Question: “In 1 Peter 3, wives are told to ‘be subject to your own husbands,’ and ‘this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands…’ What does Peter mean by ‘submission,’ and how should wives apply it today?”
Answer: Yeah, that’s a tough passage, especially in our cultural context. The world misunderstands what the Bible means by submission in marriage, and then condemns God’s Word as “chauvinist” and “misogynist” based upon their misunderstandings.
The section in 1 Peter 3:1-7 is in a bigger section of 1 Peter that deals with the necessity of holiness in the lives of blood-bought believers in general. Beginning in 2:13, Peter calls believers to be Christ-like in relation to all of the basic spheres of authority in our lives – civil government (2:13-17), household/employment authority (2:18-21), and marriage (3:1-7). The defining attitude that Christians should have toward those in authority over them is one of submission.
It’s important to see that the New Testament uses the term “submission” in both a general way and a specific way. In the general sense, it means to “give way” to someone else, to yield to the needs, desires, or will of another person. Paul uses the word in that way in Ephesians 5:21, where he says that all Christians should be “submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ.” It’s this general kind of submission that Paul is alluding to when he says that love “does not insist on its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13:5). In 1 Peter 3, Peter is saying that this kind of yielding spirit is “beautiful,” and that’s because it is Christ-like – like the One who submitted to the point of death on the cross.
But the New Testament also uses the word “submission” in a more specific way in some passages. Right after Paul says in Ephesians 5:21 that all Christians should submit to one another, he goes on to apply this general attitude of Christ-like submission to the specific role of the wife in marriage: “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.” Again, in Colossians 3:18 Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
In this more specific type of “submission,” it means to “yield, give way to the one or ones in authority over you.” As Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The Bible recognizes legitimate authority structures in life (in civil government, church, and home), and teaches us to submit to authority. Of course, this isn’t absolute submission, because Scripture teaches us that we must not submit to authority that requires us to disobey our ultimate authority, which is the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Peter and the Apostles said “We must obey God rather than men,” when the Sanhedrin ordered them to cease preaching the Gospel (Acts 5:29; Cf., Acts 4:19-20).
The Bible teaches that there is a God-given authority structure in the family. The husband and father is designated as the “head” or leader of the family, and the wife and children are called upon to follow his leadership. This teaching is very offensive to our current culture, because they interpret this teaching through their grid of a worldly understanding of leadership and authority. The world has also seen too much gross distortion of this Biblical concept, thinking that it advocates an abusive, bullying leader of the home who demands his own self-centered way and oppresses other family members.
Jesus taught that leadership and authority are to be used to serve those who are under your oversight. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28). Paul said, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25). Authority in the Kingdom of God isn’t about power and selfishness; it’s about responsibility and service.
Being the spiritual leader of the home doesn’t mean that the husband makes unilateral decrees. He should exhibit the qualities of Christ-like leadership: profound humility; a deep concern for the well-being of all those under his oversight; a willingness to make all sacrifices necessary to benefit his family; and a compassionate, listening ear. As I’ve tried to live out this responsibility in my own family, I’ve tried to listen carefully to the expressions of needs and desires in my family and come to a consensus about what is the best decision. Only in very rare cases has it been necessary for me to make a decision upon which we weren’t able to come to an agreement beforehand.
So, to sum up, even though a husband and wife are equal in essence before God, the Lord has appointed the husband to be the servant-leader of the home. As Christians, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, but wives are given a particular calling to submit to the leadership of the husband. This means that the husband has a special responsibility before God to serve, care for, protect, and lay down his life for his wife, for the purpose of seeing her grow more spiritually beautiful in the eyes of God.
In marriages where the husband and wife humbly and faithfully strive to fulfill their callings, the marriage is a healthy and beautiful picture of the loving relationship between Jesus Christ and His church. To whatever degree the husband and/or wife sinfully and selfishly refuses to be faithful to their calling, the marriage becomes unhealthy and miserable.