Male-Female Roles in Marriage

This is part of a series on patriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.

Over at Sigma Frame, Jack and Red Pill Apostle have coauthored a piece on the biblical male-female marital roles by citing 16 different passages. In the introduction, they set up Headship Submission and mock the notion of mutual submission, dismissing it as a modern feminist invention.

The husband is the spiritual head of the house, so a married man must have a firm grip on scriptural truth and be familiar with the typical arguments for why what it says is not really what it means.  Think of the whole Ephesians 5 “mutual submission” / “servant leader” angle that feminists love to tout for why 4 millennia of scripture is wrong because of the modern misinterpretation of a verse or two.

To defend this claim, they cite “Mutual Submission” by Free Northerner. So I went over there to see what it said. The first thing I noticed is this:

Some translations, such as the liberal NIV, make it the mutual submission clause part of the marital roles section. (The KJV includes it in the previous sentence of verse 20). I don’t know Greek, but commenters believe it to be properly linked to the preceding verses.

I recently made this exact point in “The Original Source Material“, but I didn’t stop there. Ephesians 5:22 is part of the same sentence starting all the way back in verse 18. The verb “submit” is not actually found in v22: it is implied from the participle used in verse 21. Interestingly, Free Northerner provides the proper context by starting his citation on marital roles at verse 18, but Jack and Red Pill Apostle do not, starting their citation with a sentence fragment. This is an important distinction, because only viewing the narrowed context potentially alters the interpretation.

Free Northerner continues:

But even if we go apart from the Greek, it is clear from the immediate context that that submit to one another is an exposition to the church, not the husband. The use of “wives,” shows a clear transition from one thought to another. As well, the duty of wives to submit is explicitly instructed, the duty of husbands is stated to be love. As well, the exact same commandment, of wives submit to your husbands is also found in Colossians and 1 Peter, there is no mutual submission commandment near either of those.

As I noted in “The Original Source Material”, the Greek in Ephesians 5:22 was not translated faithfully into English. Hearers today would certainly not hear the passage the way that the original audience would have. Mike Aubrey, Koine Greek linguist and language editor for Logos Bible Software, in responding to this very passage described the English translations thus:

[J]ust as John Hobbins[1] has discussed for the Old Testament, translations generally do an extremely poor job on textual criticism and explanation in the New Testament.

It’s not that there are millennia of errors in scripture. The Greek is more-or-less fine. The primary error is in the English, and—contrary to Jack’s and Red Pill Apostle’s claim—not even the modern translations do a good job of correcting it. Nonetheless, it is possible to very simply revisit the grammar of the original Greek without needing to examine the Greek itself, and we shall now endeavor to do so.


Let’s review the passage in Ephesians in its fuller context, undoing non-literal Greek-to-English verb translations that had removed the ellipsis in the original:

And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled with the Spirit:

speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

singing and making music with your heart to the Lord

giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ

submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to their own husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, himself the Savior of the body, but as the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything.

Contrary to Free Northerner’s claim, the use of “wives” here does not show a clear transition from one thought to another.

First, the imperative verb filled is the key that grammatically ties all of the participles (speaking, singing, making, giving, submitting) together into a single unified whole. The whole stands in contrast to reckless living, as John Chrysostom reasoned similarly[2]:

For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. For what if the wife be under subjection to us? It is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. [..] Do not therefore strain the example of the man and the woman to all particulars. For with us indeed the woman is reasonably subjected to the man: since equality of honor causes contention.
— John Chrysostom, Homily 26, 1 Corinthians 11:3

Second, the each participle is applied in a corporate manner, to all members of the church.[3] None of the participles are otherwise qualified.

Third, the church submitting is mentioned twice in the passage above, both before and after the mention of wifely submission: first in “submitting to one another” and then in “as the church submits.” The submission of the church and the submission of wives are simultaneously in view. Given the statement “…as the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything…”, it is absurd to say that “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” is unrelated to “wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” The two concepts—mutual submission and wifely submission—are clearly related. The example of mutual submission of the church to each other, in their submission to Christ, is the very reason for wives, in their submission to Christ, submitting to their husbands![4]

Fourth, all of the acts are tied together by their connection with the Lord: being “in the Lord” or “as to the Lord” or “in the name of the Lord” or “as is proper in the Lord.” Most importantly, the phrase “in the Lord” does not modify any specific word in the sentence, but governs the overall context of the verse(s). Submitting—of the members of the church, or wives to their husbands—occurs under the umbrella of our connection with the Lord and nothing else.[5] The reason for the submitting (along with the singing, giving, etc.) being in the Lord is to be filled with the Spirit.

Fifth, the verb participle ‘submitting’ when referring to the husband and wife is elided, an ellipses that forces together the two halves of the fragmentary clauses (v22 and v23) into a grammatically dependent relation with each other. It implies that the submitting of the members of the church is of the same type as the submitting of a wife to her husband (and all under the same connection with Christ). In particular, as per the third point above, the wifely submission is best understood as an example of mutual submission in the church.

Contrary to Free Northerner’s claim, the context of the passage shows a clear dependency of thought.


Free Northerner cites two relevant passages in Colossians and 1 Peter. We can now examine these to see if the Word of God itself supports the claim being made. Let’s start by comparing Ephesians with Colossians, both written by Paul:

Colossians 3:18-20 (REV)
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is pleasing in the Lord.


Ephesians 5:18,22-23,28
Be filled with the spirit [..] …submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to their own husbands as to the Lord… [..] In the same way, husbands are obligated to love their own wives as their own bodies.

In both passages, Paul says the same thing. Everything is in the context of being in the Lord, and we should understand the sense of obedience [by children], love [by husbands], and submission [by wives] in Colossians in the same way that we understand it within the context of Ephesians. Thus, if Ephesians teaches mutual submission, so too must Colossians be teaching mutual submission, lest Paul contradict himself. But we need not look to Ephesians alone to see mutual submission. It is evident in Colossians directly.

First, as in Ephesians, Paul groups submitting, loving, and obeying together as submissive acts.

Second, Paul differentiates between obedience, submission, and love. While they are all submissive in nature, the precise nature is not equivalent. Submission, for example, is not obedience. Nor is the submission of a wife to her husband the same as the submissive nature of loving his wife. In practical terms, their implementation is different: domain specific.  All are submissive in their own way, but the focus of each is unique.

Third, in all cases the submissive act (obedience, submission, love) is an act of free will by the person performing the act, not a thing commanded by another. This is confirmed by the use of the Middle Voice in the Greek.

Free Northerner is correct that Colossians and Ephesians say the same thing, but incorrect when he says that neither teach mutual submission. The key flaw is treating loving separately from submitting and obeying, as if only the latter are submissive. The three are clearly grouped together. We can see this even more clearly in Peter.


1 Peter 5:5-6
In the same way, you who are younger, submit to the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he will exalt you at the proper time…

First, just as Paul gave the specific example of wives as an instance of the church submitting to each other, so too Peter gives the specific example of the young submitting to the old before instructing all members of the church to show humility towards each other. Humility is another submissive act intended for everyone. And as with Paul, the submission of the young is an voluntary act of free will, done specifically in obedience to God.

Second, as I pointed out in “The Context of Genesis 3:16“, Peter uses “in the same way” three times in his letter: 3:1, 3:7, and 5:5. In each case, the context is submission, which is mentioned 2:13, 2:18, 3:1, and 5:5. This is important because of 1 Peter 3:1,7:

Wives, be subject to your own husbands in like manner, that even if some are disobedient to the word, they may be won through the behavior of the wives without the word, [..] Husbands, in like manner, dwelling with [them], according to knowledge, as to a weaker vessel—to the wife—imparting honor, as also being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers are not hindered.

As with Ephesians 5, note the use of participles in 1 Peter 2:7. Here the participles refer back to the verb submit (or be subject) in 1 Peter 2:18 and 3:1.[6] In 1 Peter 2:7, the living with your wife as a weaker vessel and honoring her as co-heirs refers back to the imperative verb submit. A husband submits to his (possibly unbelieving) wife by living with her as a weaker vessel and honoring her as co-heir.

Peter broadly states that members of the church, in Christ[7], will need to submit to every good or evil human institution, be it king or governor (2:13-14), or masters (2:18), or in the same way husbands (3:1), or in the same way wives (3:7), or in the same way elders (5:5) or the members of the church (5:5-6).[8] Peter strongly asserts that all members of the church must show submission and humility in the way that fits their specific situation.

Third, Peter wants the submission to occur voluntarily even when the recipient of the submission is evil and responds with evil actions. Even though submission in the church is expected to be mutual, the requirement to submit is not based on the other party also submitting, whether it be to commoner’s kings, slave’s masters, wive’s patriarchal husbands, husband’s unbelieving wives, or the young one’s elders. While Peter is mostly concerned with submission by a believer to an unbeliever (1 Peter 2-3), if both parties are believers, then mutual submission is the logical result of each person fulfilling their duty to be submissive (1 Peter 5).

In commanding each member of the church to voluntarily submit to each other, mutual submission is the necessary consequence of a properly functioning church of believers. And so contrary to Free Northerner’s claim, the Bible does indeed teach mutual submission by teaching the individual components that necessarily make it up. It builds this foundation in the very three passages that Free Northerner claims do not support it!

Fallacy of the Excluded Middle

Jack and Red Pill Apostle have committed the fallacy of the excluded middle. That feminists misuse scripture and Jack and RPA oppose the feminists does not make mutual submission a false doctrine. The Word of God is what it is. Just because anyone can use or abuse it does not validate or invalidate their views.

We can identify the flaw in both feminism and patriarchy as focusing on power dynamics and grasping authority.[9] In the seven New Testament passages given by Jack and RPA, not one of them sets up a husband as a leader over his wife, nor do any suggest that wives should ever seek power over their husbands. Indeed, the overriding commands to all Christians in the church are to be humble and submissive, giving honor and respect due and service to others, even to the unbeliever.

The New Testament teaches mutual submission. It instructs all members of the church, which necessarily includes husbands and wives, to submit to each other. This submission is not equal (for example, the reasons the young submit to the old is not the same as the reasons the old submit to the young), but it is still submission and it is still mutual, that is, goes both ways.

Wives submit to your husband’s authority (even if you don’t like where or how he is leading).
— Eye of Sauron @ Sigma Frame, “16 Bible Passages for Teaching Wives and Daughters about Male-Female Roles and Marriage”

The choice to submit is not a meaningless formality that requires no discernment[10], nor is the choice rooted in exercised authority[11]. If there were ever a relationship in the church where one person had complete one-way authority over another, this would violate the command to be humble and submissive to each another. Similarly, if one submitted to something that went against the Word of God, this would not be in Christ and they would be wrong to do so.

Lastly, the commands to submission in the Bible are qualified by the governing context of it being in Christ. We conclude, therefore, with Paul’s statement that…

Colossians 3:11 (KJV)
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.


Galatians 3:28 (KJV)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

Additional Reading

Rather than, perhaps, submitting themselves to other people’s husbands, which would be one possible misreading, and also, perhaps, rather than getting so radical that husbands would have to be submitting themselves to their wives.

Although, by the time the husbands have gotten done loving the wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, submission might look like the easier job description.


[1] John F. Hobbins is the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He specializes in ancient Hebrew poetry.

[2] John Chrysostom was decidedly patriarchal. Of 1 Corithians 11:12, he quibbled over the Greek prepositions used and argued that it still implied male superiority. Nonetheless, Chrysostom did not view male superiority as originating with creation or Christ being the head, but rather justified it as the natural way of things, a consequence of the curse of the fall, and a practical way to avoid contention (or chaos; recklessness).

[3] Not unbelievers.

[4] The church submits to one another because they submit to Christ (v23), that is, they imitate Christ’s example. Wives submit to their husbands because the church submits to Christ (v24), an example of the church submitting to each other in imitation of Christ’s example. Both the submission of the church to one another and the submission of wives to their husbands is because everyone is to imitate Christ, who himself submitted to his Father. Submission—acts of sacrifice, service, humility, honor, love, obedience, and peace—is desirable for all, regardless of authority.

[5] The governing context of in Christ also applies to everything in “…so also wives to their husbands in everything“. This is made explicit in that everything is qualified by “as the church submits to Christ.”

[6] 1 Peter 2:18 says that slaves should submit to their masters in fear of God. The same word is used in Ephesians 5:21 where the members of the church are to submit to each other in fear of Christ. Compare Ephesians 5:22 with 1 Peter 2:1, which is the submission of wives in the same way.

[7] Just as Paul set the governing context to being in Christ.

[8] Do you submit to the government in the same way that you want your wife to submit to you? Do you submit to your pastor in the same way as you want your wife to submit to you?

[9] Feminist egalitarianism must fail because it is rooted in power dynamics and rebellion, not cooperation. Similarly, male-female relationships that attempt to force submission by way of a power dynamic will be unlikely to succeed, because they are not based on cooperation.

[10] Women are not standing by waiting for men to teach them how to serve and obey men, nor are they waiting for men to explain how they can behave properly. They are in complete ignorance, bereft of a man teaching them how to do all of this. They are, like men, created in the image of God and have minds and the full moral agency that comes with it. This is why, like men, their choice to submit is a real meaningful choice subject to discernment. It is impossible to submit in Christ unless one already knows what is in Christ and what is not in Christ.

[11] Authority in the church is given by (or yielded by) others, there is no inherent exercise of authorityJust as Christ had no authority on his own, but that which was given to him by the Father, so to does no one in the church have any authority of their own, but that which is given. We are to submit to each other as Christ submitted to the Father, but although Christ was granted authority vertically—by the Father—members of the church are granted authority horizontally—through the submission of others. No one in the church has inherent authority over another, for the servant is the greatest leader.


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