Ask Julie: How far must we take the idea of submission?

Dear Julie:
How far must we take the idea of submission? I feel comfortable in that role having a loving Christian husband that values my opinion, but my close friend struggles. How do you submit to a man that has terrible judgment? Acts rashly in reaction to stress? Does not turn to God? He always states, "Do what you want, that's what you'll do anyway." He is a Christian, and feels she is the boss & never submits.

You are not alone in your questions about submission. Biblical submission is a controversial and often misrepresented idea. In light of space limitations in this newsletter, I have posted a more detailed study on the Biblical idea of submission on my blog today to help define what exactly we are being asked to do. You can read it by clicking here.

Bottom line: within a marriage, submission is a decision on the part of the wife to support her husband in his leadership of the family. It is an attitude of servanthood. It is voluntarily placing her husband's needs above her own, with the purpose of enabling him to fulfill his role as her husband. In other words, submission is just another opportunity to die to self, as we are called to do: "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body" (2 Corinthians 4:11).

Biblical leadership is not a dictatorship. Peter wrote to the spiritual leaders of the church, "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care...not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." (1 Peter 5:2-3) Paul encouraged husbands: "Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25). Leading is not about who gets to be "the boss." A true biblical leader is a servant.

In other words, each spouse should look to encourage and enable the other. They must work as a single unit, as one, to glorify God in their marriage.

Wives are told to submit in Ephesians 5:22. In looking at Ephesians as a whole, Paul wrote it to urge the Ephesians to unity within the body. False teachers were preaching legalistic rules and adding requirements to the grace of God for salvation. The result was a wide gap between those who were God's chosen people and those who had been grafted into the body. But God had a plan: Gentile and Jew were being built into a holy temple in the Lord. Both groups were an integral part of the body of Christ. In the latter part of his letter, Paul tells the Ephesians how to live worthy of their calling to unity. In chapter 5, he brings his instruction down to very practical examples: marriage, family relationships, and in the relationship between slave and master.

The idea of unity is integral to understanding these verses. Paul is looking for the husband and wife to operate in unison on behalf of the other. They compliment each other in their roles and with what they bring to the marriage. And as they work together, they are each demonstrating the unity that exists within the body of Christ. They are operating as one.

Marriage is a partnership that involves two people of equal value in God's eyes. When they are mutually interested in the welfare of the other, there is no fear in decision making, only trust. But this does not mean we cannot express concern when our spouse may be mistaken. In fact, we would be remiss if we didn't. Yet how that concern is expressed has a tremendous impact on how it is received.

From even the small amount you wrote about your friend's relationship with her husband, the details you did share concern me. It sounds as if there are communication issues that need to be addressed. Does she make sure her husband feels heard? Taking the time to ask questions and probe deeper into feelings will help her spouse express himself. When this is done in an attitude of mutual respect and love, he will know he has been understood. Then maybe other options can be put on the table in a non-threatening manner. Good communication is vital to a mutual decision. I suspect submission may not really be the overriding issue within their marriage.

We are called to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). There are no qualifications that limit this calling. Later in Ephesians, Paul urges slaves to be obedient to their masters. None of us would endorse slavery, yet here Paul encourages the slaves to serve with sincerity and good will. In other words, Paul is demonstrating that we can live out our love for God in any circumstances. Even with a difficult spouse, we can determine to submit.

Not knowing your friend's situation, I have only been able to address general principles that Scripture lays out in the husband/wife relationship. I hope it was helpful!

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About juliecoleman

Julie Coleman is an author, teacher, and speaker, focusing on Biblical study and women's ministries. Besides speaking at women's retreats and conferences, Julie has written two books - Unexpected Love and 15 Minutes a Day in Colossians.

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