A Personal Reflection on Submission in Marriage

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. A secret in my marriage that I have never discussed with my husband. Nor has my husband discussed it with me. Are you ready? Andrew and I have completely different ways of hanging towels in a bathroom. I didn’t say it was an exciting secret. It’s an unspoken, perhaps unnoticed by him, little difference that each of us tries to ‘correct’ when we hang the towels back up. I hang them my way, and after his shower, he hangs them his way. I then notice them hanging, what seems to me, ‘incorrectly’, and I re-hang them ‘correctly’. 

Am I being an unsubmissive wife?

Some would say yes, some would say no. I guess most of you would say, ‘it really doesn’t matter’.  But what if I honestly thought that my way was the only and truly correct way to hang those towels? And what if Andrew thought his way was the only and truly correct way to hang those towels? What if either of us was genuinely becoming upset, agitated and angry about the other person’s hanging style? What then? What if Andrew said to me specifically, “there is only one correct way to hang towels and it is my way and you have to hang the towels my way.” What then? 

Andrew was recently asked a question about submission in marriage, and what it means, how to explain it to friends who aren’t Christians, and what it actually looks like in marriage on a day-to-day basis. Andrew asked me my opinion and thoughts on the topic, and we had an interesting discussion about it.  Later during a question time online, I thought he answered well. One of Andrew’s greatest gifts is his ability to think well ‘on his feet’, in the moment.  I am not gifted in that way at all. My brain is filled with too many thoughts, half of them inanely functional and boring, some completely imaginative, and most them a little jumbled, especially the later it is at night. Give me a day to think about a topic, and I’ll come up with some more thought out answers. 

So now, 24 hours after the questions, I continue to completely agree with Andrew’s original answer, but I have something to add to it as well. (Sorry if you missed the discussion and original answer. I can’t rewrite the whole thing here, needless to say there was talk of Proverbs 31:11 & 31; talk of Ephesians 5:33 and a lot more besides all that).  

One of the important points that Andrew made was that to understand Biblical submission, we need to define it Biblically. I completely agree. We try to treat many Biblical themes that way. For example, the world defines the word ‘love’ in many ways that we, as Christians, do not. Often what we mean by ‘love’ is different because the Bible says that “God is love” (1John 4:7-8). Even within the passage on which the original questions were asked, Ephesians 5:22-33, we want to be defining the love mentioned in verse 25 with a Biblical definition. It’s easier with that though, because the passage spells out quite clearly what that means: 

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church….” (Ephesians 5:25 & 28)

Husbandly love is self sacrificing and caring. It is a high calling for husbands.  

So what does that look like in a day to day setting? Most wives don’t daily accidentally nearly get run over, so that their husband can run onto the road and push them out of the way, thereby sacrificing his own life to save hers. It happens, but not every day. More often than not, we tend to discuss and paint a picture of what this will look like daily by giving examples of what it is, and giving examples of what it is not. When we give the opposite, it paints more clearly for us what it is.  Bossing a wife around is not loving a wife. Ignoring your wife when you come home from work is not loving your wife. Physically or mentally harming your wife is not loving your wife. Always choosing what you watch together on TV and playing ‘couch commando’ is not loving your wife. Not praying for your wife, speaking badly of your wife to others, discouraging her from growing in the Lord….All of these kinds of examples, help create a picture of what loving is because opposites help us. 

So, let’s turn back to submission. Generally speaking, in our society, the word has become ‘dirty’, yet in practice the concept is used all the time. I submit to the policeman when he tells me to pull my car over. We submit to the law all the time. In fact, our ability as Australians to stand in queues in banks, post offices, Centrelink, Service Centres, is all submission. And we all do it.  It’s not dirty. It’s not clean either. It is just something we all do. As a society though, we choose not to label it ‘submit’.

So what do we do, as Christians, when we read this word in the Scriptures, and are being told that a portion of our church family needs to submit to another portion of our church family? (Wives are only told to submit to their own husbands Ephesians 5:22).  As with other Biblical words, we need to define it Biblically, and look to Biblical examples, which I think we often try to do. So we may have a discussion about Ephesians 5:33 – and what respecting or honouring your husband may look like. We will probably turn to 1Peter 3:1-6 and possibly Colossians 3:18 to fill out the picture a little more. And hopefully within the discussion, we will look at Proverbs 31 and point out that this wife of noble character is capable, hard working, industrious, kind, and brings her husband great honour. In fact, “she brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.” (Proverbs 31:12).  And I would happily leave the discussion there as a good starting point to put to practice. There’s so much there that paints a picture for every day life.

But what I want to add this morning, having had my 24 hours to think a little further on it, is that we can see even more clearly what Biblical submission is, by seeing Biblically what it is not. Biblically speaking, what is the opposite of wifely submission?

We can think of a few Biblical examples of terrible wives, like Jezebel who brought Ahab great harm with her introduction and perpetuation of Baal worship, or Athaliah who killed her grandchildren so she could remain queen, but that seems to be a little extreme, right? 

I think there are a few verses in Proverbs that give us a good indication of the opposite of submission. 

  • “A foolish child is a father’s ruin, and a quarrelsome wife is like the constant dripping of a leaky roof.” (Proverbs 19:13)
  • “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” (Proverbs 21:9)
  • “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.” (Proverbs 21:19)
  • “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” (Proverbs 25:24)
  • “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand.” (Proverbs 27:15-16)

If a Christianly submissive wife is one who brings her husband good not harm all his days, a woman who respects her husband, and lives for Jesus with purity and reverence, then an opposite is a wife who is quarrelsome, and nagging. Which wife wants to think that her constant nagging and quarrelsome ways have led her husband to wish he lived on the corner of his rooftop? Which wife wants to think that she reminds him of a constantly dripping tap?  If you are daily nagging your husband to take the bins out, if you are constantly complaining about the car needing to be booked in for a service, or the way he doesn’t do things your way, then may I politely suggest that you’re not being very submissive, you’re not helping your marriage, you’re are not honouring your husband or respecting him? Does that mean you can’t remind your husband it’s ‘bin night’ or that the car needs a service? Of course not. There’s a difference between asking and nagging. Does it mean you can never have a fight with your husband, or that you must think he’s always right? Of course not, being quarrelsome is not the same as having a quarrel. What about disagreeing with your husband, is that allowed? Well, I’d like you to find me an example of any wife who has always agreed with her husband in everything! I believe Biblical submission is an attitude, and I think being a nagging or quarrelsome wife is also based in an attitude.  So, on a day-to-day basis, if you want to know what submission is like, it may help to remember that the opposite is constantly nagging and being quarrelsome.  

However, I think the passage in Ephesians gives us wives a really clear picture of how to stay out of that pitfall. Context, it makes all the difference, doesn’t it! Remember that long sentence before the marriage section?

“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-22)

It is very hard to be a nagging and quarrelsome wife if we, being filled with the Spirit, are women of psalms, hymns, and song. If we are making music in our hearts to the Lord, if we are filled with thankfulness to God for everything, then we are going to be far from the rooftop-sending, nagging, quarrelsome wife of Proverbs. Women of joy in the Lord are generally not women of nagging and constant quarrels.

So, back to the towel-hanging in my household. Andrew and I both have options. He could command me to hang the towels his way, deeming my way as wrong. He could be overbearing and unreasonable. And I would say, unloving. Or he could explain to me that he believes his way of hanging towels prevents mould and is therefore healthier for longevity of towel use, means we need to wash them less often, and is better for our breathing. And he could ask me to give his way a try.  Alternatively, I could repeatedly belittle him, nagging him to hang them my way, saying words like “how hard is it, even a trained monkey could do this?”, I could leave sticky notes on the walls of the bathroom with multiple exclamation marks. Or I could ask him if he wouldn’t mind hanging the towels my way because I believe it looks prettier, fits better, and provides better air flow, thus drying the towels more thoroughly between usage.  Or we could just continue to rehang the towels our own preferred way and not get upset about difference of preference.  Ultimately how we end up hanging our towels doesn’t really matter. But the way we get to how we agree does. He’s been told to love, and I’ve been told to submit. Bossing me is unloving. Explaining and asking is loving. He may have valid reasons (for my good) as to why his way is the best way, and I need to submit, knowing he has my best interests at heart.  Me nagging him and belittling him is unsubmissive. Explaining and asking him to try my way is submissive. It’s not about the towels. Hanging towels is not a matter of Godliness. But the way we treat each other is. In such a small and unimportant issue as towel hanging, we can live the attitude that we want permeating our marriage in all areas. I don’t want Andrew wishing he lived on the corner of our rooftop. I want him to know I value him and trust him.  Ultimately, as I read through this article to him, he admitted that he had never noticed that we hang our towels differently! 

We both had a good laugh.

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