It is highly controversial in this day and age to talk about a wife submitting to her husband. It is, however, a biblical concept, which means we can't avoid it just because it is controversial.
Submission is universal and voluntary
In Colossians 3:18 Paul writes, "Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord." (Col. 3:18)
Zeroing in on the second half of the verse for a moment, we learn that a wife's submission is fitting for all times and places. In others words, Paul’s command wasn’t solely for his day. Rather it is still active and alive today, which means it's something that is expected of all Christian women.
Even though it is expected, it isn't to be forced on women. Submission is voluntary. Wives are not slaves or servants who are to be controlled and dominated by their husbands. Instead, they are to voluntarily submit to God's command as obedient followers of Christ.
What does it mean for a wife to submit to her husband?
Let me start by saying what it doesn’t mean because I think that will clear up some misunderstandings.
Submitting to your husband doesn't mean you are to be dominated by your husband – A husband is supposed to love his wife, not harshly rule over her.
Submitting to your husband doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with or even challenge your husband's ideas – A wife is to be a helper. Helping others doesn’t mean you agree with everything the person says.
It means contending with and helping them think through situations, so that they act in a way that accord with godliness. So submitting to your husband doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with or even challenge his ideas.
Submitting to your husband doesn't mean your husband can use and abuse you and you must take it willingly – If you are in an abusive relationship, the best thing you can do for yourself and your husband is to call the cops. It is never kind or loving to make it easy for someone to do wrong. When a wife doesn’t report abuse, a husband doesn’t have to own up to what he has done, nor does he have to deal with it, which means he ultimately won’t repent and change, which isn't healthy for the family or society. As well as it undermines one of the purposes of a marriage relationship, which is sanctification.
Submitting to your husband doesn't mean you can’t call them out on their sin – Again one of the purposes of marriage is sanctification. Overlooking sin isn’t healthy. Not only does it have the potential to destroy your marriage, but it also has the potential to destroy the person.
Submission isn't compatible with any of the above. It can't be because a husband is supposed to lead like Christ.
Instead, a wife submitting to her husband means:
She willingly accepts her God-given role as her husband's helper.
She willingly allows him to lead and guide her.
She willingly accepts his Christ directed decisions.
A wife's submission is modeled after Christ's submission
We know the above is what it means for a wife to submit to her husband because that is how Jesus submitted to the Father. Even though Jesus is co-equal with the Father, being God Himself, He willingly accepted His position as the Son, submitting to His Father. In doing so:
He accepted His role as Christ — The One who died for the sins of mankind.
He willingly allowed the Father to lead and guide Him, even to the cross.
He willingly accepted the Father’s will — Allowing His decisions to be final.
A wife's submission to her husband, then, is modeled after Jesus' submission to the Father, which tells us Jesus isn't asking us to do anything He wouldn't or didn't do Himself.
Why are wives supposed to submit to their husbands?
When I was in high school, I, probably like many of you, had to take an Algebra class. Thinking back to that time, I remember asking, on more than one occasion, why I needed to take that class. I asked because I couldn’t see an everyday application for algebra. (If I am honest, even now I don’t have an answer to that question, but that doesn't mean you don't or won't have an answer, so you probably need to learn it.) Since I couldn't understand why I needed Algebra, I didn’t fully apply myself to learning it.
I tell that story to make the point that knowing the “why” for what we are to do is important. It is often the difference between us doing or not doing something. Why, then, are wives called to submit to their husbands? Is it just another way for women to be oppressed by men, or does it actually provide value? I don't believe it is a way for men to keep their thumb on women. Instead, I believe God commanded submission because it is what makes for a healthy and productive family environment.
From the business world, we know that more than likely if two people try to run a corporation, fights and stalemates will hinder the company from running well. As a result, the stock price will drop, employees will lose their jobs, and consumers won't enjoy their product.
You can apply that same logic to the family. In order for a family to run well, one person, not multiple persons, need to be the head. One person should be responsible for making the final decision, breaking the tie or stalemate when there is one. God has divinely determined the husband is to be that person. He is responsible for making the final decision. His wife is supposed to submit or defer to his decision, so long as he isn’t leading his family into sin.
A family works best when a husband lovingly leads his wife, and a wife joyfully submits to her husband.
All this tells us a wife should submit to her husband, so that her family would be healthy and productive at accomplishing it’s God-given task, which is to honor Christ; build each other up in Lord, sanctifying one another; and then, when you have kids, training your children in the way of the Lord.
A husband can make submission easier
Even though a wife is commanded to submit out of obedience to Christ, her husband can make her submission, and subsequent obedience to Christ, easier by having a loving, caring, and sacrificial approach to his wife's well-being. When the man puts forth the effort and operates in the way God calls him to operate, he makes submission a joy, not a chore for his wife.