ROLE OF WIVES in Covenant Marriages

What is a successful wife? A typical answer would be: "She commands the respect of a faithful and successful husband, is the mother of two lovely children, manages her home well and is still able to maintain a successful career with a substantial salary, as well as an active social life with her friends." Many a woman of the world will dream about being such a woman. Indeed, the world will regard such a woman as a super-woman, a kind of model to attain unto, since few in reality will achieve this ‘ideal’.

But the question that should interest us, as Christians, is not what the world perceives to be a successful wife. What we are interested in is what the Bible portrays to be the successful wife. In other words, we are interested to know what is a successful wife in the eyes of our Lord.

Naturally, since marriage is instituted by God, the successful wife would be one who is conformed to the pattern of a godly wife laid down in the Word of God. Or to put it in another way: a successful wife must be one who carries out her role as a covenant wife as laid down in the Scriptures. How is this role to be carried out? What distinguishes her from all other wives?

If you search the Scriptures, you will find that there are primarily two factors by which a wife will be judged as being successful or being a failure. Whatever else a wife may do, only these two criteria count when she, as it were, receives her performance appraisal from the Lord for her calling as a wife. And I would suggest to you,—not without scriptural authority,—that if you are married, it is these two factors which will figure most prominently when you are called to give an account of your life, namely: (1) your submission to your husband, and (2) your support of your husband.

Submit to Your Husband

Firstly, wives are called to submit to their husband. Paul says in our text: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord" (Eph 5:22).

Let us consider the nature and extent of this submission, and then some practical admonishments in the practice of submission.

Nature of wifely Submission

The word ‘submit’ (upotassw, hupotassô) simply means place-under or stand-under. It is translated literally as "put under" in Ephesians 1:22, "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church" (Eph 1:22). But in the context of marriage it has the idea of submission and obedience.

In 1 Peter 3:1, the word is rendered "to be in subjection": "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands." Similarly in Titus 2:5, it is "to be obedient": "To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed."

Wives, in other words are called to submit, to obey or to be in subjection to their husband. It is God’s design for the family that the husband is the head of the house, and the wife is to be second in command.

Biblical rather than cultural

Yes, wifely submission is a biblical injunction, which is based upon God’s purposeful design for marriage. It is not merely a matter of societal or cultural norm. The reason why most societies and cultures expect wives to submit is because marriage as a divine institution is etched in the moral makeup of man, so that man by nature knows what is the right order of things. Sin has darkened our hearts and minds, and men and women have constantly sought to rebel against this God-ordained order. Indeed the more ‘advance’ a society becomes, the more this ancient order is ridiculed as being an antiquated cultural idea.

But far from being so, it is really a manifestation of God’s wisdom in His design of the marriage institution. As such, wives are under divine obligation to submit to their husbands, the rebellious challenge of sinful man not withstanding.

In fact, the apostle Paul writing under divine inspiration demonstrates his sensitivity to the reality that many will question the basis of this instruction—Iis it really of man or is it of God? Notice how in the two occasions, when he commands, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands," he adds a clause to assert the divine basis of his instruction. In Ephesians 5:22, he adds "…as unto the Lord." In Colossians 3:18, he adds, "…as it is fit in the Lord."

Whatever the differences between the two clauses may be, one thing is clear: if you are a Christian wife, it is not optional for you to submit or not to submit. It is mandatory. A failure to submit to your husband is not just a sin against your husband, it is rebellion against Christ. It is such a serious crime in the sight of God that Paul says that the word of God will be blasphemed by your behaviour if you are not a submissive and obedient wife (Tit 2:5). Let all wives and wives-to-be bear this to mind. You are to submit to your husband as unto the Lord.

The husband stands as Christ’s representative

Within the marriage context, the husband stands as Christ’s representative. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3, "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." Just as Christ stands as our covenant representative before God, the husband stands as the covenant representative in the covenant family. He will be primarily accountable to God for the well-being of his family. He is the leader and head of the home. And his wife must stand under his banner of love and authority.

Functional rather than absolute submission

But make no mistake. This does not mean that the husband can live as a tyrant in the home. No, let us realise that the call to wives to be submissive does not mean that husbands therefore have absolute authority.

Sometimes, indeed, the word upotvssw (hupotassô) is used to describe our submission to one who is intrinsically greater, superior and intrinsically deserving of our obedience. James says, "Submit yourselves therefore to God" (James 4:7a). However, the word itself does not necessarily speak of superiority and subordination. And it is clear from the testimony of Scripture, that when wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, that no notion of superiority in the husband is intended. In other words, unlike what is taught in some religion and cultures, a bride does not become a slave and a groom does not become a master after the wedding night. Let me prove this from two angles:

Firstly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3, "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." Our over-zealously authoritative husband says: "There you have it: the head of man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man. Just as Christ is superior to man, the husband is superior to the wife!"

But this argument falls flat when we consider that if that be the case, then wives must worship their husbands as the man must worship Christ. Paul is rather speaking about economic or functional order. Though Christ is equal in power and glory with the Father, He subjects Himself to the headship of the Father.

Secondly, Paul under inspiration, very carefully makes it clear that husbands do not have absolute authority over their wives. Look at the verse just before Ephesians 5:22 where we have the command for wives to submit to their husbands. What do you have there? "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Eph 5:21). In other words, in a certain sense, husbands have to submit to their wives. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:4, "The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife."

The word ‘submit’ (upotassw), when referring to the husband and wife relationship, therefore, speaks of a functional order of authority and obedience under a covenant relationship, rather than absolute superiority and subordination.

Let me put it this way: a wife are not require to be in subjection to her husband in the same way as slaves are called to be in subjection to their masters (e.g. Tit 2:9). Nevertheless, the wife must submit to her husband as her duty to God. She must never give in to the temptation to submit only if her husband earns her submission by his love. But the husband must know that though his wife should submit to him according to the Word of God, her submission is her duty to God. The husband has no right to demand submission from his wife. The husband ought to earn his wife’s submission by loving her. He does not own her.

Extent of Wifely Submission

Are there some specific areas where wives should submit to their husbands? Paul says under divine inspiration: "Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing" (Eph 5:24; emphasis mine). I would remind you that this is the Word of God. But what does everything mean? Well, everything means every single thing! The wife is to submit to her husband in every aspect of her life.

But how may the wife submit in everything? She is to submit both passively and actively, or if you like, reactively and proactively. Most of us usually think of submission passively. We often fail to realise that submission can also be active. Indeed, both aspect of submission is taught in the Scriptures.

Passive or Reactive Submission.

To submit to your husband in everything reactively or passively means that you should listen and obey your husband’s instruct and submit to his opinion in every decision you have to make in your life after you are married.

Did you husband urge you to read a particular book? Have you started reading? Did your husband admonish you on the manner in which you treated your children? Did you listen to him and correct yourself. Did your husband call for family worship? Have you submitted and arranged everything in the home to make it possible?

You say, "I know I am to submit in everything, but aren’t there any exception? Isn’t there a limit to my submission?"

Yes, indeed there is. There is indeed a clear boundary wherein you are to submit. It is the same boundary of submission to men under authority that applicable under all circumstances. This boundary is exemplified in Acts 4 where John and Peter were asked by the highest ruling body of the Jewish religious order, the Sanhedrin not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Acts 4:19 reads, "But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye." In other words, where there is a conflict between the instruction of God and the instruction of man, then the instruction of God must prevail.

Did your husband ask you to do something contrary to the Word of God or something detrimental to your faith in Christ? It is your duty to disobey. Did he say, go for an abortion. It is your duty to disobey. Did he say, let us go shopping instead of going to worship on the sabbath day? It is your duty to disobey.

Are there any other qualifications? No. "What if I do not like my husband’s suggestion?" You should still submit. "What if in my opinion, my husband’s decision is not quite sound financially?" You can advise him gently or urgently. "What if he persist?" You should still submit. He will have to bear the responsibility for not listening to a wise wife that the Lord has given him to help him make his decisions.

Bear in mind that there is a difference between opinion and conviction. An opinion is not objectively founded on the Word of God. A conviction is firmly rooted in the Word of God. You are to stand by your conviction, come what may. But you must as a principle give in when it comes to your personal opinion. When Paul says "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands," he uses the Greek present tense for the command to submit. This means that you are to submit constantly and consistently,—so long as your submission to your husband does not cause you to disobey God.

Let me illustrate: Suppose you have a well-paying job but your husband wants you to quit your job, to stay at home to be a homemaker. You feel that it is such a waste for you to leave your job. And you are not convinced that you should stay at home to be a homemaker. What do you do? Well, unless you can show convincing proofs from the Scripture that you should not stay at home to be a homemaker, you should submit to your husband and quit your job. As long as you cannot give a Scriptural reason why you are not convinced you should stay at home, then it is your personal opinion rather than your conviction. Do not confuse the two. You say, "But my husband cannot show from Scripture too that I must stay at home." Well, in that case, it is his opinion and not his conviction that you should stay at home. But that should not make a difference for you! He is the head of the house. He is accountable for you too. Whether it is his opinion or his conviction you should submit as long as you do not have a biblical objection or a contrary conviction.

But now suppose your husband tells you to lead in family worship instead of him because you know the Bible better than he does. You are convinced that the Scripture requires that the head of the household lead in worship lead in worship, not you. It is a conviction, not an opinion. What do you do? Well, then you should object and refuse, and try to persuade your husband to lead instead.

Active or Proactive Submission

Unlike passive submission, to be actively submitted to the husband to be submissive to him at all time even when he has not made a decision that requires submission. Active submission is about your attitude and the actions that flows from your attitude.

Submission, after all, is act of the will that flows from a heart of love, gratitude and genuine respect for your husband. Paul says "Let… the wife see that she reverence her husband" (Eph 5:33). The word ‘reverence’ translates a Greek word meaning ‘fear’ or ‘respect.’ In the same way, Peter speaks about Sarah calling Abraham, her husband as lord (1 Pet 3:6). This shows the degree of submissiveness that is expected of Christian wives. Such kind of submissiveness will manifest itself in many ways in the Christian marriage. Let me highlight just three ways in which submissive may be manifested.

Firstly, submissiveness involves your not contradicting nor embarrassing your husband, especially in public or in front of the children. A submissive wife will resist all temptations to speak impatiently to her husband, not to mention raise her voice at him or shout or scold her husband. She desists from making unkind or rude remarks about him, especially in public.

Secondly, submissiveness involves your always trying to win your husband by your behaviour more than by your words. This is the principle given in "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives" (1 Pet 3:1). This verse speaks of course of the wife who has an unbelieving husband. But the principle applies in all situations,—including situations where the husband is a believer but his behaviour is wanting. Nagging is not the best way to correct a husband when his behaviour is wanting: be it untidiness or unpunctuality. Solomon must have been speaking from experience when he said: "A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike" (Prov 27:15). Nagging, often leads to quarrels, but godly example never fails to bear positive fruits.

Thirdly, submissiveness involves consulting with your husband for all your major decisions. Are you undecided whether to take some night classes? Ask your husband, and submit to his decision. Submissiveness involves not making any major decision that concerns your family by yourself. It involves giving suggestions to your husband and leaving him to make the decisions. A submissive wife is not one who is always silent, and not contributing to the leadership of the family. She is not one who has no opinion. Rather she is one who speaks wisdom. "She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness" (Prov 31:26). But a submissive wife is one who knows how and when to make use the wisdom that God has given her.

Encouragement to Wifely Submission

You ask: "What if I don’t feel like submitting? What if I find it extremely hard to submit? What if it is just not in my nature to submit? What if I have lost all respect for my husband after the way treats me all these years?"

My dear sisters, I think I understand. But the Word of God mandates wifely submission as being necessary for secure, happy, marriages. And the Lord lays no condition. Ask the Lord to help you to submit. As Christ submitted to the authorities and was led as a lamb to the slaughter for your sake, so learn to submit to your husband for the sake of Christ your Saviour. A meek and quiet spirit is in the sight of God of great price (1 Peter 3:4). Christ tells the church, "If you love me, keep my commandments." The church, the bride of Christ demonstrate her love to Christ by obedience. In the same way, you are called to demonstrate your love to your husband by submission and obedience. This is why all the biblically based vows for brides on their wedding include the word "obey."

The Anglican church vow which many wives in our midst would have used read: "I, N, do take thee, N., to my wedded husband, to love, cherish and obey, for better or for worst, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part."

The vow given in the Westminster Directory of Public Worship read: "I, N. do take thee, N. to my married husband, and I do, in the presence of God, and before this congregation, promise and covenant to be a loving, faithful, and obedient wife unto thee, until God shall separate us by death."

Today, because of the feminist movement and equal rights movement, more and more churches are deleting the word obey from the wife’s vow. I think this is sad, for it demonstrate a departure from the word of God, and rather than giving freedom, leaves the wife exposed to the false notion that she is free not to submit to her husband since she never made the vow. But the fact is, whether it is said in the vow or not, it makes no difference. You are to submit to your husbands. A failure to do so is a failure to submit to Christ, which by any other name, is sin and rebellion against God, and bondage to Satan.

Support Your Husband

We have seen the duty of wives to submit to their husbands. Now, secondly, we must example the wives’ duty to support their husbands.

In the Genesis account of the creation of Eve we read: "And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him" (Gen 2:18). Notice that Eve is designated an help-meet, not help-maid for Adam.

The Hebrew can also be rendered "a helper suitable for him." The word translated "help" (rz²[e, ezer) occurs 21 times in various forms in the Hebrew Old Testament. It is never used to describe servants or slaves. There is a word to describe that in Hebrew (db,[,;, abed), but it is not the word here. In fact, the word translated ‘help’ here is always used to describe the helper of someone who is either practically helpless.

Thus, Eve was not created simply to serve Adam so that Adam can enjoy his life with ease. No, Eve was created for Adam because he was not complete without her. Adam needed help to carry out his vocation on the earth; and Eve was specially created to provide for that purpose.

What are some practical ways in which a Christian wife must support her husband?

Let me briefly suggest three:

Making a Home

The apostle Paul tells us that one of the most important role of wives is to be "keepers at home" (Tit 2:5). The Greek for "Keepers at home" is only one word, which may also be rendered "home-maker" or "home-worker." Remember that it is one of your responsibilities to make your home as comfortable a retreat as possible for your husband and your family. This does not mean that you must make sure that the house is spick and span. Your husband needs a place to retreat after a days’ work, he does not need a display showcase.

When you take upon yourself the responsibility of the domestic chores in your family, you would essentially be freeing up your husband’s time for his primary responsibilities—the spiritual instruction of his family, and the ministry of service in the local assembly.

A virtuous Christian wife is one whom her husband can depend on to take care of the affairs of the home. "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil" (Prov 31:10-11). She commands the respect of her husband and children by the way she manages the family affairs: "Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her" (Prov 31:28).

Martin Luther writes from experience in his Tabletalk when he said:

The greatest blessing that God can confer on a man is the possession of a good and pious wife with whom he can confide his whole possessions, even his life and welfare…

Building Respect to Her Husband 
in the Children

The second way in which a covenant wife can support her husband is to build loyalty and respect to him in the children. This involves your persistently and noticeably submitting to your husband’s decision. It involves your supporting your husband’s decisions when they are made. It involves your showing confidence in what decisions he has made even if you may not fully agree with it. It involves your directing the children to their father for major decisions. It involves withdrawing your decision if it comes to your knowledge that your husband has already decided or when your husband makes another decision.

Supporting Her Husband’s Effort to 
Cultivate in Family Religion

As head of household, the husband is responsible for the family spiritual’s well-being. But how successful he is in cultivating family religion will very much depend on the co-operation of his wife. For example, in a family that has not begun to have family worship on a regular basis, it would be very hard for the husband to begin to initiate anything without his wife’s active interest.

Wives, your husband can be extremely frustrated if he tries to call the family to worship but you show disinterest. You must support your husband if your family is going to worship God together. You must show the greatest interest. Whenever possible, when your husband calls for worship, you should drop all you are doing and gather the children together. Your actions relative to family worship time will go a long way to impress on the minds of your children in regard to the importance of the hour.


Wives, have you been submissive and supportive? Make it the aim of your life to encourage and support your husband. Do you realise that the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 is probably not a very beautiful woman? Otherwise, why would the author add towards the end of the catalogue of virtue this little verse: "Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised" (Prov 31:30). Yes, beauty according to the Scripture is far more than skin deep. This idea is so important that both the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter spoke about it.

Paul tells us that he would have

…women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness [modesty] and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. 11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection" (1 Tim 2:9-11).

Similarly Peter says,

"Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; 2 While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. 3 Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price" (1 Pet 3:1-4).

Husbands, are you wrecking your marriage by refusing to perform your role—sinning against God, and encouraging your wife to usurp your leadership in the home? Remember that you will be held accountable not only for yourself but for how you have managed your family. Are you failing to love your wife in the way that you should and so causing her to be unhappy and unsubmissive? Or are you unto her as Christ is to the Church, so that she is encouraged to be unto you as the Church is unto Christ? —JJ Lim

[This article is based on a sermon preached by the writer on 8 October 2000, and has been distributed to those who attended the Marriage and Courtship preparation classes in PCC. We are printing it (together with its compendium on the Role of Husbands) upon a request to give it a wider circulation. We trust that it will, together with its compendium, provide a practical complement to the 6 challenging and well-appreciated articles on the husband and wife by Pastor Jeff O’Neil]