If I were to ask you what it means to submit to your husband, what would you say?
When I’ve asked that question at marriage groups, people hem and haw and then eventually come up with something like this:
When we’re disagreeing about something, the husband gets the final say.
This month, our theme on Wednesdays is talking about submission in marriage. We’ve already looked at what Peter meant by telling wives to emulate Sarah, and how Jesus would have approached people who say that women should always obey, in all cases, or that marriage as an institution is more important than the people in it.
Now I want to move on to the more practical stuff about submission–namely, what it really means. Today and tomorrow I want to talk about two big problems we can run into when we think that submission is all about decision-making. Then next week I want to end the series with a challenge about what it means to really serve your husband.
But let’s start by looking at this “in the case of ties, he wins” mentality of submission a little bit more.
I’ve written at length on this already, and I’d encourage all of you to read more about it.
My book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage talks about how our view of submission as decision-making if off base, and then shows a better way to resolve conflict.
My 3-part series on conflict in marriage:
- Submission Doesn’t Mean You Never Have Conflict (start here; the rest are linked within it!)
But let’s summarize some of this.
Ephesians 5:21-22 says this:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.
Those two verses form one complete thought. In fact, in Greek, the verb “submit” doesn’t even appear in verse 22, because it’s inferred from verse 21. In our Bibles, we put a big paragraph break and a heading between those two verses, which inadvertently makes it look like they are separate thoughts. But they’re not.
Submission can’t mean one thing in verse 21, then, and another thing in verse 22. If we believe that submission means “letting him make the decisions”, then what does it mean in verse 21? How do we all let everyone else make decisions?
Let me suggest, as we’ll look at next week, that submission is not about decision-making as much as it is about our attitude towards one another. It literally is about putting oneself “under” someone else. It’s the same thought that Paul used in Philippians 2:4, when he said,
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
And then in Philippians 2 Paul goes on to explain what that looks like–we adopt the mind of Christ so that we become each other’s servants. That’s the message of the gospel. That’s the main thrust of Paul’s letters. We are to serve.
I am going to look at this more next week, but today I want to ask this question:
“What effect does assuming that the husband will have to break disagreements have on people’s expectations of marriage?”
If one believes that the main thing that God wants for a marriage is that the husband makes the decisions when the couple disagrees, then there’s an underlying assumption about marriage that we need to confront.
We assume that marriage will be full of disagreements.
If, on the other hand, we assume that the main thing that God wants for a marriage is that the couple will faithfully serve each other and follow God, then there’s another underlying assumption about marriage.
We assume that unity is the norm for marriage.
Do you see the difference? If the main thing that women must do in marriage is to let her husband break disagreements, then that’s assuming disagreements are normal. If your underlying belief about marriage is that it’s about serving one another and serving God, though, then you assume unity is normal.
What happens when you assume disagreements are normal?
Let’s picture your average couple who grows up believing that a wife’s role is to defer to her husband when they disagree. She vows this in her wedding vows. She looks forward to having a man to shepherd her. She knows that they will often be at odds, because that seems to be the nature of marriage, but she knows that she can keep the peace by deferring to him.
That’s what she’s expecting she will do in marriage.
So this young couple gets married, and soon she finds that she feels very unloved. Maybe they don’t talk enough. Maybe he doesn’t do much housework. Maybe he wants sex all the time, but it doesn’t feel very good for her, and he doesn’t seem concerned.
Whatever the issue is, what does she do? She may decide that she can’t really make an issue out of the fact that sex doesn’t feel very good. If she wants more date nights, but he doesn’t, then she figures that she needs to stop hoping for something that won’t happen. If he doesn’t do housework, she doesn’t want to bring it up or “nag” him because that’s not her role.
And so she learns not to speak her mind, not to share her heart.
Things that are simply normal adjustments to marriage, or different personalities or love languages, are framed as moral issues where she must “submit”–aka let him have his way. Simple communication issues, which otherwise could be dealt with quite quickly, are framed as issues of submission.
What if, instead, the couple believes that unity will be the norm in marriage?
Then, when sex doesn’t feel very good for her but he wants it all the time, they can sit down and have a difficult conversation, knowing that what they both want is to feel close. They can talk about how to make sex feel better.
If she feels as if they don’t connect enough, but he feels everything is fine, they can talk about love languages or about setting up some daily routines so that she feels listened to, but he has time to unwind, too.
They assume that compromise is necessary, but also that it isn’t all that hard.
What I have seen over and over again on this b log and as I speak at marriage conferences is that all too often women feel as if they can’t raise entirely legitimate issues–like sex not feeling very good–because to do so would somehow mean that they are not submitting to their husbands.
Because disagreements are assumed to be the norm, then there isn’t that same push to “make” peace. There’s only the onus, usually placed on her, to “keep” peace. If she raises a legitimate issue, or pushes too much, then she isn’t being biblical.
(Read more in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage about how being a peace-KEEPER and being a peace-MAKER are not the same thing at all!)
Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?
I’ve raised this issue before, and people have said to me, “why do you assume that you can’t have unity by her submitting to his decisions? Isn’t that the best way to unity?”
And to that I’d say–No. It isn’t. Because unity is about two people forming a new whole; it isn’t about one person disappearing so that the other gets all of his wishes met.
I find it very strange that throughout the Bible, the assumption about Christian relationships will be that there will be unity and a lack of disagreement, but then we turn around and interpret the marriage passages to be about breaking disagreements.
It’s like we believe unity is possible everywhere but marriage–and that’s why God told us to submit.
People often say to me, “Well, someone has to make the final decision!”
To which I reply, “Why?”
If Christianity is about having unity in our relationships, then why, when it comes to marriage, do we think that we need the husband to make the final decision?
When Keith and I disagree on something, we work it out. We talk about it. We pray about it. We wait on it. We seek counsel from others. And then we end up making good decisions together.
If two people have the Holy Spirit in them, then they already have the power for unity. They don’t need one person to break the tie; they simply both need to submit to God.
I hope we can change the way we talk about marriage so that we’re not expecting disagreements as much as we are expecting unity.
People live up to expectations. So, please, let’s stop framing marriage as this endless war that needs someone to win, and let’s start framing marriage as a journey you take together as you strive to be more like Jesus and to follow Him.
If we assume that marriage will be about unity, then when we had disagreements, we’d work to honestly solve them, rather than just paper over them because they’re inevitable. And I think that would lead to much healthier relationships.
What do you think? Have you seen marriages where she won’t speak up about normal things because she feels that’s “not her place”? Let’s talk in the comments!
- Submission and Sarah: What does it mean to obey like Sarah did?
- Jesus’ View of Marriage and Submission: What does Jesus think of people who value marriage above all?
- Does Submission Mean “In the Case of Ties, He Wins?” (this post!)
- Your Husband is Not Jesus (tomorrow’s post)
- What Submission Really Means: My Challenge for You (next week)
And check out 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–which has all of this and more in it about submission!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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A look at Ephesians 5, and how Paul isn’t prescribing hierarchy in marriage. He’s actually showing what mutual submission looks like.