This was posted by Philip Winn at the Boar’s Head Tavern about a year ago. It’s some of the best commentary on submission in marriage I’ve ever read. Marriage is to be modeled on the love of the holy Trinity. But people forget that the trinity is a mystery. How is the love of marriage supposed to be any less mysterious? As he mentions, it’s almost like part of the trick is to not think about it too much. I’m not an egalitarian, but the more we try to define or systematize what submission and headship looks like, the less it actually end up looking trinitarian, which is still mysterious. (emphasis mine below)
Submission post-fall is an interesting thing. Looking at the model of the Trinity tells us a lot of how things are likely to be at the end of time, but doesn’t seem to help much when it comes to the here and now
The thing about the mutual submission of the Trinity is that God is worthy of submission. That is, the Father could elevate Christ because Christ is worthy of elevation, Christ could undergo humiliation to point to the Father because the Father is entirely faithful and trustworthy, and so on. The thing that makes submission difficult in human relationships is that the husband (going with the gender roles at hand) is often completely unworthy of submission in any objective sense.
If I were perfect, I don’t think the question of submission would ever even have come up between us. If my wife were perfect, I’d have no problem submitting to her in everything. The problem is that neither of us are perfect!
I remember seeing this lived out when I was a young lad, and I saw families utterly destroyed by — from my admittedly youthful perspective — this submission issue. Take a couple I knew in which a money-savvy woman was married to a man with zero financial acumen; after being told she needed to submit all things to her husband, including the family budget, she turned it over to him. The same teacher convinced him he had to take care of it himself. The wife wasn’t allowed to pester or nag him, either. I guess the theory was that he would rise to the challenge, especially with the wife’s confident support. That isn’t what happened, of course; their finances were utterly destroyed by the husband’s bumbling, and when she finally resumed management, they both felt that they were somehow failing God. The whole thing seemed bizarre to me at the time, and still does. If she’s better with money, why on earth would he be required to manage the budget? Have these people never read Proverbs 31?
Of course, that’s a problem with application, not theory. But of course that’s the rub. It’s easy to say “submit” in theory, but what do you say to the woman whose husband is a complete loser? Or abusive? I’ve heard people say that submission should be complete and total regardless of the worthiness of the husband, and that bruises and scars and suffering will be somehow credited in heaven. This may be true, but it hardly seems to be what Jesus or Paul had in mind, and I don’t think it is related in any way to what we see in the Trinity.
It’s one thing to say that well, there are problems when the husband is an unbeliever. But we’re all unbelievers! We are all enemies of God, rescued despite ourselves, continually struggling to surrender to God and conform to His ways. The difference between that wife-beating drunk and me is one of degree, not substance. The degree is important (don’t stay with a wife-beater, ladies, please!), but sweeping the issues that are still present in my relationship under the rug isn’t kosher.
For the record, my wife and I have never particularly struggled with this. To external observers, I suppose it looks like she submits to me and I love her, in obedience to scripture. Just between you and me, that really isn’t our intention. I love her and she loves me. I consider her and she considers me. We agree on most things anyway, and the rest can easily go one way or the other on any given issue. She submits to me and I to her, but not because of any gender roles — at least not intentionally — but because the submission is a natural result of our mutual love.
And of course, we’re broken people, so it doesn’t always go so smoothly as I’ve just described.
I have to say that the majority of couples I know that talk about submission as an important biblical principle are semi-psycho. Not all, and not dangerously so (except maybe to their children), but it’s creepy and unhealthy. On the other hand, the majority of couples I know that seem to make life work well don’t ever talk about submission on their own, and when asked will generally say its unimportant.
(This is generally also my experience.)
I have ideas about what Paul is talking about, and why, and I think it all makes good sense, but I don’t think that most people writing about submission on the net are anywhere close to on-target on the issue. Life may work very well for them and their spouses, but it’s impossible to give any advice on the internet without it being taken too far by a large percentage of readers.