So What Exactly Is Biblical Submission?

by | Aug 26, 2020

*The two-part blog series we’re wrapping up this week is a sneak peak into what Dr. Juli Slattery has been working on … a complete rewrite of her book Finding the Hero in Your Husband. Stay tuned for updates on when it will be released in 2021!*


Now that we have established what it does not mean, let’s look at what submission actually means. The word that appears as “submission” in English is a translation of the Greek word hupotasso. In the Greek language, this word means “a voluntary attitude of giving in and cooperating.” 

When a woman submits, she chooses to place herself under the authority of another. Think of it this way. You can’t really say “yes” unless you also have the power to say “no.” That means that in order to submit, you recognize your power and you choose to harness it for a greater goal. Instead of dominating or undercutting your husband, you choose to invest in him. The word submit was often used in the Greek culture as a military term. It communicated the idea, once again, of voluntarily placing oneself under the direct leadership of another for the purpose of a higher goal.

Wives are not the only ones in the Bible who are called to submit. Christians are commanded to submit to each other (I Corinthians 16:15 and Ephesians 5:21), to church leaders (Hebrews 2:13) and to government (Romans 13:1 and I Peter 2:13). In each of these cases, adults willingly recognize another’s place of God-given position. You submit to common social customs all of the time, even though you have the power and freedom to choose otherwise. When you are flying on an airplane, you don’t demand to board first. You wait for your turn. Why? Because you understand that you play a part of maintaining order for the greater good. 

Please don’t misunderstand submission as the absence of power and influence. Many women believe that they are submitting by adopting the attitude of, “Whatever he does is fine. I will just follow along.” Then they feel abandoned, violated, and resentful when their husbands make terrible decisions. By choosing submission, a woman does not neglect her influence in her marriage, but actually accentuates it. The more influence she has with her husband, the better. She wants him to know her thoughts, feelings, and opinions. She wants to be his confidante, the one he turns to in good and bad times. 

One of the best words to describe the spirit of submission is “empower.” To empower means “to promote the self-actualization or influence of.” In essence, a woman empowers her husband when she uses her influence and strength to help him to become a stronger, more confident, and godly person. Instead of threatening his influence, her power actually heightens it.

This is consistent with the fact that God created Eve to be Adam’s ezer (the word that is usually translated as helper). In Fully Alive, Dr. Larry Crabb explains the power of an ezer this way: “Notice this: the word ezer is never used to refer to a subordinate serving a superior, certainly not when it is used to refer to God as our helper. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ezer is translated as boethos. That word literally means ‘help provided by someone strong.’” Submission is perhaps the greatest expression of power because it is power harnessed for a greater good. 

The opposite of a submissive woman is a dominant or controlling woman. This distinction is made not because one uses her power and the other does not, but rather because each one uses her influence for exactly opposite reasons. The dominant woman cannot trust her husband’s leadership. So she uses all of her influence to take his power away from him. She invests all of her energy into proving to him that her way is better. Over time, her husband becomes weaker, more insecure, and less invested in meeting his family’s needs. 

On the flip side, the submissive wife uses all of her God-given influence to build her husband’s ability to lead. She shares her ideas, opinions, and feelings in a way that builds his confidence and adds to his ability to understand his family’s needs. Her goal is not to take his leadership away, but to empower him to grow into this difficult role. She does not use his mistakes to prove his inadequacies, but she succeeds and fails with him. She convinces him that she believes in him and will be by his side. She is able to wait for his leadership, even if she believes that she could do a better job. She tells him daily, through her trust, that she needs him to be a strong and capable leader. Her goal is to convince him that he can trust her with everything he is. The message that her submission communicates is: “I know you are not perfect, but I trust in God’s work in your life. I believe you are capable of being the great leader for our family that God has called you to be. I will help you with all that I am to achieve this goal.”

Over time, the strength that she gives will inevitably empower her husband to grow. The beginning of intimacy is really accepting the mission of submission. When a wife embraces the goal of communicating this attitude, it will change the way she views every decision, every conflict and each interaction with her husband. It is no longer “I win, you lose,” but “I can’t win unless I am helping you win. 

Submission means embracing the bigger picture of marriage.

There is a very important distinction between a Christian marriage and one that exists between two people who don’t know God. Christians realize that their relationship is about more than the pursuit of happiness. Don’t get me wrong. I want to be happy in my marriage! The days and seasons in which marriage is difficult can feel like walking with a bag of sand on my shoulders. But I can endure through those seasons because I know that there is a purpose beyond being blissful soul mates. Marriage is a profound form of revelation.

Your marriage is painting a picture of God’s covenant love, specifically of Christ’s love for His bride. This means that your marriage is intended to be something on earth that reflects spiritual truth. As you work out the practical aspects of navigating life with your husband, you both should be learning about the passionate, committed and sacrificial love of Jesus. If you don’t grab onto this, you won’t understand why God created male and female to “fit” together as unique creations. Granted, even Paul admits in Ephesians 5 that this picture is a mystery. We won’t fully understand it here on earth, but we can embrace the fact that there is something very sacred about a Christian marriage. 

The differences between your deepest longings and your husband’s deepest longings are not the result of social evolution. They reflect the Creator’s intention. Author and pastor David Platte put it this way, “When God made man, then woman, and then brought them together in a relationship called marriage, he wasn’t simply rolling the dice, drawing straws, or flipping a coin. He was painting a picture. His intent from the start was to illustrate his love for his people… For God created the marriage relationship to point to a greater reality. From the moment marriage was instituted, God aimed to give the world an illustration of the Gospel.”

When I choose to have a submissive spirit toward my husband, I do so not just because I want a better marriage. When our relationship is in a difficult spot, submission matters because I want to be faithful to the picture God is painting in my marriage. I know that my husband cannot become the hero God created him to be if I’m not consistently committing my strength to complete rather than compete with him. I want more than a good marriage. I want a marriage that reflects the goodness of God Himself. 

Couples can cope with almost any situation as long as they believe that they are in it together; but when it becomes “my opinion versus yours,” the blaming starts and oneness stops. There is a time to express individual thoughts, feelings and preferences; and then there is a time to make decisions as a united couple.

Submission is when you recognize that what you are building in your marriage is most often more important than what you disagree about (Yes, there are definitely exceptions, but they are few.) Have you ever been tempted to remind your husband in hindsight how much better your idea was than his? “If you only would have listened to me!” or “Aren’t you glad you took my advice?” This attitude—and trust me, I’ve been there—is what submission warns us against. Instead, we build intimacy by focusing on the marriage, not the mistake. “That’s okay. We’ve gotten out of bigger jams!” “We can handle this together.” “I’m really glad we decided to do this.” 

When you insist on getting your way in marriage, you may win the battle but you will lose the war. There are definitely times when a submissive wife stands her ground, confronts her husband, and refuses to follow him. But she does so out of a greater strength from and commitment to God, not just to stay in control. 


Submission means not giving way to fear.

Let’s go back to I Peter 3. Notice this statement, “You are her (Sarah’s) daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.” The enemy of submission is fear. 

I am most likely to use my power destructively when I am afraid. Marriage makes us vulnerable. It exposes our deepest needs and at times leaves us feeling “naked.” For a man to be masculine and for a woman to be feminine exposes the greatest level of vulnerability. It means that he must step up (move into the chaos) knowing that he might fail and be humiliated. And it means that she must step back (refuse to control) knowing that she may be disappointed and unprotected.

And so building intimacy in marriage means that we must confront fear. What if he messes up? What if he leads our family down the wrong path? What if he abandons me or rejects me? When fear wins the day, we are either paralized into weakness or mobilized to take control. We either bury our power or use it to bury our husbands. 

Let’s look at a real life example:  

Tina’s husband, Jim, has a bad temper. He sometimes yells at the children when he is frustrated with them or while he’s wrestling with a household project. The kids are obviously hurt by his anger and insensitivity. Should Tina intervene? How can she do this in the spirit of submission?

Tina’s husband in this situation is damaging his relationship with their children. She needs to set a boundary with him and help him understand how his temper outbursts impact her, their children and ultimately how they will impact him as a father and leader. To do this well, she can’t give way to her fear. Maybe Tina doesn’t stand up to Jim because she is afraid that his anger will turn on her. If so, she won’t confront him. Or maybe she reacts by “putting him in his place” with an angry outburst of her own. Neither of these fear-based reactions will help him become the father God has called Jim to be. 

Tina needs to wait for the right time to have an honest conversation with her husband so that he’s open to listening. She might say something like, “I know you easily get frustrated and angry. The way you yell at the kids is a normal reaction. I’ve done it myself! But it’s hurting them and hurting your relationship with them.” After listening to Jim’s response to this, Tina may want to suggest an idea of how to learn a different way of interacting. Maybe they could sign up for a parenting class at church, listen to a podcast that talks about anger, or meet with a mentor couple for advice. This may be the first of many conversations they have about this. It’s not nagging because she’s not telling him what to do. Instead, she is addressing a problem that they need to confront as parents.

Your fear will always play a role in how you negotiate situations like these within your marriage. Bossy, dominant wives are just as fearful as mousy, quiet wives. They just handle their fear differently. One takes over and the other one retreats. Submission doesn’t do either of those things. Submission means submitting your fears to God, trusting in Him to give you the strength to be the wise woman who builds her house. 

The “bigger picture” of my marriage helps me realize that fear doesn’t have to dominate me. While I work on trusting my imperfect husband, I am also working to more completely trust my perfect Husband. This needs to be more about my yielding to His ways rather than yielding to what my husband wants. Yes, the vulnerability of marriage can be frightening and intimidating. But much less so when I refuse to stake my survival on how my husband reacts to me. 

I love how Larry Crabb explains it, “A woman with a gentle spirit does not live in mortal fear of her husband. Fear no longer requires her to protect her soul. She is therefore free to honor a higher good, to respect her husband as a fellow image-bearer, and to invite him by her gentle attitude to be the man he was created to be.” (p. 61). 

If you are committed to building intimacy in your marriage, trust the One who created it in the first place. There is no new secret to a happy marriage that overrides how God designed us to interact as husband and wife. You have power. That power is building or tearing down intimacy in your marriage. God has given you wisdom on how to use your power in a way that honors Him and promotes intimacy. 



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