There is no word more terrifying, shudder-inducing, or argument-provoking to discuss in the context of marriage than submission. Typically, I’d rather have my teeth cleaned or debate predestination.
And I think this is true of me because I grew up in the church. A good church – one that taught the Scriptures and cared about the spiritual development of its congregants. But ladies, y’all know, there is an unspoken understanding within Christendom that defines the transition that goes on inside a woman when she gets married.
No one ever told me this, but I knew it within my bones to be true: somehow, getting married strips a woman of whatever free thinking, decision making prowess she may have possessed. Whether or not her husband was a good “leader,” she was expected to more or less blindly follow him, hoping that he might occasionally ask her opinion. God set it up this way, it said so in the Bible, so end of discussion. (All this seemed like a steep price to pay for guilt-free sex, but my hormones and guilt complex were working against me. So I lasted 32 days into my 21st year before I caved and traded my freedom for a new name.)
Now, despite my love of vintage Pyrex bakeware, it’s not 1950 anymore, and a heavy dose of post-modernist thought has overtaken most American churches and influenced the way marriage dynamics are worked out practically. Most of the married women I know work if they want to, manage household budgets, and partner with their men. But I think most of us still live with this basic “men as leaders are in charge of/have authority over/get to have the last word about marriage matters” mentality. And we more or less just hope we never have to define or discuss this dynamic in any real world context.
But ladies, today we are going to be brave and we are going to take on this scary topic of submission. Because honestly, by not understanding what God intended when He told wives to “submit to their husbands,” we are doing ourselves a disservice. We are missing out on the beautiful way that our actions within our marriage get to display the gospel for a broken world to see, and we are forfeiting the very thing God built into marriage to bring us emotional security, stability, and even passion.
Ephesians 5 outlines in beautiful detail what a marriage relationship should look like, but I think we have often misunderstood and overcomplicated it. And some of this isn’t our fault – the English translation of the Greek words is now, at best, mired in so much connotative humdrum we miss the point the Apostle Paul was making. (And you don’t have to just take my word for it – our church is in the middle of a great series on this topic and you can catch the messages at http://missionpoint.net/messages/the-talk/.)
So what does this passage really say? Well, first (and this is crucial) it tells us that marriage relationships are to mirror Christ’s love for the church, as defined by His ultimate physical sacrifice to purchase our spiritual freedom. So toward that end, wives are to submit to their husbands, or to constantly be yielding to God's agenda for their husband's life for his spiritual benefit. And husbands are to love their wives by sacrificing for them, constantly giving up their hopes, their desires, their preferences, and their comfort to yield to God's agenda for their wife's life for her spiritual benefit. Marriage is to be a relationship defined by mutual sacrifice, as opposed to mutual compromise. It is not a 50/50 relationship characterized by a tug and pull of wills, a “well, if you take out the trash I promise to criticize your mom less often” type of bargaining situation. It’s an all-in choosing to sacrifice for your spouse’s spiritual growth – to help them thrive and be the person God made them to be – regardless of their response. (And ladies, we will see in future blog posts that our men actually carry more of the weight of this than we do, as they “feed and care for (us) as Christ does the church.” Which is an oddly romantic thing when done well!) And the beauty of all of this is, just like Jesus chose the cross, we get to choose to honor our spouse through self-sacrifice. No one in this equation is superior, in a position of greater power or coercion; love wins when we lay aside our rights and choose another’s benefit over our own.
It’s so in our human nature to need measuring sticks – we want to have a list we can check items off of so we know that we are doing marriage right. So I think we have taken this passage that is actually describing the position of our hearts and how we ought to live out our spiritual lives together, and we’ve given it a whole list of physical action steps. We like to say that men lead their families, and by this we mean provide financially, make big decisions, chart the course for their family life. And women, as the “helpers,” assist in this process, mostly to try to make things easier for their overworked and underappreciated men. But the thing is, I’m not sure that me doing Paul’s laundry while he plays video games in any way makes him more the man God wants him to be. However, me being the safe place he can wrestle through how to deal with a difficult relationship in a godly way, or calling him on his unkind words gently, even thought I know it might start an argument on our one night off, or even getting up a little early to iron his shirt so he’s less stressed on his way to an important client meeting - those are ways I can sacrifice of myself for his spiritual benefit.
So submission, for me, is this rhythmic dance of seeking Paul’s good over my own, and leaning into him when he’s seeking mine. It is so much less a checklist or set of relationship roles as it is pursuing Jesus together, and tightening our cord of three strands as we subsequently grow closer to each other.
And that, friends, is beautiful in a holy and unfrightening way.