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.

 

In some conservative evangelical circles in Chinese churches, especially those that identify themselves as Reformed, the concept of submission can sometimes be quite distorted. Underlings are expected to obey their superiors unconditionally; parishioners are not allowed to question the teachings of their senior pastors; wives are often told to obey their husbands even if their husbands mentally or physically abuse them. Even worse, the crucifixion can sometimes be described in such a distorted way as if it were some kind of divine child abuse, and intra-trinitarian relations are misconstrued in subordinationist terms, all for the purpose of supporting the horrendous inequality between men and women in those churches. Wives are told to withstand abuse from their husbands as a way of submission, because, it is argued, this was how Jesus subjected himself to the will of the Father.
If the aim of these fundamentalist churches and their teachers is to follow the Bible’s teachings literally, I think they have failed miserably. Even a literal interpretation of the biblical teaching of submission does not support their view of male hegemony.

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.

 

In fact, in the New Testament, “hypotasso” in the passive usually refers to submission to human authorities, while “hypakoe” is used mainly with reference to human obedience to God. Therefore, in the King James Version (a favourite of some ultra-conservative churches), “hypotasso” is translated as “to submit” (passive) or “to subject” (active), whereas “hypakoe” is translated as “to obey,” in order to differentiate between the two words that can carry different connotations.

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.

 

As a general theological principle, especially from a Reformed perspective, it should be all too obvious that unconditional obedience is due to God alone. The biblical teaching of the wife’s submission to her husband, even if taken literally, does not mean that the wife should fulfil all her husband’s wishes, much less be interpreted as withstanding emotional or physical abuse without self-protection. A husband who does not sacrifice himself for his wife like Christ for the church has not right to demand submission from his wife. Your husband is not your God, and it is a sin to submit to him as if he were a god. Sometimes loving God means you have to love your husband by protecting yourself against your husband, and when you do so, no one has the right to say that you do not love God.

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