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What does submission in marriage really mean?

I’ve actually written quite a lot about it on this blog in my posts. But recently, when I shared a “manifesto” I wrote about what it means to be a Christian woman, I started reading the comments section. And I realized there was some really good stuff in there that had never actually been in a post! So I thought today I’d take a bit of the comments section from that blog and put it in a more “readable” format about how a healthy marriage operates.

I started out by writing that what God wants is for us to do His will–that’s what we pray in the Lord’s prayer, after all. And His desire is that we be transformed into the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29).

So that means that the way that we act in marriage should be first and foremost in accordance with God’s will, and in a way that points people to God, not away from Him.

Much of the Christian advice about marriage, though, can inadvertently contravene this. We teach women that what God wants, more than anything, is for us to obey our husband’s will. I wrote my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage partly to fight against this idea, which I think has seriously hindered marriages (and is one reason, I believe, that the divorce rate is much higher in denominations that stress this interpretation of Scripture rather than in denominations that stress husband and wife seeking God together).

So with that in mind, let’s look at a conversation between myself and a woman named Roberta to see how this can play out (I’ve edited the comments somewhat just to make them shorter!)

What does submission in marriage really mean? How do you submit to your husband? Maybe it doesn't mean what we think it does.


ROBERTA: Why is it that we are told to submit (using the same word) to authorities, to Christ, and children to parents? As much as I want to make your definition fit I can’t seem to wrestle it into place.

I also wonder about the 1 Peter passage because it says for the wife to be subject to her husband even unto calling him lord like Sarah did to Abraham. Their lives were as messy as some of ours and I just got the feeling that it was implying obedience not looking out for their best interest. I want to believe what you are saying but I just don’t see women or wives except in helpmate roles in the bible. Jesus had male disciples. Certainly I see women being important, Mary for example. But it seems no matter how hard I want to believe it the Bible tells me Jesus died for my sins and I’m as important to him as any man but that he does have different roles and responsibilities for each gender.

SHEILA: There’s so much to say to your comment, and I don’t have time to do it justice, so let me point you to one really good resource and then try to raise some questions.

Fully Alive by Larry Crabb pretty much addresses everything you’ve brought up, and you’d likely find it helpful. He also explains how “helpmeet” is a warrior term, not a lesser term. We help out of our strength; and we have something very important to offer. The fact that we are made a “suitable” helper means that we are suitable to actually help him–so our minds and our gifts are necessary.

If you look at the role of women in Acts and the epistles you’d likely be surprised by how many were leaders in their churches (Mark’s mother; Lydia; Priscilla; Tabitha; Phoebe; Syntyche; Euodia), and how many taught (especially Priscilla, who was the primary teacher in her duo).

But more importantly, I think the onus is really on those who teach that women are to obey men to justify it.

Let’s start with this:

Are we to submit to authorities?
Yes.
Even if they ask us to go against Christ?
Obviously not. (All the disciples defied the authorities).

Are we to submit to parents?
Yes.
Even if they ask us to go against God’s will?
Obviously not. See the story of Jonathan, for instance.

So are we to submit to husbands?
Yes.
Even if they ask us to do something wrong?
Obviously not. See the story of Abigail or the story of Ananias and Sapphira, for example.

So this means that God is asking us to use our brains–to actively follow God, and to, IN THAT SUBMISSION TO GOD, submit to our husbands, our parents, or our authorities.

Everything is done first and foremost in our submission to God, with the express purpose of glorifying God on this earth and being part of making His kingdom more real here. And thus we have to make decisions about whether we follow our husbands when we know that they are doing something that is not in God’s will–going far into debt; gambling; addictions; etc.

To submit blindly–which is how many people interpret the Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 passages–is never modeled in Scripture. And we have no problem saying that children should not submit blindly, nor do we seem to have a problem saying that we should not submit blindly to authorities (see how much Christians are pushing back against the U.S. government right now). It is only in the marriage relationship that many people get upset and say, “no, women absolutely have to submit regardless.” I guess I would ask–what is your scriptural basis for this, given Acts 5, 1 Samuel 25? And what is your scriptural basis for saying that this submission in marriage is somehow more rigid than other forms of submission which the apostles regularly flaunted?

The only Scriptural interpretation of submission that works looking across all the different areas of submission is that submission is first and foremost to God (“as to the Lord”), and only then to others.

Interested in Hearing More About Submission?

9 Thoughts That Can Change Your MarriageMy book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage goes much deeper into scripturally what submission means, and practically how to live that out, especially when we’re in conflict with each other.

Too often we assume that what God wants is for everyone to follow the husband’s lead. But what if God’s real desire is for everyone to follow GOD’S lead? Then the question becomes, “how, as a couple, can we best discern that?”

If that sounds intriguing, then check out 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage!

When I was a teenager I went through a real crisis of faith. I thought that God really only loved men, and I was cast aside because I was a woman. My gifts didn’t matter. That started me reading a ton of books and exploring more of women in Scripture, and understanding how truly radical Jesus was about women. It was such a faith building experience–to understand how precious I was to Jesus, and to understand why He made me a woman, and to understand how much He loves women as women.

If God is keeping you awake and you’re really struggling with this, don’t be afraid of it. God does not mind struggles and doubts; He welcomes our questions. Just seek Him out in your questions and start a journey of discovery about how God does see you, and I pray that your faith will be immeasurably strengthened in that, as mine was.

Jesus does love you, you are valuable, and He has a unique role for you, as a woman. And that’s honestly okay.

MEGAN: Do you believe submitting to our husbands includes following their will when it’s different from our own when it’s NOT a sin issue? For example, a man who wants his wife to homeschool the kids and she wants them to go to public school (or vice versa). When a husband and wife are in disagreement about something, do you believe the wife should submit to her husband and obey his choice?

SHEILA: I guess what I’d say is this: If you’re in disagreement, then there are only two options: either one of you is not hearing from God or both of you are not hearing from God.

And the biblical model is that we seek out God’s direction, and we seek agreement as believers.

So I think a far better approach would be to seriously pray and fast together, seek outside counsel together, and take some time to really work it out. If you just go along without doing the hard work, then how do you really know that you’re following God? If, after all that, you still disagree, then by all means go ahead and follow him. But I think that would be a last resort, made in sadness, because you can’t ascertain God’s will together.

But I explained that more in this post. Thanks for asking!

ROBERTA:  I’m not trying to doubt you or be mean but I’m wondering why you think submitting is the last resort and sad? Would you say the same to children submitting to their parents? I don’t find that sad at all, especially to godly parents. Nor do I find it sad to submit to godly authorities over us in the lord at church. So why is it sad when it is our husbands?

Or to put it another way, and again I’m not trying to ruffle feathers, simply get to the bottom of this. You say the onus is on the ones that disagree with this theology but when I open up my bible and it says “wives submit to your husbands in all things” or “I do not allow women to teach men”, those seem to be very black and white statements. At least as black and white as there is no longer no greek or jew, man nor woman, etc.

It’s hard teaching I know, but I would feel devastated if my husband thought loving me as Christ loves the church was sad and the last resort, so why would I feel like that about submitting to him?

SHEILA: I think the question about black and white things in the Bible is a little erroneous, because the Bible can’t contradict itself. So if the Bible says “women can’t teach men”–but then gives examples of women teaching men, then it obviously cannot mean that women cannot teach men in every situation for all time. We use Scripture to interpret Scripture. So you can’t just take a verse without any context and say, “that’s what God obviously believes!” It has to fit in with the rest of what God says.

And I don’t think submission is a last resort. I think submission is what we should be doing all the time! We submit to God, and then we willingly choose to put our husband’s needs above our own, dedicating ourselves to serving him. Absolutely. We always do that.

So I’m not saying submission is a last resort. I’m saying that agreeing to do something his way BEFORE you’ve prayed and fasted, BEFORE you’ve talked to God about it, BEFORE you’ve tried to work it out with wise counsel, is simply unwise. God wants us to be unified. God wants us to seek His direction and His will. If you disagree then, like I said, at least one of you is not hearing from God. So the proper response should be to humble yourselves together and try to hear from God. When you disagree, that should be a warning sign that something is wrong.

Hope that makes sense!


And I do indeed hope that makes sense! There’s lots more in the comments section on that post. But I thought it was an interesting discussion. I appreciate discussions where everyone’s polite and honestly talking to one another, and I’m grateful for those that I’ve had on this blog. I hope you enjoy them, too!

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