Morality Ch. 14: Wifely Submission

Rebellion against the patriarch was considered immoral in Roman society, so Christian wives and slaves were told to submit for the sake of the gospel. The situation has changed, so should Christian lifestyle change?

Men are traditionally supposed to be the brave and strong protectors of their wives. And yet, in the greatest physical danger faced by my wife during our marriage I wasn’t able to help much at all. Her clenched teeth, groans, and occasional screams told me how serious it was, but there was nothing I could do except hold her hand and pray as she delivered our babies.

With modern medical care, death in childbirth is very low (about one in ten thousand),1 though this is nearly four times higher than the likelihood of being killed in a car crash during the same year.2 In the ancient world, about a third of women died giving birth3 – far more than the number of men who died in battle or while hunting. No wonder Genesis says that painful childbirth is one of two consequences that women suffered when Eve sinned. The other is submission to her husband (Gen 3:16). Men suffered painful labor of a different kind: weeds and poor soil turned farming into backbreaking toil (vv. 17-19).

We have been able to minimize three of these consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin using analgesics, weed killer, and tractors – something we surely all thank God for. But what about wifely submission? Is this something that we should still encourage?

6-minute summary

Powerful helper

Being a perfect Old Testament wife did not equal being weak. Eve is called Adam’s “helper” (Gen 2:20; Hebrew ezer) – a word used elsewhere only of God and warriors who give protective “help.” And the perfect wife in Proverbs 31 is a successful entrepreneur. She starts by selling homemade clothes to foreign merchants at the port (vv. 13, 14, 24), and with the profits she buys land and builds up a wine business (vv. 16-18). Consequently, her husband doesn’t need a wage, so he works as a city magistrate (v. 23). She is also generous to the poor and finds time to manage her household servants and teach her children (vv. 15, 20, 26-28).

That description of a perfect wife was written by King Lemuel – not by King Solomon, who had a very different view of women (perhaps because he’d been married to so many!—1 Kgs 11:3). The proverbs attributed to Solomon include many warnings about women who are wicked, loud, or nagging – for example, Proverbs 6:25-29; 11:22; and of course 27:15: “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm.” But I think this tells us more about the author than the gender.

Romans regarded the ideal woman as submissive, demure, and thrifty. But these ideals started to crumble just before New Testament times, when an emancipation movement started. This became a subject of debates in the Senate, and their speeches show how frightened Roman men were of this. Wives had recently gained the legal right to spend their own money without their husband’s permission, and fortunes were disappearing on hairstyling and jewelry.4 By New Testament times, women were also enacting equality by taking lovers just like their husbands did.

Josephus, a Jewish historian, took the opportunity to commend Judaism to his Roman readership through his comments about women. While married to his third wife, he wrote in Against Apion that Jewish Scripture says: “The woman is in all things inferior to the man.”5 This is a lie, of course – there is no text like that in the Bible – but he knew his readers would love it. He then summarizes the law of Moses in a way that mirrored Roman household management.6 This was based on Aristotle’s three maxims: wives should submit to husbands, children should submit to fathers, and slaves should submit to masters.7

Paul and Peter also commend Aristotle’s threefold submission, but for different reasons and with less enthusiasm. They agree that slaves should submit, but add the caveat that masters should not misuse them. Likewise, they agree that children should submit but add that fathers should not debase them. And they agree that wives should submit but add that husbands should love them sacrificially (Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1; 1 Tim 2:9-3:7; 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18-3:7).

It was important for Paul and Peter to commend Aristotle’s rules (albeit with these caveats) because of the danger to the Christian message if they taught equality instead. They knew that encouraging a lack of submission in family life would be interpreted as immorality. If they taught equality, Christian wives would be regarded like the licentious Roman equal-rights women, so nonbelievers would “malign” their religion (Titus 2:5). They therefore told Christians to submit even to cruel masters and unbelieving husbands in order to advance the gospel (1 Pet 2:18-21; 3:1-2; 1 Tim 6:1).

I find it impressive and humbling that believers in New Testament times were willing to put up with cruel masters and micromanaging husbands so that people wouldn’t get a bad impression about their new religion. If they hadn’t done this, Christianity would have had a much harder time spreading.

In the Old Testament, things are surprisingly more lax. There is no command that women should submit – unless you include the one that caused all the trouble in Queen Esther’s day. Her predecessor, Queen Vashti, was ordered “to display her beauty” to the king’s party guests who had been drinking for the past seven days. When she refused, he dismissed her and made a new law that “all the women will respect their husbands … so that every man should be ruler over his own household” (Esth 1:20-22). The book of Esther was written partly as a Jewish reaction against this kind of thinking, which was becoming the norm. The woman in Proverbs 31 suggests that Jewish women had overall responsibility over household matters, and a good marriage involved teamwork. However, women regarded their husband as the leader of that team, because the normal Hebrew word for a husband was ba’al, that is, “lord.”

With my body I thee worship

Is the submission of wives a timeless command? There is certainly continuity between the Old Testament and the New. Wives were expected to submit to their husbands, and this worked well when mixed with mutual respect. However, this was certainly influenced by the culture of the times. The Old Testament didn’t specifically teach this because it was already an ingrained aspect of ancient culture, and when it does mention the subject it appears to emphasize respect for women. Aristotle’s rules were similarly widely accepted in New Testament times, and they appear to be cited only in order to add restrictions to them. After all, if husbands love their wives as sacrificially as Christ does, then submission is seen in a whole new light. So this rule is unlikely to be timeless because it always mirrors the prevailing cultures, and the Bible authors express concerns about aspects of it.

So should Christian wives submit to their husbands in today’s culture? Well, that depends partly on what couples promise to do in their own marriage vows.

Traditional marriage vows reflect the language of Ephesians 5:21-29, where we are told that Christ loves, cherishes, and nourishes his church. Later, when these three became marriage vows, the language morphed into “love, honor, and keep.” At some point, the word “obey” was added. Presumably this also derives from Ephesians 5—“wives submit.” However, in Ephesians these words follow immediately after an injunction for both men and women to “submit to one another” (vv. 21-22). This indicates an ambivalence in the Christian world about submission, also found in the Jewish world. In some surviving Jewish marriage certificates, the bride promises to obey her new husband, and in a small number, the groom also says he will obey his wife.

The marriage service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) remained almost unchanged from a much earlier English marriage service, the Use of Sarum (1085), which already included “love, honour and keep.” In it the bride also promised “to be bonny and buxom in bed and at board.” This vocabulary needs a little explanation: “bonny” used to mean “good,” “buxom” meant “obedient,” and “board” referred to mealtimes, as in the phrase “bed and board.” So this meant “be good and obedient, night and day.” Sadly, this was replaced by the more prosaic language “to obey.”

But the old marriage service does not only demand submission from wives. Traditional grooms also promised to submit when they said: “With my body I thee worship.” The old English “to worship” means “to serve obediently.” It survives in Shakespeare, such as when Jack Cade says he will dress his servants in uniform livery so they can better “worship me, their lord.”8 And we still use it in court in England when we call the judge “your worship.” This isn’t because he is godlike, but because we acknowledge our submission to his court.

Surprisingly, the one-sided obedience by a wife is a very recent innovation in Church of England wedding vows. Until a few years ago, if a woman promised to obey in her vows, the man also had to promise “to worship” (that is, obey). This was reiterated as a fixed rule in the 1980 Alternative Service Book: if the bride chose to say “love, cherish and obey,” then the groom had to reply with “love, cherish, and worship.” The first time that brides were allowed to promise to “obey” without her husband reciprocating it was in the year 2000, when Common Worship was published and didn’t contain this rule.

So submission by the wife alone was not available in Church of England wedding vows before this millennium. Couples had to either omit “obey” or had to promise to submit to each other, as in Ephesians 5:21. I can’t help thinking that this latter promise is better than the modern emphasis on individual rights and self-determination. Two people committed to serving each other are much more likely to live harmoniously than one or both of them trying to be the boss.

1^ For modern UK figures, see NHS, “Around 1 in 10 Maternal Deaths Due to Flu” ( 2^ In 2013 there were about 1,700 road deaths in the UK (see the table at, which has a population of about 65 million. This was a chance of 1 in 38,000 that a person would die in a road accident during that year. 3^ Before antibiotics, about 50 in 1,000 births resulted in the mother’s death. See Geoffrey Chamberlain, “British Maternal Mortality in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries” ( For an average of seven births per woman, this means one in three mothers died this way. 4^ The Lex Oppia, c. 200 BC (, funded the war against Carthage by limiting what women could spend on luxury. Men tried to keep this law because, as Cato said, “As soon as the law no longer imposes a limit on your wife’s extravagance, you certainly will not be able to impose it” (Livy, History of Rome 34:3.1-3, trans. Evan Sage []). 5^ Josephus, Against Apion 2.25, trans. William Whiston ( 6^ Josephus, Against Apion 2.25-31, trans. William Whiston (starting at 7^ “The science of household management has three divisions, one the relation of master to slave, … the paternal relation, and the third the conjugal, for it is part of the household science to rule over the wife and children [as well as slaves]” (Aristotle, Politics 1.5.1 = 1259a, 37-40, trans. H. Rackham [], and expounded in Economics). 8^ Henry VI, part 2, act 4, scene 2.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

Your comments can start a discussion

Share this page on social media and your comments could start a discussion among your friends. Any link you create this way will continue working even after this month when the topic will no longer be available on this site. So new visitors to your discussion will still be able to read the discussion topic so long as they use your social media link.
  • On Facebook the topic, then go to your Facebook page to add your comment.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "David Instone-Brewer"
  • On Twitter tweet the topic, then go to your Twitter account to read it.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "@DavidIBrewer"

Subscribe to each new monthly release

● To follow on Twitter: 
● To follow by Email:        
● On Facebook, first "Like" it:
Then, to ensure you see the post each month, in "Following" tick "See first"
("Default" means Facebook decides whether to show it to you or not).