Does submission in marriage mean that a woman should always give in when there’s conflict–so that she eliminates all conflict?

I’d like to start a 3-post series this week on something that I’m really concerned about: a dangerous thread in Christian teaching regarding women’s roles.

We saw it in my earlier posts about video games and your husband. Many women felt that submission meant that you didn’t question him. You let him know what you think once, but then you leave it. You shut up and never mention it again. You leave it in God’s hands.

That may sound like it’s the biblical model, but I think it’s focusing on a narrow interpretation of one verse–Ephesians 5:22–rather than the whole of Scripture. And it also goes against modern research.

Let me deal with the research issue first: in general, research backs up what we know about human nature. For instance, research shows that cohabitation before marriage leads to more divorce, as we would expect, because marriage is sacred. Research shows that those who wait until they’re married to have sex end up with better sex lives, which is also what we would expect because sex was designed for marriage.

God’s truth is timeless truth. Therefore, we would expect that the things that God wants also lead to better and healthier relationships. And research does indeed show that. Now, research does not determine truth; but if research goes against what we think is God’s truth, then perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our interpretation and make sure that it is indeed God’s truth, and not an error in interpretation. We had better be sure, because I have yet to see something that is true not also borne out by research.

In this case, I think a re-evaluation is in order, because we definitely have an outlier.

Research shows that the healthiest couples are not those where the wife states her position once, and then backs off.

No, the happiest couples are those who FIGHT.

Those who wrestle through issues, and don’t back down until you rebuild intimacy and trust and closeness, end up closest, and have far lower divorce rates.

I see this in my own marriage. My husband and I do disagree, though not as often as we used to. But that doesn’t mean that we’re unhealthy. On the contrary; when I’m upset, I’m worried because that means our intimacy is in jeopardy. And so we deal with it. When he’s upset, we air what’s bothering us and we deal with it, too.

Now, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of fighting, and I’m certainly not arguing that fighting for the sake of fighting, or calling each other names, or manipulating, is a plus in marriage. Unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict do not lead to marital peace.

But when you have something that’s disturbing to you, sharing that with your spouse and working through it contributes to intimacy; it does not detract from it.

In fact, it contributes to healthier individuals in general (research also shows that individuals who suppress conflict actually die earlier).

That’s what the research says. What does Scripture say?

Scripture gives numerous examples of people working through issues. Paul and Peter had a protracted fight about whether or not the Jews were given special status in the early church. They didn’t back off dealing with the issue for the sake of early church harmony to avoid conflict; they worked through it and came to a great resolution.

Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over Mark, and they worked through it and came to an agreement, so much so that Mark continued with Paul afterwards.

Scripture calls us to deal with conflict, not ignore conflict. In fact, we are never called to avoid conflict; we are called to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14) (I’ll have a longer post up tomorrow about what that specifically means).

I don’t believe, however, that peace means absence of conflict. Peace means re-establishing a healthy relationship, and sometimes that must involve conflict. We must confront over sin. We must talk about hurt feelings. Jesus even said that if you’re about to give your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother has something against you, you go and deal with that brother. Even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation, it’s one that you must have to restore the relationship.

Do you think the Bible meant for this to be true for EVERY relationship EXCEPT marriage?

Was God saying, “work through your conflict with people. Deal with issues. Confront issues. Be open about issues. Unless, of course, you’re a woman, and then you should only do so with absolutely everyone EXCEPT your husband.”

No, I don’t think so at all.

I’m not saying that if you’re upset at your husband, and you have an argument where you both just can’t agree, that you keep at it indefinitely to the detriment of your marriage. In fact, sometimes in marriage we have to decide to let an issue go. We have to say, “he just doesn’t see it my way, and I’ve tried telling him, and explaining it to him, and he doesn’t agree and he isn’t going to change.” And then you do let it go, as I spoke about here.

Some commenters, though, speak about this as if it is a FIRST resort, rather than a LAST one. He is the head of the house, in this line of thinking, and so he has the right to decide what to do and how to do it.

My problem with so much of this line of thinking is that the end goal seems to be keeping the proper order of things in marriage–in other words making sure that his preferences stand because you submit–rather than building intimacy.

Intimacy requires that you wrestle things through.

That doesn’t mean you don’t give way; but what is the goal? When Keith and I argue, we argue because we want to remain close; we want to feel as if we both value and cherish each other. If there’s something standing in the way, it needs to be dealt with because we want to feel like we’re “one flesh”.

On the other hand, I’ve heard women talk where the end goal seems instead to be “making sure that I’m letting him lead” instead of feeling like one. And if you suppress part of yourself, it’s awfully hard to feel like one.

Iron, after all, sharpens iron. But too many of us are not acting as iron in our marriages. We are acting as a rag, helpful for polishing a sword to make it look great, but not helpful for actually making that sword effective. And in the meantime we’re treating ourselves like we’re garbage, not worthy of having an opinion that we can express.

Submission means that you think of your husband’s needs above your own; that you study him and love him and seek to build him up; that you honour him as the servant leader. It does not mean that God asks us to leave our minds at the door as soon as we get married, or that He says, “in other relationships you can wrestle through issues, but in marriage his will goes.”

One woman wrote on my Facebook Page recently that she is trying to submit, but she has trouble, especially with the way her husband disciplines their 18-year-old. She then commented that he whipped him.

Is that truly the godly version of submission?

We must learn how to deal with conflict effectively. We should seek to get to the real issue, rather than going round and round. We should work on our friendship so that we have a base of goodwill so that it’s easier to bring up issues. We should not call each other names, and we should honour their opinions. We should practice humility.

But we should still work through that conflict, not bury it. We often play lip service to the idea that God designed marriage primarily to make us holy, and not to make us happy, but then we seem to forget that this applies to men, too. It isn’t about women ignoring our feelings and needs in marriage; if it were, how, then, are men to be made holy? What if you are the vehicle through which God wants to work?

Yes, consider your husband’s feelings. Yes, place his needs first. Yes, seek his well-being. Yes, support him as a servant leader. Yes, sometimes we need to let issues go. But overall, do not avoid conflict. That hinders your marriage, hinders both of you from growing, and ends up shoving you apart. Do we really believe that’s God’s design for marriage?

Over the next two days I’ll look at what lack of conflict vs. peace means, and then we’ll look at a practical example of how to resolve differences.

Day Two: Seeking Peace, Not the Absence of Conflict
Day Three:ย Being a Peace-MAKER Rather Than a Peace-KEEPER: Conflict in Marriage

Submission in Marriage: Submission doesn't mean you never have conflict.