Even if you’re not religious, you’ve probably heard about the verse in the Bible that says wives should submit to their husbands. If you haven’t, here it is from the apostle Paul himself: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)
Not controversial at all, right?
There’s a long history of men abusing this scripture to suppress and control women and even force them to obey. This is why it’s tempting to just ignore the verse and say it was meant for a different time in history, or none at all. But I’m a Bible-believing girl and a wife too so I’m going to tell you why we should care about it and why it’s still applicable.
Here are a few times I’ve submitted in my own marriage as a proud submissive wife:
1. I moved to New York.
As a 20-something I was happy with my life in Birmingham, Alabama. I had almost perfected my southern accent and I had the charm and pearls to match. Visions of white picket fences played in my head but when I fell in love with my now-husband, he asked me to move to New York to join his already-established life. So I traded my front porch for a high-rise apartment.
He claimed his request was for both our good and said he knew I would fall in love with New York and the urban lifestyle. In the end, he was right but at the time it was a clear concession on my part.
2. I didn’t get a tattoo.
It’s not like I was going for a stamp on my lower back or barbed wire around my arm or anything; I just wanted a meaningful little something on my wrist. When I told my husband, he acted like I said I was planning a full-body dragon tat. He begged me not to get one. It was nothing against tattoos, or me, but rather the combination of the two things that turned him off.
I ruined the look of tattoos and tattoos ruined my look. He claimed his strong stance was protecting our mutual attraction, not controlling my appearance. Regardless, I remain un-inked and I did it for him.
3. I only spend what he gives me.
My husband happens to be a generous guy and gives me a lot when he has a lot so this isn’t as hard as it could be, but the submission lies more in the fact that I let his career as the “breadwinner” determine our finances.
I stay home with my kids, which was a mutual decision. This makes a lot of women squirm but I’m not making much of an income and I respect the boundaries of his. No credit cards, no shopping sprees, and no complaints about not having more.
4. I didn’t have a home birth.
After getting into drug-free childbirth, I hired myself a doula and started boycotting the local hospitals that were keeping women from owning their birth experiences.
OK, I didn’t picket but that’s how strongly I felt on the matter. I wanted to give birth at home but my husband wanted nothing to do with birthing in our bed and was deathly afraid of attempting to do so without a medical staff on hand. He also thought birthing pools were incredibly creepy.
Though I remain a natural birth enthusiast (and an avid Ina May Gaskin fan) and my husband is still a “trust the system” kind of guy, I agreed to a hospital birth with a few caveats (a 3-page birth plan, midwives only, and my own pajamas). I had to trust that he was trying to keep me safe.
5. I circumcised our sons.
We had epic arguments over whether our boys would be “hooded” or not. And I based my final decision solely on the fact that my husband had a penis and I didn’t because I still stand by my research and opinion 100 percent.
He wanted me to trust that he was protecting our boys for an easier understanding of their bodies and a smoother transition into adulthood, rather than just his personal preference for them to look like him. My husband is one lucky man that their circumcisions didn’t get botched.
6. I don’t smoke pot.
I didn’t give up smoking pot, I gave up my desire to start. It might not seem like a big deal, as many people can agree it’s a habit better not started but I felt like his opinion on my substance use was a big usurping of my personal freedom.
Given that I’m the type of person who needs an IV of coffee every morning and basically loves a lot of anything good (including that delicious laughing gas at the dentist), there’s a chance, a slight chance, that he’s right: people with addictive personalities probably shouldn’t dance with MaryJane.
7. I clean the house.
When we fell in love, me at 22 and him at 28, I was living out of one clean laundry basket and one dirty basket, thriving just fine while he was busy perfecting the hanging pant pleat. I now keep our mutual space (no promises on my closet!) much tidier and more organized than I would if I lived alone.
This is a daily sacrifice, but I do it because I know how much it alters the way he feels. In essence, I slightly cater to his OCD because messes bother him a lot more than neatness bothers me.
By the way, it should probably be said that there are plenty of times that my husband has taken my advice, opinion and made many decisions that were my preference; they just don’t get the same buzz. In the cases above, he exercised a tie-breaking authority because it was necessitated by an impasse.
But notice: in all these examples I mention trusting the right intentions of my husband. Because immediately after that submission verse, the Bible gives the husband a directive too: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)
If you trust the Bible, you have to believe that marital love isn’t like the love we see in the movies, the kind that is only good while you’re happy. You have to believe that marital love is sacrificial love to the extreme. Selflessness is at the heart of this kind of love. It’s been called the greatest human virtue and marriage is the greatest opportunity to learn it.
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Submission is the unique method the Bible gives for women to learn it, respecting their men without trying to control them, just as sacrificial love is the unique method the Bible gives for men, putting their women’s needs above their own.
Marriage doesn’t work tit for tat, nor ‘you do this for me and I’ll do that for you.’ Compromise is for business deals, not matrimony. It may solve the momentary conflict but 50-50 isn’t enough if you want a truly successful relationship void of scorecards, resentment, and grudges.
The kind of marriage that not only makes it ‘til death do you part but also makes it a union (rather than two lonely individuals living under the same roof) requires 100%-100%. Both parties are all in and fully invested in the good of the other. When both are doing this well, both are satisfied and the relationship moves forward.
The difficulty comes in those days, weeks, maybe years when that 100 percent plays out more like 70-30, or 90-10. That’s where the rub is, that’s when marriage is commitment and trust. It’s a commitment to the person who’s struggling and it’s faith that it’s worth the work until that scale slides back to even.
We think power is in self-assertion, digging our heels in and making a stand. But when you trust and love the person you’re with, sometimes the greatest strength is found in selflessness, sacrifice, and yes, even submission.
Brit Tashjian writes on the collisions of Christ & culture and tradition & progress.