Before I was married, I thought fulfilling biblical roles in marriage would look like a paint-by-number picture. My husband and I would both know exactly what to do, and our marriage would take off in the right direction almost effortlessly.
Now I see roles in marriage more like an inspired work of art. It takes time, thought, practice, some messy spills, and mental roadblocks. But with each brushstroke applied to the canvas, a picture of colorful beauty begins to take shape. Unlike the hard and clear-cut lines of a paint-by-number picture, the colors on this canvas bleed together in a way where distinction isn’t always obvious, but a glorious harmony emerges.
Before marriage, I also viewed the submissive wife as a shadow looming over me as Scrooge’s ghost of Christmas future. In my misconceptions, Ephesians 5 sounded like the rattling of Jacob Marley’s chains. Yet three things helped me to dispel the fear of submission.
1. Submission should not be isolated.
If we emphasize Ephesians 5:22 in isolation, it makes submission appear scarier than it really is. Yes, we can obey this verse as a literal truth, but we must be careful to not over-simplify it. God gives us freedom in these good boundary lines according to our differing personalities in our marriages and the day in which we live.
We need to make room for nuance. When we see this verse in light of all of Scripture, we’ll know that a wife is not called to submit to her husband if he asks her to break God’s law. She does not need to submit to any type of abuse from her husband or patterns of sinful behavior. Biblical submission is a pathway for righteousness, not a cloak for sin.
In the Old Testament, women like Esther and Abigail don’t appear to be submissive in the narrowest conception — they are defying their husbands. Abigail goes behind her husband’s back by giving King David and his men the supplies her husband denied them. Esther breaks all royal protocol and enters the king’s court without his prior consent.
Both Abigail’s and Esther’s husbands were not part of God’s chosen people, so the factors relating to submission for these two women looked different. Esther and Abigail were submissive first and foremost to God. They were courageous in their actions, which appeared like insubordination to their husbands. Sometimes a submissive wife looks like Esther and Abigail.
2. Submission is part of a larger goal of unity.
Both the husband and wife must be oriented towards each other. If the woman is doing all the orienting, all the serving, and all the sacrificing in the marriage, something is deeply wrong. In the Trinity, each person of the Godhead is constantly and consistently oriented towards each other, and because of this, each of them flourishes in their roles and responsibilities. When husbands and wives do this with each other, then we can see unity here on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s all too common to view the headship of our husbands as a power struggle, and submission as a free pass for the husband to do whatever he wants. But in reality, a husband’s headship is tethered to the accountability of his wife and others in authority over him. Neither husband nor wife should be independent and autonomous. This is not how unity is achieved in marriage, or in any other relationship. A husband’s headship means that first he is responsible for the care of his wife — he is oriented towards her with sacrificial love.
With this in mind, marriage is more clearly seen for what it is: not a hierarchy, but a choreographed ballroom dance. God has designed the choreography for every husband and wife, but each dance will vary. The man will lead; the woman follow. Sometimes they will step on each other’s toes. Sometimes the woman will need to gently guide the man toward what to do to lead the dance, and the man will need to loving lead her toward how to respond. They both bend and flex for the other in order to achieve the unity needed for the dance to be beautiful.
3. Submission is a call for every Christian.
The foreboding shadow of the submissive wife faded when I realized that as a follower of Christ I should be seeking a humble and submissive attitude anyway. Husbands and wives are equally called to follow Christ, to be submissive — to God and to others. We must be bendable, flexible with one another, willing to lay down our very selves, instead of demanding our own way.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:6–7)
James shows us we are all called to walk the path of humility. If a husband is plainly submitting himself to God, this makes it easier for the wife to submit to him, as she submits to God. Likewise, husbands and wives are called to sacrifice for each other: the husband sacrifices by his humble leadership and the wife through her response.
Sometimes the husband leads by deferring to his wife. Many times he loving covers her sin. And when the husband is not seeking and listening to his wife’s heart, the wife should not idly accept this. She must speak the truth in love to him, and then graciously forbear with her husband in his weakness.
The Heart of Christianity
I cannot help but think of one soon-to-be wife who was still a virgin when she submitted to the Lord’s will to carry the Messiah. She was told by the angel to not fear, because she had found favor with God. Favor? A pregnant, unwed young girl, especially in her time, was not looked upon favorably. And yet she replied, “I am a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s courageous submission to God was a prelude to Jesus’s submission to the Father when he similarly said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
You see, submission is at the very heart of Christianity, because if it weren’t for Christ’s submission to death, we would not know salvation. Like Christ, once we submit and die to ourselves, we are resurrected to new life in him. And once we are saved by grace through faith, we must continually submit ourselves to God.
Submission is not just for wives, and it’s not meant to cage us in fear. It sets us free to live with courage.