There was a time when the word “obey” was included in marriage vows. The husband vowed to love and honor his wife and she vowed to love, honor, and obey her husband. The vow of obedience was based on Ephesians 5:22 and First Peter 3:1, where wives are commanded to be in subjection to their husbands.

The words “submit” and “subjection” in the New Testament come from hupotasso, meaning “to station one’s self under another.” The word denoted the recognition of superior authority, as illustrated in a Coptic ostracon from Egypt (c. A.D. 600) in which three young men who were candidates for the diaconate wrote to their bishop:

I, Samuel, and Jacob and Aaron, we write to our holy father Apa Abraham, the bishop. Seeing we have requested thy paternity that thou wouldest ordain us deacons, we are ready to observe the commands and canons and to … be obedient [hupotasso] to the superiors.… [Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, p. 222].

In New Testament times the position of the Christian wife was similar to that of the three young men. Her husband was the “superior” in the home, and she was expected to be obedient to him.

Today many marriage counselors and pastors regard the vow of obedience as an anachronism. They argue that the husband-wife relationship taught in the Scripture is culturally conditioned. Since it was fitting in Bible times for a woman to be submissive to her husband, they say, Christians were enjoined to follow this principle to avoid scandalizing the non-Christian community.

The Apostle Paul, who says a good deal about the husband-wife relationship, does not appeal to the cultural norm as the basis of his command to the Christian wife to submit—or, it might be added, his command to women in the church to submit ...

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