I had just set the speed (not very fast) and the incline (not very high) on the treadmill at the Y and put my earbuds in to watch TV for the next twenty-four minutes (not very long), when the first segment of the news program I turned on to watch was introduced this way: “Sixty-nine percent of all divorces are initiated by women; that’s because women want to be in charge.”
This particular segment introduced the author of a new book that apparently was garnering some attention. I don’t recall the title of the book (my comprehension is severely impaired when I’m trying to keep pace with a moving treadmill!), and I only got a vague sense that the author seemed to be suggesting that it is destructive to a marriage when the wife tries to be in charge of her husband. However, the woman conducting the interview seemed so incensed by the author’s position that she barely let the author answer a question before she would interrupt with her own argumentative opinions. In fact, by the end of the interview, I was more aware of the position of the interviewer than that of the author.
While I never got to hear what the author actually meant by “women want to be in charge” and I don’t know if her divorce statistics are accurate, I do know that women wanting to control their husbands is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the origin of this desire goes all the way back to the beginning of time. One of the consequences of the Fall for women, it says in Genesis 3:16, is that their “desire shall be for [their] husband[s].” The form and context of the word desire actually have a negative connotation—an urge to manipulate, control, or have mastery over. So you see, every wife struggles with the desire to control her husband. I know I certainly do! Only by the transforming grace of God can we battle this sinful desire in our hearts.
All this got me thinking about how little our culture understands about the nobility and dignity of God’s commands to men and women in marriage. While it’s true that he calls wives to submit to their own husbands (not all men!) as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22), he also calls husbands to love their wives sacrificially as Christ loves the church. Tall orders, both! Notice that God never commands a husband to make his wife submit, nor the wife to make her husband love her sacrificially. These are commands each is to obey, as to the Lord.
What God commands, he enables; and what he commands he also blesses. The Bible doesn’t just say submit to your husband, period. Respect your husband, period. Love your husband and children, period.
Submitting to our husband makes us beautiful (1 Pet. 3:5).
Our submission displays the beauty of how the church submits to Christ (Eph. 5:22-24).
Respectful and pure conduct of a wife can win unbelieving husbands to the Lord (1 Pet. 3:1-2).
Loving our husband and children adorns the gospel (Tit. 2:4, 10).
Practicing the virtues of Proverbs 31 wins us praise (Pr. 31:28-31).
And given that marriage and motherhood entail a whole lot of serving, we will become great (Matt. 20:26).
When we strive and strain to control our husband, we will never get what we want. But Scripture promises that by God’s grace we can actually achieve greatness, win praise, and become beautiful through submission and sacrifice. Blessings, indeed!
Yet another way we can misapply submission is by assuming it squashes a woman’s gifts. But that is not God’s intent for submission. Remember, “each has received a gift” (1 Pet 4:10). This means every Christian: no exceptions and no reversals. We have each been given talents and spiritual gifts by God and we are called to use them, as it says in this verse “to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
Submission does not limit a woman’s gifts, but provides a safety zone in which they can flourish. A humble husband will not assume he is the best at everything or exercise his leadership in an arrogant or domineering way. A wise husband will encourage, nourish, and cultivate his wife’s gifts for the good of the family and the church. And a godly wife will welcome that kind of godly leadership.
In some cases, submission means that at we heed our husband’s encouragement to step out and use our gifts, even if we are hesitant or afraid. And at other times, submission means we follow our husband when he thinks we should pull back from serving because we are overextended to the detriment of our spiritual health or family life.
So a submissive wife isn’t on the sidelines—she’s a good steward of God’s varied grace. And a wise and loving husband takes seriously his responsibility to encourage his wife to use her gifts for the glory of God.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on how submission works on a day-to-day basis? For example, most of the women I know are more administrative than their husbands, and are more aware of the needs and deficiencies of their families and usually can make more informed decisions on a day to day basis. Even if a woman is bringing things up to her husband in a way that lets the husband make the ultimate decision, if she is the one initiating, then is she the one actually leading (but just in a way that “sounds” submissive)?
A. This is an important question because another way we can misapply submission is by assuming that it means we must wait for our husband to take all the initiative. But in order to understand what submission is (and is not), we must also understand what leadership is.
In an effort to flesh out a biblical definition of leadership, John Piper explains that “Mature masculinity does not have to initiate every action, but feels the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative.” He elaborates:
In a family the husband does not do all the thinking and planning. His leadership is to take responsibility in general to initiate and carry through the spiritual and moral planning for family life. I say “in general” because “in specifics” there will be many times and many areas of daily life where the wife will do all kinds of planning and initiating. But there is a general tone and pattern of initiative that should develop which is sustained by the husband.
For example, the leadership pattern would be less than Biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed for worship on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities, and talk over some neighborhood ministry possibilities, etc. A wife may initiate the discussion and planning of any one of these, but if she becomes the one who senses the general responsibility for this pattern of initiative while her husband is passive, something contrary to Biblical masculinity and femininity is in the offing.
Before we consider the “many times and many areas” where the wife will do the initiating we must first ask: Does my manner of relating to my husband encourage him to “provide the general pattern of initiative” or does my initiative taking undermine or usurp his leadership?
If you’re not sure, ask your husband. And if you’re really brave, take this question to a godly friend who will give you an honest answer.
Submission is not a static character quality. It is a powerful, dynamic force that can actually influence an unbelieving husband. Look at 1 Peter 5:1 “Likewise, 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” (emphasis mine)
And if submission can have such profound sway over an unbelieving husband, imagine the influence it can exert upon a Christian husband who may not be obeying God’s Word. Our submissive conduct actually provokes our husbands to be the leaders God intends for them to be.
For instance, have you ever had someone lean on you with his or her full body weight? What happened? Of course, your natural reaction was to exert the counter-pressure necessary to hold that person (and yourself) up. This is a picture of the effect of submission on our husbands. It places godly pressure on them. It allows them to feel the full weight of their responsibility. More often than not, they rise to the challenge.
As Elizabeth George eloquently expresses it: “Our submission to our husband—whether or not he is a Christian, whether or not he is obeying God—preaches a lovelier and more powerful sermon than our mouth every could!”
If there is one area in which it is both easy and hard for me to help my husband, it’s with our finances. I’ve always had an interest in all things related to math and accounting. I took accounting courses in college and most of the jobs I’ve had have been in bookkeeping. So it is a joy for me to serve Brian by sticking to a budget, frugally managing household resources, and keeping him informed so that he can intelligently oversee our finances. However, at the point where my helping and his leadership intersect, I am sometimes tempted to respond in an unhelpful way.
Several nights ago, Brian suggested allocating some of our resources to do something special for me. As grateful as I was for his thoughtfulness, it wasn’t my preference to use our money in this way. I already had other plans for these particular funds. I informed Brian about the money we currently had available, and explained that I thought it would be better to hold off on this expenditure for now.
Brian listened and considered, but after hearing the facts, he still thought that this was the best way to go. So I have an opportunity this week to help Brian—not just by serving him with the administration of the finances, but also by making it easy for him to lead in decisions about our finances.
I am learning that as helpful as I might be to my husband with my aptitude in financial matters, I can help Brian best by trusting God for his leadership. I must trust God that He is the one who has ordained for Brian to lead and me to follow. I must believe that He will work all decisions—even (and often especially) the ones I disagree with—for my good and His glory.
If I exercise faith toward God for Brian’s decisions, I will radiate peace and joy and make it easy for Brian to fulfill his God given role. I am still growing and learning, but I pray that God will continue to give me grace to be a truly helpful helper to my husband!
Recently, at a book club with some of Janelle’s friends, a young woman asked me: “What does submission look like in every day life?”
That’s a great question, because submission is an every day thing. It’s not an occasional quality, only useful when there’s a big decision to be made. And it isn’t passive either, something we mindlessly acquiesce to, if we must. Biblical submission is active, intelligent, and consistent.
John Piper describes a wife’s submission as “the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.” That’s a full-time job!
First, we are to honor and affirm our husband’s leadership (even if it leaves something to be desired). This requires heart work—cultivating humility and trust in God which sees our own shortcomings before our husband’s, and sees past our husband’s shortcomings to God’s faithfulness.
But we must not only honor his leadership, we must help carry it through. This means that in every day life we must contribute our suggestions, offer wisdom and insight, pray and encourage, as well as correct. When we serve our husband in humility, we strengthen his leadership.
And we must do this according to our gifts. God has graced us as women generally, and as our husband’s wife particularly, to help support our husband’s leadership. We must determine how we can best use our gifts in service of our marriage to the glory of God instead of for our own selfish agenda.
So, biblical submission in every day life is a tall order. But it is also exciting and fulfilling. Consider, how can you honor, affirm, and help carry through your husband’s leadership today?
“As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Eph. 5:22)
“Many are the discussions I’ve heard on this one, almost all of them directed to what it ‘can’t possibly mean,’ rather than to the plain word of the Lord. The statement is simple. Not easy for women like me, but simple, that is, I understand it only too well. (As Mark Twain said, ‘I have far more trouble with the things I do understand in the Bible than things I don’t understand.’)” Elisabeth Elliot
Why do we have trouble with the practice of submission? What is it about this command that can make us bristle? Even though we may accept, as Elisabeth Elliot does, the clarity of Scripture on the issue, we also can agree that submitting to our husbands is not always easy.
Certainly our culture presents us with a formidable challenge. It treats the submissive wife with a noxious mixture of scorn and pity. And it doesn’t help that many in the church are trying to explain away this command, thus cutting off a vital source of our encouragement.
But the real threat to submission comes from a place we may not initially expect. More on the source of our submission troubles tomorrow.
“A Christian woman does not put her hope in her husband, or in getting a husband. She does not put her hope in her looks. She puts her hope in the promises of God…She looks away from the troubles and miseries and obstacles of life that seem to make the future bleak, and she focuses her attention on the sovereign power and love of God who rules in heaven and does on earth whatever he pleases. She knows her Bible, and she knows her theology of the sovereignty of God, and she knows his promise that he will be with her and help her strengthen her no matter what. This is the deep, unshakeable root of Christian womanhood.”
What did I tell you? This article is worth reading, studying, and sharing with friends. Or, if you prefer, you can listen, or even watch Dr. Piper deliver this sermon.
Yesterday’s Q & A ended with the question: “What does it look like for [a wife] to follow when her husband is not following the Lord?” We thought the best way to answer this part of the question was to illustrate with a story from a woman in our church named Carol.
Carol personified the modern career woman. Divorced and single, she was the only woman among eight men in a high-level sales position for a major American corporation. Her responsibilities included oversight of a ten million dollar annual sales budget. She was competent, aggressive, and in charge. In her words: “The world was right in front of me.”
In her late thirties she met and fell in love with Howard, and after living together for a year, they decided to get married. By Carol’s estimation, she and Howard had a great relationship. Their marriage was “based on mutuality.” They both worked and made good salaries. They shared equally in household chores. Howard, who helped run his family’s business, was supportive of Carol’s career. He always encouraged her to go after the sale, the bonus, or the raise. “We’re working together,” he would cheer her on. “Go get ‘em Carol!”
But when Carol started attending our church with her neighbor Diane, she observed marriages that squarely collided with her worldly understanding. What’s more, she found herself curiously attracted to whatever it was that made these couples so different.
At our church, Carol saw husbands and wives who appeared happy to be there and happy to be there together. She perceived genuine love and affection in their marriages.
From the pulpit she heard biblical teaching on manhood and womanhood. She learned that men and women have equal value in the eyes of God, and she began to admire the divine wisdom of complementary roles in marriage.
As Carol visited one of the small groups and formed friendships with the women, she watched them willingly submit to their husbands’ leadership. She was struck by the peace and joy that this submission produced, and she was amazed by the way these women talked about their husbands—always with honor and respect. This attitude was in stark contrast to that of her other friends, who relished their men-bashing sessions.
Soon Carol found herself longing for a marriage like the ones she was observing. “I am a saleswoman,” she explained, “and I appreciated a product that works. When I went to church, I saw hundreds of women whose lives were a testament to the product of submission. I saw that the product worked, and I wanted that for my marriage.”
Carol eventually put her trust in Jesus Christ. But Carol’s husband, Howard, although happy for Carol, was more interested in his weekend recreation than in going to church. However, Carol grasped the truth of 1 Peter 3:1. She believed her godly conduct would affect Howard more than any words she might say.
Here’s the rest of Carol’s story in her words:
“When I gave my life to the Lord, it was a huge change. This was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. But I knew I could not force my experience on Howard. I couldn’t coerce him or make him change. This was so different from my sales background of taking control, manipulating, doing things in my own time and in my own way. I had to retrain myself and let the Lord work in Howard’s heart. I had to be very patient. And I knew change needed to start with me.
I saw God’s plan for us as wives. We are to be our husbands’ helpers. So I began to let Howard lead. I had to acquiesce and do things differently. I learned to have faith in God, and as I submitted to the Lord, submitting to my husband became much easier.
I began to say things like, ‘Howard, whatever you decide,’ or ‘You can make that decision.’ I stopped overreacting when we had challenges or putiing pressure on him to come up with the answers. I would just tell him that I would be praying about it, and I was fine with whatever happened.
While we used to share domestic responsibilities, I now took charge of the home. I tried to make it a warm haven for Howard. When he came home, instead of a list of chores waiting for him, he didn’t have anything to do. I found a lot of joy in taking care of the house and not burdening him with additional responsibilities.
There used to be bitterness and tension when Howard would go out fishing, golfing, or skiing. But now I began to freely release him. I knew I couldn’t just grit my teeth and say, ‘Have a good time’ and seethe as he went out the door. I really had to have joy in my heart that he was having a good time. And the more I released him to do the things he wanted to do, the more joy I had.
I also began loving on my husband. I would write him notes and leave them on the bathroom mirror or on the car windshield. I went overboard on loving on him! My non-Christian friends were like, ‘What is up with you, Carol, warming up his car in the morning and letting him go out all day on weekends?’
But I knew that I could turn to God whenever bitterness crept in. I also knew that I could call my friend Diane. ‘Carol,’ she would remind me, ‘trust in the Lord. Remember, be joyful.’ Diane would always refer me to Scripture. The women in my small group were also praying for me and setting an example for me to follow.
And every night I would pray. I wanted my husband to know the Lord. yes, there was anxiety. I was anxious fo the Lord to intervene. But I was learning to trust Him. I prayed and I prayed, and God heard.”
Carol’s submissive conduct began to prompt change in Howard’s life:
“Howard didn’t say anything, but he started changing. He saw a peace in me, and he became more relaxed. And because I was releasing him, he became more apt to stay home or come home early from playing golf.”
As Carol patiently waited, God softened Howard’s heart. he started visiting church with Carol, and almost four years later, he repented and believed. Carol now marvels at the transformation in Howard’s life:
“Today Howard loves and trusts in God, and he is very involved in the church. He is on the take-down crew, the sound crew, and leads worship for our small group. He is in a Bible study with one of the pastors. At home the change has also been dramatic. Howard has stepped up to the plate. He is the leader of our household. He makes decisions based on what is best for our family, and he is not afraid to do it. We truly serve a faithful God, and I am convinced that he hears our prayers. He will answer in His time.”
Adapted from Feminine Appeal, (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2004), 135-146.
Carol’s story is not only a testimony of God’s grace in changing her heart and life, but of the power and influence of her submission on her husband’s life. Through prayer and patience, Carol was a daily demonstration to Howard of the beauty of God’s plan in marriage. And God was faithful to change Howard’s heart so that he is now leading in the home for the glory of God.
I trust Carol’s story is an encouragement to every woman with an unbelieving husband to persevere in obedience to God. May you ultimately trust the faithfulness and goodness of God for your husband and your marriage.