Submission is not a bad word when it’s correctly understood. In fact, when I love God there is nothing I want more than to submit to Him and others. That is good and reasonable in mutual relationships.
If you are unaware, there is a difference between mutual and oppressive relationships. A mutual relationship recognizes the personhood of both individuals. One is not more important than the other. Respect goes both ways. Both individuals have equal access to God and freedom to express opinions, thoughts and feelings without punishment. In mutual relationships there is a brotherly/sisterly sensitivity to spiritual differences and matters of conscience.
It’s possible you’ve never thought about marriage being different than your own. Most of us assume that others experience life the way we do. Whether or not you believe and live out biblical roles as egalitarian or complementarian, marriage is lived as two equal or two unequal individuals.
When Peter addresses wives as “weaker vessels” (1 Peter 3:7), the context is submission. A woman who practices godly submission in marriage is in a weaker position than her husband. However, the example of Abraham and Sarah (1 Peter 3:1-6) says nothing of Abraham being harsh or oppressive. Disobedient? Yes. Human? Yes. But not abusive. Therefore, we are wrong to apply this passage to women who are being misused and whose husbands “lord it over” them. Peter and Paul make a distinction between slaves and masters that is not applied to wives and husbands. And never, ever, does the Bible condone a husband’s harsh behavior. Churches that excuse, justify and minimize such should do so with an eye to their own judgement and participation in such behavior.
A wife who is in a dangerous or oppressive relationship does not and can not submit in the biblical sense of the word because her behavior is forced. Submission is a choice. Survival is not. A woman who is punished for disobeying her husband’s preferences, desires, and commands quickly learns where the line is and how to avoid repercussions.
Jesus submitted to the Father. It was His choice. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep…. I lay down my life for the sheep… Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” (John 10:11, 15, 17-18)
Jesus’ Father was trustworthy. Loving. Infinitely good. Jesus did what His Father commanded because He loved and trusted Him.
But we expect women to lay down their lives on the altar of men who have proven over and over that they are not trustworthy, loving, or good. In fact, wives are often expected to fulfill both sides of a marriage covenant: to submit to their husband and to give themselves for their husbands; to “love” their husbands as Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:22, 25, 28). When that is the case, the husband has no responsibility or calling whatsoever. A wife is nothing more than chattel. And those of us who stand behind such teaching and practice have missed the entirety of the gospel; of Jesus, of God’s heart, purpose, and plan for people as a whole and the church in particular.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
But sexual immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness or foolish talk, or vulgar joking, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no sexually immoral or impure or greedy person, which amounts to an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
See that no one deceives you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), as you try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not participate in the useless deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says,
And arise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.”
So then, be careful how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, in which there is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your hearts to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to our God and Father; and subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.
Wives, subject yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are parts of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, as for you individually, each husband is to love his own wife the same as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5)