When the church talk of wives submitting to husbands, they tend to quote Paul and Peter, the writers of Eph 5:21-24 and 1 Peter 3:1 respectively.
So, to see what these apostles meant with submission, we could look at how they lived, and compare that to their words.
How Paul lived out their submission
Paul uses the same word (Greek hupotasso) for subjection to governing authorities, for interpersonal submission among believers, and for wifely submission:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. – Romans 13: 1
So, how did Paul act out his subjection/ submission to governing authorities?
Time and time again, Paul got into prison for preaching a gospel the authorities disliked. (If you are unaware of this, see the latter half of the book of Acts.) When free again, he just kept going! Obviously, Paul does not think submission/ subjection is about [obeying all demands from/ pleasing all unspoken wishes of] the party he submitted to.
His submission did tolerate unjust imprisonment when he had no other choice, yet appealed to their (unjust) laws (for example Acts 22:25-29) when it could help him to get free.
How Peter lived out submission
Once again, the word Peter uses for wives submitting (and, indirectly, husbands doing “likewise”), and for submitting to authorities, is the word hupotasso. So, we are still on the same topic.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 1 Peter 2:13-14
Here is how Peter reacted after being put in prison for spreading the gospel message:
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!
20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” – Acts 4:18-20
This defiant reaction comes from a man who, if he honestly meant what he said, was totally willing to submit to human institutions, and even to preach the message of submission! How is this possible? It is possible if the Biblical hupotasso, which we translate with submission, is not nearly the kind of thing the world understands under submission.
Here is what I think submission to their government could have meant to Paul and Peter:
When Jesus was on trail, the questions were about him as rebel leader: “Are you the king of the Jews?” When Paul and Peter were preaching, those suspicions would still have been around. This could have been the motivation for a message to be loyal to the government, to act in such a way that the government knows you are not planning to overthrow them.
However, you should rather obey God than people, and should not allow authorities to hamper you when you do what is right. God, not the government, is the source where your world view comes from.
Submission may also mean submitting to the privileges of having a government – the protection of their law and order, the right of appealing to their courts, and calling on those rights when the government or someone else wants to suppress you. Paul appealed to his citizens’ rights when arrested.
Under this understanding, the submission of a wife to a husband could mean:
Be loyal to your husband. Act in such a way that he knows you are not planning to divorce, or even to disrespect him behind his back. (Marriages of Ephesians at the time, according to many sources, was marriage without hand – the father retained the right to withdraw his daughter even after marriage. Loyalty to a husband would have meant, sometimes, to stick with her man even when her parents wanted to separate them. 1)
However, you should rather obey God than people, and should not allow your husband to hamper you when you do what is right. God, not your husband, is the source where your world view comes from.
Submission may also mean submitting to the privileges of having a husband – his protection, and calling on the rights you may ask from a husband, when he or someone else want to suppress you.
1 Close to that in the same passage is the scriptural command that children should obey parents. Is this a contrast, perhaps? Young children should obey parents, wives should be loyal to husbands instead, as opposed to the Ephesian culture that wants them to keep obeying parents?