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Hilarious Hupotasso

Wives should submit to their husbands voluntarily, without losing their God-given identities.


This is a hot button issue: the woman's role in church and family. Feelings are running high, and we all bring a certain bias with us.

First, we might bring our sexual bias to it. A man teaching from Genesis in Sunday school came to the verse about the woman having pain in childbirth and the man ruling over her. He asked everybody to write what struck them about this verse. All the women wrote down "I shall have pain in childbirth." All the men wrote down, "I shall rule over her." We bring our femininity or masculinity to this passage.

For example, there's rank chauvinism. The dictionary says the chauvinist has contempt for the opposite sex. Perhaps some of you men have seen such contempt in your growing years, and it colors your thinking when you come to a passage like this.

There's also radical feminism. Feminists feel the church denies the woman her equal status and opportunity because of her gender. Undoubtedly some of the causes are justified. But feminists push traditionalists into the belief that anything other than the hierarchical view of marriage must be rejected if the family is to be saved.

Some people bring religious bias. Our interpretation of these Scriptures often reflects our denominational background, our religious heritage. We all look to models of submission we have experienced, whether positive or negative.

Stuart and I brought our families and religious heritages to our marriage. My father, a quiet, gentle man, considered himself head of his home: protector, defender, and provider. My mom was a sweet, Scottish-born Presbyterian. She believed in the sovereignty of God and her husband. My father adored my mother, put his considerable business assets into her name, and looked to her to raise the children. When my sister came of age, my father supported her when she became an excellent car mechanic and raced cars. Eventually she took her place at his side as partner in his successful car business.

Stuart's family was strict, conservative evangelical. His father was an elder in a small local assembly of believers, and he took seriously his responsibility to rule the household well. He considered himself the authority in his family, while his wife, a bright, articulate, efficient lady, considered herself in subjection to her husband in everything, carrying those convictions to her dress, her hairstyle, and silence in the presence of men at the church.

Newly converted at a college in Cambridge and having just been introduced to Stuart's family, I remember wondering greatly about this amazing mode of doing things. I sensed an unconscious frustration of unexplored desires and frustrated gifts in my mother-in-law. It was as if those gifts sat meekly inside her heart with eyes downcast and wearing a hat.

In that moment as a new believer, I believe I stumbled on an important truth of what submission isn't. Submission isn't sitting down on the outside while you're standing up on the inside.

Submission starts with God.

What does the text say? The basis for this loving, sacrificial submission is in verse 21: mutual submission. And mutual submission means being full of the Spirit. We can't be full of the Spirit until we realize we need the Spirit. With our own spirits and our own hearts we cannot serve God, so we receive the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit of God, it is impossible to submit in the sense the Bible calls us to submit. Romans says the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God.

Jesus spent thirty years in Podunk—Nazareth—submitting to God, learning carpentry. Then it was time to submit himself to three punishing years of people-serving: touching wet leprosy; holding hot, sticky, dusty, dirty babies; mending mad minds, damaged psyches, and sick souls; and laying down his life daily for his friends. That was submission. In the upper room, he stripped to the waist, tied a towel around himself, and washed men's feet. That was submission.

The spirit of submission helped him to climb a crooked, awful tree in the shape of our redemption and there hang our sin out to dry. But he couldn't do that without first being hung up to dry himself. As Max Lucado says, "My, what a piece of wood!" If you want to know what submission looks like, look at the cross. It demonstrates itself there. Men and women alike must submit to the same Spirit and be full of that Spirit before any other submission can occur. James 4:7 says, "Submit yourselves to God." Have you done that?

The basis of submission is submitting ourselves to one another, or "giving way" to one another. Submission is giving way to somebody else. Anne Atkins, in her excellent book Split Image, says, "Before we can hope to be good husbands or wives, we must learn to be good Christians. We must all become self-sacrificial and submissive."

Submission had a place Paul's day.

On this basis, the relationship of the husband and wife is addressed in this passage. Verse 22 refers to the wife. Wives are to submit to their husbands. We cannot understand how the Ephesian wives felt about this unless we understand a little of their culture.

In Paul's day, the Gentile wife was dominated by her husband. The Greek pagan philosophy said, "This freedom with regard to wives is detrimental. Women are a kind of mutilated male. As soon as wives begin to be your equals, they've become your superiors."

The Greco-Roman world viewed the household as a foundation of the state. Any upsetting of this hierarchical order of the household was considered a political menace. As early Christianity spread, those little groups of people became the object of suspicion. What were they doing? Different behaviors? Different attitudes? Husbands submitting to wives? Never been heard of before. And there was a backlash against it. For the instruction of these little groups, in order that their conduct wouldn't upset society so much, Paul wrote a "house table" for the Christian family.

The book Beyond Sexual says: "The legal role of a woman could arbitrarily be exercised by her mate without her consent and against her will…. A father could sell his daughter as a servant probably to double up for a concubine under religious sanction as if she was a piece of property."

The Christian wife was about to be offered her first opportunity to have her husband ask her what she felt about selling their thirteen-year-old daughter into slavery. She'd never been asked before. There was a new air afloat. Christianity had brought incredible liberation into the thinking of these new families and relationships.

So, can you imagine this little group of people waiting in church one night and somebody comes in with the mail? And Paul's letter is opened, and the wives are thinking, "What's he going to say? This is so exciting. We're just beginning to feel this new freedom to be treated better than a cow." And to hear, "Wives submit to your husbands," must have been totally confusing. For Paul was calling to submission those who were, not those who were not. Women, slaves, and children were hearing this. These people had no choice at all.

So, why did Paul tell wives to submit to husbands when they were in submission already? The clue is in the grammar. The verb submit is in the middle voice. Literally, it means "place yourself in submission." Sit down on the inside as well as the outside. You've been sitting down on the outside because you had no choice. Now we give you this voluntary choice, this act of will rather than this legal requirement. Paul was after a heart attitude, a spirit of humility by choice, not coercion. Paul is pro-choice where woman are concerned: the choice to lay down our lives for our brothers, sisters, husbands, and children, because we have laid it down for Christ.

Richard Foster says, "[Paul] made decision-makers out of those who were forbidden to make decisions." What an incredible opportunity for the Christian wife in Paul's time. The letter to the Ephesians elevates the concept. You say, "It does? Elevating the concept of submission still smacks of servility to me."

Let's look at the text: "Wives submit." The word is hupotasso. This word means to rank under, to take your post. It's a military term. How are we wives to do this? As we submit to the Lord. How do I submit to the Lord? Willingly, gladly, voluntarily, and with abandon. That's how I submit to the Lord, and that's how I'm to submit to my husband—not because I must but because I may. Not because I have to, but because I get to. There's a difference.

The Christian world is currently divided about submission.

The huge debate in the Christian world at the moment is on this word kephale, "head." The difficulty occurs when translating the Greek word kephale into the English equivalent.

When we came to the United States, cookies were my biscuits and sidewalks were my pavements. Trunks and hoods were the boot and bonnet of my car. Freeways were motorways. When somebody said, "Get it all together," I knew that they really meant, "Pull your socks up." How to translate an equivalent word is hard.

In Greek, the word head is used as "source" or "origin," and as "authority " or "ruler." Today, the Christian world is just about split right down the middle in deciding how Paul meant to use it. Does head mean the husband is to be the wife's source? That's the egalitarian point of view. Or does it mean he has to be her ruler? That's the hierarchical point of view. How did Paul intend it here?

A good rule of Bible study is to note how the word is used in the same epistle or the same area of Scripture. This leads me and many other people to conclude that the way to translate it here is "source." In Ephesians 4:15-16, we read about Christ who is the source, the head of the body. He is the source of the gifting, nourishing, building up, and the developing of the church.

A marriage that takes "head" as primarily meaning "source" practices mutuality. People in that marriage don't waste time and energy maneuvering over "bosshood" in the home. Equality is a way of thinking. They value their mates as equals and as peers.

In Traits of a Lasting Marriage, Jim and Sally Conway speak of mutual submission: "One isn't boss, generally the husband, and one servant, often the wife. Instead, two servants offer each other their gifts and abilities, each honoring and respecting the other."

Others would opt for the head as always meaning "authority." They would say you cannot have it mean "authority" in Colossians, where the same instruction is given to the wife, and not here. That would have Paul saying two different things. So, they would opt for head as always meaning "authority." This viewpoint sees a divine hierarchy. Man takes his authority from Christ and is subject to him. The woman is under the authority of the man and submits to his headship. Headship is having authority, making decisions, especially in the home and the family. It includes the aspect of obedience (even though hupotasso is a different word from obey and involves this voluntary aspect of self-giving).

Both points of view go back to Genesis. Take verse 16 of chapter 3: "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing—with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." The debate comes down to the same two groups again: was this prescriptive or descriptive? Was God saying because you have made such a mess of it, my prescription for you is that you would be under your husband's rule, to prevent you from causing such trouble again?

Or is it descriptive of what would happen because of the fall? Before the fall there was equality between Adam and Eve. Because of the fall, men will now rule, and women will be subject to incredible oppression, which history fully bears out.

The Old Testament talks of men as heads of families in the sense of tribal chiefs. In the New Testament there aren't any tribal families. The only time Paul uses "head of the household" is to women, funnily enough. In 1 Timothy 5 he advises young widows to marry, have children, and "rule" or "be the head of" their household.

Being head, then, seems to be about looking after the wife, not being in control of her. If the husband could worry less about his headship and more about the wife's "bodyship," he would get on with nourishing and cherishing her. While the husband does what he's told, the wife is busy, hopefully, respecting her husband.

There's another word we have to figure out. This is the interesting word phobos. It's translated "fear," but not in the sense of terror, not cowering servility. Submission isn't domestic servility or being a domestic doormat.

Love is never rude. I saw a cartoon the other day of a great, big, aggressive, bossy woman and a little, tiny, hen-pecked man. They were going in to see the counselor. The great, big, bossy, aggressive lady points to the poor little man and says to the counselor, "Knucklehead thinks we need counseling." Knucklehead was right.

Love never treats a husband like that. Love is civil. Love regards his interests above our own, goes to bat for him. You go to bat for him with other people. That's what "honor" and "prefer" also mean. A wife who respects and regards her husband never gossips or complains about him to her girl friends. I have been absolutely appalled at the sort of things I have heard in Christian women's groups. If you're going to respect your husband, you honor and affirm him. It doesn't mean you always agree with him, but you value his opinion.

Are there limits to submission? What happens if I'm married to a man who bears not the slightest resemblance to Jesus? What if he never nourishes or cherishes me? What if he dominates, abuses, stifles, and destroys my self-worth? What if he's bisexual and expects to continue a sexual relationship with me? What if he's sexually abusing my kids? What if he forbids me to tell the kids the gospel but he tells them he believes Jesus Christ is the illegitimate son of a Jewish dancing girl? All those things have been described to me this year as I've talked to people. Does "in everything" mean every thing?

Many people say there are no exceptions. Mike Griffith, principal of London Bible College, though, points out limitations for Christians: when the law of God contravenes the law of man, or when Scripture limits the authority of the person telling you what to do, we ought to obey God rather than man. Jesus said he warned us that children would have to stand up against parents and not submit to them if it came down to committing themselves to him. Submission does not mean submission to any old thing.

Most husbands don't come into the category. To the ordinary, imperfect, selfish, sinning husband, an ordinary, imperfect, selfish, sinning wife should submit as she would to Christ. It's not going to be perfect, but we can shoot for a target. We can decide to make a bad marriage better and a good marriage the best. The biggest problem is that we don't want to. The old nature is standing up on the inside. We're obsessed by that personal insistence that things go the way we want them to go. Usually, there isn't a principle or moral issue involved. Submission becomes a matter of obedience to Christ.

Submission has a place in marriage today.

So, how does this now relate to you and me in the twentieth century? I believe that true submission leads to liberty. Richard Foster says, "Submission leads to liberty, the liberty to be able to let go the terrible weight and burden of always needing to get my own way." I believe submission is self-denial. It says, "My happiness does not depend on my getting what I want."

I'd like to share where I am with arguments on both sides of this debate. I can see why kephale can mean both head as authority and rule and head as source and nourisher and cherisher. Scripture seems to put forward both ideas, and I cannot pull them both together. But I don't need to because I accept both the concepts.

Just as I believe in predestination, I believe in free will. Sometimes I react as if I'm a Calvinist and God is sovereign. Other times, when I'm dealing with somebody I'm leading to Christ, I'm an Armenian, and I believe in his or her free will. I can't pull the concepts together, but I don't need to.

I don't know whether Stuart's my head in the sense of ruler or my head as the source. I do know he is my head, for the Scriptures tell me that. I do know I am to submit to him, and that's my choice. I have discovered that my choice of submission leads to contentment.

I'm blessed beyond measure to be Stuart's wife because he is a man willing to listen to other biblical viewpoints than those he was raised with. Otherwise, I might be somewhere today sitting down on the outside but standing up on the inside, crying out for permission to be the woman God made me.

Stuart considers it his responsibility as my head to see to it that I am his equal. He's nourished and cherished me. He's provided the environment in which I could grow as a wife, mother, grandmother, spiritual teacher, and writer. A man who sees biblical headship as source is a mature man and a secure man. And a secure man is never threatened by his wife's gifts. A man of quality is never threatened by a woman of equality.

By the same token, a woman of equality will never be a domineering, bossy person, but rather one with a meek and gentle spirit. She's a person who counts it all joy to submit.

In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul is talking about giving money. He says there are three ways to give. You can give grudgingly, of necessity, or hilariously—cheerfully. The word in Greek is hilaros. I have discovered I can submit grudgingly because I have to or because that is how it is. Or I can choose to submit first to Christ and then to my husband and then to you and then to my world, to my children, to my grandchildren, to the traffic man, and to whomever I have to submit to. I can do it. It's a hilarious thing. It's freedom.

Let me just give you one glimpse into that from a family letter that Stuart wrote this year to our friends around the world. It will give you a flavor of the hilarious submission that we enjoy together.

"Jill and I are still together and have no desire for anything else. She continues to lose her keys, worry a lot, run in circles, organize the family, overextend, laugh at herself, forget where she is, give people new names, dream up new ideas, enthuse people, confuse people, write a lot, talk a lot, pray a lot, and cook occasionally. In other words she's had a perfectly normal year.

"I have been busy finding her keys, traveling, telling her where she is, finding her keys, restoring people's original names, finding her keys again, thoroughly enjoying being with her, and eating her cooking." At the end of the letter, he says, "I have to go. Jill has lost her keys and doesn't know where she is."

He's given me freedom to run in circles and to organize the family, all sixteen of us, and to overextend and to laugh at myself and to dream up my new ideas and to enthuse people and write a lot and talk a lot and pray a lot, and he's even forgiven me when I lose my keys over and over again.

One key we never lose is the key of our commitment to Christ and to each other. That key has unlocked the door for both of us to hilarious hupotasso. A selfless, giving life leads to the liberty of living, for husband and wife, a joyous death to selfishness, a yielded will. That gives new warmth and color to a marriage cold and plain. Hilarious hupotasso is the way to start again.

Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives. Nourish and cherish them as Christ loved and cherished and gave himself for the church. To all of us: submit ye, one to another.

Jill Briscoe is lay adviser to the women's ministry at Elmbrook Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and a director of "Telling the Truth" media ministry. She has written more than 40 books and is editor of Just Between Us, a magazine for ministry wives and women in ministry.

© Jill Briscoe, 1993
Preaching Today Issue #117
A resource of Christianity Today International

Jill Briscoe is executive editor of Just Between Us, serves on the boards of World Relief and Christianity Today International, and is a minister-at-large with her husband at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin.

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Sermon Outline:


We all approach the topic of submission with sexual, religious, and family bias.

I. Submission starts with God.

II. Submission had a place in Paul's day.

III. The Christian world is currently divided about submission.

IV. Submission has a place in marriage today.


We don't have to reconcile differing opinions in order to experience the freedom of submission.