Wednesday, January 20, 2010

from the archives: submission in attitude and action

What do headship and submission in marriage look like in practice? How do you define such a thing? For every marriage is different: submission has "as many expressions as the relationships it finds itself in".* It's even harder to describe what submission looks like when we see it so infrequently.

What I can tell you, after 20 years of learning how to be married, is that headship and submission can be beautiful, like a dance where the dancers know their places.

I can't imagine a relationship more lovely than that of Christ and the church. What could be more beautiful than a lover who finds a woman lying in her filth, washes her, adorns her, and lays down his life to win her (Ezek 16:1-14)? Or a woman who, having been loved with such devotion, gives herself freely and willingly to the one who died to win her? The parallel is not exact, but if human marriage is anything, it is a faint and pale copy of this everlasting marriage.

From before eternity, God planned men and women to mirror forth this divine love affair. And so he made man to work, to plant, to build and to tend, and woman to help, to bear children, to nurture and to care (Gen 1-3). He made husbands to love their wives with a self-sacrificial devotion which honours, cherishes and protects, and women to support their husbands with a love which honours, helps, reverences and yes, submits, gladly and willingly, every day and in everything (Eph 5:1-7).

You might hear people saying "The husband's job is harder". Yes, it is hard - it is desperately hard! - to sacrifice your own preferences and goals and desires for your wife. But it's equally hard to submit, for it goes against not only our culture, but also our sinful desire to run life our own way, and our familiarity with our husband's sins and failings. Submission has been hard since the day the first man and woman fell into sin, and swapped peace for a relationship where each would seek to dominate the other (Gen 3:16).

So what do headship and submission look like in practice? I'm not going to say a lot about headship, except that it demands that husbands care for their wives' needs before their own, treat them with respect and consideration, and enable them to become all they were meant to be. God never tells men, as you might expect, to rule, to command, or to demand submission from their wives. In a culture where this would have been normal, he instead turns to wives, as free and equal partners, and tells them to willingly and graciously submit.

It's easier to say what submission doesn't look like than what it does look like. It doesn't mean "mutual submission", as if sacrifice and submission are two sides of the one coin, for God demands quite different things from husbands and wives. Nor does it mean you'll pack up your brain and put it away, obey your husband when he asks you to cheat or act immorally, or never advise or influence him. Or how could women married to unbelievers freely put their trust in Christ, serve God with reverence and purity, or win their husbands for Christ (1 Pet 3:22-33)?

When you ask people what submission looks like, they'll often say "It means that if you have to make a big decision, and your husband and you disagree, he gets to make the decision." Whatever submission means, it means more than that. Submission affects everything, every moment of every day (Eph 5:24). "Submission is an attitude, but it's an attitude which has to be expressed."*

Submission affects the way we think, feel, speak and behave. It's an inner quality of the heart - a state of trust, reverence, honour, gentleness, quietness, purity, and respect - which is beautiful to God (1 Pet 3:1-6). But it doesn't stop with the heart. Like all true attitudes, submission is an attitude which leads to action.

Whatever else submission is, it's not easy. Our husbands are imperfect, and so are we. Even in a loving marriage, submission will go against every fibre of independence in our being. Submission is only possible because God's Spirit works in us moment by moment, making us more like Christ, filling us with his humility, gentleness, quietness, and trust.

I'm sorry to leave you hanging, just when I'm about to get to the nitty-gritty of the practice of submission, but this post is too long already. In the meantime, perhaps you'd like to share with us what you think submission looks like in practice.

* These quotes are from Claire Smith's talks Won without a word and The divine marriage, from her series Different by Design. I owe much of what I say, but none of my clumsiness of expression, to her.

images are from stock.xchng

4 comments:

Fiona said...

(Yet another comment from me!) My husband has said that submission (in marriage) means making it easy for him to make decisions. (That sounds like he makes all the decisions, which isn't the case.) I have found his comment really helpful, because what it means is that I am responsible for giving him the information he needs to make wise decisions. I need to be honest about how I feel about issues, "fight fair" when we have disagreements, and not use emotional blackmail or manipulation to try to get Gus to make a decision that suits me. It's about trust and respect.

Another key aspect of submission for me is how I think and talk about my husband - how I talk to him, how I think about him, and how I talk about him to others. Submission means doing all these fairly and respectfully - not mocking, or complaining, or demeaning him, but dealing with difficulties and conflicts in a godly way.

I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say on this, Jean!

Fiona McLean

Jean said...

That's really helpful, Fiona! I like what Gus said, I'll have to remember that - to make it easy for Steve to make decisions. Thank you for your description of how this works out in practice.

Alison said...

Thanks so much for all you share on your blog, Jean. It's packed full of great food for thought about becoming the women God wants us to be!

Your post made me think of that book by Shaunti Feldhahn "For Women Only" where she looks at the passage in Ephesians 5 on husbands and wives. Shaunti highlights the difference between a husband's need for respect, and a woman's need for love and how God's command to each of us is linked to those needs.

When I read that passage in Ephesians 5 now, I see very clearly that if God gives me opportunity to be a wife again, respecting my husband is an important part of submitting to him.

Alison said...

On a practical note, Shaunti suggests, similar to what you've written, that "a man deeply needs the woman in his life to respect his knowledge, opinions, and decisions - what I would call his judgement" (p29). She also suggests that supporting him publicly and avoiding the temptation of telling him how to do something is important, again not that this means not having any input, but ultimately letting him figure it out for himself.