When I speak at marriage conferences, I often ask wives what they think submission means. The room grows silent as they hem and haw, until finally a few hands are raised. "When you disagree, he gets the final say."
I've never heard an answer other than that one. If you think about it, though, that sounds rather peculiar--as if God's command for women in marriage can be summed up as, "in the case of ties, husbands win"! Perhaps when it comes to submission, the immortal words of the Princess Bride apply, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So let's look at what submission does--and doesn't--mean.
Viewing Submission as About Decision-Making Assumes You'll Disagree
If submission means that the husband makes the decisions, then the underlying assumption is that the husband and wife will disagree.
Does the same God who sets high standards for us--whose will is that "there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10)"--turn to marriage and say, "obviously agreement isn't possible there"? Why is unity the starting point in every other Christian relationship, while disunity is the starting point in marriage?
In Paul's epistles and in Jesus' prayer for believers found in John 17, God's will is clearly that Christians will seek His will in unity. By assuming that a wife will always defer to her husband, though, we're not assuming that the couple will find God's will at all. If the couple is in disagreement and they do it the husband's way, there are only two possibilities: either one of them is not hearing God, or both of them are not hearing God.
Why not rather wrestle it through in prayer? Why not fast, and talk to mentors, and pray without ceasing until you find agreement?
Submission Should Never Mean Following Husbands Into Sin
But wait, you may be saying, How can submission not be about decisions and obedience, when Ephesians 5:24 says that women should submit to their husbands “in everything”? Then there’s 1 Peter 3:5–6, which says, “[Women] were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.” (niv, 1984).
Peter commended Sarah for obeying Abraham--but he also lambasted another wife for obeying her husband! In Acts 5, Luke records the story of husband and wife Ananias and Sapphira. They sold a piece of property, and then Ananias brought a portion of the money—not the whole sale price—and gave it to the disciples, claiming that amount was all he received. After Peter reprimanded him for his deception, Ananias was struck dead.
A little while later Sapphira walked in and Peter asked her, “Is this the price you received?” She replied that it was, and then Peter said, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” (Acts 5:9, nrsv). Sapphira was then struck dead too.
Peter told Sapphira that it would have been better for her to have gone her own way than to agree with her husband to lie. In fact, Peter would have been the last person to say that we should ever follow someone into sin! Later in the same chapter of Acts, Peter and the other apostles were told to stop preaching about Jesus. Luke records their reply: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’” No human authority is ever to be given supremacy over God—and that includes husbands.
If We Always Defer to Our Husbands, We Aren't Being "Helpmeets"
When God created Eve, he called her a “help meet” for Adam (Genesis 2:18, kjv). But does that mean that we're somehow lesser than men?
Writer Carolyn Custis James has strenuously investigated what that word actually means. She discovered it’s used sixteen times in the Old Testament in reference to God, so it can’t have any connotation of subordination. And to her surprise, it usually has a strong military connotation, too! She writes, “Based on the Old Testament’s consistent usage of this term, it only makes sense to conclude that God created the woman to be a warrior." We help our husbands out of that strength.
Carmen, one of my blog readers, worked as head of human resources in a large corporation. All day she managed people, their emotions, and their productivity. At home, though, she felt that she should let her husband navigate their complicated relationships with three preteens and teenagers. Her husband, though, believed in laissez-faire parenting, and did little as their children became lazy and belligerent.
The tipping point came when she found her sixteen-year-old son had downloaded porn onto his computer. Carmen asked her husband, “Can we set goals and responsibilities for the kids, and start doing more family things together?” Because he was devastated by the porn use too, he relented.
They drew up a list of house rules, which included eating dinner together as a family, doing weekly chores, and having to earn time on their computers. Carmen set up a Wi-Fi password and changed it daily. “The kids resisted at first, but we ended up much closer. We became a family again rather than five separate people doing their own thing.”
Carmen and her husband learned an important lesson: Her unique giftings were a “help” to her husband. By saying nothing when she knew something was wrong she didn't act as a help meet. She didn’t promote godliness—for her or for anyone else in the house.
Submission Is Bigger Than Decisions--It's an Attitude in All of Life
Finally, viewing submission through the decision-making lens makes submission too small. Christianity is about servanthood and living out God’s purposes in our daily lives. Shouldn’t submission be about that too—something we do daily, not just when we have decisions to make?
In most marriage ceremonies, Genesis 2:24 is read aloud: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” God’s desire for us isn’t a tug-of-war relationship where one person gets his way; it’s for true oneness!
And I think that submission—“putting ourselves under” our husbands and willingly pursuing our husband’s best—is the primary tool to attain this oneness. In humility, we think of his needs, his wants, his interests, his desires, before we think of our own. We pursue his best before we pursue our best.
I think that’s a taller order than just “in the event of ties, he wins.” We don’t just defer to his decisions. We emotionally and physically invest in building him up and pursuing his best. And that sounds much more like the nature of the gospel to me. We serve. We love. We show grace. And our husbands serve us too, as they love us as Christ loved the church—even as they love their own bodies. That's the recipe for unity, and it's what Jesus really wants for us.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: Because a great marriage doesn't happen by accident! This article is based on Thought #5--a look at submission that isn't focused on the pat answer of "he makes the decisions" but is focused on how to actually achieve unity. She blogs at ToLoveHonorandVacuum.com.