A couple days ago a friend of mine asked me about my approach to the Scripture passages on marital submission. He had just spoken with a fellow student who felt that, while most of the Bible offered hope and redemption to the world, this particular topic has served to perpetuate evil and oppression.
Following the conversation, my friend appealed to me for insight since the perspective of a male carries a little less weight on this topic. Below is a version of the e-mail I wrote in response. I decided to post it today because these passages are indeed difficult and have certainly been abused, but given that Christians do not have the option to ignore them or erase them, we must find a way to engage them such that they cohere with the whole of the Bible. What follows is my approach:
This is a topic I have thought a lot about. I wrote a little about it on my blog, so you can check that out if you want. That particular post deals with authority in general, but at the end I address marital submission. (Click here for that link)
Now in regard to your friend, I think she is confusing submission with oppression. Submission does not mean being a doormat for your husband’s every whim, and it does not legitimize emotional and physical abuse. In light of the way women are treated around the world, that is a very important distinction to make.
Overall, the goal of submission is not blind obedience to your husband. The goal is to build him up as a godly leader. That said, if you simply do everything he tells you without ever questioning or challenging him or holding him accountable, then you’re not really building him up as a godly leader. A husband needs to receive input and wise counsel; he needs an alternative perspective from someone that God created to complement his gifts and personality. Submission cannot, therefore, exclude these things. If it does, then it fails to achieve its ultimate goal.
Similarly, remaining in an abusive relationship does not build up a husband either. Rather, it facilitates his sin, so out of love for her husband and herself, a wife should not enable that behavior to continue by remaining in that relationship. It will not only destroy her, but her husband as well.
There is also another important distinction between godly submission and abuse, and that is the presence of power. In godly submission, a woman has the option not to submit. She can choose not to listen to her husband, or resist his leading–but out of respect for his leadership, she does not exercise that power. (In much the same way that we use our freedom in Christ to become a slave to Christ) So in her freedom she chooses to submit.
Conversely, abuse implies force. In the case of oppression, a woman is stripped of her power. The woman has no choice in the matter–she is trapped by an unhealthy relationship or culture, and has no other option. So whereas submission involves the exercise of freedom, abuse involves the absence of it.
I could write a whole lot more but this is getting long so I will end with this–when you look at the Scriptural commands to husbands, and then look at the Scriptural commands to wives, it’s kind of laughable that women get so upset over what we have to do. You guys have MUCH more responsibility–in addition to all the ways you have to care for us, you are ultimately asked to LAY YOUR LIVES DOWN for us, and that is no small thing. (Eph. 5:22-33)
So given the many, many, many things that God requires of husbands, I have little hesitation in submitting to someone who has been asked to lay his life down for me, given that he’ll be putting my best interest first. This is not a matter of equality or ability–submission is rather a means for accessing God’s provision for women. God desires that men care for us, but we must let them.
No, this is not going to play out perfectly every time because men are sinful and will act selfishly sometimes. But, I find much greater peace in trusting God’s teachings on submission than in trying to control my life all by myself, and constantly making sure that no one takes advantage of me. That is a dismally paranoid and perpetually guarded way to live.
In closing, I want to add 2 things. One–it cannot be restated enough that marriage is to imitate the relationship between Christ and the Church. That said, if you have a problem with submission as it is understood within the context of Scripture, then you must address a greater theological issue. Marriage is designed to reflect Christ and the Church, and the Church submits to Christ, which means that godly marriages must reflect this dynamic as well. To deny the goodness of submission within marriage is to deny the goodness of the Church’s submission to Christ.
Two–I feel compelled to reiterate that submission is meant to create freedom, not oppression, so in the event that someone uses Scripture to legitimize abuse, they are no longer speaking of submission as Scripture understands it. Submission and abuse of any kind are not the same and must never be confused.
So there you have it. A brief examination of a very complex subject, but hopefully this has been helpful for some of you. Given the degree to which these passages have been perverted, it is important to understand them in a healthy way, especially since these perversions have led Christians to ignore the passages altogether. But if we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then that is a move we are never permitted to make. So we must instead confront the Scriptures head on, and figure out how they fit into the larger paradigm of a God who comes to bring life and hope. Even passages on submission carry such a message.