One of the most hotly-debated issues in our culture is the role of a woman in marriage. There are basically two camps that people fall into in our country: egalitarian and complimentarian. Egalitarians essentially believe that women and men are equal in every way and should equally share in the responsibilities and leadership within marriage. Complimentarians recognize basic strengths and weaknesses within the genders and think that both men and women have unique roles within marriage.
The goal of this post is not to add to the arguments that are already out there. Instead, I will start with the assumption that complimentarianism is the correct view. This means that, although equal, this article will assume an essential difference in the roles of men and women.
Last week, we saw that a man’s role is proactive leadership, through sacrifice, with understanding. This kind of leadership functions through sacrifice, not authoritarianism. A good man will not demand to be followed, but rather will sacrifice his preferences, free time, energy, emotions, and anything else for his wife’s good.
A wife’s role in this is to willingly follow her husband’s leadership. Submission is an attitude that is inclined toward following her husband with love and meekness.
Because of the misconceptions on every side about a woman’s role in marriage, I want to spend a significant amount of time showing what Submission is NOT.
- Submission is not unique to the position of wife. The two primary passages in the Bible that explain a woman’s role in marriage are 1 Peter 3:1-6 and Ephesians 5:22-24. Both of the passages immediately follow general calls for all Christians to submit. Ephesians 5:21 says that we are all to submit to one another as if someone else is more important than us. 1 Peter 2:13-17 describes how we should submit to our government and 1 Peter 2:18-25 describes how bond-servants should submit to their masters (present day: employees submitting to their bosses). In other words, true Christianity includes a lot of submission to authority, because we see all authority as God-given. A wife’s submission to her husband is a subset of a general attitude of submission that all Christians should have.
- Submission is not a call for every woman to submit to every man. 1 Peter 3:1 makes it very clear that wives are not called to submit to every man, but rather to “your own” husband. Kathy Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, commented on this, “We are all familiar with watching stunts or action sequences on television or in movies that come with the ‘Do not try this at home’ disclaimer attached. Gender roles are the exact opposite.” This specific kind of submission is contained within the marriage relationship.
- Submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says. In 1 Peter 3:1, we see a wife who is strong and smart enough to think for herself; she has chosen to trust Christ as her Savior even though her husband has not. This shows us that there are times when it is appropriate for a wife to disagree agreeably with her husband.
- Submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar. Again, 1 Peter 3:1 shows us that the wife has thoughtfully chosen to follow Jesus, even though her husband has not. My wife is smarter than I am. She scored much higher on the ACTs, was a 4.0 student (until she met me and I distracted her from homework ;)), and has an amazing amount of common sense. If our marriage is going to truly flourish, we need her brain to be engaged.
- Submission does not mean avoiding every effort to change a husband. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” If the wife is a friend to her husband, then she must be able to ‘wound’ her husband like a gentle surgeon would push a needle and thread through a patient’s skin to stitch up a wound. In fact, the subheading for 1 Peter 3:1-6 could be “how to change your husband into a Christian.” This is not done through compromise, manipulation, coldness, arguments, or demands. This is done through respect, pure conduct, and gentleness. As a man, I will testify that it melts my guy’s heart when my wife is gentle and respectful with my failures.
- Submission does not mean putting the will of the husband before the will of Christ. In this passage, the wife is submitted first to Christ, and second to her husband because of Christ. This means that if her husband demands that she deny her faith, then she is loyal to Christ as she respectfully and gently tells her husband that she cannot.
- Submission does not mean that a wife is to act out of fear. 1 Peter 3:6 yteaches that submission that is demanded is not submission, but subjugation. The submission of the wife in this passage is willing and without fear. John Piper says, “The Christian woman is a free woman. When she submits to her husband—whether he is a believer or unbeliever—she does it in freedom, not out of fear.”
I think that submission must include three things: 1) strength, 2) peace, and 3) willing deference to authority.
- Strength – Submission is not the absence of strength, but rather it is strength under control. A wife is not weak or stupid, but she controls her strength and willingly puts it under her husbands leadership.
- Peace – If a heart is restless, it is difficult for it to be submissive. A restless heart tends to want to fix things, take control, and change circumstances. Internal peace and acceptance of one’s circumstances are necessary for submission.
- Willing deference to authority – Submission cannot be coerced, forced, or demanded. Pure submission comes a from a willing heart that defers to someone else’s authority.
Ideas for Wives from a Husband
- What are some areas of your marriage that lack submission? Ask your husband for forgiveness in these areas.
- Identify at least one area in which your husband is leading well. Thank him and compliment him for his leadership in that one area.
- Do you want to be included on decision-making processes, but worry that you might come across as disrespectful? Try this: 1) get a baby-sitter, 2) make his favorite meal or take him to his favorite restaurant, 3) take his hand, look him in the eyes, and say, “I really appreciate your leadership in this area. I want you to know that I love you and respect everything you are. Would it be ok if we talked through this issue sometime together? In the end, I will always follow you if I can, but it would mean a lot to me if we could have a conversation about it first” 4) schedule a time for him (preferably not right then) where you can talk through the situation together
- Affirm his leadership in front of others, especially in front of your kids and your family (his in-laws).
How the Gospel Cultivates an Attitude of Submission
The Bible was never meant to be a rule book. It does teach husbands that we need to proactively lead through sacrifice with understanding. It also teaches women to willingly submit their strength in peace under their husbands leadership. But the Bible’s primary purpose is not a list of dos and don’ts.
That doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t show us where we are failing; it simply means that pointing out our failures and telling us to try harder is not the Bible’s primary focus.
Husbands are too controlling or passive. Wives are too controlling or passive. Both tend toward selfishness, pride, and bickering when we don’t get our way. Our lives are filled with sin; this is especially true in the pressure cooker of marriage. We cannot deny our failures, but God’s Word doesn’t leave us in our failures.
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
If peace, strength, and willingness to defer to authority are necessary for submission, then we can find those resources in the gospel. God’s Word teaches us that we have sinned and broken God’s laws many times; this sin creates hostility between us and God. This hostility creates tension in our hearts and tension in our relationships, but more importantly, it requires God’s just punishment.
God’s Word tells us that, through Christ, we can have grace and forgiveness. We cannot earn this through good living, but instead, God justifies those who put their faith in Christ. By declaring us righteous, we are restored to peace with God and given hope that one day, all things will be made right.
Because we have a deep peace with God, even difficult times (suffering in verse 3) cannot cause unrest in our souls. Instead of becoming restless under imperfect leadership, we can enjoy peace with God through Christ-peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Through the gospel, we are given a boundless reserve of peace in all of our struggles.
By trusting God’s goodness and resting in his peace through difficult circumstances, we develop the muscles of endurance, which produces strength of character. This strength of character endures gently and peacefully through all circumstances, including imperfect leadership. That kind of character does not hope in perfect circumstances, children, a care-free life, a knight in shining armor, a growing 401k, or a successful career in order to find joy; strength of character founded on peace with God produces a steadfast hope that God will one day make all things right through Jesus Christ.
The good news of the gospel is that we are forgiven for our failures and empowered through God’s love to do better tomorrow.
Credit to John Piper’s sermon The Beautiful Faith of Fearless Submission for many of the ideas and structure for this post.