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How about a nice easy blog topic, eh?
I mean – submission in marriage…that’s never going to be contentious, right?
It’s with some hesitation, but also some excitement, that I write this post. Because – actually – the more I read Scripture on this issue, the more I’m convinced that the Bible has some truly wonderful, counter-cultural things to say about marriage.
And these things WORK! They really do. I’ve been married nearly 20 years, and can vouch for the Bible’s wisdom on all things marriage. God’s plan for husbands and wives is not always easy, but it does have the potential to deepen and strengthen every married partnership, bringing great joy not only to the couple but to their family, friends and wider community.
So hold tight, as we take a deep-dive into whether or not you should be submitting to your husband when you don’t agree.
What is submission anyway?
The dictionary defines it as:
- The action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person
- The action of presenting a proposal, application or other document for consideration or judgement.
Applying these definitions to marriage, we see that submission is two-fold:
- The action of accepting or yielding to a spouse’s will or authority
- The action of presenting an idea or suggestion to our spouse for them to consider (“submitting” an idea – rather than going straight ahead and doing it with no consideration for our spouse)
Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding if you should be submitting to your husband when you don’t agree:
1. Is it a Biblical issue?
For example, is your husband suggesting that you lie about your finances, have an ‘open’ marriage where you engage with other sexual partners, or prioritise other activities over your weekly church meeting?
We know these things are wrong in the eyes of the Lord, because the Bible is very clear on them. For example, Ephesians 4:28 emphasises the importance of honest work over stealing, Hebrews 13:4 tells us to be faithful to our marriage partner and Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of the importance of meeting with our church families.
Ephesians 5:21 says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ“. In other words, our first priority – the one to whom we submit over all – is Jesus. Our submission to our spouse comes out of our submission to Christ.
So if you disagree with your husband because he’s suggesting something which is actively against the Bible’s teaching (assuming he’s a Christian for now – I’ll talk about if he’s not later on), then you have grounds for not submitting, because to do so would be to switch your loyalty from Jesus to your husband. Jesus comes first. Submitting to Jesus, the sinless Son of God, comes above submitting to your husband, a sinful human being who sometimes gets things wrong.
I love the way Carolyn Lacey phrases it, when commenting on Queen Vashti’s refusal to obey King Xerxes’ ungodly request in Esther 1:
“God’s command for a wife to submit to her husband is not without limits; she submits to him ‘as…to the Lord’. He hasn’t given a husband the right to fulfil any sinful or self-serving desire he might have through the unthinking obedience of his wife. He doesn’t require a woman to lose the dignity she has as a human being made in the image of God by allowing her godly principles to be trampled underfoot by an ungodly husband. The authority that a man has is given to him by God. So when he disobeys or dishonours the Lord with that authority, there is a higher authority to which a woman must submit. She must obey and honour Jesus.” (Esther: Silent but Sovereign, Carolyn Lacey, 10Publishing, 2015)
Most disagreements we face in marriage, however, will not have such a black and white yes-or-no type answer, so here we ask ourselves the next question:
2. Is he showing sacrificial love for you?
For example, is your husband suggesting sexual behaviours that you don’t feel comfortable with, putting pressure on you to go to work or stay home with the kids when you don’t want to, or leaving you to do the bulk of the housework?
These things are not Biblical issues in the sense of one way is right and another is wrong. As long as sex is happening within marriage, faithfully and consensually, God does not give specific advice in the Bible about which sexual behaviours are OK and which are not. (You may find it helpful to check out my post Why and How should Exhausted Parents make time for Sex.)
You’ll also not find specific directives to women to either stay at home with the kids or go out to work, as there are positive examples of both in Scripture. And when it comes to who does the housework – again, no guidelines. These things are to be worked out within couples.
But in another sense, these issues are Biblical, because the way we work them out between ourselves has the potential to either glorify God or sin against Him.
Colossians 3:18-19 says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.”
It should be perfectly possible for wives to submit to their husbands when their husbands are obeying this command: when they are exhibiting gentleness, kindness and faithfulness towards their wife and family.
The problem is, we live in a fallen world where this isn’t always the case.
Similarly, Ephesians 5:22 commands wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. Then Ephesians 5:25 commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
So we get this really interesting, striking dynamic whereby wives are supposed to submit to their husbands like they would do to God – fully, without holding anything back – and husbands are supposed to love their wives like Christ loved the church – fully, without holding anything back.
If you didn’t already notice, Christ showed his love for the church by dying for her! That’s pretty powerful, and a pretty challenging directive to husbands to be equally selfless and humble when it comes to loving their wives.
But it’s not just about being prepared to die for the woman he’s married to – most husbands will never face that test. It’s about the daily test of how he treats his wife.
Christ’s attitude towards us is always loving, sacrificial and gentle. “I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20). He never barges into our lives unannounced, or forces us to do things we don’t feel comfortable with. Neither should husbands! A man who insists that his wife should submit to him even if she feels uncomfortable with his decision does not reflect how Christ loves the church.
So if the issue on which you disagree is something which disregards your feelings or situation, then it is not being suggested in a godly, Biblical, loving way. Should you be submitting to your husband when you don’t agree on an issue which makes you feel cheap, frustrated or exhausted? I think more prayer and discussion is needed.
3. Has he come to this point of view prayerfully? Have you?
For example, has he come to you saying, “I’ve been praying about my job and I think God might be saying I need to switch careers…” or is it more like “I’ve seen a new job and want to go for it”?
And how have you arrived at your point of view? Be honest – is this something you’ve been praying about, or has it caught you on the hoof?
An issue such as a job or location change is not a right/wrong issue as far as the Bible is concerned, but it’s very much something that God can and does guide us about. So what do we do when we both feel drawn in different directions?
We take it to God in prayer. Together. And we don’t act until we reach agreement.
1 Peter 3:1 commands wives to submit to their husbands, but follows it in verse 7 by saying: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the [physically] weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” (emphasis added)
Again, the command for women to submit comes with a balancing command for husbands – in this case, to ‘be considerate’ and ‘respect’ the differences in physical strength, as well as the fact that wives and husbands are co-heirs of eternal life with Jesus. There is nothing unequal about both men and women sharing this inheritance!
And did you notice the reason Peter gives for husbands to do these things? ‘So that nothing will hinder your prayers’.
Isn’t that amazing?? Peter is saying that if husbands aren’t considerate and respectful of their wives, it will actually build a wedge between them and God: the direct line of communication we can enjoy with God through Jesus will be damaged.
We have a kind of chicken-and-egg situation here. If your husband isn’t praying about the issue in question, then he’s more likely to come to a conclusion which clashes with yours (assuming you have been praying). And yet if he doesn’t consider your viewpoint, he will actually find himself hindered in prayer!
If your husband has prayed about the issue in question, if he has submitted it to God, and is now sharing with you what he feels God is saying, then – even if you don’t agree – you need to take him seriously enough to be willing to now chat and pray about it together.
4. Is it an issue about which you’ve heard no specific guidance?
For example, does he have a different approach to disciplining your children than you? Has he got different ideas for how to use your home, or where to offer your tithe, or how involved the two of you should be in church ministry?
I’m not saying God would never speak into these things, so we must always be willing to pray about them and seek His guidance. But sometimes it feels like God is silent on domestic matters – and it’s not because He’s abandoned us, but because He wants us to work towards a conclusion together, as a couple, to strengthen our marriage.
Depending on the issue in question, there are several possible actions:
- Pray together about the issue – however small, if the disagreement is coming between you and you’ve ended up in limbo-land, then it’s definitely worth praying about. If you keep praying about the situation, as well as other concerns and joys in your life together, God will unite your hearts and minds in mutual submission to Jesus Christ.
- Don’t act until you’re in agreement – does a decision have to be made, or can it be delayed? Depending on the issue, this could be difficult. But if a wife’s job is to submit to her husband as to Christ, and a husband’s job is to love his wife with the sacrificial, selfless love Christ has for the church, then there are absolutely no grounds for pushing through a decision without your spouse’s agreement, whether you’re the husband or the wife.
- Take the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach until you agree – i.e. do as much as you can both agree on, then leave the rest while you work out the best course of action. For example, if you’re arguing about the best way to extend your home, maybe you can make some small-level changes on which you both agree, whilst working out how you both want the eventual space to feel.
- Accept that some things (e.g. discipline styles) are always going to be a little different between the two of you, and that you don’t have to agree 100% in order for your marriage to work. Relax and allow your husband to care for the kids in the way he feels most comfortable (as long he’s not abusing or neglecting them) so that you can have some independence away from the family when you need.
As long as you’re satisfied that your husband’s idea isn’t going against what the Bible says, then don’t automatically assume he’s got something else wrong. None of us are perfect, and we might have quite fixed ideas in our head about whatever the issue is, but by giving your husband time to explain what he’s thinking and why, you may find your own views altering. This can be a really enriching thing, and is one of the best things about marriage: the coming together of two households to form one.
The only time my husband and I ever disagreed about something major in our marriage was when we sold our first home. My husband thought we shouldn’t buy a new home (we were happily renting at the time, and knew we would later be housed in church accommodation), and that we should give away all our proceeds from the house sale. I would have happily bought a new home to rent out, and didn’t think it was sensible or practical to give all our money away.
We couldn’t agree, so we didn’t act – or, rather, we chose the lowest common denominator: the action on which we could both agree.
We didn’t buy a home – to do so would have been against my husband’s opinion – but neither did we give all our money away – to do so would have been against my opinion. We did not prioritise one person’s view over the other. Out of respect towards Al, I didn’t force my house-buying agenda on him, and out of respect for me, he didn’t secretly give all our money away without telling me.
Well, it turned out that it was a good idea not to immediately reinvest the money. Our savings became a helpful pot when I gave up work to care for our children. Having that money available made living on one salary possible. We also saved on the hassle of owning a rental property, plus all the extra fees and maintenance.
For the same reason, it was a good idea not to give all our money away! Having some savings available when Al’s salary didn’t cover our expenses was incredibly reassuring. But God also enabled us to give generously from within that, so part of Al’s vision was realised. And I do believe that God may still enable us to buy a house one day, thus realising my vision, even if my timeline was a decade or two out!
I know that our marriage and family life were blessed by our disagreement – but only because neither of us rail-roaded the other into something they didn’t agree with. We both respected the other’s opinion, acted as far as we were both in agreement, and left the rest to God. If we’d pushed forward our individual agendas, our marriage would have been poorer for it.
Allowing God to work through our disagreements, rather than forcing a decision earlier than it needs to be made, can be wonderfully enriching for our marriages.
Remember Ephesians 5:21?
There should be mutual submission between a husband and a wife – AND this should be fuelled by a reverence for Christ. Not fear, or manipulation, or control, or blackmail. A healthy reverence for Christ will result in a healthy submission between husband and wife, not a domination of one over the other.
5. Where is YOUR heart on this?
If your area of agreement is not a Biblical issue, not something which is making you feel disregarded, and you’ve prayed together and feel no particular guidance – yet are still being pulled in different directions, then consider this: could it be that your heart needs to change?
Remember Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18 both tell us to submit to our husbands. I think I’ve already explained how this shouldn’t make us feel downtrodden or ill-treated.
But, likewise, a wife must be prepared to give her all to her husband, laying her plans and desires before him out of love for him, and assuming that he will act in her best interests (unless he gives her reason to believe otherwise). We should love our husbands more than our career ambitions, our idea of homemaking, our parenting philosophy, or anything else we hold dear.
It’s a challenge because I think we women can often (unknowingly) become very attached to issues like: how our parents raised us, what family life should look like, how work/kids should balance out, how we should spend our weekends, and so on. And if we’re married to men who aren’t as bothered by these things, then there is no need to submit. So we don’t. We carry on with our own ideas because 90% of the time our husbands really aren’t fussed which path we choose.
And then along comes the 10% where he does mind, and we’re unwilling to listen because we’re so used to getting our own way.
Believe me, I’ve known far too many husbands who give in to their wives’ demands, in order for an ‘easy life’. Jokes are made about how much wives nag, how men are better off just keeping quiet, doing what they’re told and so on.
It can be funny as part of a stand-up routine. But not so funny if it’s actually the reality of how you’re living. And it’s definitely not the behaviour of those who call themselves Christ-followers.
This idea of a man letting his wife rule his household just for an ‘easy life’ is not something which should characterise Christian marriages. Wives, we must empower our husbands to be strong leaders in our homes, working with us as we parent our children, championing each other as we pursue careers, supporting each other as we serve in our church and community.
And husbands, you need to take an active role in marriage and family life, speaking up where you feel God is leading you, listening to and caring for your wife’s feelings on the matter, and empowering her to seek from God on behalf of the family too.
It’s so easy, in the 21st century, to read these challenging words from the Bible and take them from the view of men needing to be kinder towards women.
But I believe these words are just as relevant to women now as they were 2000 years ago. I believe the idea of ‘submission’, far from being a negative, victimised position is actually a pretty counter-cultural, revolutionary philosophy when matched with the kind of self-sacrificial love husbands are being called to. It would save an awful lot of marriages if we took it seriously.
But my husband’s not a Christian!
I’ve spoken a lot about prayer and taking God’s word seriously. But what about when your husband is coming from a different perspective? Should you submit to a man who’s not submitting to God? If so, how? And if not, will this be the end of your marriage?
I love that God has this situation covered in the Bible! In 1 Peter 3:1-2, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands so that “if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words… when they see the purity and reverence of your lives”.
Submitting to your husband when he’s not a believer is an amazing witness to him of the reverence you have for the Lord. It may even ‘win him over’ to believe for himself!
Of course if your husband is not a believer, there may be more occasions when you disagree with the decisions he’s making. Perhaps he wants to spend time together as a family on Sunday instead of waving you off to church. Maybe he wants to sign your kids up to sports teams instead of youth group. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to give as much money away as you do.
What does ‘submitting’ look like in this situation?
- Is it an issue of obedience/disobedience to God’s word? Peter goes on to say “…a gentle and quiet spirit… is of great worth in God’s sight.” This is the opposite of an argumentative, restless spirit. It doesn’t mean you never speak up when something is wrong, but it means you don’t pick a fight for the sake of it, or hold tight onto your own agenda regardless of your spouse’s views. If the issue isn’t directly causing you to sin, is it really that important? Perhaps, for the sake of an unbelieving husband, it might be right to occasionally miss church or small group to spend time together. Perhaps you’ll need to compromise on your tithe. Remember we live under God’s grace, not the law!
- You won’t always make ‘perfect’ decisions – but God can redeem them. Peter uses Sarah and Abraham as an example of wifely submission. Both of these individuals were deeply flawed characters, and made several terrible decisions: think of Abraham introducing Sarah as his sister (twice), or how the pair of them used Hagar to hurry up God’s promise of a son. They both submitted to each other’s terrible ideas – and, by default, were complicit in the sin these ideas turned into. Yet Peter still commends Sarah for obeying Abraham. Remember, all is not lost on a bad decision! God can turn the worst situation around for good.
- Be confident to hear from the Lord on behalf of you and your unbelieving husband. ‘Do not give way to fear’, Peter writes. Abraham had a pretty radical calling from God, and it would have been easy for Sarah to say ‘no’ – to argue with her husband that his ideas were crazy and that there was no way she was going to leave the life she knew. But she didn’t ‘give way to fear’: she accepted, submitted and went with him. If you’re a solo believing spouse, don’t feel that you can never speak up or act upon God’s guidance for your marriage: move in faith – don’t be paralysed by fear.
If you’re in this situation, you might also find When your Partner doesn’t share your Faith a helpful read.
Should you be submitting to your husband when you don’t agree?
Some women live under the fear of an abusive or controlling husband. Those who are trying to live as the Bible said may be confused as to whether or not they should submit to their husband’s physical abuse, or fraudulent financial adventures. If you’re being required to do something which does not sit right with the Bible, the answer is always no.
But for those of us in healthy marriages, disagreeing with our husbands should be an opportunity to talk, listen, pray and ultimately draw closer to one another under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
I hope this has given you food for thought on this tricky issue. I hope that the series of questions above is helpful for couples who feel like they’ve reached stalemate. But above all I hope that God is glorified through us as we seek to submit to Him in our marriages.
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