Years of marriage can go by without the "S" word - that is, "submission"- coming up. But sooner or later conflict will push the "Who's the head of this home?" question to the forefront. Maybe she's had a great job offer that requires a cross-country move. Or he wants another child, but she feels overwhelmed with the two they already have. Maybe she's urging him to be a "spiritual leader", but neither knows just what that's supposed to entail.
Many Christian couples get married wondering whether submission really fits in a contemporary marriage. So Marriage Partnership went to some experts on the subject: Jill and Stuart Briscoe. Stuart is senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and Jill is a well-known writer, speaker and Bible teacher.
In a society in which equality between men and women is assumed, isn't the conventional understanding of headship and submission become outdated?
Jill: As long as conflicts arise in marriage, submission will always be relevant. The language may differ, but submission in some form will come up for every couple.
Stuart: If headship and submission are part of the timeless truth of Scripture - and they are- then it's part of our task to apply that truth to the changing contemporary scene. We can't manipulate the Bible to fit our culture, and we can't isolate the Bible without applying it to the human world around us. We've got to say, "The Bible commands it. What did it mean then, and how does it apply today?"
What did the headship mean in New Testament times?
Stuart: One of the misconceptions about biblical times is that women didn't work or use their gifts outside the home. Women in those days worked in the fields with their husbands or generated income in other ways. Think of the story of Ruth, and of the woman in Proverbs 31, and of New Testament references to people like Priscilla. People think a wife and mother at home and a husband as breadwinner is a biblical pattern. It's not. The Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century made it possible for many women to stay home while their husbands became the sole breadwinners- and, as a result, often the decision-makers.
The fifth chapter of Ephesians states that a husband should be the "head of the wife". What does that mean?
Stuart: Paul says that the husband is the head of his wife as "Christ is the head of the church" (5:23). In Ephesians 1, Christ is described as the head "over everything for the church," in other words for the benefit of the church. By that pattern, God has delegated some authority to a husband- making him responsible, accountable- but with a constraint that his leadership is exercised for the benefit of his wife.
A second mention of Christ as the head of the church, in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, describes the head as the "source" from which the whole body derives its sustenance (verses 15,16). By that pattern, while the husband is given some delegated authority to use for his wife's benefit, he also functions as a source of enrichment and encouragement so that she might grow and develop just as the church develops under the headship of Christ.
So rather than domination, a husband's headship revolves around what's best for his wife?
Stuart: If anything, Paul's instructions in Ephesians are designed to protect women from being dominated by men. The Greco-Roman culture that he was addressing was male-dominated. That culture, was convinced that law and order in society was possible only when it was maintained in the household by strong- even dictatorial- authoritative head over women and children and slaves, all of whom had no rights.
But Paul came along and told women and children and slaves that, according to the gospel, they were made in the image of God, that they were redeemed, that they were indwelt by the Holy Spirit and given gifts to be exercised in the church. Paul was the radical, not the male chauvinist.
Ephesians is also clear about submission, first stating that spouses should submit to one another. What does submission mean in the context of marriage?
Stuart: You can't take verse 22, "wives, submit yourselves to your husbands," without the one that precedes it, since in most of the best manuscripts the word submit is left out of verse 22. It's legitimately borrowed from verse 21, which describes submitting "to one another out of reverence for Christ."
So what's really going on is triple submission. Two Christians are submitting to the Lord- they have a submissive attitude to the lordship of Christ. Then these two people esteem each other, care for each other, are prepared to submit to each other.
The respect that the passage calls for in verse 33 asks a wife to remember that her husband is accountable to God for the authority delegated to him. She should remember that the point of his headship is to care for, protect, nurture and nourish her to reach her full potential. If that's what her husband is genuinely trying to do, she shouldn't get in the way of that. Some wives will. Some husbands want to encourage their wives to develop, to discover new things, but their wives want to hide out. It's disrespectful to for a wife to not respond to a husband's encouragement to grow in the Lord.
If submission is as natural and as beneficial as you describe, what's all the fuss about?
Jill: Christians often debate whether women should have decision-making powers. People use this passage of Scripture to say that they don't. But Paul was telling women to manage their households. He was saying, "Women can manage; women can make choices." After all, he was talking to a society where men made all the decisions. Women had never had choices. Submission had always been a given.
But isn't there still a danger in submission? Many women perceive their role as tailoring their dreams and gifts to fit around their husband's plans.
Jill: Some women do lose their identities in making their own dreams and ambitions ones that supplement and enhance what their husbands are doing. But the woman whose identity is strong in Christ will approach her marriage with an attitude of partnership: "How can we submit and help and encourage and challenge each other so we'll both become the people God made us to be?"
You're saying a woman is a Christian first and a wife second?
Jill: The point of being married is to serve the Lord with your lives, together. Christian couples pool their talents, gifts, personalities, training, abilities, everything to show that "two are better than one" when it comes to serving the Lord and making the devil sorry.
Something's wrong with putting all your energy into your marriage. All your energy is supposed to be going to service. A Marriage blossoms as both partners are outwardly focused. You develop a marriage without walls- where other people are invited in to be blessed by the energy and love of your teamwork.
What should a woman do if she finds what God wants for her to do with her life but her husband doesn't support that?
Jill: It's part of the husband's leadership role, for the benefit of his wife, to make sure she finds what God wants her to do. In our case, Stuart more or less told me, "Get going! Look around. What can you do right now?" At the time, he was gone nearly all the time, traveling and speaking, while I was home with the children. Because we were often separated, I couldn't take part in meetings where he was speaking. Instead, I got busy with evangelizing and started youth work and nursery schools. Eventually, he encouraged me in my writing and teaching, and I found a place for myself.
What about a woman whose husband takes a dictatorial view of headship? What's the godly way for her to respond?
Jill: Her opinion matters, so she should offer her insight, whether her husband likes her to do that or not. It may cause conflict, but conflict can be an opportunity to talk things out.
Stuart: It's commendable for women to desire to honor, respect and submit to their husbands. You get so much more of the opposite extreme. You mentioned a women being a Christian first and a wife second; when it comes to obedience to Christ, that is certainly the order that's called for.
I once knew a young woman whose husband was a student in professional school where she worked as a secretary to the dean. He was flunking his class, and the final exam papers were in a safe to which the wife had access. Her husband wanted her to copy those papers ahead of time so he could prepare for the test. Initially, she refused. But when he insisted, she thought she was supposed to "obey" her husband and she complied.
She was mistaken. There are cases where Christians must obey God and not other people.
That's where the first part of triple submission comes in—you're both submitted to Christ, first and foremost.
Stuart: The whole picture of two believers who are well accustomed to submitting to God is a great one for couples. It's impractical for all the submitting to be done by one person. Almost invariably there has to be some degree of division of responsibility.
My own parents were very conservative, strong believers. My father was strong in teaching headship. Yet my mother was the stronger personality. When my father was drafted during the war, she took over the family business and was extremely innovative and successful. She was capable, very gifted, and my father realized it.
What if a guy is married to a strong, gifted, initiative-taking woman, but he feels uncomfortable with that?
Stuart: In most cases, the guy who marries a strong, decisive woman is himself not as much of an initiative-taker. Opposites attract. But everybody has to make adjustments in their relationship, and that's ongoing. In some areas of life, and at certain times, one may take the lead while the other follows. Then the reverse happens.
When our children were small, Jill was clearly more skilled than I at handling their training. I didn't abdicate responsibility for their upbringing, but I honestly felt she knew more about what she was doing than I did, so it was not difficult to defer to her wisdom.
But when it came to finances, it was obvious that I had more expertise. That's not to say that simply because it was true for us, that finances are for men only, while childrearing is for women only. The opposite can be true.
What if a couple never discussed headship and submission, but they are working well as a team. Should they bother trying to work out what it means in all the particulars, or should they stay with what is working?
Stuart: When the subject comes up in premarital counseling, most couples don't spend a lot of time on it. They've got stars in their eyes.
Jill: But conflicts invariably arise, usually over misplaced expectations, some of which will be about roles. It is good to try and agree on what submission looks like and what a godly leader is. A husband who is leading in a godly way expects his wife to follow the Lord and exercise her gifts. And a submissive wife gets on with it.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.