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Ask Salt&Light: What does it mean to submit to my husband?

A/Prof Lim Poh Lian // October 27, 2018, 11:59 pm

ask marriage wife submission

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

Dear Salt&Light,

I am a woman who has always found it hard to accept the wife’s role in marriage as set out in the Bible. Why can’t the woman lead in the relationship? Why is it so hard to submit? By submitting, aren’t we just boosting men’s egos?

Josephine W, 40, project manager 

It is helpful to understand that Paul’s call for wives to submit themselves to their husbands is made within the context of the overall calling for ALL Christians to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

So, his teaching on wives and husbands is followed by teaching about children and parents, slaves and masters (Ephesians 6), with practical examples of what mutual submission looks like for believers in those paired roles.

Paul’s call for wives to submit is made within the context of the overall calling for ALL Christians to submit to one another.

If we look at the reality of human society, we are organised into different, asymmetrical roles that are not always interchangeable.

Unity despite diversity glorifies God, as is seen clearly in the body of Christ. However, there is always a risk that people in different roles feel less valued or envious because their part is less prominent (1 Corinthians 12:15-26).

But if we have chosen to follow Jesus, the way we relate to each other should be radically different, based on Christ’s mindset (Philippians 2: 3-5) and His command to love each other as He loved us (John 15:12). 

What does that look like for any believer? It is not acting out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, it is valuing others above yourself, not looking only to your own interests but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Love is valuing others above yourself, not looking only to your own interests but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

It is doing everything without grumbling or arguing (Philippians 2:14), surely a tall order in any workplace, church or marriage.

Why is it so hard to submit? Because we are human. We like getting our own way, and it goes against the grain to give in, whether arguing over driving directions or how to spend money.

However, I would like to be clear about what submission within a marriage is not.

Biblical submission in marriage does not mean accepting physical, verbal or sexual abuse from your spouse. God intends marriage to demonstrate how Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25), so abuse distorts and dishonours God’s intention.

Submission in marriage does not mean the husband is always right, either.

God gave us brains, and He asks us to love Him with all our minds, as well as hearts. There are right and wrong ways to argue. We may argue out of a love of the truth, or we may argue out of sheer stubbornness and pride, and I think we know the difference in our own hearts.

God intends marriage to demonstrate how Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her.

Why can’t the wife lead the relationship? I do think the wife can lead in many areas of marriage, especially if she has a natural strength in those areas, but it needs to come about by mutual agreement. 

In our marriage, I am the partner with a better head for numbers, so I’ve ended up with the role of Minister of Finance – I balance our bank and credit card statements, file our taxes and manage our investments.

I consult my husband in all our financial decisions, and he similarly checks in with me, even in areas where he takes the lead.

A marriage consists of two people, both flawed. There will be times when the decision is unanimous – that’s easy. But there will be times when the decision is deadlocked – what then?

As Christians, we always should consult the third person in the marriage, God. But if no definite answer is forthcoming and a decision has to be made, God has designated the husband to have the role of tie-breaker. That’s what it means for the husband to have headship in the marriage. It is a responsibility given by God, that the husband should not shirk and the wife should not usurp.

The husband’s headship in the marriage is a responsibility given by God, that the husband should not shirk and the wife should not usurp.

How should a wife respect her husband? How do we respect each other?

First, it is to see each other as infinitely worthy of love and sacrifice because of Christ.

It is to put away the false metrics of worldliness, which values people by their wealth, achievements or attractiveness.

My husband has been the lead parent since 2004 and earns zero salary, but we see both our roles as worthwhile and my salary as a stewardship. 

Second, respect is trusting each other’s best intentions and not beating each other up over the outcomes, especially when they don’t turn out the way we want.

Vong is much better about this but I find this hard. I’m still learning not to say stuff like: “If only we had done that other thing …” 

Submission taken up willingly out of love changes the whole experience. Submission received, knowing that we are accountable to God, is humbling and sobering. The role of the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church, and to give himself for her. That’s sounds more like an incredibly generous emptying of self, rather than an ego trip.

Respect is trusting each other’s best intentions and not beating each other up over the outcomes when they don’t turn out the way we want.

My analogy for submission in marriage is that of dancing.

When I was younger and dancing with an inept partner, in my headstrong way, I would try to lead. Invariably, this led to bruised toes and feelings. But when I learnt to follow my partner’s leading, I realised there actually is a natural ebb and flow to dance, and dancing became a pleasure.

God created us for joy.

I find it intriguing that in heaven, marriage will no longer exist (Luke 20:35, Mark 12:25).

Perhaps when we have learnt mutual submission in the body of Christ, marriage will no longer be needed.

But until then, we have been given this gift, so that we may learn how to entrust ourselves to another person within a safe and loving relationship, until we can join that great dance intended by God.

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About the author

A/Prof Lim Poh Lian

A/Prof Lim Poh Lian is an infectious disease physician at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. She and her husband, Vong Hin, have four children. They have been married for 20 years and she is still learning the joys and travails of mutual submission as a wife and mother.