I get a lot of flak about submission on this blog.

Whenever I write about resolving conflict, or areas in which husbands and wives disagree, I get taken to task in the comments for not telling women to submit more.

I find this rather strange. To so many, it seems as if submission is the goal of marriage.

Oneness is the goal of marriage; submission is a tool to get there. It is not the end, in and of itself.

But I think what I mean by submission and what some other people mean by submission are really two different things. I consider submission when I care about my husband’s needs first; when I think about what he may want or need, and I sacrifice something to meet that need. I consider submission when I pray God’s will for his life.

Yet to some people, it seems the only definition of submission that matters is that when you have a difference of opinion, she defers to him.

This really irks me, because to me, that’s a failure. Using that definition of submission, I’ve never submitted to my husband, because when we have had differences (and we had major ones, like deciding whether or not to have our son have life-threatening surgery, or deciding whether to move, or deciding what to do about jobs, children, etc.), we’ve always worked it through. We’ve never, ever said that because he thinks it’s one way, that’s the way it is.

To us, deciding to do things “his way” when we had a disagreement would have meant that we had failed, because the goal is oneness.

And usually, when we work it through, we come to a solution that neither of us even envisioned in the beginning. We find a win-win. Other times, just by talking about it, I realize that I was totally off-base, or he realizes that he was, and it’s all good. We feel like we’re one, like we’re a team, like we’re intimate and on the same side. And it’s wonderful.

And so I can never really understand the women who take pride in saying, “I let him make all the decisions, even if I think he’s wrong.” To me, that’s a cop out. If you think he’s wrong, you have an issue in your relationship. One of you–or both of you–is not listening to God. Why should we be proud of that? Why should we not instead wrestle through it together, and with God, until we’re cheerfully on the same page? If you’re always deferring to him, then you could easily be preventing oneness, not enhancing it. And you could  be keeping both of you from hearing from God. (I wrote a three-part series on handling differences and submission here). Sometimes we must decide to let things go for the sake of the marriage, but I don’t believe this is a victory. This is done often in sadness because you aren’t one and you aren’t on the same page. And so prayer for God to be more evidenced in both of your lives is the only proper response when that has to be done.

I really, really worry about the strain in Christian marriage thinking that women must obey their husbands at all costs, and that the GOAL of marriage seems to be this hierarchical relationship which I do not see in Scripture. And so when I was sent Larry Crabb’s new book, Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes, I was excited to read it.

Larry Crabb definitely believes in male leadership, but he says that most terms that we use when referring to gender–submission, masculine, feminine–need a serious biblical scrubbing.

And he proceeds to do that in this refreshing book.

He opens it telling the story of his parents, who grew up in the typical Christian culture where the dad led, and the mom cooked and cleaned and stayed in the background. In his case, his mother had a very good career, and in her job she made decisions and was treated with respect. But when she came home, she became almost invisible, because that’s what a Christian woman was supposed to do.

His dad, on the other hand, prayed and led devotions and was a wonderful leader.

But as his mom aged, and developed Alzheimer’s, some of her real feelings started to surface. And she was often very distraught–”am I any good to anyone?” she would say.

Crabb says,

I never saw Dad looking at Mother with eyes that wondered, Who is this remarkable woman? What can I do, who can I be, that would encourage her to freely give everything within her for God’s kingdom, for God’s glory, for her joy, for the blessing of others?

No, his dad saw his mom in relation to himself. And that viewpoint hurt both of them.

When Crabb married he had the typical view of male headship: his wife would obey him, and thus he was responsible for both her and himself. At first this was a heady feeling of power, but he soon became terrified. Could he make all the decisions? Would he always be right? What if he led her astray? And slowly but surely he started to see that his wife had a brain, too. And she had amazing giftings. And God had given her to him as a “suitable helper,” meaning that she was suitable to help him make those decisions, as he guided the family. He didn’t have everything on his shoulders–indeed, that’s why God gave him his wife, so that he WOULDN’T have everything on his shoulders.

And both of them found that they flourished in their marriage and in their giftings and relationship with God when they stopped trying to play “who’s the boss” and started trying to figure out how they could encourage each other to be “fully alive.”

I really appreciated this book. He spends the first part talking about submission, and the latter half talking about real masculinity, real femininity, and the unique fears and threats that both genders face. As I read it I thought he was spot on. In women’s quest for relationship, for instance, we often bowl men over and become harsh, critical, and even nagging, even when we don’t mean to be. We just want to be helpful. But this urge to make things right can lead to us storming in where we shouldn’t. I know I’m dreadfully guilty of this.

But men’s urge to be consequential and purposeful can similarly lead to them backing down and becoming overly passive when they fear they won’t succeed.

There are lots of other fears and threats, but those are the ones that most resonated with me. And through it all, Crabb shows us biblically what the real calling is for the masculine and the feminine, and how they were meant to work together and complement each other, not to be the same and not to have one be dominant.

I also appreciated his discussion about submission, because to him, you can’t separate the idea of submission from the idea of a “suitable helper.”

While some people, like Debi Pearl, see helper in a very subordinate way, Crabb sees it as an empowering role. God made us fully human, and gave us unique giftings so that we could help our husbands in their own roles and in their spiritual lives. After exploring this in great detail, looking at the passages in both Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter, he concludes with this:

A woman once asked me if she should submit to a husband who wanted her to have sex with another man. I replied, “Of course. Submit in everything. Tell him no, gently and quietly.” Another woman asked me if she should cosign loan papers that she knew contained misinformation. Her husband wanted her to sign. Should she submit? I answered, “Yes. Submit in everything. Refuse to sign, gently and quietly.”

If that makes no sense to you, I encourage you to read the book, which I found really illuminating. He puts the focus back where it should be: how can we each serve God the most fully? How can we become all that God wanted us to? How can we become fully alive?

Whether we are married or not, God wants us each to be fully alive as masculine and as feminine. And in marriage, part of the blessing of that relationship is that we can help each other become fully alive. I can encourage Keith in his giftings, and he can encourage me. And in the marriage relationship, I see where I am flawed. I see where I have the tendency to not be gentle and quiet. I see where I often try to bowl other people over. God can use our marriage to help make me more gentle, more humble, more teachable. But I also can help sharpen Keith. “Iron sharpens iron,” and we are to be iron for each other.

Too many Christians seem threatened by the thought that women may have ideas or opinions that can sharpen their husbands. I have had a man comment on this blog that he always reads the blog first, to be sure that the post is suitable, before he lets his wife read it. That attitude is the exact opposite of everything Crabb says, and of everything I believe–and more importantly, what I believe Scripture says. Sure, men who do this can say, “I consider my wife a princess. I love her dearly. I respect her more than anything,” but if you don’t also encourage her to think, and respect her opinions, and allow her to express herself, then your words are not evidenced in your actions.

Women are made as suitable helpers, and the Hebrew word for helper has no connotation of subordination, because it’s used to refer to God as well.

We are uniquely made to encourage our husbands, sharpen our husbands, and inspire our husbands. If a husband is making sure that a wife doesn’t have an independent thought, or telling her that she can’t think certain things or go certain places without his permission, then they are not a team. He isn’t respecting the giftings and the brain that God also gave her. He may say that he’s just protecting her, but what he’s really doing is not giving proper credence to the thought that she may have something to teach him–that God may want him to sit back and listen to her for a change. That God made her to be HIS HELPER–and perhaps she has something to help him learn, too.

Yes, submit. Yes, women, pray about how you can encourage your husband as he leads the family. Yes, consider his needs first and look for ways to bless him. Yes, work on being gentle and quiet. Definitely respect him, admire him, and tell him how much you appreciate him. But most of all, be fully alive for God TOGETHER. Be one–as you also are masculine and feminine–as God made you to be.

Let’s not waste people’s giftings and smoulder a wonderful spirit because a woman, in certain versions of Christianity, is less than a man. That is not biblical. The more people believe it, the less powerful we will be in spreading God’s kingdom, because we’ll be ensuring that 50% of the Christian population isn’t allowed to become fully alive and to express their own God-given gifts.

Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group

Post first published at To Love, Honor and Vacuum. Used with permission.

Sheila Wray Gregoire is a marriage blogger, speaker, writer, and mom. The author of seven books, including The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex, she loves encouraging women to strive for the kind of real intimacy in marriage that God designed. When she's not blogging at To Love, Honor and Vacuum, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!

Publication date: August 14, 2013