The Problem of a Submissive Wife

Last night at our small group Bible study, Jason, our group leader, used a phrase that I found interesting. One of his discussion points was: “When having a submissive wife is a bad thing”. Now, he obviously didn’t mean that a wife’s obedience to the Biblical mandate to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22,24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1,5) is sinful. His point was that when our wives are obedient to God’s Word and they submit to our leadership, there is the great potential for us to lead them into sin if we husbands abuse our role as heads of the family. Since all of the men in our group are blessed with Godly wives who take seriously the social order which God has ordained in the structure of the family to reflect the profound mystery that is Christ’s relationship with the Church, this means that we men have a tremendous responsibility to lead well. After all, if they are to respect us, as Ephesians 5:33 commands them, then we must make ourselves respectable!

I can testify to feeling the weight of this responsibility in my own life. My wife is a truly amazing woman. The love that she has for Christ and for me is evident in all she does. One of her best attributes is the way she exemplifies Godly submission in her life. Because the word “submission” has a negative connotation in our society, though, let me briefly explain what true Christian submission is, and what it is not.

Biblical submission is defined as “a willingness to operate under the authority of another.” It is one of the major themes of the Bible, and particularly the New Testament. Any thought of this word being in any way negative or demeaning should be thrown out when we see the way that Christ was subject to the Will of the Father. Submission is stamped on God’s design for social order, because it is one of His divine attributes. Just as Christ was equal to God (John 5:18) and yet submissive to His will, so too is a person’s worth undiminished when Christians submit to church elders (Hebrews 13:17), citizens to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1), children to parents (Ephesians 6:1), wives to husbands, and so on.

When Laurie is submissive, this does not mean that she is passive, or that she has no rights or input in our relationship. It certainly does not mean that I have the right to make her do whatever I want. It simply means that she both respects and expects my leadership. Jesus modeled perfect submission, as the Father’s leadership was also perfect. Similarly, the Church, which is now being prepared to become the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 19:6-9), once we have been glorified at His return for us, will one day be able to submit perfectly to Christ, the head of the Church, whose will is perfect just as the Father’s. Until that time, husbands and wives are to model the delegated roles of submission and authority as well as we are able (being encumbered by our sinful nature), as an imperfect, temporary earthly representation of a perfect, eternal heavenly relationship.

Ever since Laurie and I were engaged to be married, I have felt the burden of responsibility for leading her and the children we would have together. Her faithful submission to my leadership drives me to love and lead her better each day. This has manifested itself in my life in a number of ways. I have become a better employee, as I work harder to provide for the physical needs of my family, and more efficiently so that I can spend more time at home with them. I have become a better worshiper, as I reflect on the grace God shows me through my wife. Most importantly, I have become a better student of God’s Word, so that I can grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18) and be able to better model His leadership in our home.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of 1 Peter 3:1-2, which reads: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” This passage is generally taken to reference believing wives with unbelieving husbands, but I think there is a definite application for believing husbands as well. When our wives are obedient to their delegated role, it ought to challenge and convict us to be obedient to the role God has delegated to us. This has most certainly been true in my life!

But lest we brush this passage off as referring merely to unbelievers, let us be reminded that Scripture also tells us that there is something worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8 reads: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” Yes, there is a financial application of this verse for Christian husbands, in that we are to provide for the physical needs of our families, but it goes much deeper than that. Among the many things husbands are commanded to provide for our wives, finances are among the lowest priorities. We are to nurture and cherish them. We are to love and encourage them. We are to lead and instruct them spiritually. We are to serve them sacrificially, putting their wants and needs above our own. Christ did all of these things for the Church, and that is how we are to love our wives (Ephesians 5:25-32).

When husbands who do not know Jesus fail to exemplify these things in their marriages, they can hardly be expected to have done otherwise, because they have no relationship with the perfect Husband whose Spirit guides his followers into all truth. When an unbeliever’s marriage ends in divorce, it is sad, but it should not be surprising. When believers, however, who DO know Jesus, and who DO have the Holy Spirit, fail to treat their wives in a way that honors them and models Christ’s love for the Church, it is tantamount to a denial of the faith! When a believer’s marriage ends in divorce — which statistically happens among those who profess belief in Christ at about the same rate as among those who do not — it is a tragedy. We ought to know better!

I thank God that I have a wife who challenges me to be a better man. I thank God for the Holy Spirit, without whose guidance I could never hope to attain mature manhood, or even come close to measuring to the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). I pray that I will continue to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15), and that I will lead my family well until the day that God presents to Christ his Bride, and perfect submission and authority will finally be realized throughout the new earth at the consummation of all things!

2 comments on “The Problem of a Submissive Wife

  1. Ali Bagci says:

    Good post.

  2. Carrie DeLong says:

    That was good. You scared me there with the title! Poor James dreams of the day his wife will “attain this” There is something to the pressing on, though, right?

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