Hupotassō is the Greek word from which we get the terms relating to submission in marriage. In the New Testament it usually appears as submit, subject, or submissive. The definition from two Greek dictionaries is given below.
While these definitions are helpful, it can be even more enlightening to see where hupotassō appears in the New Testament. There are over three dozen such occurrences. Seeing how a word is used helps to clarify its meaning. I have listed several of the verses below. We will see that the concept of submission is not isolated to marriage. It appears in the New Testament between two entities in many different relationships including:
Jesus and his parents
demons and the disciples
people and governing authorities
everything and Jesus
We will also see that each relationship involves an entity that has authority over another or an entity that is considered under another in some way. While the submission and authority in the relationships in the following verses are not exactly the same as they are in marriage, we can learn from studying them.
Hupotassō Verses Not Relating to Marriage
Jesus to His Parents
“And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.” Luke 2:51 (KJV)
Demons to Disciples
“The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.”” Luke 10:17 (NASB)
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”” Luke 10:19-20 (ESV)
People to Governing Authorities
“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” Romans 13:1 (NASB)
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,” Titus 3:1 (ESV)
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” 1 Peter 2:13-14 (ESV)
Spirits to Prophets
“And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” 1 Corinthians 14:32 (KJV)
All things to Jesus
For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
(1 Corinthians 15:27-28)
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Philippians 3:20-21 (ESV)
“Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him.” Hebrews 2:8 (KJV)
Angels, authorities, and powers to Jesus
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” 1 Peter 3:21-22 (ESV)
Believers to Workers in the Ministry
“Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors.” 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 (NASB)
One to Another
“Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” Ephesians 5:21 (KJV)
This verse is sometimes used to teach a mutual submission that cancels out the roles of authority and submission in marriage. I think it is more likely that “submitting” is used here as it is throughout the rest of the New Testament. The verses on this page show that it consistently appears as a response to authority. If we take it that way here, does that mean that we are to take turns submitting to each other’s authority? I don’t think so. That would be confusing. Instead, I believe this verse is a segue to the following section which is about three relationships that involve authority. There is the submission of wives to husbands in verses Eph. 22-24, the obedience of children to parents in Eph. 6:1-3, and the obedience of slaves to masters in Eph. 6:5-8. These three relationships follow the pattern that we have seen elsewhere regarding the word hupotassō – there is one party that submits to the authority of another.
Slaves and Servants to Masters
“Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative,” Titus 2:9 (ESV)
“Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.” 1 Peter 2:18 (NASB)
Us to God
“Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?” Hebrews 12:9 (NASB)
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James 4:7 (KJV)
Younger Believers to Elders
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.””
1 Peter 5:5 (ESV)
These verses demonstrate that hupotassō is present when there is a form of authority present. That gives us a framework for submission. It is a response to authority.
Hupotassō Verses Relating to Marriage
Now that we have seen how hupotassō is used in various verses unrelated to marriage and have gleaned a sense of the meaning, here are the verses relating to marriage.
Wives to Husbands
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.”
Ephesians 5:22 (KJV)
“But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”
Ephesians 5:24 (NASB)
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.”
Colossians 3:18 (KJV)
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.”
Titus 2:3-5 (NASB)
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives,”
1 Peter 3:1 (ESV)
“For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands;”
1 Peter 3:5 (NASB)
Like the relationships listed in the first section, there are two entities in marriage. Based on what we have seen in all these verses, it is reasonable to conclude that the verses regarding the submission of a wife in marriage carry with them the same meaning as the rest. One entity (the wife) submits to the authority of the other (the husband). The wife’s submission is a position and action that responds positively to the God given authority found in her husband. She holds in her heart a respectful readiness to follow his lead and does so when it is time.
Reflecting upon authority and submission in marriage is sobering. God has ordained these roles for husbands and wives, and it is matter of great importance that we honor them and seek to live them. Both roles can be challenging and complicated. So much could be said about them, and I will endeavor to address the role of wives in more detail as time goes on. There is the potential for problems, but there is also great potential for improving relationships and greater sanctification when lived correctly. With the grace of God and lots of prayer and work, the roles can be beautiful when fulfilled in a God honoring way. May we bring glory to God as we endeavor to submit to him in this matter.
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