What is Godly Submission?
One of the greatest disservices Christianity today has done society is to display an inaccurate understanding of godly, biblical submission. The type of submission I am talking about is empowering, not belittling to women. If that seems paradoxical, it is only because we have greatly mistook the meaning of the word. When you hear the word “submission” what you are probably thinking about is not the biblical definition of submission at all. Instead, the thoughts that run through your mind are most likely those of enabling behavior, which is not godly submission at all. When women enable disrespectful, belligerent, or even abusive men, it is not godly submission, and it is certainly not what God has called us to. In fact, the Christian woman should be the strongest among women because we know that we are not defined by what men think of us. We are not defined by our beauty, intelligence, or marital status. We are defined by God and Him alone. We know that creation was good, but not perfect until God graced the earth with a woman. Only then, did He say that the World was perfect. Only then did He rest. Women of God know that we are not only lovable, but that we are unendingly adored, that we are the crown of creation, and that nothing on this earth can take that value away from us. Therefore, women of God ought to be the strongest women on earth.
So how does that coincide with the Bible’s definition of submission? There should be no trouble understanding that at all, if only we will take the time to understand what godly submission truly is, rather than assuming that it is to be a doormat for men, to enable selfish and condescending attitudes toward women, or to go through life miserably accepting a status that is lower than that of our male counterparts.
Godly submission is empowering to women. In fact, it gives us great sway and influence not only in the lives of the males around us, but in our families, our communities, and our societies.
This is why God commands wives to godly submission- that we may honor and bless him, support and influence our husbands, raise our sons to be kinder and our daughters stronger than the generation before them.
The reason the Christian women can and should be that much stronger than the average woman is because we don’t have to deny our inner need for love and affirmation. We don’t have to pretend that we can do it on our own. We don’t have to pretend that we don’t need someone to be enthralled with us. We know that we do. But we also know that because of our Heavenly Father, we don’t need anything from any other human being to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
Author and Theologian Gary Thomas explains it remarkably well in his book, The Sacred Influence. “Men can be very cruel with their cutting comments; if you aren’t receiving affirmation and affection from your heavenly Father, you’re going to feel emotionally empty and perhaps even worthless-and will feed that into your husband’s response and tempt you to become even more of a doormat” (Thomas 137).
Godly submission never calls a woman to be a doormat. God never calls one of his daughters to be trampled over by her husband, or any man in her life. Instead, God gives us submission as a powerful weapon. It is a weapon not to be used against men, but to be used to influence them for good. Rather than explain how it works, I will attempt to demonstrate using common situations in which the husband is clearly not loving his wife as Christ loves the church, but in which the wife is still called to godly submission. For each situation, I will provide three types of responses.
The first will be enabling behavior. Well meaning Christian women often practice enabling behavior under the guise of submission. Do not be fooled. Enablement and submission are far from the same thing. Enabling behavior makes a doormat out of the woman and often a monster out of her husband, whereas submission makes a woman strong and a man malleable in her hands (and I am referring to positive influence, not manipulation).
The second reaction will be one of pride. While the prideful woman refuses to be trampled on, she also forfeits her power of influence.
The third reaction will be one of godly submission. It empowers the woman, encourages the man, and creates a stronger and more peaceful relationship.
Joe is critical and often mean to Lisa. He speaks harshly to her, and is always finding something to complain about. He comes home after a long day of work and asks, “Why does the house look like this?”
Enabling behavior: Lisa responds with, “I am so sorry. I will try to get it cleaned up.” She may then even proceed to berate herself in her mind. She defines herself based on her husband’s evaluation of her. She will continue to spiral downward, and her husband’s critical attitude will continue to get worse.
Prideful response: “Don’t you dare speak to me like that! I have worked just as hard if not harder than you did today. If you want it done, do it yourself!” If Lisa responds this way, she does not allow herself to be a doormat, and for that I commend her. But, she has also given up her God-given ability to influence Joe for good. She has responded harshly, which will only make Joe dig his heels in and continue in his stubbornness. It will also put strain on the relationship.
Godly Submission: “Joe, I realize you had a long day at work, and I want you to know that I really do value how hard you work for this family. But I need you to understand that I work very hard, too, and it is just not acceptable to talk to me like that. If you would like the house to be cleaner, I would gladly help you with it after work if you could work on asking me for help in a respectful way”. Now, Lisa has challenged Joe to step up to the plate in helping around the house, but she has not belittled him. Instead, she has shown appreciation for his hard work, and offered to help him in maintaining a cleaner house. In this way, Lisa has not allowed him to trample her. She sees her value as a person, but she also has not given up her power of influence in Joe’s life. And both will be better for it. Even if Joe does not respond well to Lisa the first time, consistency in standing up for herself with a gentle and even grateful response will allow her continued power of influence in his life.
Mark has a terrible spending habit. He and his wife, Emily both work full time jobs but barely make ends meet because Mark likes to have every +new thing he wants. He buys a boat, the newest car, and all the latest technology. He seems obsessed with upgrading to the next best thing. He is thereby driving his family into financial ruin.
Enabling behavior: Emily works overtime to support Mark’s spending. She continuously gives up more and more time with the children so that Mark can spend the family money however he sees fit. She never says a word when he goes into more debt or purchases something he cannot afford.
Prideful response: Emily tells Mark that he is a worthless husband, that he is driving the family into poverty, and that she would be better off without him. She refuses to take another shift of overtime and threatens to open her own bank account where he will not have access to the money.
Godly submission: Emily calmly explains to Mark that he may need to seek some help controlling his spending habits. She expresses thankfulness for all of Mark’s strong points such as spending time with the kids and being a kind and gentle husband. But she gently tells him that she can no longer support his spending habits, that she cannot take any more shifts which take her away from the kids, and that if he cannot find help in managing his spending, she will have no choice but to open an account to which he does not have access. She affirms him, tells him that he is a good man, a better man than this, and assures him that she will be there for him every step of the way as he seeks help in his spending habits.
Matthew spends most of his free time in the bars. He is uncomfortable in situations where it is not socially appropriate to have a drink in his hand. He begins to miss work more and more, claiming illnesses. He is no longer showing up to church or family gatherings. People begin to notice something is wrong. His wife, Martha, is working many hours to keep the family’s head above water, while Matthew continues to drink.
Enabling Behavior: Martha makes up excuses for Mark every time he doesn’t show up to a family reunion or birthday party. She often says he is sick or has migraines. She does not want the family to know that he was out drinking the night before. She has even called into work for him and made up an excuse as to why he could not make it into work yet again that week. She often believes these excuses herself.
Prideful Response: Martha tells Matthew he is a worthless scumbag, and tells him that he will not have a penny more from her.
Godly Submission: Martha approaches Matthew in love to tell him that she is concerned that his love of drinking has turned into alcoholism. She tells him that she will not be allowing him access to any more of the money she makes, not because she doesn’t love him but because she does love him and she knows that he needs help.
In any of these situations, the woman does not necessarily have control over how her husband will respond. In fact, he may blow up. He may not respond in a godly way. Separation may be needed. But separation does not always lead to divorce. Sometimes, it can even be a step toward healing in the marriage. Even so, I am convinced that the godly submission in each situation is the action that will most likely result in healing. To continue in enabling behavior will never benefit the marriage. It will destroy both partners. To respond in pride will often hasten the deterioration of the relationship. But godly submission is the response that will promote healing and peace.
After reading through these situations, I hope that the difference between godly submission and enabling behavior has become quite clear. It is unfortunate that many Christian women have practiced enabling behavior and labeled it submission. This has caused much confusion about the word.
The Bible clearly states that we are to submit to one another out of reverence for God (Ephesians 5:21). But immediately after, in verse 22, wives are specifically called to submit to their husbands, not because men know better, but because godly submission is a great force for good. I do not believe for a moment that this command is to make women less than men or even to give men control over women. On the contrary, I believe the command is actually to give women influence in a man’s heart. A woman practicing godly submission values herself as a child of God, and seeks to help her husband through admiring him, affirming him, building him up, and challenging him in his areas of weakness.
When a woman responds to a man’s weakness in pride, she may well hold her head up high and refuse to be trampled on, but she also forfeits her opportunity to influence him for good in his life, in her family, and in this world.
I would like to note that in any of the previous situations listed, the woman may practice godly submission but may be met with harshness and in extreme cases, even violence. In marriages in which the wife has practiced enabling behavior, and the husband believes that behavior to be submission, there may be conflict when first applying these biblical principles of submission. In such cases, it may very well be necessary to seek help from the godly authority figures in your life. Namely, your pastors. Godly submission never asks a woman to endure emotional, mental, or physical abuse. In such cases as these, it will likely be necessary to involve an authority. Women who have lived under this kind of behavior may find it difficult to tell if they are being emotionally or mentally abused. Richard Massman, founder of Recovery in Christ ministries and substance abuse counselor of over 40 years suggests that if you are unsure if you are experiencing abuse, ask yourself this question. “Is my husband using anger, fear, shame, manipulation, or physical force to get me to comply with his demands?” If the answer is “yes” for any of those, then it is likely you are living in an abusive situation. In this case, it is highly probable you will need to involve your spiritual authorities and possibly even outside authorities. While you are considering this question, you will do well to examine your own heart. Are you using fear, anger, or manipulation to move your husband, to change his mind, or to get something you want from him? If so, you are likely practicing emotional or mental abuse as well. God can heal you from this, and He wants to teach you to use godly submission as a tool for positive influence instead.
Godly counseling from your pastors and from professional Christian therapists and counselors can help to turn these habits around by pointing you and your husband toward godly, biblical principles to break the habits of controlling and enabling behavior and start walking the path of healing and godly submission and biblical leadership.
Godly Submission is Empowering
There is a reason that God said Adam needed a companion. God created women to have the things that men so often do not have. He created women in His own image to reflect the beautiful feminine attributes of God. He created women to have incredible influence in the lives of men. Men can be so much better because of the influence of a woman. That is why God commanded women to godly submission to their husbands. Not to undermine or belittle them, but to empower them and to give them the opportunity to influence the men in their lives for good. Think about the kind of place the world would be if all men were under the gentle, kind, yet strong influence of a godly woman.
That is what God calls us to as women. He calls us to strength, dignity, and godly submission. And yes, these go hand in hand.
Godly submission is empowering. It is a mighty force for good. It empowers women. It moves men.
A woman practicing godly submission does not seek affirmation from a man. For she knows she is deeply loved and cared for. She is the crown of creation. She is made in the image of God. She submits out of reverence for God, knowing that God has given her the power to have positive influence for change in this world.