Marriage Without Myths

A look at true biblical submission

"I took a long time to realize I'd developed some distorted perceptions about biblical submission," admits Brenda Waggoner, author of The Myth of the Submissive Christian Woman (Tyndale). Because the issue of submission is so emotionally charged and hotly debated, I interviewed Brenda, a licensed Christian counselor and prolific author, to address what the Bible says about submission in marriage. Brenda shares not only her personal experiences but also her hard-won insights.

What do Christian wives think when they hear the word submission?
Many cringe when they hear it. Submission triggers negative thoughts—abuse, subservient treatment, or an overemphasis on the wife's duty to submit that downplays the husband's duty to love.

Are these negatives what you mean by "myth"?
I'm referring to distorted perceptions prevalent in the evangelical subculture, such as: I must always put others first, even if doing so means compromising myself and my needs, or I must follow precise role descriptions for relationships, even if doing so means ignoring my instincts about safety and emotional well-being.

Why do these myths mislead so many women?
They contain elements of truth, but take Bible verses out of context or use them as stand-alone proofs, which ignore the whole of Scripture. The Bible's teaching on submission doesn't change—but a woman's perception of that teaching can become distorted.

How can wives best separate myth from biblical truth?
Your experiences, role models, pastor and other authority figures, and emotional makeup can color your perception of submission. So prayerfully inquire about what's going on in your heart, since this is God's primary concern. Is self-condemnation, self-rejection, self-destructive thinking or behavior present? God disciplines his children, but he doesn't devalue or demean us.

What false perceptions of submission did you have?
I became a Christian five years into my first marriage. As I studied the Bible and listened to sermons—especially passages about husband/wife relationships—I drastically changed my behavior. Previously, when my husband and I disagreed, we'd raise our voices; now I tried turning away my husband's wrath with a gentle answer. I defined submission as doing what my husband said. I thought by pleasing him, I was pleasing God.

I didn't want to admit I was angry with my husband, so I pushed my feelings down and became depressed. Then, my husband became verbally and emotionally abusive. Finally, he left home and filed for divorce. I felt isolated from God; I couldn't understand how I'd failed so miserably as a wife and a Christian, when I'd tried so hard to obey the Bible.

But doesn't Ephesians 5 call wives to submit to their husbands?
The guidelines in Ephesians 5:22-24 shouldn't be taught to the exclusion of many other examples throughout the Bible. Biblical submission is a state of heart yielded to God; it's a decision to honor God above all else. Christ is the perfect example of biblical submission; he always put his Father's will first. Jesus never insisted on dominance or control, although, if anyone had that right, he did. Christian women should strive to be like Christ, submitting to God first and then to their husband, putting neither people nor idols before God.

When was your "aha moment" about this topic?
During my early years of marriage to my second husband, Frank. I tried to submit to him as my spiritual head. I coaxed Frank to "lead me" spiritually, to initiate daily prayer and Bible reading, but I ended up frustrated, critical, and controlling, because his leadership style is different from how I thought it should be. I realized I was trying to fit us into prescribed biblical "role models" and ignoring our God-given gifts and strengths. I needed to accept and respect the type of man Frank is. I also needed to express my opinions, especially when they differed from his. Doing so opened up a whole new way of relating for us; we got to know each other on a much deeper level.

What's a husband's role in submission?
A Christian husband should first submit to Christ, just as his wife should (Ephesians 5:25-30). Loving his wife as Christ loves the church means valuing her opinions, as well as encouraging her to identify, develop, and share her strengths and spiritual gifts in the marriage and with others.

I'll never forget how Frank cherished me in an important issue in our marriage. When we married, he was building a house in the country. We agreed that when my sons finished high school, he and I would move there to continue the work. Although I savored the sunsets, collected abandoned bird nests, and often had friends out for dinner around a campfire, I always missed the cozy feel of being nestled among neighbors. After a nine-year trial of country living, Frank suggested we sell the house and move to a nearby town, where we've now lived for eight years. Our compromises to ensure each other's happiness model mutual, biblical submission—not insisting on dominance or control, but following God's will together.

What if a husband still embraces submission myths?
Set boundaries. Speak clearly, directly, and respectfully to your husband. For example, Christian women sometimes feel guilty or selfish if they're uncomfortable submitting to sex acts their husband wants them to do. Sometimes they force themselves to do the acts and later feel used, ashamed, or "dirty." In such situations, you need to have the courage and integrity to tell your husband the truth. Say something like, "I'm uncomfortable doing that because it seems wrong to me. I need to stay within the limits of lovemaking that are okay for both of us."

And if submission becomes an excuse for abuse?
if your husband's yelling, name-calling, and acting out of control, say, "I'm not going to stay here while you're acting like this. I'm taking the children for a drive, and we'll be back in two hours. I hope you'll have gained self-control by then."

If your husband hits your or your children in rage, you should immediately seek shelter in the home of a trustworthy, supportive friend or relative, and get professional help. A husband may angrily say to his wife, "Submitting to me is your duty!" implying he has license from God to be cruel and forceful. But in such situations, a husband's heart motivation is to bolster his fragile ego, not to honor God. True biblical submission is always God honoring. You're not disrespecting your husband or disobeying God by leaving an abusive situation; you're putting God's priorities first: your safety, your children's safety, and your husband's self-control.

How can women hesitant to speak out develop this strong yet submissive attitude?
Sometimes women fear being "strong" because that sounds like angry women's libbers. But Leviticus 19:18 implies self-care and self-respect, not self-abasement. Observe how Jesus moved among people while on earth. He set boundaries and didn't always do what people asked of him. His goal was always to obey and serve his Father. This should be your goal too.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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