Marriage and Submission - Island of Sanity

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Men & Women

Marriage and Submission

While people will debate whether miracles are possible, or whether life was created or evolved, or scores of other questions surrounding the Bible, few Bibical issues cause more heated emotional response in our day than the direction to women to "submit" to their husbands.

Despite the highly inflammatory nature of this issue, I have decided to take my life and reputation for sanity in my hands and present my thoughts on the subject. In this article I shall lay out my understanding of the relevant statements from the Bible, some alternative interpretations and why I reject them, a model for application of this teaching, some thoughts on why I believe the Bibical teaching to be an objectively good idea, and a comment about the other side of the coin.

The Plain Reading

There are several passages in the Bible that talk about the relationship of husband and wife and include the direction to submit. All are fairly similar, so let's take Ephesians 5, as it is probably the most widely quoted.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church ... Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... Each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:22-33 (NIV)

Many people believe that marriage should be an "equal partnership". They say that the roles of husband and wife should be essentially symmetrical, that is, that any statements that a person could make about how a husband should act toward his wife and how a wife should act toward her husband should be equally valid if we went through it and everywhere it said "wife" we crossed it out and wrote "husband" and vice versa.

The plain reading of this passage contradicts such a theory. It clearly gives very different direction to husbands than it does to wives. A husband is to "love" his wife, while a wife is to "submit to" and "respect" her husband. If God's intent had been for the relationship to be symmetrical, surely he could have said "husbands and wives must love and respect each other". But he didn't say that, he gave distinct advice to each. This does not mean, of course, that men should not respect their wives or that women should not love their husbands, but it does strongly imply that the primary responsibility of each party is not the same.

While we can certainly debate the details, the plain reading of this passage is that a wife has a special obligation to follow her husband's leadership which is not symmetrical. A wife is called to follow her husband in a way that a husband is not called to follow his wife. In modern parlance, the husband is to be the "boss" in a marriage.

Before I proceed any further, let me emphasize that the passage does not end with the direction to wives and then go on to another subject. There is also direction for husbands. Indeed, there are only three verses for wives but nine verses for husbands. We will get back to this -- in detail and more detail -- later. I insert this comment here in the hope that you will not write me off as being one-sided without hearing all of what I have to say.

Alternative Interpretations

Of course, the most obvious reading is not necessarily the correct one, so let's examine a few alternative interpretations.

Let's start with the assumption here that we're going to take the Bible seriously. A non-Christian who does not like this particular interpretation can simply chalk it up as one more example of how the Bible is outmoded, ridiculous, or otherwise unacceptable. If you, the reader, call yourself a Bible-believing Christian, then you cannot simply ignore Bibical passages you don't like. You must either provide an equally plausible alternative reading, or alter your own views to conform. (If you are not a Christian, then I suppose the Bibical argument is largely irrelevant to you. If this article means anything to you, it will be in the section on Is This a Good Idea.)

One popular response is to question the definition of the word "submit". Some will point out that in the following paragraph, children are told to "obey" their parents -- not to "submit to" their parents -- and so God must be making a distinction between submission and obedience. This is certainly a valid and interesting beginning of an argument, but I have yet to hear someone bring it to a coherent conclusion. I have heard this argument many times, but after making this careful distinction, the person always seems to jump to the conclusion that therefore a wife has no particular obligation to her husband. They painstakingly build the argument that "submit" does not mean the same as "obey", and then hastily conclude that therefore it means nothing at all. Of course this does not follow. If you prove to me that "red" is not the same as "green", that hardly proves that therefore "red" is really transparent, or that there is no such color. Surely God did not include this passage in the Bible -- indeed the same basic idea is repeated in several places -- if it means nothing.

Let's go back to the context. It says that wives should submit to their husbands "as the church submits to Christ". Surely when we read that the church should "submit to" Christ, we would understand this to mean that we follow Christ's leadership and obey his commands.

Is "submit" different from "obey"? Possibly. But unless someone can offer a serious explanation of exactly how they are different, this line of reasoning goes nowhere.

Another popular alternative reading is to go back a verse, to Ephesians 5:21, which reads "Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ". Some will point to this verse and say, All Christians should submit to each other, and so, yes, wives should submit to their husbands, but husbands should also submit to their wives.

The big problem with this theory is, What would such a thing mean? If submission means obeying another person's orders or even something more vague like following another person's leadership, how could two people simultaneously submit to each other? What if they give each other contradictory orders? Does whoever shouts out an order first win? If they are both "leading" in opposite directions, how can one follow the other?

If the Bible had simply said, "Submit to one another" and then gone on to another subject, we might have been left to wrestle with this practical problem. But it does not stop there, it goes on to give several very specific cases where Christians should submit. Clearly, the general statement about submission is an introductory statement to lead in to the specifics which follow. There are two ways we could reasonably interpret such an introductory statement from a literary point of view. Either it is a universal statement, and the specifics which follow are examples; or it is a general statement, and the specifics which follow explain when and how it is to be applied. Common sense would tell us that in this case, it cannot be universal, because this makes no practical sense. By the way, if you insist that the direction to wives to submit to their husbands is to be understood to imply a parallel command to husbands to submit to their wives, then by the same reasoning you must conclude that the following paragraph, which directs children to obey their parents, implies that parents should also obey their children.

Authority vs Superiority

Some women object to these verses because they say it is denigrating to women. But nothing in these verses says that women are in any way less valuable or important then men, or that men are smarter or wiser than women.

Let me offer a simple analogy. Suppose that a traffic light fails, and a policeman is posted in the middle of the street to direct traffic. He has authority over all motorists trying to pass through that intersection: they must submit to his direction. Why has this particular policeman been given this authority? Is it because he is a better or more valuable or more virtuous person than the motorists who happen to be passing through? Surely not. Suppose one of the motorists happens to be the director of the state highway department; suppose he is widely acknowledged as the world's leading authority on traffic management and has written dozens of books on the subject. Would this give him the right to go when the traffic cop said to stop? Should it?

I think the vast majority of people would agree that it is a good idea to have someone with such authority. Why? To maintain order. When there was no traffic cop, than at best every motorist reaching the intersection must stop and look around. Traffic slows to a crawl. At worst, people make incompatible decisions about when to go and there is an accident.

It is not necessary for the traffic cop to be particularly smarter than any of the motorists. That isn't the point. He simply has to be competent.

We often refer to someone in authority as the "superior", but clearly "superior" in this context simply means "superior in authority", not necessarily in anything else. I have had plenty of bosses on the job who I thought were less intelligent or knowledgable than myself. (Not my present boss, of course! if he should happen to read this.) Some times this may have simply been egotism on my part. Other times an objective oberserver might agree. In either case it is irrelevant. I obeyed his (or her) direction because somebody has to be in charge, and by the established procedures it was him and not me.

The Other Side

The Bible does not stop by saying that the wife should submit to her husband. It goes on to say that the husband should love his wife. Of course if the meaning of "submit" is debatable, surely "love" is an even more ambiguous term. So here God spelled out a little more clearly just what he meant.

God explains what kind of love he means. A husband should love his wife, "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her." A husband is to have the same kind of love for his wife, as the kind of love that led Christ to die an agonizing death on the cross. This is not talking about some warm fuzzy romantic feeling. I would certainly think it is a good thing if a husband has warm fuzzy romantic feelings for his wife, but that is not the point here. He is saying that a man should love his wife in the sense that he will put her interests above his own, even to the point of giving his life for her. A man who rushes into a burning building to rescue his wife is probably not having mushy romantic feelings about her. He is not thinking about flowers and sunsets. This kind of love is more likely a steely determination: I am going to do whatever it takes to save this woman no matter what the cost to me. Of course -- thankfully -- few men are really called on to make such an extreme sacrifice. But if a man were truly willing to make such a great sacrifice, surely he would be willing to make smaller sacrifices. If he would give his life out of love for his wife, surely he could give up Monday night football just this once.

By the way, if a woman complains that the command to submit is too extreme or far-reaching, a man could fairly reply, The husband is ordered to give his life if necessary for his wife -- surely this is more extreme and far-reaching than anything demanded of the wife. On the other hand, if a man complains that his wife is failing to show proper submission, she could fairly reply, Have you demonstrated that you would willingly suffer and die for me?

A Model for Family Decision-Making

This leads me to propose the following model for family decision-making, based on the Bibical instructions and my own idea of common sense.

Whenever there is a decision to be made, a couple should go through essentially the following steps:

  1. If both agree, then of course there is no problem. This doesn't mean it's a good decision of course -- they might both be being stupid -- but the problem is not one of disagreement.

  2. But assuming they disagree, talk about reasons. Perhaps one will have a reason that the other just didn't think of. Perhaps one can convince the other.

  3. Failing that, look for a compromise. If you can't both get exactly what you want or think is right, is there some alternative that would give both of you most of what you want or think is right?

  4. Failing that, the husband makes the decision.

I wouldn't expect a couple to have a list and check off steps, of course. For a trivial decision, like which parking space should we take, a healthy couple should go through the whole process in a few seconds. For a major decision, like where they should live or what jobs they should take, they might well spend days or weeks considering and going through the process.

At this point some will say, Why is that last step necessary? Why can't they just negotiate and compromise until they come up with a mutually-acceptable solution? But this is simply naive. Yes, usually if two people have some mutual respect they could work out compromises, give in when the issue is not that important, and so on. But in real life, sooner or later an issue will come up where they just can't come to an agreement. Sometimes there is just no room for compromise: We must answer "yes" or "no", and no in-between is possible. Or one person is firmly convinced that any deviation from his or her plan is unacceptable. It may be over something big; often it's over something quite small. There has to be some way to make decision when they just can't agree. Either they have a way to resolve such disagreements amicably, or they have a power play. (Or they get a divorce.)

Is This a Good Idea?

The most common objection you hear to such a plan is that if the woman routinely submits to her husband's wishes, she ends up being treated like a doormat. But let's think this out.

If a wife submits to her husband's wishes, and he fails to act out of love for his wife, she will be treated like a doormat. True. But the reverse is also true: If a man makes every decision putting his wife's interest above his own, while she makes all her decisions out of selfishness and refuses to give him an inch, then he will be treated like a doormat. So, sure, if one party follows this plan and the other doesn't, it will be unfair. That doesn't prove the plan is bad, simply that it only works if both parties follow it.

Suppose a woman rejects the idea of submisson. What are the alternatives? I really can only think of one. If it is not accepted that one party has the final say on decisions, than any time a couple disagree, they will have to have a power play and see who wins. They can badger each other, do things behind the other's back, make petty threats or dish out petty punishments ("By the way, we'll be eating liver every day for the next few weeks", "See if that leaking faucet ever gets fixed", etc), or resort to outright violence.

Some will say I'm exagerrating here: Surely a loving couple could resolve differences amicably. Really? How? It's all well and good to say they should be willing to compromise. What happens when an issue comes up where neither one is willing to give in? It need not even be a matter of selfishness. Perhaps each honestly believes that their way is what's best for the family. Put two people together, and sooner or later they will come across an issue where they just cannot agree to a solution.

Okay, you can resolve disagreements through power-plays. But this leads to two big problems. One, by definition it makes the marriage hostile. You are no longer two people working together for the benefit of both; you are now two enemies constantly at war. In real marriages, these sort of disputes can get blown far out of proportion to the original issue. There have been plenty of cases of divorce or domestic violence that started out as a disagreement over what television program to watch or what color telephone to buy. Two, from the wife's point of view, would this really result in her getting "her way" very often? If you're both going to fight with all you've got, the man probably has the advantage. He usually makes more money (or all the money), so if there are going to be financial games he can win. The wife normally takes primary responsibility for the children, so if it's going to be a game of "who can run off and do as they please while leaving the other stuck at home", he's going to win. He's usually bigger and stronger, so if it actually come to blows he's going to win.

He might give in rather than have such a fight, either because he's a "wimp" or because he is trying to live up to the requirement of loving his wife. But he will surely build up resentment, and either eventually explode or just have simmering hostility. Either way it can't make for a happy marriage.

Now suppose, on the other hand, the wife decides to practice a policy of submission. For any man with a scrap of decency, knowing that in the end is wife will submit to any decision he makes is going to put a lot of pressure on him to accomodate her wishes. How could any man who had any love or respect for his wife repeatedly take advantage of her when she meekly and pleasantly goes along with it every time? Surely pretty soon he would have to start feeling awfully guilty.

Of course it may be that the husband is such a jerk that he will simply take advantage of his wife's submission. But if he's that big a jerk, he's going to take advantage of her in the "power play plan", too. A woman in such a marriage has a real problem, but the problem is not submission, the problem is that her husband is a jerk.

Thus, it seems to me that the Bibical method, far from making the wife a doormat, actually results in her getting her way more often than she would in an "equal partnership" marriage. Unless her husband is an absolute creep, he's only going to "put his foot down" when he is sure that what he is saying is for the good of both of the family, not just something to satisfy his own selfish wants. Oh, not 100% of the time of course, we're all fallible. But usually.

There is one other advantage to the wife: If the husband has ultimate authority in all decisions, than he also has ultimate responsibility. If a decision turns out to be bad, he has no right to blame her. Even if he only did it because she talked him into it, it was still his decision. (Of course, a loving wife will only point this out if he tries to blame her for the problems. In most cases, the husband will know full well that he screwed up, and what he needs from his wife is not "I told you so" but understanding and support.)

Other Difficulties

Immoral Orders

An objection I commonly hear is, What if my husband orders me to do something immoral?

(For some reason, the most popular example seems to be, What if my husband orders me to have an abortion? I'm not sure why this example is so popular, rather than all the other offenses one could imagine, like stealing or blasphemy or running a red light. But no matter.)

There are two replies to this question. The direct answer to the question is, Yes, if you're husband ordered you to do something that violated a clear Bibical command, your responsibility to obey these commands would supercede your responsibility to submit to your husband.

But the more practical answer is, When was the last time this happened? How many husbands actually demand that their wives do something which violates a clear Bibical command? Oh, I'm sure you could find some examples, but this has got to be pretty rare.

You could take any Bibical command and find or imagine some circumstances in which obeying the letter of that particular rule would violate the spirit of the law as a whole. To take a deliberately silly example: What if a lunatic takes a bunch of hostages and is killing them one by one. In a moment of fatigue or carelessness he puts his gun down and turns away. You could grab the gun and instantly end the hostage situation. But that would be taking something -- the gun -- that doesn't belong to you. Maybe he bought and paid for the gun quite legitimately. I sincerely doubt that either God or the law would condemn you for "stealing" the gun in such circumstances.

The point is that rules apply 99% of the time -- but there are always special cases, exceptions, and extenuating circumstances. Our police and courts have no trouble with this concept for man-made laws. Jesus talked about such common-sense exceptions for God's law, such as healing people on the Sabbath even though this technically violated the command to rest.

So if a husband literally told his wife, "Hand me the gun so I can shoot this person", no, I would not think that she is obligated to obey.

But the fact that there are extreme cases which might be exceptions hardly means that the rule can simply be ignored. Suppose someone accused of stealing spun a scenario like the one I gave above, and then said, "Therefore, there are times when it is acceptable or even a positive good to steal, and so you have no right to condemn me for hitting this old lady over the head with a baseball bat and taking her social security check". Would a court listen to such an argument for a moment? Should it?

Likewise, just because we can think of extreme situations where it would be wrong for a woman to submit to her husband, it doesn't follow that therefore this directive should be ignored. Of course people don't put it quite this way, but the argument is essentially, "Because I would not be obligated to have an abortion just because my husband ordered me to, therefore I am not obligated to always obey my husband, and so I will go ahead and run up another few thousand dollars worth of clothes and jewelry on the credit cards even though he said we were already too deeply in debt."

Foolish Orders

I once heard a radio commentator ridicule the idea of submission with the argument that many women are smarter than their husbands and would be walking into all sorts of trouble if they followed their husbands even though they knew they were wrong.

Of course, by the same reasoning we might point out that many men are smarter than their wives, and if only the wife would listen to him, she could stay out of all sorts of trouble. If we assume that the average man and the average woman are equally intelligent and wise, than it follows that half the time a woman will be better off to follow her husband than to go her own way. And one would think that a truly wise and intelligent woman would choose a husband of comparable wisdom and intelligence.

The more important reply, though, is that this argument assumes that the important thing is to make the "right" decision in every case. A little thought will show that most of the issues that husbands and wives debate don't have a "right" or a "best" answer; they are questions of preference, judgement, and priorities. When a couple is deciding where to go on vacation, or what to do with that extra money they accumulated, there are rarely objectively right and wrong choices. And so the question comes back to: Which is more important? To always get your own way -- even if you could mangage this -- or to have a happy and harmonious marriage?

Selective Submission

Sometimes people will say that a wife should submit to her husband as long as what he says is good and responsible. This sounds good. Until we ask, Who decides if the husband's decision is good and responsible? Her? If a woman is going to follow her husband's leadership whenever he attempts to lead in the direction she was heading anyway, how is that different from just going in whatever direction she feels like? If a wife does exactly as she pleases all the time, it stands to reason that now and then that will coincidentally be what her husband wanted her to do. Such "submission" counts for nothing.

A very similar argument I once heard is that a wife should submit to her husband's will, but only in those areas in which she chooses to submit. Again, if she chooses when to submit and when not to, how is that different from simply doing as she pleases?

One might also point out that there is a textual problem with this approach: The Bible clearly states that the wife is to submit "in everything", not "in some things".

Who's on First?

I once heard a lecture where the speaker said that submission is a natural response to love. She explained that submission is not a command, but a response, that as the husband shows love, the wife will naturally respond with submission.

Sorry, but no. (Well, maybe true in a sense, but dangerous.) There are two big problems with this.

First, if a woman takes the attitude that she will show submission only after her husband first convincingly demonstrates that he is showing love, she is setting herself up for failure. What if he takes the same attitude, that he will show love only after his wife first demonstrates submission? Now we have the classic problem of two people both saying, I won't give an inch until you give first. As long as they both have that attitude, neither will move and the marriage collapses.

Second, if a woman decides that submission is a "natural response" and not something that she must work at, then this gives her a very convenient excuse: Any failure on my part is your fault. If a marriage is going to work, both parties must take responsibility for their behavior.

Remember the Flip Side

I cannot end without calling attention back to the flip side: The husband is commanded to practice sacrificial love. In modern American life, the direction to the wife is routinely ridiculed and denounced. But the direction to the husband is simply ignored. You often hear "women's groups" saying how terrible it is to suggest that a woman submit to her husband. You don't often hear "men's groups" saying that it is terrible to suggest that a man should sacrifice his own interests for his wife. Is this because men have no problem with this idea and gladly do it? Hardly. While women who do not like the Ephesians 5 command to them have protested loud and long, men who don't like their part have taken the subtler approach of lying low and hoping no one notices.

While the husband is given the authority to make the final decision, he is also told that his first criterion for any decision (after moral considerations) must be: What is good for his wife. He might well be right to say, No honey, we cannot buy you that diamond necklace because it would be unwise for us to go into debt over such a non-essential. He would probably not be right to say, No honey, we cannot buy you that diamond necklace because I want to use the money for new golf clubs.

At this point a man might say, Hey, wait a minute, don't I have a right to ever get anything for myself? Shouldn't the marriage be fair? That sounds reasonable, but ... husbands are told to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her". When Jesus died on the cross, did he get a "fair deal"? If you think that "submission" means that you can order your wife around and she's supposed to wait on you hand and foot, you've missed the point. In another context, but surely relevant here, Jesus said, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them ... but you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (Luke 22:25-26) The purpose of submission is not to let a husband take advantage of his wife, but to allow him to serve her to the best of his ability. She should not need to look out for herself, because it is his responsibility to look out for her.

Once a wife starts talking about "getting her own way", she has already failed. Once a husband starts talking about "getting a fair deal", he has already failed.

© 1998 by Jay Johansen


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