What Does Subjection in Marriage Mean?
WHEN a Christian woman marries, she has to make many adjustments. Perhaps the greatest of these affects her liberty. As a single adult, she may have been free to make many of her own decisions without consulting anyone. But now that she has a husband, she is obligated to consult him and ask his permission to do many of the things that she used to decide for herself. Why is this so?
Because when the Creator of mankind gave the first woman in marriage to the first man, He appointed the man to be the head of his wife and their future children. This was only reasonable. In any organized group of people, someone needs to take the lead and make final decisions. In the case of marriage, the Creator decreed that “a husband is head of his wife.”—Ephesians 5:23.
In support of this, the divine instruction states: “Let wives be in subjection to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22) How a wife is affected by this arrangement depends on two things: First, how willing is she to submit to the arrangement? and second, how will her husband exercise his authority? In truth, when both marriage partners view the arrangement properly, they find that it is a blessing for the wife, the husband, and their children.
Not a Tyrant
How should a husband exercise his authority? By following the fine example of God’s Son. The Bible says: “A husband is head of his wife as the Christ also is head of the congregation, he being a savior of this body. Husbands, continue loving your wives, just as the Christ also loved the congregation and delivered up himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:23, 25) Jesus Christ’s exercise of headship was a blessing to the congregation. He was not a tyrant. He did not make his disciples feel restricted or oppressed. Instead, he gained the respect of all by his loving and compassionate treatment of them. What a fine example for husbands to follow in their treatment of their wives!
There are husbands, though, who do not follow this fine example. They use their God-given headship selfishly, rather than for the good of their wives. They dominate their wives in a tyrannical manner, demanding total subjection and often not permitting them to make any decisions for themselves. Understandably, the wives of such husbands often live an unhappy life. And such a husband also suffers in that he fails to gain the loving respect of his wife.
True, God requires a wife to respect the position that her husband holds as head of the family. But if the husband desires to enjoy her heartfelt respect for him as a person, he has to earn it, and the best way to do that is by acting responsibly and cultivating fine, godly qualities as head of the household.
Subjection Is Relative
A husband’s authority over his wife is not total. In some ways wifely subjection can be compared to a Christian’s subjection to a worldly ruler. God decrees that a Christian must “be in subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1) Yet this subjection must always be balanced by what we owe to God. Jesus said: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” (Mark 12:17) If Caesar (the secular government) demands that we give him what belongs to God, we remember what the apostle Peter said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
In a somewhat similar way, if a Christian woman is married to a man who does not understand or fails to respect Christian principles, she is, nevertheless, obliged to be subject to him. Rather than rebel against this God-ordained arrangement, she would do well to act toward him with love and consideration and thus try to gain his confidence. Perhaps such fine conduct will make her husband change; it may even win him to the truth. (1 Peter 3:1, 2) If her husband orders her to do something forbidden by God, she has to remember that God is her primary Ruler. For example, if he demands that she engage in immoral sex practices, such as wife swapping, she is obliged not to submit. (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10) Subjection to her husband is governed by her conscience and by her primary subjection to God.
In the time of King David, Abigail was married to Nabal, a man who did not respect godly principles and who acted harshly and unlovingly toward David and David’s men. These had protected the thousands of sheep and goats belonging to Nabal, but when David requested a food contribution, Nabal refused to give anything.
Upon learning that her husband’s niggardly attitude was going to bring disaster on the household, Abigail decided for herself to take food to David. “Abigail hastened and took two hundred loaves of bread and two large jars of wine and five sheep dressed and five seah measures of roasted grain and a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs and put them upon the asses. Then she said to her young men: ‘Pass on ahead of me. Look! I am coming after you.’ But to her husband Nabal she told nothing.”—1 Samuel 25:18, 19.
Was Abigail wrong in acting contrary to the will of her husband? Not in this case. Abigail’s subjection did not require her to be as unloving as her husband, especially since Nabal’s unwise course put his whole household in danger. Hence, David said to her: “Blessed be Jehovah the God of Israel, who has sent you this day to meet me! And blessed be your sensibleness.” (1 Samuel 25:32, 33) Similarly, Christian wives today should not agitate and rebel against the headship of their husbands, but if these take an unchristian course, the wives do not have to follow them in this.
True, Paul in his letter to the Ephesians says: “As the congregation is in subjection to the Christ, so let wives also be to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:24) The apostle’s use of the word “everything” here does not mean that there are no limits to the wife’s subjection. Paul’s expression, “as the congregation is in subjection to the Christ,” indicates what he had in mind. Everything that Christ requires of his congregation is righteous, in accord with God’s will. Therefore, the congregation can easily and joyfully be in subjection to him in everything. Similarly, a wife of a Christian husband who earnestly tries to follow Jesus’ example will be happy to be subject to him in everything. She knows that he is very concerned for her best interests, and he will never knowingly ask her to do something out of harmony with God’s will.
A husband will keep the love and respect of his wife when he reflects the godly qualities of his head, Jesus Christ, who commanded his followers to love one another. (John 13:34) Even though a husband is fallible and imperfect, if he manages his authority in harmony with the superior headship of the Christ, he makes it easier for his wife to be happy to have him as her head. (1 Corinthians 11:3) If a wife cultivates the Christian qualities of modesty and loving-kindness, it is not difficult for her to subject herself to her husband.
Humble and Reasonable
Husbands and wives in the congregation are spiritual brothers and sisters with an equal standing before Jehovah. (Compare Galatians 3:28.) Men, however, have been assigned by God to exercise congregation oversight. This is gladly recognized by righthearted women in all submissiveness. And the weighty obligation it puts upon men not to be lording it over the flock is humbly recognized by mature men in the congregation.—1 Peter 5:2, 3.
If such is the relationship between men and women in the congregation, how can a Christian husband justify his acting as a tyrant over his wife, his spiritual sister? And how can the wife justify competing with her husband for headship? Rather, they should treat each other as Peter admonishes all members of the congregation: “All of you be like-minded, showing fellow feeling, having brotherly affection, tenderly compassionate, humble in mind.” (1 Peter 3:8) Paul too counseled: “Clothe yourselves with the tender affections of compassion, kindness, lowliness of mind, mildness, and long-suffering. Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another. Even as Jehovah freely forgave you, so do you also.”—Colossians 3:12, 13.
Such attitudes should be cultivated in the congregation. And they especially should be cultivated between husband and wife in the Christian home. A husband can show his tender affection and mildness by listening to suggestions from his wife. He should consider his wife’s point of view before making a decision affecting the family. Christian wives are not empty-headed. They can often give their husbands valuable suggestions, as Sarah did to her husband, Abraham. (Genesis 21:12) On the other hand, a Christian wife will not be unreasonably demanding of her husband. She will show her kindness and lowliness of mind by following his lead and supporting his decisions, even though they may sometimes differ from her own preferences.
A reasonable husband, like a reasonable elder, is approachable and kind. A loving wife responds by being compassionate and long-suffering, recognizing the efforts he makes to fulfill his responsibilities in spite of imperfection and the pressures of life. When such attitudes are cultivated by both husband and wife, subjection in a marriage is not going to be a problem. Rather, it is a source of joy, security, and lasting contentment.