What’s up with wives submitting to their husbands?

Question: Several verses speak of women submitting to their husbands. Were Peter and Paul misogynists (haters of women)?

Answer:  Here’s my theory and understanding… Several instances of the Greek word “hypotassō”  appear in scriptures that mention women being in submission or subjection to their husbands or fathers. (Though the scripture doesn’t specifically say “fathers”, I believe it’s fair to assume that unmarried women would have been under their father’s care during the times in which these scriptures were penned – this was certainly the practice of the Jews).

Both Paul and Peter teach the same concept of women being “under subjection”. Paul teaches it in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Peter does so in 1 Peter.

It is my opinion that both Paul and Peter were likely basing this teaching on Numbers 30:3-13. Does that make them “legalists”? No. Paul gives us a clue to the basis for his teaching this in 1 Corinthians 14:34 by saying that what he is saying comes from the Law.

There appears to be no other portion of Torah that refers to women speaking. Therefore, Numbers 30:3-13 is the most plausible option since Paul, a very capable Torah scholar said that this idea was found in the Law.

To a western reader that lives in a day of so-called gender equality and where women can vote, work outside of the home, etc – this does appear to be very chauvinistic or misogynistic. We can all agree that the culture thousands of years ago provided women far less rights and privileges in some ways. Neither Paul nor Peter were the originators of such, so anything irksome about those times needn’t be blamed on them. We must seek to understand what they’re saying within the cultures and times in which they lived. That is not the same as justifying a culture!

The law being defined in Numbers was given as ‘way out’ for a young women who may have made a hasty vow without realizing the cost or consequences. This was especially important, because women did not themselves own significant resources, so laws were needed to prevent them from committing those of their father or husband without their consent.

Men could make vows without approval of their wives, because during these times, women were not property owners, nor those earning the family income. I’m sure wise men then, as now, consulted their wives before taking a vow 😉

Women  were cared for by their fathers until such a time as they married and came under the care of their husbands. As such, it was the husband or father who was fiscally responsible for the actions of the woman. 

Vows were not as they are today – which is just some way to communicate intent and change later. They were a binding obligation. In most cases in scripture, taking a vow meant placing oneself in debt or limiting one’s freedom in some regard – often significantly! A vow was no small thing in ancient times and was binding.

In the case of Numbers 30:3-13, a husband or father was given the right to approve or annul a vow made by his daughter or wife. This would be very similar to a law that allowed a wife buying a new vehicle to bring it back if her husband ended up not approving. This is similar to what is often called a ‘cooling-off’ law in our present day. A law to allow someone to back out of a financial obligation in the first few hours or days following a transaction.

Keeping this context in mind, it would appear Paul and Peter desired something similar be in place within the local church, or that they at least saw a parallel. We don’t know the specifics and can only offer conjecture. Why not offer conjecture based on rational thinking?

Whatever the specifics, neither Paul nor Peter desired women speak in a way that was outside of the approval of their husbands or fathers, especially in a way that could have committed the man’s resources or reputation without approval. Again, one must consider this in the context and times when these things were written. There weren’t cases where a man could have committed his wife’s resources to a vow. Things didn’t work that way in the culture.

With that in mind, also consider that the Epistles show a clear pattern of the saints taking collections for the local church in other areas or regions. It’s clear that at least some meetings included freewill offerings for this purpose. Perhaps Paul and Peter may have wanted to spare families and marriages from the difficulty and embarrassment of well-meaning, but perhaps hasty daughters or wives committing large sums of resources in front of the entire congregation? If so, this would be an act of grace that could spare someone from the heartache of having to fulfill a very costly vow.

Of course, this would also spare the reputation of the women rather than having their vows annulled and suffered the embarrassment of having misspoken.

Lastly, Paul and Peter firmly believed that every member of the body of Christ had something to contribute. When they taught such, they did not exclude women. We may not understand all the details of how thees ideas can harmonize, but we can assume that they do because the same men express both of these seemingly contradictory values.

One final note… I believe many of the verses about wive subjecting themselves to their husbands should be understood in the same way that mutual submission among the saints should be understood. That is, according to one of the Strong’s Dictionary definition for hypotassō  – ‘to yield to one’s admonition or advice’.


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