What does Submission in Marriage Look Like?

As a gift for our wedding, my uncle gave my wife and me a box of Johnson’s Foot Soap. While this wasn’t exactly something on our gift registry, this simple gift has been one that we have valued for our nearly 20 years of marriage. Why? Just as our guests sat down to eat our chicken entrees, before Uncle Ben offered a prayer for the food, he presented us with the foot soap and explained to us that a healthy marriage involves washing one another’s feet. The foot soap was to be an enduring reminder that our calling as husband and wife was to serve one another day in, and day out.

Spirit-Led Submission

Putting each other first, symbolized in “foot-washing,” is the biblical pattern for married life. At the last supper, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in an act of self-giving that made some of them uncomfortable in receiving such submission. Later, In his letter to the Ephesian church, the Apostle Paul offers memorable instructions for marriage, in which wives are called to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives. Sometimes, though, by trying to focus on the difference in the roles of husbands and wives, we lose sight of the bigger picture of how they are fundamentally similar. And sometimes this has led to husbands seeing their role as that of a dominant partner, while their wives are to follow orders. And, tragically, this distortion of Paul’s words has even been used to justify abuse.

Look carefully at what Paul says just before he instructs husbands and wives in their respective roles:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:18-21)

Without getting lost in the weeds of grammar, there are two things that are crucial to understand. First, the word “submit” in the original language is a participle. It's an ongoing action that usually ends with I-N-G (like “running”). That matters, because participles never stand alone; they are always attached to a main verb. We don’t say “Running around the block” unless we attach it to a verb like “She went.” So, to what verb does “submitting” attach? Look all the way back at verse 18, where Paul commands all believers to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is the main command! Paul is instructing all believers to live a life that is Spirit-led, and Spirit-directed. And then he gives a series of images, all participles, illustrating exactly what that looks like: “speaking,” “singing,” “making music,” “giving thanks,” and yes, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

The point is this: submitting ourselves to one another is a mark of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives! One of the ways that we see the Spirit working in our lives is in the way that we put the needs of others before our own, serving them even in lowly tasks (like washing feet!). Spirit-filled living is a commitment that all believers are called to make to each other, and it is a readiness to imitate Christ by valuing others above ourselves and looking not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others. Submission is a quality of life among Spirit-filled believers.

In marriage, this means that submission is not limited to the wife! Both husband and wife are called to submit to one another. What does this mean?

Submission must never be abuse

First off, honoring God’s word means that abusing or controlling a spouse is never acceptable. Both husband and wife reflect the image of God, and any actions, physical, verbal, emotional, financial, spiritual, sexual, or otherwise, that minimize or attack God’s image in another person is a grave sin and should never be tolerated. If you are in a relationship where abuse is taking place, it’s urgent that you seek help immediately. The national domestic abuse hotline is 1-800-799-7233. Never put up with abusive behavior in the name of “submitting” to someone. Contact a trusted friend, family member, or church member, a pastor, or a local agency that helps those in abusive relationships, in order to get the help that you need to be safe.

Submission Is Joyful Service

Contemporary wisdom dictates that submission is weakness; we’d usually prefer to be served than to serve. Yet, the paradox of the Christian life is that our greatest joy is be found in serving others. In marriage, submitting ourselves to our spouse means that we learn the day-in, day-out habit of meeting the wants and needs of our husband or our wife. This can be as simple as brushing the snow off your wife’s car in the morning or as significant as putting a career on hold in order to care for a spouse with a long-term illness. Often, submission is learning to consider your spouse’s opinion as just as important as your own when making major decisions. It can look like listening as your husband shares the stress of his day, even though your day has been every bit as wearing.

Sometimes, submitting ourselves means seeking (and granting) forgiveness. Many of us find it hard to admit when we have made a mistake or have done something hurtful. And, it can be equally challenging to extend forgiveness because there is a whisper in our minds that suggests that holding on to our anger will keep us from getting hurt again, or that our anger is justified, or that granting forgiveness is a sign of weakness. Submitting, then, means that we set aside our pride, and that we admit that we have failed, and that we need the forgiveness from our spouse. Submitting to one another also means setting aside our anger and resentment, in order to offer the grace of forgiveness.

The Pattern of Submission

Submission to one another is indeed something we resist, and in fact, it will be not only difficult for us but impossible to do on our own. Left to ourselves, we would never willingly serve others. But, as Christians, God has given us the resources that we need to serve. Jesus willingly serves us by taking on our greatest need, our debt to sin and death. He submits himself to death for us. Jesus submits himself to the will of his father, and serves us, at infinite expense to himself. Why? Because he loves us – and more than that, he also gifts us with the Spirit. Remember, the call to submit to one another is tied to the person of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us! Motivated by God’s grace, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to serve one another.

Submission Works

The Johnson’s Foot Soap that my wife and I received at our wedding has stayed with us for nearly two decades of marriage. Have we always submitted to one another? Not a chance. But we’ve found that our happiest occasions in marriage are those when we each set aside our own wants and needs in order to put the other first. As we both have done this, we’ve discovered the joy that God intends for submission in marriage.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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