Me Obey Him – Are You Kidding?

Remember the traditional wedding vows when the preacher asks the bride, “Will you love, honor, and obey?”

“Me obey him – are you kidding?” is not an unusual response in today’s culture. If the pastor quotes from Ephesians 5:22-23, which states, “Wives be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body” (NASB), you can almost feel the hair start to stand up on the back of many a woman’s neck. The reality is you probably will not hear this subject of a husband’s and wife’s positions and responsibility to each other dealt with much today -it is too controversial.
Is the Bible a masochistic book that demeans the position of womanhood? It should not be a mystery why many women feel this way. Throughout history, and in many cultures, women have been treated as less than human. They have been looked upon as mere property and without the same rights and privileges as men. This is still true today in some places – just look at the Taliban. Even in our history for example women never had the right to vote until the 20th Century. Many of these injustices have been carried out in the name of religion.

So, what does Ephesians 5:22-23 mean? How about other verses such as 1Peter 3:1, which says, “In the same way, you wives be submissive to your own husbands…”? Does this mean the position of a woman is inferior or unequal to that of her husband’s? Closely related to a wife’s role in the marriage is a woman’s role in the church. This article, because of space limitations, will focus on the former. One major reason there is resistance to this topic on the part of women is the often misuse of such verses to justify control and subjection of the wife which is not the intent of scripture.

Biblical Submission
A good starting point would be to understand the meaning of submission in the Bible. Let’s start by looking at the example of the Trinity, one God in three equal persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One is not more God or more equal than the other. Christ, who was equal to the Father, willingly surrendered his rights and will to do the will of the Father to come to earth and die for the sins of people (Philippians 2:6-8; Matthew 26:42). Christ’s position was equal with the other members of the Godhead but His submission was a willing act of love and obedience. The reason He was willing to make this sacrifice was all members of the Godhead were in agreement as to what they wanted – the redemption of humanity. Neither one acted out of selfishness.

Submission is about love, trust, protection and a common goal. It is not about being forced to give in to another. It can only be given willingly or it is not true submission, it is coercion. No one can make you submit. If I submit it is because I choose to do what I desire. Choosing to do what I desire would not make me resentful or feel inferior. For a man to think he can make a wife submit to him is utter foolishness. A husband can manipulate, intimidate or threaten in order to get his way. However, this will never produce unity or harmony in the home, nor will it cause his wife to respect or love him. On the contrary, it will only produce resentment. This is true about all the family relationships – husband to wife, wife to husband and parents to children.

Submission should be seen as a positive not a negative when properly understood. It is not something only given by a wife to her husband. It is a mutual trait that Spirit-filled mates extend to each other (Ephesians 5:18-21). Mutual submission is a mark of spiritual maturity. It starts with each person’s submission to God. No one is ever qualified to lead until they first learn to follow. So a husband will not be truly qualified to lead his family until he submits his follow-ship to Christ. I can hear some man thinking now, “She should follow me just because I am her husband and that is her responsibility.” To which I would reply, “How is that working for you?” Positional leadership is the weakest of all forms of leadership. It doesn’t make people want to follow you.

Hindrances to Follow-ship
What makes someone want to surrender their will to you and follow you? Basically it is because they love and trust you. That is why God starts with the husband and commands us to love our wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). How did Christ love the church? He demonstrated his love through His actions – He died for the church. There is no greater love than this (John 15:13).
Why do people follow Christ, giving up everything to do whatever, and go wherever He asks? It is because they love and trust Him. They know Christ always acts in love not selfishness towards us. When a wife feels truly loved by her husband and knows he is following Christ it gives her confidence to give him her submission.

Another thing submission is based on is the unity of a common goal or vision. Marriage is about unity – two become one. Intimacy is about two people knowing and being fully known by each other. Another lack of mutual submission can be a sign of division in the relationship. Unity is about communication as well as love. Can you talk with each other and make your mate feel heard and understood? Try listening to your mate without talking while they talk. Summarize back to them in your own words what you heard them say. Remember that they are not you. Allow them to think and feel differently about things without invalidating them. Once you have both heard each other, then you can work on problem solving or conflict resolution.

The Creation Model
Some feel that the whole idea of a woman being in submission to a man was the result of the fall. Eve blew it in the Garden of Eden by listening to Satan and eating the forbidden fruit thus plunging the entire human race into sin. For this reason she can’t be trusted with any leadership function, especially teaching in the church (1Timothy 2:11-15). Her punishment now is that she must be under the control of her husband like a child who has been grounded by their parents.

Let us look a little closer at this story of the Fall in Genesis 3. Genesis 3:6 tells us that Adam was there with Eve during the temptation and did nothing. He was passive. Did Eve sin? Most assuredly but so did Adam – neither one did what they were supposed to do. They were both guilty. However, God held Adam accountable because he was given the position of leadership and responsibility for the garden (Genesis 3:9). They were both created in the image of God. They were co-equal partners with different responsibilities. That is the reason God made them different physically, emotionally and relationally. Adam was created first and Eve was created to be his helpmate. They were to treat each other equally, with love and respect as they fulfilled their responsibilities together. Together they were to protect one another.

The real problem with this concept of submission is  understanding the difference between the biblical concept and the humanistic concept of submission. An example of this is in the discussion the disciples got into about who got to be the greatest in the kingdom, and who could be at Jesus’ left and right hand. Jesus rebuked them and told them they did not understand that God’s kingdom operated totally different than man’s. Human leadership was about ruling over others to get your way. God’s leadership was about serving others rather than self. It is not that women do not want leadership – they want the right kind. Two of the biggest complaints from women I hear in the counseling room are, “I do not feel loved” and “I do not feel safe in my husband’s leadership.”

A man who exercises loving servant leadership by following the model of Christ will usually find his wife willing to follow him. She will feel loved, safe and confident in his leadership. Leadership is not something we command but rather something we earn. Leadership is about handling responsibility and accepting accountability, not about power trips, ego, self-will, excuses or placing blame. As President Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” At the end of the day someone has to make a decision. However, the wise husband will use the resource of his helpmate by seeking her advice, communicating about decisions that affect them both, and praying until they are in unity about major decisions.

“What if my husband tells me to do something that goes against scripture,” a wife asks. The Bible is clear we are to obey God over man (Acts 5:29) and that may mean suffering man’s consequences for our disobedience. However, one must be sure that this is truly the only choice. Often we want to make our way or preference equal with scripture. This can lead to idolatry, which is worshipping at the altar of self rather than God. When properly understood and carried out, submission is God’s gift to a marriage. It is something both mates give to each other and to God to protect and enhance the relationship.

Dr. John Hawkins Sr., along with his son John Jr., are co-directors of Gateway Counseling Center. Email John at [email protected]

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