Dionne Gravesande explores the thorny and contentious issue of submission in 21st century Christian marriages
During a pre-Christmas meal with some friends, an area of conversation we touched on was the subject of submission. Without breaking confidence of the discussion, I found it interesting that the single women suggested blind marital submission was out of the question but, if the man treated the woman right, they would yield to male leadership in the home. Meanwhile, those around the table, who were married, suggested such thinking was fantasy; in the real world, leadership in the home is shared by both parties, particularly if women are in professional careers earning high incomes. In such cases, submission is selective, and agreed as part of a holistic, negotiated relationship. This I found intriguing, as it seems to hinder the traditional reading of Scripture and interpretation of the subject.
What does the Bible mean when it says that wives are to submit to their husbands? Some believe that being submissive means to simply obey and to deny personal feelings, desires, expectations and dreams. In some cases, Christian teaching on male headship in marriage has been used as a weapon against women. For example, I read of a painfully and too-often-reported story: a tearful young woman shared that her Christian husband was angrily demanding her absolute submission. This included, among other things, that she clean their house according to his strict standards, and that she engage in sexual acts that made her feel uncomfortable and dirty.
This lady was not demanding her rights or trying to be disrespectful. She was a godly, humble woman, who obviously wanted to please the Lord. But she had been beaten emotionally, and she was receiving little help from her church, who was either unwilling or unprepared to confront wife abuse. And, in some UK churches, women are told that obedience to God is measured by their wifely submission—even if their husbands are addicted to alcohol or pornography or involved in adulterous affairs.
This distortion of biblical teaching on submission has plunged countless Christian women into depression and emotional trauma. I’m not sure which is worse: the harsh words they hear from their husbands, or the perverse way the Bible is used to justify domestic abuse. We cannot allow the churches to go back to a time when victims are ignored and violence against women dismissed.
Here are three areas we must explore in order to move beyond the current predicament:
1. Marriage is not a hierarchy. Traditionalists assume that a Christian marriage is defined as a dominant husband, who makes all family decisions while the wife graciously obeys without input. Yet Scripture actually portrays marriage as a loving partnership. Paul taught that, in the realm of sexuality, husbands and wives share equal authority over each other’s bodies (1 Corinthians 7:4). In other words, submission in this most intimate part of a marriage covenant is mutual.
2. Headship is not a license to control. Traditionalists also cite Ephesians 5:23 to remind wives that their husbands are their ‘heads’—and they believe this term requires some type of dictatorial control in marriage. Headship should not mean heavy-handed authority, or be used to enforce male domination. In its essence, headship is about the husband and wife being intimately connected in a mystical union that is unlike any other human relationship.
3. Men who abuse their wives are out of fellowship with God. Scripture is clear (1 Peter 3:7): wives should be honoured and respected. Wife abuse is no trivial sin. Any man who berates his wife, treats her as inferior, or engages in abusive behaviour (including hitting, kicking, raping, cursing at or threatening punishment) will jeopardise his relationship with God.
And, in the same way, I believe pastors who silently support abusive husbands – by refusing to confront their behaviour, or who tell women to submit to the pain – participate in this sin and could find their own prayers hindered. The false concept of submission is too often used to manipulate and control women. It advocates quiet obedience and subservience, and denies a woman’s irreplaceable value in her marital relationship.
“This distortion of biblical teaching on submission has plunged countless Christian women into depression and emotional trauma.”
Some Christian leaders have contributed to this false concept of submission by overlooking the husband’s obligation to love his wife. This is an extreme misrepresentation of Paul’s intent in Ephesians 5:22-30. At the time of writing, the Apostle Paul was living in a day when men used marriage to position themselves into families of power and wealth. Paul strongly stated that husbands were obligated to love their wives. This statement is too often forgotten when citing the ‘wives must submit’ rhetoric. In a culture where many men married not for love but for financial gain, could it be that Paul’s thoughts were not those of a man who degraded women and wanted to ‘keep them in their place’, but the opposite: to elevate women to a place where they are to be loved as Christ loves the Church?
Paul regarded marriage so highly that it is used as an analogy of Christ and His relationship to the Church. A husband’s love should be sacrificial, nourishing, cherishing and protective. No one is to demand or force another to yield; submission is voluntary.
Marriage, according to God’s design, is a relationship that returns love for love, service for service. Husbands and wives love and sacrifice for one another differently. Both the husband and the wife are given vast opportunities to show Christ’s love to one another. It is not always easy, but we can best reflect God’s redemptive work in our lives by following the principles of Christlike love and submission