A friend wrote to me with a question: “Why do you think the Bible says for wives to ‘submit to’ their husbands instead of ‘obey’? Do you think there is a difference?”
This question came from a young woman who was married for a couple of years and working as a missionary. She is of Chinese origin, and although she grew up in North America, her faith was significantly shaped by the culture of conservative Chinese evangelicalism.
The following is what I wrote in reply to my friend’s question.
Indeed there is a difference between the New Testament words “to obey” and “to submit to.” The verb “hypotasso” in the passive (1 Peter 3:1 , which tells wives to submit to their husbands) does mean “to submit” AND “to obey,” and is used in James 4:7 in connection with obedience to God. HOWEVER, in Peter’s usage, “hypotasso” seems to usually refer only to relations of submission between humans (1 Peter 2:13, 2:18, 3:1, 3:5, 5:5). When speaking of the elect’s obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2), Peter uses the noun “hypakoe” instead. Though the two words are largely synonymous, Peter uses these two words to draw a distinction between submission to people and obedience to Christ.
So, yes, there is a difference between “obedience” and “submission.” Sure enough, Paul does not draw such a distinction between “hypotasso” and “hypakoe” in Eph. 5:22-24. However, in Ephesians 5 Paul is speaking metaphorically and analogically, so although the same word “hypotasso” is applied to both husband-wife and Christ-Church relations, these two relations involve two kinds of submission by virtue of the analogy (i.e., since the two relations are analogous, they are not identical). By contrast, Peter is speaking realistically and not metaphorically or analogically, so Peter must be careful in his choice of words to make a distinction between the wife’s submission to her husband and the elect’s obedience to Christ.
So that was what I wrote in reply to my friend’s question. In addition to this very brief word study, I might add a few comments.