What does submission in marriage really mean?
To answer the question we have to consider two more questions – do we follow God out of obligation or out of a relationship? And what does our relationship with God, teach us about our relationship with our spouse?
I have grappled with the “have to” mentality my entire Christian life.
If you don’t know, the “have to” mentality drives you to do the right thing, not because you understand it or even want to but because someone else, possibly an authority figure says so. For me, it has been “God/church authority/parents say so.”
A lot of the newlywed wives I talk to struggle with “have to” mindset in life and marriage; where they feel compelled to do certain things to keep God and husband happy.
But there’s a problem with this type of thinking – it makes no room for wrestling through difficult subjects and it does not invite questions.
In the “have-to” mindset, questions are looked down upon as sin and unsubmissive and a “yes” attitude is welcomed as more Christian.
And that’s not a good thing for the Christian couple trying to create a healthy Christian marriage because marriage is cauldron of questions, decisions and hopefully growth.
Now I am not implying that the Christian life is completely understandable. Not at all! However, God does not demand a suspension of godly wisdom in order to have a good Christian marriage.
Today I want to start a two-part series where we’ll wrestle through the topic of submission in marriage.
A lot of times, submission is that thing we wives have to do, whether we like it or not. If you ask a lot of wives about submission in marriage, they’ll rattle off something they heard and read.
A few know of Ephesians 5: 22 which says “For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord”
But rarely do we step out of the husband-wife submission argument to look at how we submit to God and how that ought to influence submission in marriage.
After all, marriage is meant to paint a picture of how Christ loves the Church. So how Christ loves us ought to be the blueprint for how to love our spouses.
Typically, submission in marriage floats between two extremes; some people feel it’s outdated and unbiblical. Others think it’s the godliest thing a wife can do for her husband (next to sex!)
Today I want us to step out of the two extremes and explore a new perspective. I confess I am on a journey myself, as a recovering rules-girl.
We’ll start by looking at Scripture to find out what God says about the freedom and choice we have in Christ and how it affects submission in marriage.
Our Relationship with God: Grace or Rules-Driven?
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, verses 13–14, he writes;
I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced.”
Let’s get some context regarding this verse.
Paul, the apostle, met and shared the gospel of Christ with a man named Onesimus and Onesimus became a Christian.
It turned out the new convert was a runaway slave and rather than keep him, (Onesimus, whose name means “useful” had become a great help to the apostle) Paul decides to send him back to his master, Philemon.
Who it also turned out was a son of Paul in the faith, i.e. Paul had led him to Christ.
So Paul writes this letter to Philemon with one single request, that he would accept his runaway slave* back as a brother in Christ.
In those days and according to the Roman law, slave owners had the power to punish runaway slaves, even have them executed. Paul asks Philemon to lay aside such rights and accept Onesimus as a fellow brother in Christ.
We could paraphrase Paul’s appeal in verse 14 this way “Son, I am requesting you pardon Onesimus by overlooking his escape. I could demand that you pardon him (*see below) but I don’t want to force you, I want you to choose to do the right thing, willingly.”
Paul could have demanded that Onesimus not be punished because earlier in the book, he writes (8–9)
That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you. Consider this as a request from me—Paul..”
Paul puts in a request instead of a demand.
What Does Submission to God Mean?
When I think about my relationship with God, He has every right to make demands on me. After all, I am His. Literally, I was made by Him, for Him. He died in my place so I could live; I am completely and thoroughly indebted.
So He has rights. But rather than making a demand, God invites me to choose the right thing.
Deuteronomy 30:19 says
“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!
The lack of coercion and intimidation in grace ought to change everything, including how we do marriage.
For most of my Christian life, “rules” have been my comfort, both consciously and unconsciously. My upbringing, formative church experience, some of my values and a driven personality lay the groundwork for where I have found myself.
At my core, there’s a deep desire to stay in God’s good books; follow the rules not because I want to, but because I am pushed to it.
But living under fearful compulsion is not God’s best for my life. Because the pressure not only hinders my ability to enjoy my Christian walk, it also throws a curtain on my relationship with God and consequently my marriage.
When you don’t understand someone, or when you fear them, you can only keep their company for so long.
When you feel like God does not invite questions, that He doesn’t understand your struggles, that He requires a suspension of the mind and soul He gave you, you’ll struggle in your Christian experience.
For many wives, walking by grace versus walking under compulsion is a grainy concept.
Our unconscious worldviews, values and life experiences shape our souls, and not many women pause to examine and reflect on some of the things they believe in.
We just assume our views and values are correct based on what we’ve seen or heard and felt.
Now, there’s nothing wrong in following good Biblical teaching. But sometimes God will begin to knock on our “good Biblical teaching.” Either because He wants to change us or because He needs us to understand the “why” behind what we believe.
Next week, we’ll look at four ways we can move our marriages from rules-driven submission to embracing the freedom that comes with grace. (Update! Click here to read the post!) Then hopefully, we will begin to understand what submission in marriage means!
But let’s talk in the Comments! Have you struggled with rules versus freedom in your relationship with God and marriage?
*This type of slavery was different from the colonial slavery we in the modern world are most familiar with. In those days, people could out of their free will offer themselves into slavery to pay off debts and it appears Onesimus might have been in this category.