“Submission” in marriage evokes imagery of cigar-smoking good ol’ boys and timid housewives. I believe the Bible is inerrant, but also that our Lord cherishes women. How do you reconcile the two?
by submitting to the Lord first.
It is in the heart of Woman (and Man) to fear present and future circumstances. She may react to the anxiety by domineering or she may react by fleeing. One woman aspires to control her circumstances; the other woman languishes in her lack of control. Different reactions—both cowardly. Neither is a fearless relinquishment of the situation to the Lord.
Submission is not a matter of passivity at all.
A woman of God, on the other hand, meets challenges with strength and humility. There is beauty in her submission. She submits to God’s plan for her, even when it seems crazy (and it usually does). “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).
She is a warrior in battle who listens to her Commander without question, using the weapons He gave her effectively, instead of with violence or cowardice. Submission is not a matter of passivity at all. It takes more strength than domineering or fleeing ever will. And that goes for both genders.
by trusting the Lord’s guidance.
Submission to the Lord is one thing (He is, after all, omnipotent, omniscient, and all the omnis). Submission to a husband, on the other hand, sounds downright archaic.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22-24)
“Yikes. Why should I have to submit to a man? I am just as valuable as he is.” Yes, you are. But God did not design marriage that way. I told myself for a long time that this verse was culturally contextual, but years of prayer have led me to feel otherwise (and I deduced it would be rude of God to leave 21st-century Christians high and dry on marriage advice). Anything in me that questioned the call to submit was rooted in pride and not in spirit or intellect.
Consider that God knows the human heart more intimately than we ever can. He created it. He lives inside it. When He tells us how to structure a marriage, He is operating on the foremost authority. He knows Woman’s struggles and strengths. He knows Man’s struggles and strengths. And in marriage, He asks us to go headfirst into the struggles.
It is the Holy Spirit who should guide us, not our instincts.
What is often the default in marriages is a parent-child structure. Sometimes it is mother-son and sometimes it is father-daughter, but it is not a partnership. It is easy to be in a parent-child relationship because we have been in one already (and probably seen it modeled in our parents’ marriage). However biblical marriage is not structured on a parent-child relationship, but on that of Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, the Bride (Ephesians 5:31-32). It is “one flesh.” The man is the head, and the woman is the body. And what is the head without the body? What is the body without the head?
Loving submission to a husband should feel unnatural. The man doesn’t want to lead (because what if he fails?) and the woman doesn’t want to listen (because what if he fails?). Neither is brave enough to sacrifice their instincts of self-protection and control. It is the Holy Spirit who should guide us, not our instincts. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
by understanding what submission entails.
Don’t ask: “Are we compatible?” Ask: “Would I follow him into battle?”
It is very important that no one hears me saying that a woman should submit to any man. I am not naïve to the fact that many women are in physically and verbally abusive relationships. Abuse is never submission; it is sin. Submission can only occur voluntarily from the woman, which is why the Bible says, “wives, submit to your husbands,” not “husbands, make your wives submit to you.”
Do not marry a man you feel unsafe submitting to. Submission raises the stakes for choosing a husband. Don’t ask: “Are we compatible?” Ask: “Would I follow him into battle?”
Your job is not to change your man, but to fight for him against the darkness that tells him he is not good enough.
What submission looks like may differ between couples, but ultimately it is about respect. Nothing will wither a man like your disrespect. So unless you want a starfish for a husband, listen to him. If he is wise, he will seek your advice, but he does not have to follow it. Think of the head/body analogy: your head commands your body, but your body often suggests the next step (for example, with hunger or pain). The head is wise to heed the signals of the body.
Let him make mistakes. The Lord will work in his heart better than you ever could. Your job is not to change your man, but to fight for him against the darkness that tells him he is not good enough. Prayer is our weapon, women, not our sharp tongues.
by realizing what is expected of Man.
A lot more is asked of husbands than of wives. He must submit his body to the woman (1 Corinthians 7:4). He must be willing to die for her.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:25-28)
While you are called to submit to him, he is called to honor you as though you are his own flesh. That does not leave any room for him to use your submission as a tool for manipulation or abuse.
He is called to honor you as though you are his own flesh.
However, if you have already married an ungodly man, take heart. Our Lord is a Lord of promise-keeping, and He promises you a changed man if you trust in the Word. “[W]ives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2). It is harsh. You will suffer for the mistake you made (as we all do), but God forgives and so must you (Matthew 6:14-15). A man’s hate is vanquished with God’s love given to you. There may be situations where you must leave him, but it must be a last resort. Either love him with Christ’s love or leave him (but do not passively let yourself get abused). Remember God loves abusive husbands, too, and He can change their hearts. We are all sinners.
I do not expect my analysis to be a popular one, nor do I claim to possess all-knowing wisdom. Wrestle and pray through these issues, like I have. The Bible is a veiled garden, not a museum. God will reveal Truth to you if you ask Him for it (James 1:5).
Thanks to Sara and Courtney for their input!