Why does the Bible teach wives to submit to their husbands? Many women and men, struggle with this command. Because if Christ made us all equal (Galatians 3:28), why this seeming inequality?
We have already discussed God’s intentions for our married life, and have seen the comparison between Christ and the Church. If you haven’t read that article, I strongly advise you to read it first, because it sets the foundation for understanding why God made husbands the head of the wives:
It is part of His plan of reuniting the Church – and so you, as part of the Church – with Him.
We don’t always (or hardly ever) understand the bigger picture when it comes to God’s plan. Since we are not omniscient like God, much remains a mystery, and we have to work with what He tells us. We accept what He tells us and act it out in faith. But, I believe that there is nothing wrong with eagerly wanting to understand more of God, of His plans and purpose for our lives. On the contrary, the more we get to know Jesus and imitate Him, the closer we grow to Him, and the more we become like Him.
Thankfully, as long as we listen carefully, He always tells us just enough, one way or the other. So, let’s look at what He told us about why wives should obey their husbands:
Reason one: We are the Light of the world
In Ephesians 5 Paul uses the picture of Adam and Eve and Christ and the Church to explain the type of submission that is expected of wives. In Ephesians 5:22-24, he says the following:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (ESV)
That is, I believe, a big reason why wives should submit to their husbands. Because husbands and wives are a representation of Christ and the Church in this world. And it’s a privilege for married couples to be able to demonstrate this close and wonderful relationship.
As Christ shines on us, we should reflect His light into this dark world. We should live like children of the Light. And that means understanding and living by God’s will (Ephesians 5:8-14). So, by following God’s design we are showing the world what the Kingdom of God looks like, and that Christ rules in our lives.
Reason two: A husband is a wife’s head-covering
Paul wrote: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3, ESV)
Then Paul continues to talk about head coverings and says: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” (11:7-12, ESV)
Then from verse 14, it becomes clear that Paul is referring to hair. But he is not just referring to hair, because a hairdo is not what gets a person into heaven. Hair is as unimportant as any other perishable thing. Hair is not even alive – the part you can actually see is made out of dead matter.
Doing your hair properly to secure your salvation is like washing the outside of a cup without a changed heart (Luke 11:37-40).
So, what Paul says, must have a meaning beyond what the eye can see.
I believe that one of the reasons why Paul chose to “vaguely” write about the covering of the head instead of plainly saying “hair”, is because “head covering” also symbolizes protection of the head.
Of course, the “head” is an indispensable part of the body. Without a head, there is no life, no way of seeing, thinking, talking, hearing, nor any chance to stay on the path to follow Christ.
Covering and protecting the head, is also what the helmet of salvation does. And that is what I think he also alludes to when he implicitly calls husbands saviors: That the husband has a saving role by protecting his wife as a helmet would. Much like the helmet of salvation, husbands can protect wives from all kinds of ways in which the enemy might attack their minds, and so influence their actions.
Without actively realizing it, my husband actually applies this principle to me too. Whenever I deal with insecurities, doubts, or other negative thoughts, he helps me to remember God’s promises and His salvation, and to focus on what God saved me for.
Another example: Almost nothing I write, goes public before he had a chance to give me some feedback. I do this because I trust God to protect and guide me through my husband.
Not solely through my husband of course; I have a relationship with Jesus myself, which is the most important relationship I have. All that Jesus tells me to do I try to do as best as I can, even when I don’t completely understand it. But it does help me to know that my husband provides extra security against my own fallibility.
I actually didn’t fully realize how Biblical this was until I did my research for this article.
We see this role of protection being instated by Moses in Numbers 30. In that chapter, Moses instructs husbands (through the heads of the tribes of Israel) to confirm or nullify any vow his wife makes in order to protect her from the consequences of not being able to keep her promise. And if the husband doesn’t nullify a rash promise on time, he will have to bear the consequences.
But there is more to a husband’s protection than that since he is supposed to imitate Christ. Christ lovingly saves the Church in many ways, for example, He:
- sacrificed Himself for the Church
- sanctifies the Church
- leads the Church
- instructs the Church
- provides for the Church
He does this out of true (agape) love, which we are commanded to have towards each other too (John 3:16, John 13:34-35). So, this is also the loving role a husband should have towards his wife. With a self-sacrificing love, he should serve her and lead her, like Christ serves and leads the Church.
Through his writings about head coverings, Paul also explains how husbands and wives should present themselves. And the only right way is by following God’s design. For wives that means embracing their femininity, and for husbands, it means embracing their masculinity. Which by implication means that a wife should (if possible) have longer hair than her husband.
But, and this is very important: not in a legalistic way. Because like I said before, hair isn’t important at all. Wearing your hair a certain way does not influence whether or not you are saved, but it can be a sign that you understand and want to obey and communicate God’s design. And this is something that only saved people can truly do.
Women were created by God to look a certain way. And it is up to the wives to honor and embrace the design that distinguishes them from their husbands. By doing so, wives openly demonstrate that they are not the man of the house, but that they respect their husbands and the authority God gave them. Just like the Church appreciates being led by Christ. In this way, couples reflect God’s light in their community.
An important side note:
Of course, this doesn’t mean that if your hair is naturally short, or if you don’t have any hair, that you aren’t fully woman, or that you are dishonoring God and your husband. Most definitely not. This has everything to do with the state of your heart: Do you respect God’s design, or are you trying to change His plan? Do you love God enough to do as He commands, or are you trying to take control?
The fact that you do love and respect God, is what is outwardly demonstrated. This happens almost automatically as a result of that respect and love. So, sincerely respecting God’s plan always starts with our relationship with God. We should not pretend to be something we’re not, that would just make us hypocrites.
Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth is about doing the right things (in this case praying and prophesying) the right way (with respect for authority) for the right reasons (for Christ).
He also counterbalances the husband’s authority by saying that both husbands and wives are dependent on each other (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Husbands need wives just as much as wives need husbands. Evidently, one cannot be (physically) fruitful without the other.
So, it’s not that a wife is weak or unworthy without her husband, that would be a flawed conclusion. Husbands and wives form a team, in which they help each other in a variety of ways.
There is one final thing I can think of when it comes to the symbolic meaning of head coverings. Paul mentions several times that it is a disgrace for wives to shave their heads. Why is that?
Well, we know from the Old Testament, that a shaven head wasn’t a good sign:
- It was a sign of uncleanliness (Leviticus 13:33).
- Shaving the head was a sign of mourning (Job 1:20, Ezekiel 7:18, Amos 8:10).
- Priests were not allowed to shave off all their hair or to grow it too long (Leviticus 21:5, Ezekiel 44:20).
- If a Nazarite shaved off their hair, it symbolized the end of their dedication (Numbers 6:5-19).
Now, since wives and husbands demonstrate the relationship between Christ and the Church- think of the role the Church has in relation to Christ.
Since we are under grace:
- We are not unclean (Acts 11:9).
- Nor are we in a perpetual state of mourning (2 Corinthians 7:4, Galatians 5:22, John 15:11).
- We are all serving as priests (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6).
- And we do belong to Christ (Galatians 5:24).
Reason three: We are the Light in our marriage
The third reason is found in 1 Peter 3:1-2:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (ESV)
To describe disobedience to the Word, Peter uses the Greek word ‘apeithousin’, which means disobedience, rebellion, and disbelief.
That’s interesting. Because instead of saying that you don’t have to submit to a man who is nothing like Christ, Peter’s instruction says that you should especially submit to him. Why? Because by showing him what purity and respect look like, he might be won over and change his ways. Not by words, but by deeds.
If your light shines on him, he will reflect it.
In doing so, we follow God’s example. He is also kind to us while we are undeserving of His kindness. He is forbearing and patient with us. And His kindness is intended to lead us to repentance too (Romans 2:4).
Reason four: We do it for Christ
The fourth reason is found in Colossians 3, where Paul instructs Christians to stop living like the world and to put on the new self. He says that this new self “is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator” (3:10). So, the new self continues to learn and is constantly renewed so that it becomes more and more like God.
That means that wives should conform to what Christ expects of them when it comes to their attitude toward their husbands. Instead of conforming to the expectations of the world, culture, parents, etc.
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18, ESV)
In this chapter, but also in his other letters, Paul instructs Christians to submit to authorities because we fear the Lord. So, not because we want to people-please them, but because we want to please God. God is the One Who instituted all authorities for His good purpose (Romans 13:1-4). Even the evil ones.
This means that when we obey our husbands, we do it wholeheartedly. Because by doing so, we are obeying Christ. Even if the husband is nothing like Jesus, we know that in actuality we serve Christ and that we will be repaid for all the right and wrong we do (Colossians 3:18-25).
Obedient wives live by the greatest power and wisdom available: God’s.
Women who follow the will of God, have the God-given boldness, courage, and strength to go upstream in the river of life and find its source. They don’t yield to any pressure, and don’t fear people’s opinions, but seek only to please the Lord.
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