I didn’t grow up in a family culture that promoted “Biblical womanhood.” My mother had been an evangelical Christian, and then spent many years as a non-believer/agnostic/possibly something else before returning to the church. My father is a non-religious Jew. Throughout my childhood, I attended a Unitarian church. In Sunday school, we drew pictures of what God might look like, watched secular kids’ movies, and ate popcorn. We didn’t learn much about what men and women are supposed to be like or how husbands and wives are supposed to make marriage work.
When I became a Christian at age 14, I had no idea what was in the Bible. My mother had a dusty, old King James Bible on her shelf, which I promptly took out and started to read. I began with the Psalms. At my church youth group, we were studying Revelation (our leaders did a fantastic job with it, by the way; a post for another time). I didn’t learn much about Biblical womanhood there, either.
The denomination my church belonged to, PCUSA (Presbyterian), allows women to be elders and pastors. I don’t recall much about Biblical womanhood or wives and husbands over my years there. Maybe I tuned it out, or maybe it didn’t make sense to me, but it didn’t register.
Until I found Ephesians 5.
I read these words:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
I didn’t understand them. So I asked some of the adults at church, “What does this mean, submit?” They mostly seemed uncomfortable, awkward, like they weren’t sure how to answer that question. I got everything from “respect your husband” to “do what he says” to “be the kind of wife and mother he wants to come home to” to the considerably more honest “I don’t really know.” One person said, “We take it to mean that when there is a major life decision, we go with his preference.”
I think I gave up. In fact, “submission” wasn’t even something my husband and I ever talked about. He was an avowed feminist, and I’m admittedly a pretty intense and opinionated person, so it never seemed to matter. We simply did what came very naturally for us: Talked about everything, worked things out when we disagreed, and based our relationship on mutual respect. The one time our pastor gave a (rather half-hearted) sermon on submission in marriage, my husband and I ended up talking about how no one ever seemed to be able to define that term clearly.
I have since been exposed to a heck of a lot of conservative teaching on this topic. Life has a way of doing that, I suppose. I’ve met a lot more people and read a lot more books since the early days of my Christian faith and my marriage. In fact, it seems like the older I get, the more I hear about the whole “wifely submission” thing. Guess what? No one seems any more clear on it than the people I spoke to at my first church or my college professors or my friends or my former pastor. It’s still murky.
These days, my big question isn’t “What is submission?” Instead, it’s “What will happen if I don’t?”
The message has been pretty clear that “bad things” will indeed happen if I don’t become the properly submissive wife I am Biblically meant to be. I’ve been told that my children will be unhappy due to lack of clear authority; my marriage will suffer and we will be miserable; my children will “turn gay” because they have a gentle, nurturing father and a strong-willed mother. Our lives will be out of control, because things run more “smoothly” if I show my husband proper (read: their version of) respect. Our home will be filled with tension and strife.
So far, none of those dire predictions have come true.
Do we have our share of tension? Sure. Want to know what my husband and I argue about most? Just take a wild guess. It’s none of the usual things couples fight about (money, kids, sex). Nope. Our biggest arguments are about differences of opinion on social/political topics. Not even Biblical interpretation or Christian doctrine—just stupid things. We’ve learned to work through it, though, and we’ve learned to mutually respect each other’s views.
If your natural personalities mesh with a more conservative view on marriage, and this works to create a loving, happy home, then that is wonderful. But if you’re like my husband and me, and your natural personalities don’t fit with the conservative view, you have nothing to be ashamed of. What’s more important is that you build in your home a culture of respect. There are a thousand—a million—ways to do this. Start by applying what Jesus called the Greatest Commandments: Love God, love others. All the rest will fall in place.