Spiritual Growth and Encouragement for Christian Women

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What We Often Get Wrong about Submission

What We Often Get Wrong about Submission

My husband was a busy pediatrician, on call two or three nights a week, and on the verge of burnout. I was a busy stay-at-home mom to two little girls, but my writing career was also blossoming. 

And so we faced a crisis. Keith desperately needed some time to relax. And one of his favorite hobbies is reenacting historical battles using miniature soldiers. That may sound super geeky, but our town boasts a bunch of guys who love replaying the Civil War too, and Keith wanted one night a week to join them. But if he left me alone one more night, how was I ever going to write my book?

I did not handle his request well. Didn’t he respect my career goals? But he was equally desperate: Didn’t I realize that he needed some downtime, especially since he dealt with life-and-death issues that were wearing on him?

We went around in circles until Keith stopped us. “Sheila, we’re being ridiculous,” he said. “I know you love me and want me to have free time, and you know I love you and want to see your writing grow. We just have a time problem, that’s all.” 

We stopped trying to figure out which of us would win, and we started brainstorming ideas so both of us got what we needed. Eventually Keith closed his office one afternoon a week so that he could care for the kids while I wrote--and he still got a night out with his friends.

I see that story as a success. 

If we had followed some traditional Christian teaching, though, we may have given up too early. Sometimes our teaching on submission insinuates that God actually sees marriage as a "him vs. her" relationship where one of you is supposed to win--and that person is your husband. 

When I speak at marriage conferences, I often ask wives what they think submission means. The room grows silent as they hem and haw, until finally a few hands are raised. "When you disagree, he gets the final say."

This interpretation seems odd in light of the way the rest of the Bible talks about Christian relationships. It sees marriage as a constant tug-of-war where you'll have disagreements you can't solve without one of you giving in. Yet in 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul appeals to us, "that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought." 

Unity is to be the hallmark of a Christian relationship, so God clearly wants us to pray, wrestle through, and seek His will together. By assuming that a wife will always defer to her husband, though, we're not necessarily even seeking God's will. After all, if the couple is in disagreement and they do it the husband's way, there are only two possibilities: either one of them is not hearing God, or both of them are not hearing God. 

My friend Holly spent three years deferring to her husband, Chris, believing that she was submitting. Chris wanted to pay the bills for their busy household of six, living in expensive Colorado Springs. Holly would see the bills arrive in the mail, but she didn't always see those envelopes get opened. When she would mention her concerns, Chris would assure her that he had it under control, and she shouldn't worry. 

Finally, crestfallen, Chris sat down with Holly and told her that they were facing foreclosure on their house. The bills had piled up, and he hadn't known how to deal with them after their mortgage went underwater in the economic downturn. They cried together, hugged each other, and started to make a plan to dig out from under the mess.

After their wake up call, Holly began to rethink what submission meant. It doesn't mean women are to say nothing--after all, Paul wrote that we should all submit to one another. It's an attitude, then, not a method of deciding things.

The Greek literally means "putting ourselves under”, so when wives submit, we willingly pursuing his best. In humility, we become willing to think of his needs, his wants, his interests, his desires, before we think of our own. We don’t just defer to him. We emotionally and physically invest in building him up and pursuing his best--which also involves confronting issues where he's moving away from God's will. 

"In the end," Holly told me, "I apologized to Chris for not submitting to him." If she had properly submitted to Chris, Holly said, she wouldn't have watched him going downhill without doing anything to address the problem. She would have spoken up. God had given her administrative gifts, and yet she hadn't used them. She hadn't been a helper to him.

Now, six years later, Chris and Holly have taken a leap of faith to move halfway across the country, waiting on God to provide a job. It was a decision they felt called to after they each spent a year praying about it both together and apart. And they were united in the decision. Holly says, "Even though it's like jumping out of an airplane, it's so much more fun because we're doing it together!" 

Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage (WaterBrook Press, August 18, 2015). She blogs regularly at ToLoveHonorandVacuum.com.

Publication date: February 23, 2016