Every few months, marriage is all the rage in the media. The morning talk shows bring in trusted “experts” for a discussion on what makes a marriage work. Sometimes the answer is found in sharing the chores around the house. Sometimes it’s taking turns and listening to one another.

And other times you might get a stray expert who actually thinks a wife’s submission is the key to marital bliss. Usually, that sets off a firestorm. The talk show hosts (especially the women) can’t fathom a woman who would submit to anyone, let alone a man.

In many circles, if you bring up the topic of submission, you’re looking to pick a fight. But submission is one of those often caricatured, rarely understood parts of the Christian life.

In fact, as I was writing this, former child TV star Candace Cameron Bure (known for her role on the sitcom Full House) was under a media microscope for her statement that she submits to her husband in their marriage. Bure, a Christian, defined submitting to her husband in this way: “The definition I’m using with the word ‘submissive’ is the biblical definition of that. So, it is meekness, it is not weakness. It is strength under control, it is bridled strength.”

The journalist who interviewed her could not believe what she was hearing. Submission? In these modern, post feminist times? As Bure demonstrated in her statement, we must clearly understand what we mean when we speak about submission.

Caricatures of submission

Submission is not a popular word. Let’s look at some common caricatures.

The Doormat:  Maybe you have heard (or believe) this one. Anytime someone mentions submission, you bristle. You see submission as stripping a woman of her brain. Submission to you means that a woman never says anything, even when saying something would protect someone else or prevent sin. People who see submission as a means to make women brainless doormats think it takes away a woman’s voice and removes her ability to have opinions. She is simply supposed to sit there and look pretty. A woman is always compelled to obey her husband, praise her husband, and never utter a critical word to her husband regardless of his treatment of her (including abuse and other sinful behavior).

The Personality Killer: Others see submission as limiting a woman’s personality. For a woman who has a stronger personality than her husband, submission is a hindrance to her flourishing. Submission, by this definition, has no room for a strong, boisterous personality. It sees the “gentle and quiet spirit” as a personality trait, and one that not every woman can conceivably conform to. Biblical submission takes a woman and removes her personality, unless of course she is naturally the quiet and silent type. There is not room for anyone else in biblical submission.

The basis for submission

When Daniel and I were in premarital counseling, the pastor asked me what my basis for submission was. At the time, God had worked in my heart and provided godly men and women who taught me the biblical pattern of submission. But I was caught off guard by the question.

What would you say?  Would you say that you submit because your husband (or future husband) possesses wonderful leadership qualities? Or because he cares for you and listens to your opinions and you love him dearly? While those are all good reasons to submit, they won’t sustain you over the long haul. Your husband won’t always love and lead you like he should. But submission is still commanded.

While I didn’t fully understand what the pastor was asking me, and wouldn’t until after I said “I do,” I answered by saying that when I submit to Daniel, I am ultimately submitting to God. I saw that in Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts Christian wives to submit to their husbands as they submit to Christ. Christ’s leadership is the basis for submitting to our husbands—not any character trait they might possess at the moment. Submission is a willing decision to bridle your strength out of respect for your husband, but ultimately out of obedience to God and reverence for His Word.

Our ability to submit in marriage is rooted in our relationship to God. We submit to our husbands because we know we are ultimately submitting to God and His rightful authority over us and in our marriage. Submission is also an act of trusting God and his work in our lives. He has established our husbands as the authority, therefore we can submit to our husbands because we trust that the work God began in them will be carried to completion on the final day (Philippians 1:6). Submission is not about the man. It’s about the God-man.

It’s important to note that everyone is called to some form of submission. Children submit to parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20). We all submit to God and His Word (1 Peter 5:6).

Sometimes when we talk about submission, we speak in lofty terms.  But submission is really about sacrifice. All Christians are called to some form of sacrifice. When men lead their wives like Christ, they are sacrificing their desires for the good of another. When wives submit, they are sacrificing their “rights” in obedience to Christ. But it’s not always a cakewalk.

Submission and Jesus

Our husbands will fail us. They will not lead like God commanded them to. They will not always love us like Christ. They will hurt us deeply. And we will not submit perfectly. Thankfully, we are not left to ourselves.

Consider the Savoir. His sinless life gives us a beautiful depiction of what God intended for submission. Christ had every right to exert His power and extol His competency as God, yet He humbled Himself, bridled His strength and authority, and submitted to the Father (Phil. 2:6-8). If for a moment He had thrown up his hands and said, “I am God. I deserve better than this,” we would all be lost. He submitted all the way to the cross, not because it was easy, and not because it gave Him the most praise, but because He trusted in the sovereign, good will of the Father.

The Gospels give us a glimpse into this joyful submission of Christ:

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:41-42).

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:24-26)

Did you catch that? Complete trust. Utmost respect. Obedience to authority. Utter devotion. Does submission feel overwhelming to you? Does it feel impossible? It is. But that is why Christ did it all for us. He is our perfect model of submission. But He is so much more than that. He is our righteousness, so when we fail to yield to rightful authority (whomever that may be), we have grace and an Advocate before the Father. He also promises to us the power to obey Him and His commands through His Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

Rooted in God’s intent for humanity

Some have said that Paul’s commands do not ultimately mean that wives are to submit to their husbands in the way that I have just described. For years, scholars have debated Paul’s and Peter’s words, challenging them on the basis of everything from cultural context to flat out saying that submission cannot and does not mean what we think it does.

God’s plans are not random. When He created Adam and Eve, He had a purpose in mind—to display His glory throughout His creation. This is why He created us in His image. How we act has implications. Whenever the biblical writers talk about marriage, gender, and even headship and submission, they are always referring back to the original creation account in Genesis 1-2.

When we talk about gender roles in marriage and God’s design for men and women, these ideas are not arbitrary or cultural constructs. They are rooted in God’s intent for humanity. The Bible presents a world where men and women hardly act in line with God’s plan for them. Our world today is no exception. And Christ came to redeem all of it.

At the end of the day, we must take God at His word. Did He have a purpose when He created marriage, with its differing roles? I believe that he did.

Abusive situations

I think it is important to talk about when a husband is imperfect, or worse, when he is abusing his wife. Both circumstances are not owing to the biblical model of leadership and submission, but a sad and sinful distortion of what God designed to be good. In the case of an imperfect husband (and we all will face this to varying degrees), we can first pray that God would change his heart. But we also must love him as his sister in Christ.

Submission does not mean condoning sin in the lives of our husbands. As fellow believers, we have a responsibility to love our husbands well by pointing out sinful patterns that are not changing (Matthew 18:15-16). If he refuses to change, then you are free to ask your pastors or elders to intervene in his life (verse 17).

If you are in an abusive marriage, please know that you are not biblically required to submit to abuse. First and foremost, protect yourself and family from the abuse you are receiving. No amount of submission will protect you from the abuse. Submission is not the problem. Your husband’s sin is. Please get help from your pastors and local authorities, and know that his abuse is not your fault.

Our pattern for submission is not a cultural construct or a throwback to June Cleaver and the 1950s happy housewife. Our pattern for submission is our Savior, who, for the joy set before Him, obeyed the Father all the way to death so we wouldn’t have to. We submit not ultimately to a man, but to the God-man. We submit to the very One who mastered submission on our behalf, trusting that the same work He is doing in our own life, He is doing in the life of our husbands.

God does not command things that are easy. If he did, then anyone could master His commands and we wouldn’t need Him. Instead He commands a level of living that is impossible because of our sinful nature. But the biblical pattern of submission seen in Scripture is not to be done in our own strength.  Jesus—the one who gave us the pattern of submission—is the very one who ensures that we can submit. And even better, He paid for every sinful tantrum we throw when we don’t get our way. I, for one, am thankful for that grace.

Submission is not ultimately about us, our husbands, or our little corner of marital bliss. It’s about God. It’s about the story we tell with our lives. When I submit to my husband, I am telling a watching world, even if the only ones watching are my children, what I believe about God and His work.

Adapted by permission from The Accidental Feminist, copyright © 2015 by Courtney Reissig, Crossway Publishers. All rights reserved.