Are Women Called to Obey Their Husbands?
Women are called to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22. Often, an abusive husband will twist this, and tell her that she must ‘obey’ him. Let’s compare what these two words mean:
Obey: to follow the commands or guidance of; to conform to or comply with (as in “obey an order”).
Submit: to yield oneself to the authority or will of another; to defer to or consent; to abide by the opinion or authority of another.
As we see from these definitions, a person obeys because they have no choice, they are being commanded, ordered to conform, as a child obeys a parent, or a marine obeys his sergeant. However, submission implies that a person chooses to yield themselves to the will of another person; they consent out of their own free will. A Christian woman therefore would choose to defer her will to that of her husband out of love for him and out of love for and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The relationship between men and women is first described in the bible in Genesis 2:18–23:
The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
Biblical scholar Dr. Walter C. Kaiser says that the word translated in the NIV as helper (which is used in Genesis 2:18 and 2:20 to describe the woman) comes from the Hebrew word ezer meaning “to rescue”, “to save”, and/or possibly the word gezer, meaning “to be strong.” Furthermore, the word translated as suitable in the NIV comes from the Hebrew word kenegdO, which means “corresponding to him” or “equal to him.” Therefore, Dr. Kaiser’s translation of the woman’s position in the marriage would be “a strong rescuer who is equal to the man.”
Therefore, “suitable helper” does not connote a weaker, inferior or subordinate position. Her role may be different, but she is not less valuable, or less important. Her role can be compared to the role of Jesus (our savior) in the Holy Trinity. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked his Father to take away the cup of suffering that he was just about to bear. Matthew 26:39-44 in the NIV reads:
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Once Jesus had prayed and asked God three times, he submitted himself to the Father’s will, as we see in verses 45 and 46:
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
When Peter cut off the ear of one of the soldiers, Jesus chided him in verses 55 and 56, saying, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
This is a great example of submission. Jesus, coming from a position of power as God’s son, the creator of the earth, chose to submit his will to that of his Father so that the Scriptures would be fulfilled, and so that you and I could be forever in right relationship to God. In the same way, I believe that in the context of a loving marriage, God calls women to submit their lives and wills to that of their husbands. I believe that God has placed the husband in the role of the leader of the home, and his wife’s role is to help him to carry out whatever he feels he is being called to do by the Lord. This does not mean that she must blindly do whatever he says without discussion. I believe they are a team, and the two working together will be better than either of them working alone. However, in cases where there is disagreement, she should lovingly, kindly allow him to lead, and to trust the Lord that God will use her submission for His purposes.
But how can an abused wife use this advice?
A husband who is not abusive will respond favorably to a woman who loves him, thinks about him, and gives herself up for him. On the other hand, a man who is abusive will “ask for”—really, demand—more and more obedience from his wife. This type of man will not be won over by this behavior, but he will feel entitled to this type of treatment and will see it as another way he can control her.
In their book Boundaries: When to Say YES When to Say NO to Take Control of Your Life, Henry Cloud and John Townsend say on pages 161 – 162, “We have never seen a ‘submission problem’ that didn’t have a controlling husband at its root.”
In summary, women are called to submit to their husbands in the context of loving marriage, when the husband is giving himself up for his wife (Ephesians 5:25 – 33). They are not called to obey their husbands, especially if he is treating her abusively.
I will again caution wives of abusive men at this point. It would not be wise to take this information and confront your husbands with it. An abuser’s main objective is to have power and control over you. He may have succeeded at this quite nicely by telling you God commands you to submit to or obey him, no matter how he behaves. Please use wisdom and caution before sharing this information with him. However, now that you know, you can be free in your heart from this particular form of control.