Submission, it’s the “S-word” that raises our blood pressure and, sometimes, makes us wonder about God’s idea of fairness. What is submission, anyway? Is it unfair to women? Is it unrealistic? Did men come up with the idea as a way to keep women down? Or is it really a biblical concept? If so, what should it look like?
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Marriage: Made in Heaven? “Submission: the S-Word”
Over the last few weeks we’ve talked about the key components of marriage that God laid out in Genesis 2.24: leaving, cleaving, and weaving. Last week I began talking about the wife’s role in a biblical marriage and today I want to go a little deeper on the subject of submission.
Epesians 5 says:
22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
We’re to submit to our husbands in everything with one exception. I talked about that and some of the common objections last week. I also discussed the fall and its effect on the relationship between husbands and wives, especially when it comes to submission.
After Adam and Eve sinned, God said to the woman …
“I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy,
and in pain you will give birth.
And you will desire to control your husband,
but he will rule over you” (Gen. 3.16).
Our desire would be to control or rule over our husbands and their desire would be to maintain control.
As women the list of ways we try to take control in our marriages is not very flattering. Among them are words, anger, tears, put-downs, nagging, criticizing, withholding sex, and all kinds of manipulation. And the list of ways we justify taking control is just as bad:
“He’s not a believer.”
“What if he’s wrong?”
“This is not the first century!”
“Men wrote to Bible to keep women down!”
“I have more education.”
“I make more money, so I should decide how it’s spent.”
We might not, actually, say some of these things, but they are often in our hearts and minds.
Men’s sinful responses aren’t any better. They, often, either withdraw (sometimes with another woman, sometimes by becoming passive and uninvolved) or attack (with their fists or by trying to rule with an iron hand.)
And it’s certainly true that passages like Ephesians 5.22-24 have been used in sinful, unbiblical ways to try to control women.
But we can’t throw out submission because it’s been abused or misunderstood any more than we can throw out other passages of Scripture because they’re hard to understand or obey.
14 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3.14-16).
So, what should submission look like?
You might be surprised. First, let’s talk about what it’s not.
Submission is not about being a doormat or being under someone’s thumb.
It’s not about never having an opinion.
It’s not about being less important than or inferior to our husbands.
It’s not about never correcting them when they’re wrong.
Doormats & Lording Leaders
My daily Bible reading today was in Mark 9. The disciples had been arguing among themselves about who would be the greatest.
33 Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?”34 But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. 35 And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”
12 So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
We know that Peter and, most likely, many of the other disciples were married. There wasn’t one set of rules for marriage and another for the rest of life. He has called our husbands to be servant-leaders and promises to bless them when they are.
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20.25-28).
Even the verses that follow our Ephesians 5 passage above say:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, … 28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.
In fact, no where in Scripture does it tell men to make their wives submit or to rule harshly. That was never God’s plan. Submission is something we are asked to do out of our faith and trust in God.
A Heart Attitude
It’s largely a heart attitude. It’s not usurping their authority. It’s showing them respect. It’s speaking well of them to others. It’s trusting God to lead through them and realizing that God is bigger than any mistake they might make.
It’s embracing our role as wife, mother (if we are), and helper. If that sticks in your craw, please read last week’s post about the meaning of the word helper.
Opinions & Decisions
It’s not about never having an opinion or taking part in decision making. In fact, it’s a wise husband who asks for his wife’s input.
God frequently brings together people who are different in personality and gifts. Part of the job of a helper is to complete was is lacking in the other (Eccl. 4.9-10), but we should be careful of our heart attitude and our tone when we do. We shouldn’t be self-righteous or condescending. Too often, when we think we’re being helpful, we’re being disrespectful in subtle ways. Trust me. I had to learn this one through personal experience!
But it’s important for us to understand that God has given the final word (and responsibility!) to our husbands. If we have, respectfully, offered input and our husband makes a different decision, we can pray about it, but unless it’s a sin issue, we need to accept it and see it as an opportunity to trust God.
Every one of us married a sinner and so did each of our husbands. We need to allow that understanding to give us grace with one another so we don’t become spiritual fruit inspectors, pointing out or dwelling on every sin.
And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 1.8).
But if both spouses are believers, we’re not only husbands and wives, but we’re brothers and sisters in the Lord. That means we’re called to help one another and, at times, reprove one another.
¹ Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. 5 For each one shall bear his own load.
“Overtaken in a trespass”: there is a pattern (not a one-time thing) of sin which is hindering the other’s walk with God and, often, their relationships with others. We’re to help “restore” them. Something is broken like a bone and we’re to help set it and restore them to usefulness.
If a husband has too much to drink with an old friend, it’s a sin (Eph. 5.18). If it happens frequently, it’s a pattern of sin.
If a dad snaps at one of the children, again it’s a sinful response. We can pray and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with it. But if he has become harsh or, even abusive, it may be a pattern of sin that needs to be addressed biblically (Matt. 18.15-17).
And if a husband is abusive to his wife or children, this is a pattern of sin that needs to be addressed. While she may or may not be adding her own sin to the mix, abuse is never justified. She should go to her church leadership and seek their help (Matt. 18.15-17). And if she or her children are in any danger, she should call the civil authorities (Rom. 13.1-7).
But notice there are some strong warnings in Galatians 6. Look at the passage again: “you who are spiritual,” “considering yourself lest you also be tempted,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing,” and “let each one examine his own work.”
Being spiritual doesn’t mean perfect, but are we seeking to grow and change? Are we in the Word and is our concern biblical? Are we bearing the other’s burden? Is our concern for them and their walk with God or is it about us and what we want? Have we let pride and self-righteousness creep in?
And before we go to someone else we must let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts and take responsibility for our own part in any problem (Matt. 7.3-5).
So far, we’ve seen that submission is biblical. It’s part of God’s design for marriage, but it’s not about being a second class citizen. In fact, it’s a heart issue and has more to do with our faith and trust in God than our trust in our husbands. The greater our spiritual maturity, the easier it is to walk in biblical submission.
Next week, I’ll talk a little more about submission, how it works together with a husband’s leadership and why marital decision making can be like a “4-way stop intersection.”
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