In Paul's day, women were generally treated as being inferior to men. Husbands ordered their wives around, and wives had no choice but to obey whatever he said. So why did Paul tell wives to submit to their own husbands then, if wives were treated in much the same way as servants?
We have a clue in the same passage, where Paul tells husbands to love their wives and not be bitter toward them. The KJV word "embittered" can also be translated "harsh." Paul realized that it does not come naturally to a man to self-sacrificially love another, namely his wife, so he encouraged men to think selflessly in marriage. Paul knew that men could easily get irritated with their wives, so he encourages them not to be harsh in tone, in demeanor, in manner. Instead, they are to cherish their wives as they would a set of fine china, being gentle and tender with her as with something so precious and fragile.
God made women to naturally respond to men, and the more a man leads lovingly, the more a woman will naturally respond. Leadership of this type is servant leadership. A husband ordering a wife around will generate a response in the woman, but it would not naturally generate a loving response. If a husband truly desires a respectful, submissive wife, he will look to see what he can to help her, to bless her, to serve her, to cherish her. A woman who is treated with such honor will naturally be motivated to respond in kind. This is simply human nature, Christian or not.
However, Paul elevated the position of the woman in the New Testament era to higher than it had ever been by telling wives to submit to their own husbands. How can that be? The verb tense in Greek of the word "submit" indicates a purely voluntary action on the part of the wife. These passages by Paul are not "commandments" to the wife that she must obey every whim of an overbearing, authoritative, demanding husband. Rather, if a wife loves the Lord, she will choose to obey her husband, no matter how he treats her, because she desires solely to please the Lord. It does not come naturally to a woman to do what her husband tells her to do, but if she truly places her relationship with Christ first, she will choose to submit to her husband for the Lord's sake. Paul tells us that being submissive is fitting in the Lord, not a place of subservience (abject or cringing submissiveness). If both the husband and the wife have their hearts right before God and they both follow God's roles for marriage, a woman will naturally respond respectfully and submissively to a man's love and tenderness.
In Paul's day, wives had almost no rights. Paul tells us that in Christ male and female are equal. Now, in giving wives the responsibility to voluntarily submit to their husbands because of their relationship with Jesus, Paul is elevating the status of women to that of equality with men.
Modern-day feminism, a knee-jerk reaction to men not fulfilling this aspect of Scripture, attempts to place women in a higher status than men. This is equally wrong. This is not a treatise about feminism, but there were definitely reasons that catapulted it into the forefront where it now stands. Some Christians have returned to God's Word to see what God says is a woman's role, and some have even considered a man's role as well, but let us be careful that, as Christians, we are not just as guilty as the feminists in letting the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction of where America is today. While I am sure there are many husbands and wives who are clearly following Scriptural patterns of authority ~ the husbands truly loves and cherishes his wife as he seeks the Lord for leading his family, the wife gladly submits to his authority and respects him ~ I have also seen far too many knee-jerk reactions to feminism, trying to take Christian families back to the culture of Paul's day, where a woman was little more than a subservient doormat.
True biblical submission and respect on the part of the wife, and a husband's true biblical love and cherishing his wife will play out differently in every marriage. In some marriages, the husband is more detail-oriented and wants to know everything and be involved in everything and plan everything. In many marriages, the husband and wife work together as a team, and if there is a true conflict, one of them will yield their rights. If the man decides that he will take full responsibility for the conflict, then the wife has the privilege of voluntarily submitting because she loves Jesus and trusts Him. And in some marriages, a husband safely trusts his wife, his helper, and relies on her to make many decisions that would benefit the direction of the whole family, or even asks her to do certain things another man might think was his own responsibility.
Let's be careful not to judge another marriage. How submission and respect play out for one wife could be vastly different for another. The key is in that individual marriage. While one wife may be satisfied and happy being a doormat, another wife may have different responsibilities and her husband may want her to take initiative for their family sometimes. Some men may desire to be in control of every detail, while others are grateful they can trust their wives to keep the family going in his absence, or that she may prepare devotions for him to share with the family later that evening. These are two extremes that still appear to be within the biblical roles for husbands and wives. Blessed is the marriage where husband and wife work side by side!
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.