Most of us agree that you shouldn’t have to submit to an abusive husband. But what if you’re married to a good husband?
I get lots of emails from women who believe in hierarchy in marriage, where the woman submits her will to her husband and follows his decisions. Some of these women say they agree that you shouldn’t submit to an abusive man, but what if your husband is a good guy? What is wrong with submission if it’s working for you, if it’s led to a great marriage, if you’re enjoying your life?
When there’s no abuse, living this kind of life can actually be quite lovely. Some women really enjoy orienting their lives over serving others, and enjoy not having the responsibility for big decisions. That’s not a criticism–that’s just different personalities! And if you are such a woman, you may feel attacked when I (and others) say that this isn’t the model that Jesus calls us to.
I want to try to deal with this question today, because I know that I often present very bleak pictures of these sorts of hierarchical marriages. But what if you have such a marriage and it’s not bleak? Shouldn’t you get to submit if you want to?
It’s a great question, and let me try to answer it. We’ve been talking this month about keeping Christ in “Christian marriage advice”, and I want to end the series with this post, because I think it’s an important one.
Submission is good–We should all be submitting to each other.
First, let me start with the basics. We’re called to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Submission is a wonderful thing!
But we can mean different things from the word. Because we’re all to submit to one another, the word doesn’t have hierarchy connotations, as Jesus explains more fully in Matthew 20:25-28.
The point of the Christian life is about serving. It’s about a spirit of humility, as we find in Philippians 2:1-11, where we have the mind of Christ and we consider the interests of others higher than our own. We seek to serve.
This type of submission is not about submitting to someone else’s will, as much as it is submitting to someone else’s welfare. We orient our lives around helping others in humility.
No matter what, though, we are called to follow Jesus first.
One of my favourite illustrations of this is from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, from the book Prince Caspian. In the night, little Lucy sees Aslan the Lion (the Christ figure) walking in the distance. She senses him calling her to follow him.
She wakes up her siblings and tells them, but they won’t listen to her. They tell her she’s wrong. She imagined it. It’s silly to follow him; it makes no sense right now.
And so she cries, and feels despondent, but she doesn’t go anywhere.
Later on in the story she meets up with Aslan, and he asks her why she didn’t follow on her own, even if the others (who were all older and technically “in authority” over her) said no. Here’s the exchange:
For a time she was so happy that she did not want to speak. But Aslan spoke.
“Lucy,” he said, “we must not lie here for long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost today.”
“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. “I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so –“
From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.
“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”
The Lion looked straight into her eyes.
“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I — I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?”
Aslan said nothing.
“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right — somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy.
“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me — what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”
“Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy.
“Yes, little one,” said Aslan.
“Will the others see you too?” asked Lucy.
“Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.”
“But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy,
“It does not matter,” said Aslan.
“Now, child,” said Aslan, when they had left the trees behind them, “I will wait here. Go and wake the others and tell them to follow. If they will not, then you at least must follow me alone.”
It is a terrible thing to have to wake four people, all older than yourself and all very tired, for the purpose of telling them something they probably won’t believe and making them do something they certainly won’t like. “I mustn’t think about it, I must just do it,” thought Lucy.
I love that passage! It focuses on the importance of individual obedience to God no matter what.
Now, I actually think we would all agree that you should obey God no matter what.
But here’s my bigger concern:
If you assume that your husband will be the one to hear from God, then you may stop listening and looking for Jesus to call.
If it is not your role to hear God’s will for your family’s life, then you may stop wrestling to find it or seeking it. If the default is that you will follow your husband, and listen to what he says on big decisions, then you can stop expecting to hear from God on these things. You don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out the best course of action, because that’s for your husband to do.
And indeed, if you start listening, that may cause disharmony. What if you hear something that your husband doesn’t? But if the assumption is that you follow your husband, then there’s a chance that you can avoid disharmony, and can always be in unity.
This is a delicate thing to talk about, and I’m certainly not trying to insinuate that those who follow their husbands don’t pray or that they ignore God. But I do wonder if that relationship with God may tend to revolve around personal piety, Scripture knowledge, and worship, rather than asking big questions about one’s role in the kingdom of God or listening to what God may have you do.
Now, we need personal piety and worship and we certainly need Scriptural knowledge! These things are actually in short supply. But I do worry that we may miss the bigger picture, which is orienting our lives around what God has planned for us to do, from the beginning of the age (Ephesians 2:10).
Yes, when you’re married to a good person that you love and trust, simply following him can lead to domestic bliss.
But what if there’s a bigger story to be told with your life?
I don’t mean that you have a career or that you get a big job or start a big missions organization or something. God rejoices in small things, and God asks different things of us.
But we don’t serve Jesus by serving and following our husbands. We serve Jesus by serving Jesus–by seeking Jesus’ will first and foremost and being part of what He is doing, whatever that may look like.
It’s like the parables Jesus told about the kingdom of God:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
The real question, you see, is not whether what you’re doing leads to a good marriage. It’s how you measure success in the first place. What is the aim?
Or it’s like what Paul wrote in Philippians 3. He lists all his credentials, about how he came from a great family, and how he had the life that everyone thought was perfect. But he sets them straight:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
The point of our lives is knowing Christ. He is the center.
And we do not know Christ by following our husband’s will; we know Christ by following Christ wholeheartedly.
It’s amazing how one of the most frequent things Jesus says in the gospels is “Follow me.” I’ve been watching The Chosen lately, and that phrase is repeated over and over again–“follow me.”
We follow Christ, and we know Christ by orienting our lives around Christ.
Yes, that will mean serving those around us, including our husbands. That will mean rich and rewarding relationships on earth. That will mean taking care of our children and investing in them. But we do it all as our lives revolve with Christ as the center–not with our husbands at the center.
We remember that we are just as capable of hearing from God as our husbands, and we endeavour to listen and to seek out God’s will for our family, so that we can truly be that suitable helper for our husbands. We can be strong in the Lord when our husband is weak, just as he can be strong when we are weak. We are a team.
We are two people, running towards Christ together, side by side, holding hands, with Christ as the focus.
It is very possible to create a wonderful life for the two of you where you follow a good-willed man where he wants to go, and where you just decide not to challenge this but to embrace this. And you may have a satisfying marriage, and lovely children, and a satisfying life. But this life does not revolve around pursuing Jesus but instead around following someone else.
It is a husband-centered life, rather than a Jesus-centered life.
Let me end with my favourite verses, that I have often considered my life verses:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The big things to notice from this passage:
- We throw off BOTH the things that hinder AND the sin. We can have things holding us back from Jesus that aren’t necessarily sin–like orienting your life around another human being.
- As we live life, Jesus alone is the focus and the aim.
- As we consider Jesus and keep him as the focus, we gain strength for the unique race that he has put in front of each of us.
It is a beautiful thing to want to serve your husband, and to pursue harmony in marriage.
It absolutely is. And if you have two people of goodwill and of the right personalities (where he is more decisive and she loves serving), this can work well. This can lead to domestic bliss.
But that is not the point of our lives. Our lives are to orient around Jesus, for each and every one of us, always. We are to be part of the bigger picture of what God is doing. We are to serve Him and listen to Him.
And in so doing, we can achieve domestic bliss in a whole other way. This doesn’t replace the domestic bliss you may want; it gives it a richer purpose.
Dear sisters, keep Jesus as the focus.
Listen to Him, follow Him, keep Jesus as the main thing. This is what you were created for.
Do you agree? Is there another way to explain this better? Have you seen it where the husband being in authority works with some couples? Let’s talk in the comments!
Putting Christ Back in Christian Marriage Series
- Putting Christ Back in Christian Marriage Introductory Podcast
- 6 Ways Christian Marriage Advice Leaves Christ Out
- Why There's More to Christian Marriage Than Just 5 Passages
- Does a "Christian" Marriage Need to Suffer to Grow?
- Do We Need to Jump out of the Boiling Water? How Advice for Christian Men Got So Off Track (from Keith)
- On Deconstructing our Faith--and Reconstructing by Holding on to what Jesus has said (from Keith)
- Is it So Wrong to Want to Submit to My Husband?
- How Hierarchy in Marriage Can Hurt Husbands Too
Plus please see my submission series!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
How is it that we defeat sin? According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit transforms us into the...
Sheila here! Last week I published some "Fixed it for Yous" from biblical counselors which were...
For the last three years I've been trying to change the evangelical conversation about sex. I've...
We misunderstand women in the Bible--and we misunderstand gender aspects of research! So let's...
On almost every measure, church attendance is good for you. Researchers have consistently found...
So many women--and many men as well--honestly feel like the church is hurting them. I do not...
Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Weaponizes 1 Corinthians 7 Against Women
If you think 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 is a command for women to have sex on demand with their husbands,...
Like you, I'm heartbroken by the Josh Duggar case, and by the continued support for him from his...