Love, Honour and
Is it reasonable to expect today's young wife to promise to submit to her husband, even to take a vow of obedience? The world protests against the very idea. It seems deplorable. In recent years the established church has added its assent to this depreciation of the submissive wife, claiming that in the climate in which we live, no woman should be required to make these promises.1 But are these views right when the Bible so clearly declares, "wives, submit to your husbands" (Ephesians 5:22; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1)?
The submission question is another of those areas where Christians discover that the "folly" of Christ is their call to freedom. At least, that has been my experience. For years I struggled to break free from the web of requirements I found in the Bible, like a fly trying to escape from a spider. I felt insulted. Ephesians 5:21ff. was a blow to my pride. It seemed preferable therefore to argue the passage away rather than to accept it. Then one day I determined to start with the biblical principle and work from there, instead of reacting defensively and aggressively. Thus I stumbled on the rich mysteries hidden in the submission / headship concept. The headship/submission question is not a coffin bearing away woman's self-esteem and burying a couple's freedom. On the contrary, it is a highway code designed to protect the safety of both partners and to ensure that marriage enjoys a carefree ride.
So what is submission? What are you promising when you take a vow of obedience? Does this elevate the position of the husband? Are you prepared to lay aside preconceived ideas and society's standard as you approach this aspect of Christian marriage?
What is submission?
It is easier to say what submission is not; to dispel the false impressions which have dogged women for centuries. Submission is not the same as servility, subservience or subjection out of terror.
Servility demands a slave-girl wife who is tied to the home as with a ball and chain; whose daily round is arduous, menial, degrading. She is a skivvy (domestic servant girl). That is not a biblical picture of the submissive wife.
Subservience suggests that one person is number two; that the other takes precedence. This is not the biblical pattern for marriage. The Bible portrays marriage as an egalitarian relationship where husband and wife enjoy a social partnership (Genesis 1:26-28, sexual oneness (2:24), spiritual togetherness (1:26) and a procreative responsibility (1:27). Moreover, Galatians 3:28 makes it clear that in Christian circles there must be no talk of precedence and inferiority. We "are all one in Christ Jesus."
Subjection out of fear conjures up the picture of a woman who lives under the thumb of her authoritarian husband. Nothing is further from the Bible's expectation of the marital relationship. Submission does not mean that the wife becomes her husband's doormat. Women who allow themselves to be used, who fail to contribute to the decision-making of the marriage, who think of themselves as inferior to their husbands, have misunderstood what Paul is saying in Ephesians 5.
So what is Paul saying? We need to examine the use of this word "submission" as it is used in other parts of the Bible if we are to reach an accurate definition of its meaning. The word is used in Ruth 1. Ruth submits to her mother-in-law. "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God" (v.16). Here we catch a glimpse of submission as a positive quality. It is tender and beautiful. It is the deliberate intertwining of your life with another's; love's response to love.
Proverbs 31 highlights another of the positive aspects of submission. This chapter speaks of a wife who was also a powerful woman. This strong woman voluntarily gave her
administrative skills, her counselling insights, her quick brain, her practical capabilities first to her husband, then to her children and thirdly to the needy. This is what submission is: a positive yielding of all you have and are to another. Submission, as we see in this chapter, is not playing "Let's pretend"; let's pretend women are brainless, skill-less, weak. Rather, submission is having the courage to acknowledge one's strengths and to place them first at the feet of one's husband for his welfare, growth and wholeness. Herein lies the crunch, of course. The world persuades us to seek self first. Self-fulfillment, self-indulgence, self-seeking are preferred to sacrifice. But, as Christians, we are called to run counter to this worldly suggestion. And this submission results in the kind of exhilarating, adventurous, successful partnership which the writer of Proverbs implies.
This deliberate self-renunciation is hard. But doesn't love want to make sacrifices? John Powell suggests that it does:
Love implies that I am ready and willing to forgo my own convenience, to invest my own time, and even risk my own security to promote your satisfaction, security and development.2
That is submission. It is the inward compulsion of love to love.
How do you feel about giving love in this way?
Jesus models this kind of submission with poise and strength. He rejoiced in His unity with the Father. "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). This equality did not prevent His ensuring that He lived and worked in complete alignment with His Father's will. In fact, this equality of love ensured that He wanted only what His Father wanted. And this oneness did not blind Him to the paradoxical nature of their relationship. He could declare, with pride, "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). His Father was the head.
Just as Jesus donates all He is and all He has to the Father, so the Christian wife is required to offer her whole self to her husband. For this paradox, equality with headship, extends to marriage. Husband and wife are equals, but the husband is the divinely-appointed chief amongst equals. Is this degrading?
Is it demeaning? Is it insulting the wife? Where headship and submission are correctly understood and appropriated, the answer to those questions is an unequivocal "No."
Are you prepared to allow your life and talents to intertwine with your partner's?
What are you prepared to sacrifice for your partner's well-being and the success of your relationship?
Whose side are you on? Your own? Or your partner's?
What is headship? (Ephesians 5:23)
If this headship were based on power, authoritarianism or dictatorship, then the wife's position in the relationship would be precarious. But Christ-like headship is not power based. On the contrary, its motivation is the self-giving love which costs. The archetype is Christ's headship. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).
Thus headship knows nothing of rights to be claimed. It calls forth a superlative standard of self-sacrifice. It is servant-leadership: "in love, serve one another" (Galatians 5:13). Headship banishes harshness. Its gentleness draws out the wife's full potential. Headship protects the successful wife and it embraces her when she fails. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
Christ's headship over His bride, the church, refuses to dilute the Father's will. Because He is intimately in touch with His Father, because He, Himself, is in submission to God, living a life of unfailing obedience, His instructions to the bride are incisive, accurate, powerful and life-giving. The Christian husband, similarly, is required to listen to God, to exercise his headship by taking the initiative while ensuring that all his plans originate in God. And, of course, the obedience of the wife will never be taken for granted if the husband is, in turn, obeying the Lord Christ; if he is loving his wife as Christ loved the church, forgave her and sacrificed for her.
Headship demands wholesome, healthy, positive, self-effacing love. Submission calls for a high degree of self-sacrifice. Thus mutual giving of oneself to the other is love's
strength. It is not weakness. It prompts two vital questions. Not "What is best for me?", but "What is best for my partner?" and "What is best for our marriage?" Two people moving into marriage with this motivation may not succeed all of the time. In partnership with Christ they will succeed most of the time. This mutual self-giving promotes growth. Both partners grow. The relationship grows. This growth is not painless; but then, even growth in nature cannot take place without a struggle. There is inevitable striving and pain involved in growing.
How do you feel about this approach to marriage?
Are you prepared to accept headship?
Which do you feel is the harder role to play?
What makes this partnership so exciting?
A husband and wife who freely donate themselves to one another in this way achieve the intimacy most couples desire when they marry. This closeness is not claustrophobic. David and Vera Mace describe it well:
Marriage .... is the intricate and graceful cooperation of two dancers who through long practice have learned to match each other's movements and moods in response to the music of the spheres.3
This free-flowing movement between husband and wife is sometimes tender, gentle and gracious; sometimes strong, healthily competitive and cooperative. Neither seeks to usurp Jesus' role in the relationship. They know that He is the Lord of the marriage. Neither over-plays or under-plays his/her own role. They seek a harmony which is life-giving to them, which flows out to others and which brings glory to Christ.
This clarity of purpose and lack of ambiguity add verve to the relationship. Take decision-making, for example. Both contribute their separate insights to the problem in hand. Both submit their wisdom to God's greater wisdom. And in the rare eventuality of a stalemate, the husband has the casting vote. This is not insulting. It is practical common sense that one partner should have the majority vote. The Bible grants this privilege to the husband. Both submit their
wisdom to God's. That, of course, is not possible where a Christian partner is married to a non-Christian. It is one of the reasons why you should marry someone who is going the same way with Christ. This avoids the frustration of a lopsided spiritual relationship.
It frequently happens that a strong, forceful woman marries a shy, retiring man. It seems that she is far more capable of casting the decisive vote than he. Where such wives are prepared to donate their insights and skills to their husbands and their marriages, a beautiful transformation often takes place. Husbands discover their full potential. Their ability to lead increases as their wives encourage them to cut their marriage to a biblical pattern. It is one of the rewards of self-giving love.
Are you prepared to donate yourself to your partner and the relationship with generosity?
Are you willing for the blurring of the roles which might mean that your partner is praised for something you have planned or done?
Are you prepared to promote male leadership in your home?
In the struggle to do this, what help will you need from your partner?
Compare this warm, secure, creative relationship with the alternative marital patterns being proposed today. Take serial monogamy, for example. Serial monogamy gives a person the right to change marital partners whenever he / she feels the need. Like snakes, it is claimed, we need to change our skins from time to time. But what happens to the emotional and psychological health of one's first partner? Serial monogamy is not freedom. It destroys people.
Or take "open marriage", the open-ended contract which knows no boundaries to so-called freedom. Couples write and re-write their own contract. Each partner is free to choose the life-style best suited to him / her. This includes sexual license. This sounds attractive, but where is the security? There is none.
Then there are the pan-scale marriages in which each partner loves only in proportion to the amount of love measured out by the other. But we saw in a previous chapter how debilitating "deserved love" can be.
These marital styles offer a pseudo-freedom. It masquerades
for the real thing, but too often it results in mutual clinging, mutual manipulation and exploitation. The underlying message is that one's partner in marriage exists simply to gratify one's own needs. It is permissible, therefore, to extract from him / her all that meets my need, like a lamb sucking the ewe dry. But these exploitative marriages result in emptiness, not fullness. They create hollow relationships, not nurturing ones. They plunge couples into the abyss of loneliness.
A partnership where Christ-like headship and Christ-like submission are fully operational, on the other hand, brings security, wholeness and warm togetherness. In my view, therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect today's young wife to promise to submit, even to obey. This promise could be her pathway to personal and marital freedom. How are you planning to work at this submission / headship challenge?
Chapter 14 || Table of Contents
1. See Marriage and the Church's Task, Church Information Office, 1978.
2. John Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love, Arguis, 1974, p.44.
3. David and Vera Mace, We Can Have Better Marriages If We Really Want Them, Oliphants, 1975, p.5.