Friday, December 19, 2008

biblical womanhood (8c) submission in practice

It took me many, many years of marriage to understand what submission might look like in practice. Every time I asked for advice, I was told "I believe in headship and submission, but I can't explain what it looks like." Coming originally from a feminist position, and with little guidance and few examples, I could have done with some more specific suggestions!

So what I'm doing today is sharing some examples of what the practice of submission might look like. The details will be different in every marriage, but one thing is certain: submission is an attitude which affects everything - thoughts, feelings, words, actions - every moment of every day.

Submission affects our thoughts and feelings. It means that when I think of my husband, I'll reject critical, bitter, resentful, unforgiving thoughts. Instead, I'll choose to think of him with respect and love. I don't mean I'll refuse to see his bad points! Often, because I've married a sinner, what will be demanded of me is not blind approval, but patience and forgiveness. But I'll also choose to rejoice in the times he exercises his leadership wisely, and when he fails, I'll trust in the God who has chosen this man to be my husband, remember my own sin, respect his role even when I'm struggling to respect him, and respond with forbearance and grace.

Submission affects our actions in small things. This was the first expression of submission which made sense to me. It means I (try to!) honour my husband's preferences: keeping the kitchen bench clean, filling the kettle (I kid you not!), or wearing my hair long. For you, it will mean other things: de-cluttering the loungeroom, welcoming your husband with a kiss, or keeping track of what you spend.

Submission affects our words. It changes the way we talk to our husbands, and to others (children, friends, our mothers) about our husbands. I don't mean we'll speak with humble deference: there's lots of teasing, laughter and robust discussion in my marriage, which won't surprise anyone who knows us! But I've learned not to nag or boss my husband into doing things, not to complain about him to others, and not to always offer my opinion when we're leading a group together - and I'm learning to be careful of how I speak to him in front of others.

Submission affects our response when our husbands ask something of us. Elizabeth George taught me (and I in no way live up to this!) to respond first with a "yes", and only then with a "but have you thought of ...?, when my husband asks something of me. "Yes", I'll gladly come and help you with that. "Yes", why don't we do that together on the weekend. "Yes", let's consider those ministry plans. Without noticing it, I'm often automatically set to "no", or at least to "sigh".

Submission affects decisions about our own lives. It affects how we spend our money, use our time, and make our plans. Recently, God has convicted me about two areas which I think are key for many women: spending and scheduling. Steve's an easy-going guy who doesn't throw his weight around, and it's been easy for me to take advantage of that as I manage our finances and plan my calendar. This year, I'm seeking his guidance on our budget and my plans for next year.

Submission affects how we respond to our husband's leadership. It's hard to graciously acknowledge and receive someone's authority. It's far easier to openly rebel, or to resist in more subtle ways: patronising our husbands, doing things behind their backs, or surreptitiously trying to exert control. Instead, we'll build up rather than tear down, obey when it doesn't mean disobeying Christ, and support, encourage and pray for our husbands as they lead our family.

Submission affects how we influence our husbands. There's definitely a place for wise counsel, good advice, and honest discussion (Prov 31:26). But there will also be times when words are ineffective or unwelcome. The primary way we influence our husbands, especially when words fail, is through our prayers, the godliness and reverence of our lives, and the way we honour and seek their leadership (1 Pet 3:1-7). Definitely not through sulking, nagging, manipulating, seeking revenge, or complaining!

Submission affects how we accept our husband's care. I've often observed in my own and others' marriages a tendency to be unwilling to receive compliments graciously, to welcome embraces, to hear encouragement, to enjoy sentimental expressions of affection, to accept protection, or even to allow a husband to open a door for us. We're independent modern women - we don't like to be looked after! This might be something we need to learn.

Submission affects how we use our time and energy. Instead of lavishing our time and energy on ourself and our dreams, we'll give ourselves first to helping our husbands, caring for their needs, and supporting their work and ministry. I don't think we should put our husbands on a pedestal, or that our lives should revolve around them - this wouldn't be good for either of us! Christ is our first husband, God's glory our first goal, and the gospel our first priority. But our husband will come next on the list, we'll be careful about how our ministry and relaxation affect him, and we'll work as a team, when possible, to reach out to God's world.

But what if my husband doesn't want to lead? This is a question which often comes up when I talk to married women. Since Genesis 3:16, many wives love to take over, and many husbands lazily abdicate responsibility. We may need to repent of our tendency to want to run things, ask for our husbands' advice and input when it's not offered, and gently encourage them to take greater responsiblity in leadership. I think this is one piece of encouragement most husbands would welcome! If this continues to be a major problem in your marriage, it could be helpful to talk together to a godly pastor.

But what if I'm in a difficult marriage? If God expects wives of unbelieving husbands to honour and obey their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-7) then he expects no less from those of us in difficult Christian marriages. There are no "if ... then ... " clauses when it comes to love and submission (I'm not talking about situations where it's appropriate for a wife to leave her husband, in cases like abuse and adultery). I know this is hard to say, and harder still to practise, and requires far more than a brief paragraph! Our comfort is that God knows our situation, that he watches over us and loves us more deeply than any husband ever could, that we honour him by our faithfulness in a difficult situation, that he promises never to test us beyond what we can bear, and that he gives us grace and strength when we have none of our own.

I know the things I say are not easy for many of us to hear, and for any of us to practise. But don't we love God's word, and trust him to want only what is best for us? I pray that he will help you and me to come to the Bible ready to have our minds changed, to listen to his voice even when we find it hard to hear, and to ask him for the will and grace to obey.

I've found, over the years, that submission has changed from something I reluctantly practice through gritted teeth and with resentment, to something I've grown into, as its true beauty and freedom have become apparent to me, and as God's grace has worked in the hearts of my husband and me. I hope and pray you find the same.


Rachel said...


A happy collision of timing has meant your thoughts on submission have been read and heard with humility and eagerness (and relief that while there's lots to work on, I'm on the right track)

Jean said...

I'm so glad, Rachel. Thanks for your encouragement - and I thought just before Christmas was bad timing! As if God's timing ever is.

William said...

Very encouraged! I've had a read through all the biblical womanhood series today. Will continue to read your from time to time.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, in case i might never had a chance to say it out.

charissa said...

Thanks Jean. I found this a really helpful post. You have spelled things out very clearly and logically. The areas you mentioned are very practical and have challenged me to really think through my relationship with my husband. A great exercise to do as we head into a new year and I reflect on how I am going at serving him.

Anonymous said...

Jean, this whole series has been fabulous. I really appreciate the time and effort that has gone into these posts. They have been very helpful for me, and I have been challenged again to not submit reluctantly but rejoicing! I am keen to translate them next year to use as part of a series for our women at the seminary. I hope that will be OK with you?

Jean said...

Go for it Jo - just put in "Jean Williams" and a link to in all honesty, that's all. I'm more than happy for people to use anything they want! I hope they are helpful for people.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Jean,

I will certainly acknowledge you, although the majority won't be able to read the blog for themselves.

Have a great rest and I'll look forward to the archives - I have only recently found your blog, so it will be all new and exciting for me.

Thank you again for serving me and sharing your wisdom. As Carolyn Mahaney would say, you have been a means of grace in my life!


Jean said...

That's fine, Jo. Which language, by the way? And where? Just curious!

mjcharles said...

Sorry Jean, I've been away and not checking this!

Michael and I + 4 kids are in Santiago, Chile with CMS. Michael teaches at the Centre for Pastoral Studies and I'm involved with the women's side of things. So the language is Spanish. Resources are scarce, and blog posts much more manageable to translate (and real!) than many books!

Thanks again!