20Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (3:18-21).
For the next few posts, we want to think through this image of the gospel-shaped family. We begin with verse 18, seeing this:
The Gospel-Shaped Family Will Be Seen in Submissive Wives
There’s just nothing like jumping right with the easy stuff is there? Let’s be clear—this is not a message the world likes. To the world, submission seems dated and misogynistic at best, oppressive and cruel at worst. I have relatives that look down on me pretty hard for believing this is true—that the Bible says that wives should submit to their husbands.
But it’s not just the world that cringes at this teaching. Many Christians today have a hard time believing the Bible at this point. They would point to verses like Gal 3:28—“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”—they would point to a verse like that and say, ‘See we are all equal in Christ. There is no need to submit.’
But the same apostle who wrote Galatians also wrote Colossians. And what does Paul say here in verse 18? “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” You can’t escape the clear command that is there. But we need to think through this.
First, we need to see what Paul doesn’t mean. Some of the reason people get bent out of shape about this is because they do not understand what the Bible means by submission. So, let’s go myth-busting for a minute or two.
1. Submission does not mean putting a husband in the place of Christ. No man or husband, no matter how godly, is on par with Christ. Biblical submission isn’t about worshipping husbands or following him in all things. If a husband is sinning, a wife should say so and refuse to participate.
2. Submission does not mean a wife should give in to every demand of her husband. Sometimes a husband could want a wife to do something that’s not sinful, but wife still doesn’t want to be a part of it. Biblical submission is not just doing whatever he wants. It’s not about giving up her preferences or being “weak-willed.” And so a word here is needed for us husbands—but we’ll save that for the next post.
3. Submission does not mean giving up independent thought. Just because a wife submits doesn’t mean that she isn’t smart; sometimes even smarter than her husband. In fact, a wise husband will lead by getting input from his wife. Husbands aren’t called to rule, they are called to lead. And a good leader always gets wise counsel wherever he can. The responsibility is still his but that doesn’t mean the decision he reaches shouldn’t be discussed first.
4. Submission does not mean a wife should give up efforts to influence and guide her husband. Husbands aren’t perfect and wives should make every effort to influence them towards godliness. In fact, in 1 Peter, the apostle says, “wives, be subject to your own husbands, [why?] so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (3:1-2). Peter has in view here even unbelieving husbands who can be turned towards God by the attitude and conduct of a godly wife. How much more might believing husbands be influenced by their wives’ behavior towards them?
For example, submitting is a help to husbands because submitting to his leadership helps him to feel the weight that he needs to carry. When a wife says, ‘Take the lead’ they are putting godly pressure on him to realize the full weight of his responsibility under his Savior to provide godly leadership. When wives submit to their husbands, they help him become a better husband, and the kind of man that God would have him be.
I’m sure we could go one here, but these are probably the most common misconceptions of what submission means in the Bible. That’s what submission is not. Now, let’s unpack what submission is and what it means for marriage.
So what does Paul mean he speaks of wives submitting to their husbands? In short, it means letting them lead. It means willingly letting husbands take leadership in the home and bear the responsibility that comes with it. In their excellent book, Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Gruden explain it this way: “Submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership, and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will; rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership. Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits out of reverence for Christ, as Paul said in Ephesians 5:21.”
Paul says, “submit . . . as is fitting in the Lord.” Again, this doesn’t mean submit as if your husband is the Lord. Rather, it means submit as an act of obedience and worship to the Lord. As one who is in Christ, it is fitting to submit as it displays the effect of the gospel on your life. Wives are meant is reflect the bride of Christ who joyfully submits to Christ the bridegroom.
This is only a brief introduction to what submission is all about in the context of married life. But we should end with a real world example. Mark Kassian is a Christian author and speaker. She is also a wife and she explains what living in biblical relationship of submission in her life:
I’ve been married for 29 years—“just getting going” says my mom, who’s been married for 62.
“What it looks like” is a difficult question, since submission is not something foreign—not something “other”—to the character of a redeemed woman. Submission is not as much an “action” as it is an “attitude.” So it can’t be dictated by behavioral prescriptives. Submission boils down to a having spirit of amenability. It means being soft, receptive, responsive, and agreeable. Because of the misconceptions surrounding the definition of submission, I actually prefer to use the term “amenability.” Amenability comes from the French amener (to lead). An amenable woman is “leadable” as opposed to “ungovernable” She’s responsive to input and likely to cooperate. Amenability is part of the three-fold womanly disposition of 1 Peter 3:4-5, which includes gentleness, calmness, and amenability—which works itself out in a married woman’s life in submission to her husband.
So “what it looks like” on an on-going basis, is that I am soft, receptive, and agreeable toward my husband. I love responding to his lead. I respect who God created him to be as a man—and support his efforts to provide godly oversight for our family. I respect the position of responsibility that goes along with being a husband and father. “Respect” is probably the best word to describe what submission looks like in my marriage.
For me, submission is one of those things that is far more easily identified by its absence rather than its presence. I know that I am struggling with it when I am critical, impatient, defiant, and “snarky” toward my husband—when I refuse to cooperate and am unresponsive to input, when I rush in and take control, when I fail to “provide space” to allow my husband the opportunity to be a man and provide godly oversight for our family. In other words, it’s not readily apparent to me when I’m submitting, but it’s painfully obvious to me when I am not. I sense that I am disrespecting/ disregarding my husband, taking control, and pulling against him rather than for and with him.