by Juli Slattery
In twenty-five years of ministry, I have seen the misapplication of submission keep women in situations where they are being mistreated or harmed. Both within the church and Christian family, teaching on biblical roles in marriage have been presented in ways that devalue and degrade women, and fail to protect them from financial, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. This is tragic and requires our significant and immediate attention.
A tempting solution is to simply discount submission as a relic of a misogynist Christian tradition and toss it out completely. If this teaching has led to such great harm, how could it possibly be part of God’s plan for humanity and love for women?
Like many Christian teachings that are under the cultural microscope, it’s critical that we distinguish between human (and harmful) traditions or misapplications and actual biblical truth.
Jesus told the Pharisees, you are clinging to the traditions of men and ignoring the commands of God. Is it any surprise we’ve fallen into the same trap?
While we've managed to make a mess of things, historians note that a true biblical ethic actually promotes the wellbeing of women in society. As I look at God's word and how He created us to thrive in the intimacy of marriage, I too, see that a true understanding of submission is an essential part of honoring God and one another. But I didn’t get here without asking God some really hard questions. Deconstructing toward His Word and not away from it means teasing out how biblical truth has been misapplied and misunderstood both in the past and within our current cultural moment. I’d like to suggest five myths around the teaching of submission in marriage that have contributed to our current demise. If we can correct our understanding of what biblical submission in marriage looks like, I truly believe that we will actually empower women in their marriages.
When I married my husband twenty-seven years ago, I was completing my doctoral degree in clinical psychology. My husband was a fun-loving guy who took life one day at a time. I was more driven, goal-oriented and educated than he was and had been a Christian for far longer. How in the world was I supposed to submit to this guy? Could I love him? Yes. Submit to him? I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like. Did God want me to play dumb for the sake of my husband’s ego? Was I supposed to drop off my ideas, my education and my drive at the doorstep every day? The way I’d heard submission taught, I assumed that God wanted me to be weak so my husband could become strong.
Ironically, submission in marriage is actually more about accentuating a woman's strength than calling her to weakness. Most men and women will readily acknowledge that women have a lot of relational power in marriage. In the majority of romantic relationships, the woman sets the emotional tone by her words and actions.
By the biblical definition, a weak woman is never a submissive woman. Just look at the example of Abigail and Nabal in I Samuel 25. This wise wife was commended for the way she chose not to go along with her foolish and abusive husband. God wants you to be strong and powerful, but warns you to harness that strength for a greater goal than getting your own way.
“I just can’t do the submission thing. I don’t have a quiet bone in my body. I’m not like one of those sweet, Christian women who like to sit and listen.” Maybe you can relate. My friend, Hannah, certainly can. She is a 7 on the enneagram, life of the party, and has the loudest laugh I’ve ever heard.
We usually think about the ideal Christian wife as quiet because of what Peter wrote. Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
I find it very interesting that Peter uses the example of Sarah. Of all the things Sarah might have been, she certainly wasn’t quiet. The Bible records her as being pretty vocal about her opinions. Peter isn’t writing about being a quiet woman, but choosing to have a gentle and quiet spirit. I see women like my friend Hannah, who have very loud personalities, but also have quiet and gentle spirits. They don’t talk less or more quietly, but their influence is one that invites others to flourish. Submission isn’t about whether or not your mouth is moving. It’s the intention of the heart, to build or to tear down.
If you knew Jessica, you would think she and Matt have a pretty normal relationship. They seem to treat each other with respect and consideration in public, but the situation is different behind closed doors. Matt demands his way and is often degrading to his wife. Although they both have full-time jobs, he constantly berates Jessica for the way the house looks. Nothing she does is ever good enough. Not even her closest friends know that Jessica feels smothered in her marriage. Her stomach is tied in knots as soon as she hears the sound of Matt’s car in the driveway. “What will he be angry about today?” she wonders.
Submission does not mean that God wants Jessica to put a smile on her face and keep the peace in her marriage. In truth, there is no peace. If Jessica understands her “role” as being quiet and acquiescing, she is allowing her husband to become less and less like the man God created Him to be. While Jessica and Matt are husband and wife, they are also brother and sister, co-heirs in God’s Kingdom. God expects both a husband and wife to challenge one another in love, addressing sinful tendencies in each other’s life. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6)
I Corinthians 7:1-5 does not condone spousal sexual abuse, nor does Ephesians 5 tell women to submit to a destructive husband. It is a colossal failure of the church when biblical passages are used to support clearly sinful and harmful behavior. Right before Paul addresses marital roles in Ephesians, he wrote these words:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness…
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
If a man treats his family in violation of this teaching, his wife and all those around him should confront him, not be complicit.
One of the ways we discount submission in marriage is to point out the concept of “mutual submission.” Paul begins his dissertation on marriage in Ephesians 5 with “Submit to one another.”
As mentioned before, husband and wife are also brother and sister. They are to submit to one another, honoring and respecting each other. But as husband and wife, there is another layer added to their relationship. It doesn’t discount the mutual respect they have, but adds a uniqueness to how they are to interact within the covenant of marriage.
While mutual submission is a true concept, it doesn’t simply cancel out the fact that God calls men and women in marriage to unique expressions of love within their covenant relationship. This is why Paul goes on to explain that a man lays down his life for his wife, as Christ laid down His life for the Church. A woman’s expression of submission in marriage takes the form of respecting her husband. In other words, she aims to complete him rather than compete with him. Both a husband and wife are called to lay themselves down for one another, but there is a uniqueness of what this looks like for both the man and the woman.
I truly believe that when we get submission right, it will help marriages thrive. When we look at the core needs of men and women within intimate relationships, we often see that men are more vulnerable to feeling disrespected and women more vulnerable to feeling unloved. But there is a far more important reason that God created this uniqueness in marriage.
Marriage is first and foremost a form of revelation. What I mean is this: Marriage was created to be a physical way that we experience an echo of God’s faithful and passionate love. Marriage is an earthly metaphor that points to a heavenly reality. This is why Jesus said there would be no marriage in heaven. It is why the Old Testament prophets used marital and sexual language to describe God’s relationship to the Jewish people. It is why Jesus is called The Bridegroom and the Church is called His Bride. And it is why gender matters so much in marriage.
Through male and female, God is revealing something special and profound about how He loves us. Author Christopher West explains it this way, “The body is not only biological, Since we were made in the image of God, male and female, the body is also theological. It tells an astounding divine story. And it does so precisely through the mystery of sexual differences and the call of the two to become ‘one flesh’; This means that when we get the body and sex wrong, we get the divine story wrong too.”
As unpopular as it may be to write about submission in marriage, it is a topic worth pressing into and teasing out both in your own marriage and within the larger conversation in the Church. We need to grieve and lament the ways biblical teaching and church traditions have put women in harm’s way. Yet, at the same time, may we embrace the goodness of God’s design in all of creation, including what He reveals through marriage.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a clinical psychologist, author, speaker and broadcast media professional with over twenty-five years of experience counseling, and teaching women. She’s the president and co-founder of Authentic Intimacy, a unique ministry devoted to teaching God’s design for intimacy and sexuality. In 2020, Juli launched SexualDiscipleship.com, a platform designed to help Christian leaders navigate sexual issues and questions with gospel-centered truth. She hosts a weekly podcast, Java with Juli, where she answers tough questions about relationships, marriage, and spiritual, emotional and sexual intimacy. www.authenticintimacy.com