Good question…did/does God order wives to ‘obey’ their husbands?

Draft: June 14, 2001                                                                [Summary]

Someone sent me an email with a number of items in which they maintained that God hated women. One of those items was that “God commands wives to obey their husbands”, so I wanted to point out—for the record—that the bible doesn't actually say that at all.

Let's look at the passages most often assumed to mean/teach that:

Ephesians 5: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her  26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,  27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—  30 for we are members of his body.  31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.  33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. [Eph 5.22ff]

Colossians 3: Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,  24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.  25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. (4.1)Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. [Col 3.18ff]

I Peter 3: Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives,  2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.  3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  4 Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.  5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands,  6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. [1 Pet 3.1ff]

First of all, let's notice that none of these “commands” use the word “obey”. The only occurrence of something with that word is the example given of Sarah in the Petrine passage (discussed below).

Secondly, let's observe that in the time of the Roman Empire, there were things called ‘household codes’. So, [REF:BBC: at Eph 5]:

“The section 5:21–6:9 addresses what we call “household codes.” In Paul's day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of “religions from the East” (e.g., Isis worship, Judaism and Christianity), which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for those values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on. These exhortations about how the head of a household should deal with members of his family usually break down into discussions of husband-wife, father-child and master-slave relationships. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight from standard Greco-Roman moral writing. . But unlike most ancient writers, Paul undermines the basic premise of these codes: the absolute authority of the male head of the house.

Thirdly, let's look at the specifics of each passage:

The Ephesians passage (and its ‘clone’, the Colossians one)

1. Commentators note that the verb ‘submit’ is not actually in the text, but has to be supplied from the preceding verse (v 21) enjoining all Christians to ‘submit’ to other another—a radical break from the standard patriarchal marriages and household codes of the day. And this basically enjoins the ‘submitting’ of ALL Christians to EACH OTHER (husbands, wives, children, masters, servants, etc.). The further implication is that whatever "submission" a wife is called to, her husband (as a Christian) is called to the same thing:
“The final expression of being filled with the Spirit is “submitting to one another” because Christ is one's Lord. All the household codes Paul proposes are based on this idea. But although it was customary to call on wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, to call all members of a group (including the paterfamilias, the male head of the household) to submit to one another was unheard-of. [REF:BBC: Eph]

“The participle of Ephesians 5:21 is the last of a series of four, as shown above, and clearly belongs to what precedes it. This verse also supplies the verb “to submit” for this hard saying, without which Ephesians 5:22 would be grammatically incomplete and without meaning. The verse in Greek reads literally: “Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.” The verb “to submit” is absent and can only be read into the sentence because of the intimate connection between the two verses. Ephesians 5:21 is therefore transitional, both belonging to what precedes and setting the agenda for what follows. Thus the kind of radical self-submission to one another which evidences the fullness of the Spirit is now explored in terms of its implications for husbands and wives. That is, what does this self-submission, modeled in Jesus, look like in marriage? [HSOBX: at Eph 5]

“First, Paul begins this three-part structure in a very unusual way. As the climax of his exhortations describing a Spirit-filled life (Eph 5:18–21), Paul calls on all believers to submit to one another (Eph 5:21). It is true that the following context delineates different ways to submit according to differing societal roles; but the very idea of “mutual submission” strained the common sense of the term “submission”: householders were sometimes called to be sensitive to their wives, children and slaves, but they were never told to submit to them. That Paul envisions the same sort of mutual submission to cover the slave and master relationship is clear from his exhortation in Ephesians 6:9: after explaining how and why slaves should submit (Eph 6:5–8), he calls on masters to “do the same things to them,” an idea which, if pressed literally, goes beyond virtually all other extant writers from antiquity. [NT:DictPL: s.v. “Man and Woman”]

2. The model for this community-wide submission is Christ:
“Paul has clearly shown throughout the epistle that Christians are a new social order created to express the fullness of Christ in the midst of the old, fallen order. What he is saying in Ephesians 5:21 is that the Spirit empowers Christians to exist in relationship with each other in a radical, culturally transforming way, namely, through mutual self-submission. The ground for this radically new approach to human relationships is “out of reverence for Christ.” The reason for that reverence (or, perhaps better, awe) is the radical nature of Christ's earthly life, the total, free submission of himself as God's suffering servant, climaxed in his self-giving on the cross (Eph 5:2, 25). It is reverence and awe toward that self-giving love that is to motivate our mutual self-submission to each other. [HSOBX: at Eph 5]

3. Even the injunction to submit for wives—as for all believers—is based on freedom, not authority!:

"The submission of the wife to the husband is to be “as to the Lord.” It is no longer to be the kind expected as a matter of course by cultural norms and forced upon women—who were seen as inferior to males in both Jewish and Gentile cultures. No, her submission is to be freely chosen, being there for her partner “as to the Lord,” that is, as a disciple of the Lord, as one who followed in his servant footsteps, motivated by self-giving love. This kind of submission is not a reinforcement of the traditional norms; it is rather a fundamental challenge to them. [HSOBX: Eph.]

“Second, the duties are listed as reciprocal duties. Whereas most household codes simply addressed the head of the household, instructing him how to govern other members of his household, Paul first addresses wives, children and slaves. Far from instructing the paterfamilias how to govern his wife, children and slaves, he omits any injunction to govern and merely calls on him to love his wife (undoubtedly a common practice, but rarely prescribed), be restrained in disciplining his children and to regard slaves as equals before God. This is hardly the language of the common household code, although some ancient philosophers also exhorted moderation and fair treatment of subordinates. The wife, children and slaves are to regulate their own submission voluntarily. [NT:DictPL: s.v. “Man and Woman”; notice how different this is from the codes—the women are addressed in the codes, instead of just the men]

4. Not only does Paul not use the word ‘obey’, his indications of what he means by ‘submit’ is related to humility and not to obedience:

"Most ancient writers expected wives to obey their husbands, desiring in them a quiet and meek demeanor; some marriage contracts even stated a requirement for absolute obedience. This requirement made sense especially to Greek thinkers, who could not conceive of wives as equals. Age differences contributed to this disparity: husbands were normally older than their wives, often by over a decade in Greek culture (with men frequently marrying around age thirty and women in their teens, often early teens)...In this passage, however, the closest Paul comes to defining submission is “respect” (v. 33), and in the Greek text, wifely submission to a husband (v. 22) is only one example of general mutual submission of Christians (the verb of v. 22 is borrowed directly from v. 21 and thus cannot mean something different). [REF:BBC: Eph.]

“Writers sometimes closed a book or section with a concluding summary; Paul here summarizes the point of 5:21–32: the wife should respect her husband, and the husband should love his wife. Although ancient moralists expected wives to respect their husbands (and Jewish teachers also expected the reverse), moralists usually also emphasized the wife's “obedience”; Paul's exhortation to wives here would thus strike most ancient readers as quite weak. [REF:BBC: Eph.]

“All ancient moralists insisted that wives should “submit” to their husbands, but few would have stopped short of using the term “obey,” as Paul does here [REF:BBC: Col.]

“A final argument [of Paul's] for the validity of a radically new self-submission of wife to husband is now given: “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5:24). What is the nature of the church's submission to Christ? It is freely assumed in humble response to his self-giving, sacrificial servanthood and his continuing empowering and nurturing presence. The church's submission to Christ has nothing to do with external control or coercion. For the life and ministry of Jesus demonstrates uncompromisingly his rejection of “power over others” as valid in the new creation which he is inaugurating (Lk 22:24–27). Christ stands in relation to the church, his bride, not as one who uses his power to control and demand, but rather to invite and serve. [HSOBX: Eph.]

“Third, Paul does not describe the duties that are attached to submission. An ancient reader could therefore have been tempted to read a wife's submission as meaning all that it could mean in that culture—which, as we have noted above, involves considerably more subordination than any modern Christian interpreters would apply to women today. (Applying the text in this way would return women to rarely being able to attend college, to disallowing them voting privileges, etc.) However, Paul does define the content of the wife's submission once, in quite a strategic place: at the concluding summary of his advice to married couples. The wife is to “respect” (phobeomai, Eph 5:33) her husband. Although the term usually translated “submission” (hypotasso) could be used in the weaker sense of “respect,” household codes demanded far more of wives than mere respect; Paul's view of women's subordination even in this social situation could not be much weaker than it is.” [NT:DictPL: s.v. “Man and Woman”]

"Here at Colossians 3:18, as Schweizer (164) claims, it denotes the subjection of oneself, as Christ subjected himself to the Father (1 Cor 15:28). The demand for mutual submission among Christians (Eph 5:21) shows that “be subordinate” bears a close relation to Christian “humility”)  [WBC: Col]

5. The radical break this represents, with conventional patriarchal paterfamilias, can be seen in the fact that this ‘code’ makes unusual demands on the husband/father/master:

“The final expression of being filled with the Spirit is “submitting to one another” because Christ is one's Lord. All the household codes Paul proposes are based on this idea. But although it was customary to call on wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, to call all members of a group (including the paterfamilias, the male head of the household) to submit to one another was unheard-of. [REF:BBC: Eph.]

“Although it was assumed that husbands should love their wives, ancient household codes never list love as a husband's duty; such codes told husbands only to make their wives submit. Although Paul upholds the ancient ideal of wifely submission for his culture, he qualifies it by placing it in the context of mutual submission: husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, by willingly laying down their lives for them. At the same time that he relates Christianity to the standards of his culture, he subverts his culture's values by going far beyond them. Both husbands and wives must submit and love (5:2, 21). [REF:BBC: Eph]

“Although the ancient instructions to husbands normally stressed how he should rule his wife, Paul stresses instead that he should love her [REF:BBC: Col.]

“Having radically challenged the nature of the culturally expected and demanded submission of the wife to the husband, Paul now goes on (Eph 5:25–32) to show what self-submission by the husband to the wife looks like in practice. The husband's self-submission (Eph 5:21) is to express itself in the kind of radical self-giving love that Christ demonstrated when “he gave himself up for” the life of the church (Eph 5:25). Husbands were of course expected to have erotic regard for their wives. But within a culture in which women were often not more than doormats on which male supremacy could wipe its feet, and in a religious setting where Jewish males thanked God daily that he had not made them a Gentile, a slave or a woman—in such a context erotic regard for the wife more often than not became a means of self-gratification and control over the wife. That position of superiority is daringly challenged by Paul's call upon husbands to love (agape) their wives, that is, to be there for them and with them in self-giving, nurturing, serving love. For that is the way Christ loved the church, and husbands, like their wives, are to be imitators of Christ (Eph 5:2).  [HSOBX: Ephesians]


What becomes clear from all this is that the submission of wives to husbands in these Pauline passages is not about “obedience” per se, but about “respect” and “humility”; and, that this respect/humility character is a self-chosen moral goal to be sought after by all who seek to emulate the self-giving and self-servanthood of Jesus.

Pushback: “Wait a minute…you skipped over the ‘headship’ thing there, bud, right there in the Ephesians passage!…it explicitly says that the man is the ‘head’ of the woman…that makes it pretty clear that authority—with the implication of ‘required obedience’--is involved in Paul's mind”

Actually, Not at all.

Although there is a huge debate over what the word kephale (‘head’) means in NT Greek, the impact of that would be minimal on these 2  passages.

First, we have already seen that Paul defined ‘submission’ within the passage as something other than obedience.

Second, we have noted that Paul has deliberately avoided the word ‘obey’ in a context where it was universally expected (and Paul can never be accused of ‘softening his language’ for ‘politically correct’ reasons, as his track record more than amply shows!)

Third, the examples of submission given in the text (i.e., Jesus, the Church) are examples of freely-chosen humility and servanthood.

“A final argument [of Paul's] for the validity of a radically new self-submission of wife to husband is now given: “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5:24). What is the nature of the church's submission to Christ? It is freely assumed in humble response to his self-giving, sacrificial servanthood and his continuing empowering and nurturing presence. The church's submission to Christ has nothing to do with external control or coercion. For the life and ministry of Jesus demonstrates uncompromisingly his rejection of “power over others” as valid in the new creation which he is inaugurating (Lk 22:24–27). Christ stands in relation to the church, his bride, not as one who uses his power to control and demand, but rather to invite and serve. [HSOBX: Eph.]

Fourth, the kephale debate is about "source/provider versus  boss/authority" as the most plausible 'default' meaning/emphasis of the word, but in this passage it's clearly much closer to "source/provider". The description of Christ as Head over the church centers on His self-giving and His nurture of it--NOT His authority over it. Even the 'head/body' image is used explicitly in the context of 'nurture' and not authority. So at least in this passage, the meaning of 'head' seems much closer to 'source/provider' and the point seems to be about 'unity' and 'nurture' instead of 'authority' and 'control'.

"Although Greek and Roman moralists sometimes alluded to the unity of husband and wife, the image was especially prominent in Judaism, which shared Paul's and Jesus’ dependence on Genesis 2:24, mentioned explicitly in Ephesians 5:31. The head-body analogy of 5:23 here becomes an image of unity rather than one of authority. [REF:BBC: Eph.]

Fifth, the kephale debate--in both here and in I Cor 11--suggests caution in trying to 'see' authority in this word, especially in Paul:

"Although Paul is arguing from a play on words [note: in 1 Cor 11], modern interpreters have often fastened on the single word head and debated what Paul meant when he called the husband the wife's “head.” Some scholars have argued that the term means “authority” or “boss”; the Hebrew for “head” (rosh) could mean this, and occasionally kephale means this in the Septuagint (Grudem; Fitzmyer). Other scholars have disputed this meaning, noting that the translators usually bent over backward to avoid translating the Hebrew rosh with the Greek term kephale; kephale does not normally mean “authority” or “boss” in Greek. These latter scholars often argue for the meaning “source,” which it does mean in some texts (Mickelsen in Mickelsen, 97–117; Scroggs, 284). Scholars favoring the “authority” meaning, however, respond that “source” is an even rarer meaning of kephale in the Septuagint than “authority.” Both groups of scholars are undoubtedly right in what they affirm but may fall short in what they deny; the term sometimes means “source” and sometimes means “authority,” at least in “Jewish Greek” influenced by the rhythms of the Septuagint...The question is, what sense should be attributed to the term in 1 Corinthians 11:3? Given the allusion to Adam as Eve's source in 1 Corinthians 11:8, it is very likely that Paul speaks of the man (Adam) as his wife's “source,” just as Christ had created Adam and later proceeded from the Father in his incarnation (in which case 1 Cor 11:3 is in chronological sequence; see Bilezikian, 138). [NT:DictPL: s.v. “Man and Woman”]

"Like the English word “head” and the Greek word kephale, the Hebrew word rosh has first of all the literal meaning “head of man or beast.” But like English and Greek, it also has numerous figurative meanings. In an exhaustive study of how the Septuagint translators rendered the Hebrew word rosh, the following data emerged. In the more than 200 times when it refers to a physical head, the translators almost always used kephale. About 180 times, rosh clearly has the figurative meaning of “leader” or “chief” or “authority figure” of a group. There is thus a close similarity between the English “head” and the Hebrew rosh; figuratively, both frequently designate an authority figure....When the translators, however, sought the appropriate Greek word to render this figurative meaning, they used not kephale but archon (and its derivatives) in the great majority of cases (138 times). Archon means “ruler,” “commander,” “leader.” Its derivatives include meanings such as “authority,” “chief,” “captain,” “prince,” “chief of tribe,” “head of family.” Most of the remaining occurrences of rosh (when it designates an authority figure) are translated by several other specific Greek words (such as hegeomai, “to have dominion over”). In only eight out of 180 cases was kephale used to translate rosh when it designated the leader or ruler of a group. It is very possible that one of the figurative meanings of kephale (namely, “top” or “crown”) allowed the translator to use it in describing a prominent individual. It may also be that in these few cases one of the Septuagint translators simply used the literal equivalent for rosh, namely kephale (since both mean “head”). This is in fact what happens all too frequently in any translation when it is too literal. The exact equivalent may, in fact, distort the meaning conveyed by the original in its own context....It is clear from this data that the Greek translators were keenly aware that kephale did not normally have a metaphorical meaning equivalent to that of rosh. This linguistic evidence, which suggests that the idea of “authority over” was not native to the Greek kephale, has led numerous scholars to see behind Paul's use of “head” either the meaning “source, origin” or “top, crown, completion.”...Another factor to take into consideration is that nowhere else in the New Testament is kephale used to designate a figure of authority. If that had been a prominent meaning, it could have served well in numerous places in the Gospels where the head or master of a household appears; yet it is never used to convey this meaning (see, for example, Mt 10:25; 13:52; Lk 13:25; 14:21)....If the readers of Paul's Greek did not hear our “headship” concept in the word kephale, but rather the idea of “source, origin,” what did it convey to them, and how did that meaning in 11:3 lay the foundation for Paul's admonitions about appropriate hair length and decorum in public worship? Cyril of Alexandria, an important Greek-speaking leader of the church in the fourth century, commenting on this text wrote: “Thus we say that the kephale of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephale of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephale of Christ is God, because he is from him according to nature....It would therefore seem best to translate 1 Corinthians 11:3 as “I want you to understand that Christ is the source of man's being; the man is the source of woman's being; and God is the source of Christ's being"  [HSOBX: 1 Cor 11.3 ‘headship]

Sixth, many of the other uses in Paul of this seem to support a general 'non-authority' content for this word:

He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. [Col 2.19; note the explicit organic and 'source' imagery].

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. [Col 1.18; this seems closer to the 'crown' or 'capstone'(?), but the head/body image (i.e. of union, growth-source) is definitely different from a head/group image (i.e., authority).]

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. [Col 2.9,10 NRSV...note that the NIV/NASB makes the literal 'head of' into 'head over' without any textual warrant. Christ, as the one who holds all together , is also now the 'source' of all power/authority in the cosmos too...This text is commonly used as a prooftext for kephale=authority, but I suspect that this might be another case of 'source', since elsewhere Christ is said to 'fill all things', cf. Eph 4.30. So, although kephale can mean 'authority', in Paul it very often does not. Translators in Eph 1.10 likewise change the 'in Christ' to 'under Christ'. Eph 1.23 does have an 'over' so it might be closer to some kind of authority there--although one should note the 'filling' terminology in the passage as well.].

Seventh, this is in keeping with even the classical usage of the word:

"Plato and Aristotle, among others, maintained that sperm was formed in the brain. The Pythagoreans in particular considered the head to be the source of human generation. They refrained from eating any part of an animal or fish head lest the creature be a reincarnated ancestor and the head the very organ from which they themselves had derived. By the time of Plato, adherents of Orphic religion were using kephale with arche (“source” or “beginning”; Kern Orph. Fr. 2.nos. 21 a.2., 168; Plato Leg. IV.715E and sch; Proclus In Tim. II 95.48. (V.322); Pseudo-Aristides World 7; Eusebius Praep. Ev. 3.9; Deveni Papyrus col. 13, line 12; Stobaeus Ecl. 1.23; Plutarch Def. Orac. 436D; Achilles Tatius, fr. 81.29), as did the translators of the LXX version of Isaiah 9:14–15.

"W. Grudem views arche as conveying the sense of “rule or dominion” when used synonymously with kephale, but this concept did not find wide acceptance among the ancients. Irenaeus equates head with “source” when he writes of the “head and source of his own being” (kephaleun men kai archeun teus idias ousias; PG 7.496. See also Tertullian Marc. 5.8). Hippolytus emphasized the productivity of this bodily member when he designated the head as the characteristic substance from which all people were made (PG 16.iii.3138). Philo declared, “As though the head of a living creature, Esau is the progenitor of all these members” (Philo Congr. 61). Kephale was considered by Photius to be a synonym for procreator or progenitor (Photius Comm. 1 Cor 11:3. ed. Staab 567.1). The concept of head (kephale) as “source,” “beginning” or “point of departure” is readily apparent in the Pauline corpus. Kephale is used in apposition to arche in Colossians 1:18. (As an aside, one should recall that the head is the part of the body which is usually born first, a feature that may shed light on Christ as the firstborn of the dead, and the firstborn of all creation [Col 1:15, 18].)

"While there was debate as to whether the head, breast or stomach was the dwelling place of mind and soul, philosophers viewed the head as the organ from which there issued forth that which was important or distinctive of humans—most notably speech. The head resembled a spring, from which power flowed forth to other bodily organs (Philo Fug. 182; Aristotle Prob. 10 867a). It was placed nearest to the heavens, drawing from thence its power and distributing the life force to every member of the body (Philo Det. Pot. Ins. 85; Praem. Poen. 125). This concept of the head as source of supply to the whole body is well attested among medical writers and is twice echoed by Paul (Eph 4:15–16; Col 2:19). In Colossians 2:10 Christ is presented as the head (“source”) of the originative power and ability needed for the believer’s fulfillment as he himself embodies the fullness of the Godhead  [NT:DictPL: s.v. "Head"]

[Let me quickly point out that these two meanings are not "mutually exclusive and exhaustive" at all. They could both be present in a passage easily, and the two meanings can be seen to blend together logically in some places. But in each textual case, we have to justify which core sense we 'find' and then what 'additional connotations' or nuances we might also see in the passage. This is simply honest exegesis, and as such, requires SOME textual evidence to be provided for seeing 'additional nuances' in the use of the word.]

So, given the (a) definition and examples of 'submission' given in the passage; (b) the lack of explicit references to 'obedience' or 'rulership'; (c) the probable 'source'-oriented meaning of kephale in this passage; and (d) the lack of any clear 'majority meaning' for kephale in Paul of 'authority', I don't see any reason to try and re-interpret the passage into some support for patriarchal marriage.

In fact, to argue that it DOES support the conventional paterfamilias/patriarchal marriage concept of the first century Roman empire, gets us in much 'worse' exegetical and theological problems:

"Finally, the wife's subordination to her husband is directly parallel to the slave's subordination to his or her master. In both cases one submits as “to Christ”—who is compared with a slave's master no less than with a wife's husband. Most interpreters recognize today that Ephesians 6:5–9 does not address the institution of slavery; it simply gives advice to slaves in their situation. Like some Stoic philosophers, Paul could recommend securing one's freedom where that was possible (1 Cor 7:21–22); like the rare philosophers whom Aristotle chastised for suggesting that slavery was against nature and therefore wrong, Paul clearly regarded the subordination of humans as unnatural (Eph 6:9). Whereas the OT enjoined children's obedience to morally sound parental instruction (Deut 21:18–21), the OT nowhere explicitly enjoins the submission of wives and slaves (although they regularly appear in subordinate cultural roles, which God sometimes contravened). Paul does call on wives and slaves in his culture to submit in some sense; but he does not thereby approve of the institutions of patriarchal marriage or slavery, both of which are part of the authority of the paterfamilias and the household codes he here addresses." [NT:DictPL: s.v. “Man and Woman”]

"That Paul's instructions to wives and slaves are limited to wives and slaves culturally subordinated to the male householder has often been noted (e.g., Martin, 206–31; Giles, 43). The objection that Paul could have rejected the institution of slavery but clearly would support the institution of marriage (Knight, 21–25) simply begs the real question. It is not the institution of marriage per se, but the institution of patriarchal marriage, that Paul addresses here; that was what appeared in the household codes. Paul elsewhere calls on believers in normal circumstances to submit to all who are in authority (Rom 13:1–7; see Civil Authorities), as Peter does (1 Pet 2:13–17); but this does not mean that he regards the particular authority structures (e.g., kingship) as necessary for all cultures. Because Paul's instructions specifically address institutions as they existed in Paul's day, interpreters of Paul who do not insist on reinstituting slavery or the monarchy should not insist on patriarchal marriages which subordinate wives, either. Indeed, given Paul's weak definition of the wife's submission as “respect” (Eph 5:33; see above), it appears that Paul advocated her submission in only a limited manner even for his own social situation." [NT:DictPL: s.v. "Man and Woman"]

"Third, Paul does not describe the duties that are attached to submission. An ancient reader could therefore have been tempted to read a wife's submission as meaning all that it could mean in that culture—which, as we have noted above, involves considerably more subordination than any modern Christian interpreters would apply to women today. (Applying the text in this way would return women to rarely being able to attend college, to disallowing them voting privileges, etc.) However, Paul does define the content of the wife's submission once, in quite a strategic place: at the concluding summary of his advice to married couples. The wife is to “respect” (phobeomai, Eph 5:33) her husband. Although the term usually translated “submission” (hypotasso) could be used in the weaker sense of “respect,” household codes demanded far more of wives than mere respect; Paul's view of women's subordination even in this social situation could not be much weaker than it is." [NT:DictPL: s.v. "Man and Woman"]


So, the Pauline passages do not order a wife to 'obey' her husband...

Now, the Petrine Passage, 1 Peter 3.1ff

1. Unlike the Pauline passages discussed above--in which both partners were Christians--this passage is a 'special case' passage, in that it deals with the specific situation of a Christian wife and a non-Christian husband (apparently wealthy/powerful/elite). In the Roman Empire, this was often a major practical problem:
"Roman men particularly resented and retaliated against non-Roman cults that drew their wives away from the family religion and so shamed the husband's authority (e.g., Rabello, 697); when those religions incited women or slaves to disobey the male head of the household in other matters, this increased the level of hostility (e.g., Plutarch Con. Praec. 19, Mor. 140D). Many felt that foreign cults targeted well-to-do Roman women (cf. Liefeld, 239–42). Writing with the conviction that the level of persecution existing or imminent in Rome would soon spread to other provinces, Peter exhorts his audience to uphold appropriate family standards of Roman society. Like members of other persecuted sects and like Paul before him (Keener 1992, 139–224), Peter adapts popularly used household codes of the day to make Christian behavior less needlessly objectionable to outsiders. [NT:DictLNT: s.v., "Woman and Man"]

"Although Peter upholds societal norms for the purpose of the church's witness in society, his sympathy here is clearly with the woman, as it was with the slaves in 2:18–25. He continues to advocate submission to authority for the sake of witness and silencing charges that Christianity is subversive; husbands were always in the position of authority in that culture....Like Judaism and other non-Roman religions, Christianity spread faster among wives than husbands; husbands had more to lose socially from conversion to an unpopular minority religion. But wives were expected to obey their husbands in Greco-Roman antiquity, and this obedience included allegiance to their husbands’ religions. Cults that forbade their participation in Roman religious rites, including prohibiting worship of a family's household gods, were viewed with disdain, and Jewish or Christian women who refused to worship these gods could be charged with atheism. Thus by his advice Peter seeks to reduce marital tensions and causes of hostility toward Christianity and Christians. Silence was considered a great virtue for women in antiquity." [REF:BBC: in loc]

"But what is the context in 1 Peter? The passage is addressed to upper-class Christian women with unbelieving husbands (a far more common situation in that culture than that of Christian husbands with unbelieving wives). These women are advised to be subject to their husbands, for it is their virtuous behavior that will convert them, not their arguments for Christianity or their fancy dress (the fact that fancy dress was possible points to their being upper-class women; peasant women typically had one decent set of clothing and virtually no expensive jewelry). Such submission was also the mark of “the holy women,” that is, the Old Testament women, of whom Sarah is the chief. This submission will mark these Christian women out as being themselves holy (Sarah's children)." [HSOBX: in loc]

2. Whatever this submission is, it is NOT absolute--the wife will still have to 'chose' what issues to give ground on:

"Notice what is not said. First, it is not being implied that this submission extends to giving up the practice of the Christian faith or compromising the standards of holy living laid down by Jesus. These women are to continue to “hope in God” and “do what is right.” Their husbands, being unconverted, may in fact threaten them with punishment or divorce, demanding that they not go to the church gatherings or that they practice something Christ has forbidden, but these women are not to “give way to fear.” Suffering for the name of Christ is honored in 1 Peter. Yet like all of those to whom 1 Peter is written, they should suffer because they are committed to Christ, not because they have broken cultural standards of which Christ would approve...In other words, what we see here is that the submission of these women is not to be absolute. They have submitted to Christ first of all. That is the one absolute submission. Now they follow him and submit to their husbands. Their culture demanded absolute submission to their husbands, including in matters of religion. This epistle is calling for them to take an independent stand on religion and morality, but to be model wives in every other way, which means that Christ would not be blamed for what was not truly the result of obedience to him. [HSOBX: in loc]

3. Again, note that his actual directive is for 'submission'--the word 'obedience' only comes up in the example of Sarah.

"Third, Peter every where else uses the verb hypotasso (“defer to”) rather than akouein (“obey”) in his adaptation of the household duty code (i.e., 2:13, 18; 3:1, 5; cf. 5:5). Other NT household codes use akouein of the obedience of children to parents (Col 3:20; Eph 6:1) and slaves to masters (Col 3:22; Eph 6:5), but not of wives in relation to husbands.  [WBC: in loc]

4. In fact, the example of Sarah is only the "wife-half" of a mutual-submission marriage. We know, for example, that God commanded Abraham to "obey" Sarah at least twice:

"Although Peter explicitly advocates only “submission” (v. 1), he cites Sarah as an example even of “obedience,” which was what Roman male society demanded of their wives. That Abraham also “obeyed” Sarah is clear in Genesis (the term usually translated “listen to” in 16:2 and 21:12 also means “obey,” and in both passages Abraham submits to Sarah), but this point is not relevant to Peter's example for wives with husbands disobedient to the word [REF:BBC: in loc]

"His attention is therefore focused on Sarah and her behavior, not on who Abraham was or how he treated her. His argument is from the greater to the lesser: if Sarah “obeyed” Abraham and called him “Lord,” the Christian wives in Asia should at least treat their husbands with deference and respect...Peter passes up the opportunity to capitalize on the great influence Sarah is said to have had on Abraham in certain Hellenistic Jewish traditions. To Philo, Sarah represents “paramount virtue”; in advising Abraham to beget children from Hagar the slave woman, she was pointing allegorically to the “preliminary studies” (grammar, geometry, and music) as the path to philosophy and true wisdom (Philo, Leg. All. 3.244–45; cf. Philo, Cong. 71–82). Abraham, in fact, “obeys” the voice of Sarah according to Gen 16:3, LXX, as Philo is careful to emphasize in Philo, Cong. 68 (cf. Chef 9). [WBC:, in loc]]

5. The example Peter gives of Sarah calling Abraham 'lord' deals with respect and not with obedience/authority per se:
"One should not read too much into Sarah's calling her husband “lord” here. The direct address “lord” may have been used in Hebrew to address husbands respectfully as “sir,” e.g., Hos 2:16, but it is mainly in later Jewish traditions such as the Testament of Abraham that Sarah addresses Abraham in this manner. Even in the Testament of Abraham, Isaac also addresses his mother with a similarly respectful title and Abraham so addresses a visitor, unaware that he is an angel. In another Jewish tale, Asenath calls her father “lord” yet answers him boastfully and angrily, although Peter certainly does not suggest such behavior here. In the patriarchal period, it was a polite way to address someone of higher authority or one to whose status one wished to defer, e.g., Jacob to Esau in Gen 33:13–14.) " [REF:BBC: in loc]

"Is Peter teaching that women should refer to their husbands as if the women were the slaves and the men were their owners? Isn't the expression “master” offensive and demeaning to the woman? And what does not giving way to fear have to do with such a situation? Is Peter setting women up for second-class status and abuse?.. The passage in 1 Peter is referring to Genesis 18:12, in which Sarah laughs and says to herself, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure [of having a child]?” The point is that Sarah (perhaps even in her thoughts) refers to her husband as “my lord” (not “my master”), showing a proper respect toward him. The irony is that in the context, while appearing to respect Abraham, she is laughing at the words of Yahweh himself; Peter, however, like most New Testament authors, is not concerned with the context, only with the single use of the term." [HSOBX: in loc]

6. In fact, the context of Sarah's remark is NOT one of 'deference' but of independent, "formal" respect--and perhaps Peter is allowing his readers to implement some kind of 'formal-only' respect(?):

"Fourth, the context of Sarah's remark in Gen 18:12 is not quiet deference to her “lord,” but amused skepticism at the extravagant promise she has just heard...Where Rabbinic commentators (e.g., Sipre Num 6:26, 42[12b], Lev. Rab. [111b] on 9:9; see Balch, Domestic Code, 104) tend to struggle with Sarah's apparent insult to Abraham (true though her statement was) in Gen 18:12, Peter ignores the context and fastens instead on one word. " [WBC: in loc]

"Like others who respectfully addressed those of higher social status (Gen 33:13–14), ancient Israelite women may have regularly called their husbands “sir” (some cite Hos 2:16); in Genesis 18:12 and especially later Jewish tradition (T. Abr. 5-6A; 4, 6B) Sarah grants Abraham this title. Yet Isaac also grants a form of this title to Sarah (T. Abr. 3A, using the feminine form), and Abraham also grants it to guests (Gen 18:3–5; T. Abr. 2A; cf. T. Abr. 15, 18A; 8, 10, 12B). Use of the title did not necessarily accompany submissive behavior (Jos. and As. 4:5/7, 12/16), although Peter clearly does invite such behavior. At issue is not a transcultural example of patriarchal dominance but an appropriate example of respect." [NT:DictLNT: s.v., "Woman and Man"]

7. Peter's intent here is practical, not theological. He is not developing/defending some 'male dominance' model at all--that would be reading into the passage:

"The solution to these varied difficulties lies in not reading too much profound theology into Peter's simple language. Where Rabbinic commentators (e.g., Sipre Num 6:26, 42[12b], Lev. Rab. [111b] on 9:9; see Balch, Domestic Code, 104) tend to struggle with Sarah's apparent insult to Abraham (true though her statement was) in Gen 18:12, Peter ignores the context and fastens instead on one word [WBC: in loc]

"In 1 Peter 3:1 Peter is doing three things. First, he is presenting an evangelistic strategy. People are won to Christ not by words alone and certainly not by rebellion, but by living to the fullest pagan virtue (when it is consistent with Christian virtue), so that the non-Christian will see that the effect of Christ in one's life is to make one able to live the ideals that pagans could write about but rarely live...Second, he is noting that the normal Christian position is the way of submission. No New Testament writer has a problem with submission, for it is what Jesus practiced, as Peter points out in 1 Peter 2:23. Liberation in the New Testament comes from the powerful giving up power, the wealthy sharing their wealth, not by the oppressed demanding their rights or the poor their share of the pie. The effect of the Spirit is seen in the act of giving up, not that of demanding. Thus Sarah's action shows an attitude consistent with New Testament virtue. This was especially important, given the role possibilities for women in that day...Third, he is following the pattern Paul described in 1 Corinthians 5:12–13 (and illustrates in 1 Cor 7:12–16), that Christians should not try to impose their standards on non-Christians. After all, such people do not have the power of the Spirit to follow Christian standards. Thus this passage does not address the behavior of the unbelieving husband, only that of the wife. She alone can show Christian virtue. She can hope that her husband will in fact come to faith and, filled with the Spirit, in turn begin to treat her as an equal, as instructed in 1 Peter 3:7." [HSOBX: in loc.]

"Though he is not addressing the institutions of slavery or patriarchal marriage structures themselves, Peter recognizes the unjust use of such structures (1 Pet 2:19) and encourages believers in unjust situations to act strategically within them for the long-range interests of the gospel (cf. Balch 1984)." [NT:DictLNT: s.v., "Woman and Man"]

"Peter's advice is practical, not harsh as it might sound in our culture. Although philosophers’ household codes often stressed that the wife should “fear” her husband as well as submit to him, Peter disagrees (v. 6; cf. 3:13–14). Husbands could legally “throw out” babies, resort to prostitutes and make life miserable for their wives, although sleeping with other women of the aristocratic class or beating their wives was prohibited. (In a mid-second-century account, a Christian divorced her husband for his repeated infidelity, so he betrayed her to the authorities as a Christian.) Christian wives were limited in their options, but Peter wants them to pursue peace without being intimidated." [REF:BBC: in loc]

8. And, as with many NT ethical imperatives, it has limits...

"Like the instructions of other writers who are speaking in general principles (cf. 1 Cor 7:21; see Keener 1991, 22–25), Peter's words apply under general circumstances but not necessarily under circumstances he does not address. Thus he recognizes that slaves must endure beatings, often without any wrongdoing on their part (1 Pet 2:20); slaves, however, normally had little choice but to endure such beatings. By contrast Roman wives could divorce their husbands, and Christians could often flee local persecution; Peter's instructions to submit to authorities (1 Pet 2:13–17) and to husbands (1 Pet 3:1–6) involved normal and not abusive situations. The instructions to wives address what appears to be the least abusive situation in the context." [NT:DictLNT: s.v., "Woman and Man"]


9. And finally it should be noted that this is NOT Peter's advice for Christian marriages, which will end up being described by him as a mutual-submission and mutual-respect model like Paul's:

"Second, this pattern is not presented as the ideal for Christian marriage. Only in 1 Peter 3:7, as we shall see in the next chapter, does the author get around to discussing Christian marriage. Given that he has so little to say about it, it is likely that either such marriages were not a problem or that they were relatively rare in the communities he is addressing. In a Christian marriage the wife is an heir with her husband “of the gracious gift of life.” In other words, she is an equal partner in the gospel. The husband is to give her honor and treat her with consideration, “so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” [HSOBX: in loc]
"Then Peter addresses Christian husbands (1 Pet 3:7). Instead of exhorting them how to make their wives obey them, however, as would have been customary in household codes (Keener 1992, 166–70), he exhorts them to be sensitive to their wives. Other ancient writers who regarded women as the weaker gender normally meant that they were morally or mentally inferior (Apuleius Met. 7.8; ’Abot R. Nat. 9, §24B; Gardner, 21, 67; Pomeroy, 150, 230; Lefkowitz, 112–32; Wegner, 159–62; less pejoratively, 4 Macc 15:4–5; 16:5, 14); this could entitle them to special consideration (Ep. Arist. 250; b. B. Mes\ 59a; Plutarch Rom. 108, Mor. 289E; Muson. Ruf. frag. 12; Chariton Chaer. 2.2.2; cf. 1 Cor 12:23). The rest of Peter's instructions to the husband rules out the sense of moral or mental weakness, however; Peter either thinks of the wife as weaker with regard to her societal status or because Greek men around age thirty often married women in their mid-teens, producing a disparity of social and intellectual maturation. In any case, like some of his contemporaries, Peter felt that this weakness entitled wives to special consideration and sensitivity (“according to understanding” or “knowledge”; cf. Sir 7:25)...Peter emphasizes that husbands should treat their wives with “respect” or “honor” (1 Pet 3:7), as he had exhorted wives to treat their husbands (1 Pet 3:2, using a different term). They should likewise view them as fellow heirs of the grace of life. Whereas women's inheritance rights were normally subordinate to those of men (Num 27:8 improved their status in Israel), all God's people shared the same inheritance in the world to come. By emphasizing the wives’ spiritual equality, Peter prevents the husbands from taking his instructions to the wives as grounds for the husbands to subordinate them." [NT:DictLNT: s.v., "Woman and Man"]


  1. None of the passages explicitly command wives to obey their husbands.
  2. Paul's departures from the patriarchal household codes of the day are radical, and unsupportive of a male-dominance model.
  3. Paul specifically undermines the absolute authority of the male head of the paterfamilias.
  4. In the Ephesians passage, Paul requires husband and wife BOTH to submit to one another.
  5. This mutual submission is self-chosen, and modeled after the voluntary submission and servanthood of Jesus.
  6. Submission is seen, in the Pauline passages, to be defined/described as 'respect' instead of 'obedience'.
  7. Paul overturns the male's authority over the household by 'ordering' him to serve, in agape love, the wife (and to 'submit' to his slaves/servants, as well).
  8. The Pauline passages thus teach a mutual self-giving and self-servanthood for one another.
  9. The word kephale in the Pauline passages do not alter this understanding of the more explicit elements of Paul's argument (as observed above).
  10. Paul's injunctions to wives and slaves in these passages do not support a view that he was in favor of slavery or patriarchal marriage structures.
  11. The case in First Peter is different from that in Paul, in that it deals with a mixed marriage as opposed to a Christian marriage.
  12. For practical reasons, the wife is urged to 'go with the flow' everywhere possible, but without compromising her Christian convictions and morals.
  13. The submission of the wife was to be freely chosen by her, for the Lord's sake, and not because of some 'authority structure' sanctioned by Peter.
  14. The word for 'obey' only comes up in the Sarah example--it is not used by Peter in the imperatives.
  15. The example of Sarah was a half-example; it showed only the wife-side of mutual submission (since the non-believer could not be expected to be living the 'other side' yet).
  16. Sarah's calling Abraham 'lord' was a term of deference and respect (the subject of Peter's injunction here), not of 'recognition of male authority'.
  17. Using this half-a-verse example in Peter to build a theory that the bible supports Roman-like male-dominance patriarchal marriages (over against the many verses otherwise--including the Pauline ones discussed at the beginning) is exceptionally flawed !
  18. Peter's instructions are for this special case only (i.e. mixed marriages with a strong/elite Roman male head) and not for Christian marriages; and his few comments on Christian marriages indicates that he held a mutual-submission model of marriage like Paul did.
  19. The resulting view of Christian marriage is one of liberating beauty and equality, and genuine self-giving like-Jesus love for one another--an immense improvement over the Graeco-Roman model, for BOTH partners...

So, the data indicates that (a) God didn't order wives to obey their husbands in the bible; and that (b) the marriage relationship as re-designed by Him in Christ was antithetical to all such power structures.

I hope this helps to go start working on my own submission to others...(weak smile)...
Glenn Miller

[ .... not2obey.html ........  ]

From: The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)