For too long, submission has been seen as a theme of “other” denominations. We of Wesleyan persuasion have had a lot of angst about jumping into the water. Maybe it’s because of our tradition in which women have had a greater part in church activity and administration than those of other groups. But to my mind, the theme of a wife’s submission and a husband's cherishing love is of consequence no matter what one believes should be a woman’s role in the church. For a woman who is married has only one husband and her relationship to him is unique. Furthermore, the Bible specifically speaks to husbands and wives about the importance of their roles. I do not think it can be ignored.
The problem with submission though is that it isn't cut and dried. That is, the carrying out of it isn't. The biblical guideline seems clear enough to me though some say the interpretation is blurry. I’m all for mutual respect and deference in love, but I do believe the Creator had specific roles in mind when He inspired Paul to write the guidelines in Ephesians 5.
Holiness is God-Centered and Others-Oriented
Marriage is a great catalyst for personal holiness. God wants our surrender to His plan and His way; He wants to counteract the self-centeredness that is a result of our fallen nature. He uses the marriage relationship to work on us, to bring us further along in our understanding of death to self-will. Both men and women are called to deny self and put the other first – husbands by loving and wives by respecting. This, many times, goes against the natural inclination, but after all, natural inclinations are warped by our inherited sinfulness.
The Apostle Paul was inspired to use the analogy of Christ and the church as a template for marriage. The phrases He uses to describe the responsibilities of husbands and wives are in keeping with this symbolism. The husband is likened to Christ who is to protect and cherish the bride. The wife is compared to the church who is devoted to Christ and joyfully follows His loving care.
The Problem of “Fallen-ness”
Now, there aren't many couples who would have trouble with this picture if their spouse would fill his or her end of the bargain. The difficulty comes because we are all fallen and no one gets it right. And sometimes there are major issues resulting from individual temperament or family background that cause ongoing challenges. Nevertheless, to strive to fulfill the role given by God as either husband or wife is to dethrone self and put Christ in first place.
If you have trouble with the idea of submission at the ground level, you might not even be ready to discuss sub-levels of that issue. If you are tempted to think that Paul just means mutual submission, think again of the analogy of Christ and the church. I don’t think we can say that Christ must submit to the church in the same way the church submits to Him. To be intellectually and Scripturally honest, we must admit that there are very different roles for husbands and wives, yet both are equally significant in God’s eyes.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul wrote that, in God’s eyes, there is neither male nor female. I don’t believe he meant we were truly genderless to God but that our gender makes no difference in our innate value or to our salvation by grace. Yet, gender is important on a different level because of the order it brings to our relationships and to the family, and oh, how our God loves order. Remember, He created our world out of the chaos that existed in Genesis1:2. He gives to everything and everyone a place, a carefully crafted and lovingly intended purpose. That is the real purpose of submission – it fits God’s plan.
But, back to the challenges of submitting. Most women who accept the call to biblical submission recognize the beauty of it and many even want to embody it, but our husbands tend to get in the way, if you know what I mean. Bless their little hearts, sometimes they make it so hard for us to submit to them! I guess that’s what Eve could have said if she’d been the first one to speak in the Garden. (Passing the buck always makes me feel better anyway!) But, seriously, the sensitivities and inhibitions and shortcomings in our husbands’ personalities may frequently test our commitment to submission.
You see, no husband is going to treat his wife like Christ treats the church. He can’t. He’s human. He had better try; the Bible has strong warnings for the man who disregards and disdains his wife. But he won’t always make it. And his wife always sees his flaws more clearly when they’re in conflict.
These flaws may cause him to misunderstand her words to him. He may feel disrespected when he shouldn't or sense distrust in her when it’s not there or feel threatened by her opinion when it’s innocently given. It may be more difficult to convey submission to a husband who is dealing with:
§ Low self-esteem
§ Job loss
§ Financial setbacks
Anything that threatens his identity as a man or his ability to provide can be a catalyst for misunderstanding in the realm of a wife’s submission. (This might be a very good reason to work things out with your pastor - problems in his ministry can cause your pastor to have struggles in his marriage!)
If the problem is a material one, it may or may not be easy to fix, but if the issue is of a spiritual nature, it is not going to be solved with a talk or two. These are the instances when a wife needs to pray. God is the great changer of hearts. He can do what we only dream of.
And this is a great motivator for moms as well. We need to understand the fact that the attitudes and behavior patterns we allow in our sons will most likely never change unless by divine intervention. We need to pray for them and with them and rely on God’s wisdom to mold them into men who are ready to love a wife without a chip on the shoulder or emotions on the sleeve. We need to do our best to help them triumph over and cope with their inadequacies and insecurities. Their wives will have to put up with the things we let them do and feel and indulge in; let’s give our future daughters-in-law reasons to think of us with blessing, not cursing.
This is also a shout-out to dads. A son needs a responsible, balanced role model. He needs to see an everyday, living, breathing version of a man who loves God and loves his wife unconditionally and unselfishly. He needs to view his dad treating his mom tenderly and preferring her happiness, holding her in high regard. He needs to know that his dad respects womanhood in general and his mother in particular. This is one of the greatest gifts a father can give to his son for it will help ensure the relationships of the next generation.
Of course, getting back to wives, our own hang-ups cause us a lot of grief when it comes to respecting our husbands and submitting as we should. Wives will struggle especially if they are challenged by a(n):
§ Poor self image
§ Unloved childhood
§ Tendency to over-sensitivity
§ Abusive father
Things which threaten a woman’s sense of beauty or worth are especially damaging to her relationship with her husband and her ability to recognize and accept his role. Professional counseling may be needed in some instances.
As mothers then, we have a grave responsibility to “bring up” our daughters to be women who can distinguish between the small and the significant. Women were created by God to experience rich emotions, but we are not to let them “rule” us. We must train our daughters to look for her man’s heart, and to choose to interpret his words and actions based on that and not the feelings of the moment. We must help our daughters to enjoy their femininity and to delight in being beautiful and in bringing beauty to the world around them; I believe both are possible for godly women. And we should model reasonable, godly submission by respecting their fathers (our husbands), admitting when we've goofed and asking for forgiveness –in their hearing, if applicable. They don’t need parents on a pinnacle; they need moms and dads who are authentic, committed and always open to the Spirit’s voice.
Of course, sometimes men complain that their wives are too sensitive when really it’s just feminine nature that they don’t understand. Husbands sometimes want wives to be tougher, to be more like them maybe so that rough teasing won’t offend them. But it can’t be both ways; either a woman is feminine and sensitive or she is more like a golfing buddy. I think most men would choose the former.
All of these sub-points don’t change the fact of submission, but they do tend to complicate our ability to understand and implement it. After all, roles in marriage are not something we understand intuitively
What is the answer?
Grace in the Home
Sensitivity to the leadership of the Holy Spirit is the only safeguard for both spouses. God cares about the feelings and role of both husband and wife and He can give specific direction for specific situations. He knows the idiosyncrasies of your mate and the quirks in your own personality. Ask Him for specific help and do what He tells you.
Second, a willingness to forbear and forgive is essential. Your spouse won’t always get it right; neither will you. You must forgive and gladly offer second chances and beyond. If your spouse is slower to forgive than you, that is sad, but no excuse for you to do the same. Forgive because Christ did; forbear because He does with you.
Last, remember that relationship is a journey. Yes, I know that analogy has been overused, but in this case, it really is applicable. Too many of us have struggled spiritually because we haven’t grasped this concept in relation to our walk with God and it’s not surprising that our marriages suffer when we forget that this isn’t a one-time event. There will be a tomorrow, if God wills. You may have bombed today, but the rest of your life looms ahead. Pity the husband or wife who bases their marital status only on today; a marriage is the sum total of all our yesterdays and the hopes of all our tomorrows. As long as there is love and commitment, yesterday can be redeemed and tomorrow can be beautiful. That’s what grace is all about, and if ever there was a stage on which grace can be displayed, it is the home.
Every one of us is touched at some level by the concept of submission. We cannot change the truth of God’s Word or dodge the consequences of ignoring it in our relationships. But we can embrace God’s plan and lovingly help each other fill the roles He’s given us. Come to think of it, that must be where the mutual submission part comes in after all.