It was the night before my wedding — almost time to rehearse. But before the practice march down the aisle, it was time for a talk.
My hubbie-to-be’s jovial uncle, who always filled family functions with his booming voice and contagious laugh, was going to co-officiate the ceremony with my pastor. As Uncle Eldon sat in my pastor’s office chair, in front of the overflowing oak bookcases, and we sat in the worn, leather guest chairs, he joked with us, needled his nephew and prayed fervently for us. Then, he paused and took turns looking both of us in the eye.
“What I’d like to know before I marry you …” his voice wasn’t booming, but was now slow and deliberate, “is if you believe Ephesians 5.”
Ephesians 5 … Ephesians 5. My 22-year-old mind was racing. Had this come up in our premarital counseling? Personality profiles? Yes. Communication tips? Check. Finances? A bit. Ephesians 5? Not ringing a bell.
Oh, wait. Got it. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”
I think the smile might have frozen on my face for a half-second.
While submission is hardly a popular concept in our culture, it was even less so in the feminist, obsessed-with-how-we-construct-our-own-“knowledge” graduate program I was freshly matriculated from. But I loved the Lord. I loved His Word. If the Bible said it, I trusted it to be truth.
I answered, with a completely honest heart, “I believe every word of it.”
And I did. But I hadn’t a clue how I was going to live it.
What Do I Do When He’s Wrong?
That evening, there were some questions to which I had sure answers.
Could I love my husband as Titus 2 commanded me? I had no doubt. Could I be a “helpmeet” as I was created to be? I had every desire to.
But could I, really, submit to my husband?
I knew that the Lord created man, woman and marriage. Still, the deep-down, honest answer was: Of course, I could submit … as long as he is right.
Of course, my husband should be the head of the household … as long as I agree with what he’s doing. Of course, he should lead … as long as I have pre-approved the path.
But what exactly am I supposed to do, my gut wrenched, when he is wrong? When he wants to make (what I really believe to be) a mistake? When he’s leading badly or choosing the wrong path for himself — or worse, for us?
It’s taken me a lot of prayer, a lot of faith and a lot of camping out on Scripture to find an answer for myself.
It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I’ve felt like a member of the muddled middle — caught between those who would just dismiss passages about the differences between men and women (“they’re not culturally relevant anymore,” “they don’t mean what they clearly mean,” “Paul is just a sexist”) and those who would gaze adoringly at their husbands and speak rapturously about the joy of submission.
No, I couldn’t dismiss God’s Word. But my joyous gazing was also notably absent.
I did read with considerable relief that the same Ephesians 5 commanding me to submit because “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” also commanded my husband to love me “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” and to “love [his] wife as [his] own body.”
But the passage left little doubt as to who was responsible for leading. Though I did trust and respect my husband, quite frankly, I wasn’t absolutely certain that he would always make the right decision.
I was afraid to submit. And so that’s where I started.
A Daughter of Sarah
My fear took me from Ephesians 5 to 1 Peter 3.
Here, it was now Peter calling on me to be submissive to my husband. But, I found something I hadn’t found in Ephesians 5 — the Lord speaking through Peter directly to how I was feeling.
Peter writes of the “holy women of the past” who were made beautiful through their submission, including Sarah:
They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
Do not give way to fear. The phrase echoed in my mind. My Lord got me, I thought. He understood that fear was the major stumbling block to my submission. But He still commanded me not to give way to that.
Then, just as quickly, my mind jumped to Genesis 12. Sarah and Abraham? And I remembered. I remembered how Abraham (then Abram) had gone into Egypt during a famine. How, out of fear for his own life, Abraham had instructed Sarah (then Sarai) to say she was his sister (which she technically was, but conveniently leaving out the wife part) and had allowed Sarah to be taken to the Pharaoh’s palace.
I don’t know how Sarah felt during that time, but I can imagine how I would feel. Betrayed, abandoned, unprotected, unloved.
But where Abraham left Sarah vulnerable, the Lord protected her. He sent “serious diseases” on Pharaoh and his household, resulting in Sarah’s release.
It was the same song, second verse in Genesis 20. This time, Abraham and Sarah were in Gerar,
… and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then, Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.
But, again, the Lord intervened. He confronted Abimelech in a dream. The Lord confirmed that He had been in control the whole time (“I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her”) and protected Sarah (“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet”).
What Abraham would not do — the Lord did.
All this was not to Abraham bash. After all, I knew that Sarah made some stunner bad choices as well. But I saw, as I hadn’t seen before, exactly what Peter meant to be a daughter of Sarah.
Wayne Grudem, in an excellent chapter titled “Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, writes specifically about Sarah and her example of trusting God,
… it is [Sarah’s] submission to her husband and her trust in God that Peter commends. The condition “if you … do not give way to fear” is another way in which faith finds expression. A woman with a gentle and quiet spirit who continues hoping in God will not be terrified by circumstances or by an unbelieving or disobedient husband (cf. Genesis 20:6).
If anyone had reason to fear, had reason to question submission, it was Sarah. But she did not. And it was the Lord who protected her, blessed her and called her “beautiful” because of that.
As I kept reading in 1 Peter 3, I found further confirmation.
Peter begins his section to wives by saying, “Wives, in the same way, be submissive to your husbands….”
In what “same way,” I wondered? So I read back into Chapter 2 and found Peter pointing directly at the example of Christ:
When they hurled their insults at [Christ], He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.
In that “same way” Christ entrusted Himself fully to the Father. Sarah did as well. The only question left was, “Was I going to?”
Was I going to be obedient to God’s design for marriage? Was I going to embrace His instructions for myself and for my spouse? Was I going to entrust myself to “Him who judges justly”?
My answer then, and my answer still today is, “Yes, in Your strength, I will try, Lord.”
Since that time, I’ve learned more about what submission is and what it is not.
I’ve learned that it’s not about unilateral decision-making, following my husband into sin or enduring abuse. As John Piper and Wayne Grudem write,
Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). The supreme authority of Christ qualifies the authority of her husband. She should never follow her husband into sin….
[A husband] must lead in such a way that his wife is encouraged to depend on Christ and not on himself. Practically, that rules out belittling supervision and fastidious oversight…. He is preparing her to be a “fellow heir,” not a servant girl (Romans 8:17). Any kind of leadership that, in the name of Christlike headship, tends to foster in a wife personal immaturity or spiritual weakness or insecurity through excessive control, picky supervision, or oppressive domination has missed the point of the analogy of Ephesians 5. Christ does not create that kind of wife.”
But I’ve learned that submission is about supporting and affirming my husband’s leadership while contributing counsel and embracing my equal worth and intelligence.
I’ve learned that I don’t have to fear my husband’s mistakes because he and I are both in the Lord’s hands. And I’ve seen how my submission spurs my husband to thought, respect and responsibility.
There are times it still gets messy, frustrating and, yes, fearful. I can relate to Rebecca Jones when she writes, “As I gradually understand the radical nature of submission, I also understand the depth of my own rebellion.”
But the most important thing I’ve learned about submission was that first thing — not to be afraid. I can testify to the blessings that God pours out on two sinners trying to work out their marriage according to His plan. And I affirm Peter and Paul with all my heart: Submit to your husband. Do what is right. Do not give way to fear.
Copyright 2009 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.