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Rules of Engagement: What does God Mean By Submission?

Happy senior man and woman couple together embracing by sea on a deserted tropical beach with bright clear blue sky

Read Ephesians 5:21-33

It doesn’t get more controversial than this.

In conversations about Christian marriage, Ephesians 5:21-33 gets hauled out and used to defend all kinds of ideas about who gets to do and say what in a marriage.


Entire books have been written on the issue of submission in marriage. Scholars have debated it. Well-meaning people have argued over it. Pastors have preached on it (and suffered the backlash from the congregation).

Yet for all its controversy, submission seems to be one of those issues that couples don’t really talk about. Instead, it has become a self-selecting process: We tend to marry a person whose ideas about submission dovetail with our own. I don’t know many couples who argue about, or come to the brink of divorce over, the topic of submission.

I do, however, know many couples who use their view on submission as an excuse to make really lousy decisions in their marriages. I know men who claim “headship” as an excuse for becoming overbearing and controlling, trampling their wives in the process. And I know women who wear their perception of submission like a veil behind which they can hide from responsibility and maturity, forcing their husbands to take on all the accountability in their marriages.

Perhaps we have misunderstood what submission is all about. We think of it as being an issue of position, of power. But, in truth, submission is about process.

Look at what is said – and isn’t said – about submission in these verses. Ephesians 5:21-33 talks about mutuality and respect, about care and tenderness, about compassion, goodness and gentleness. It describes being Christlike in our marriages. This passage is about how we are to live together as husbands and wives.

When Paul wrote these words, most marriages were arranged by parents. A husband and wife many times had little contact with each other before their wedding day. So when Paul told husbands and wives to build emotional and spiritual connections with each other, he was introducing a concept that would benefit the couple from the inception of their time together; mutual submission provided a foundation for the couple’s life together. He was asking them to make their marriages reflections of the beautiful love between Christ and his church.

One’s view on submission in marriage isn’t about the outcome of a decision; it’s about how that decision is made. It isn’t about who is in charge; it’s about how we treat each other. It isn’t about hierarchy; it’s about partnership. A godly marriage is two people working together to illustrate the love of God in their lives.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:21

Let’s Talk About Submission

  • How can seeing submission as a process help us deal with difficult issues in our marriage or perhaps even help us come to a consensus on the topic itself?
  • Was there a time when we misused the concept of submission to get our way?
  • What was the outcome of that approach?
  • Let’s write out some “rules of engagement” that we can use when we have tough decisions to make or conflicts to resolve. How can we make sure those rules are about process, not power?

– Carla Barnhill

Excerpted with permission from The Couples Devotional Bible, copyright Zondervan, 2012.

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Your Turn

Submission is hardly a discussion for your dinner party… unless you want half of your guests to leave! Has submission been a subject of conflict in your marriage? In your family? In your church? Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear your thoughts on how we what God actually means by submission! ~ Devotionals Daily