What Submission Is (and Isn’t)
Wonder what submission is (and isn't)? Clinical psychologist, author, and speaker Dr. Juli Slattery discusses how women can walk with men as partners in marriage.
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Authentic Intimacy. She hosts a podcast called Java With Juli, where she answers tough questions about relationships, marriage, spiritual, emotional and sexual intimacy. She has authored eight books, including 25 Questions You're Afraid to As...more
Wonder what submission is (and isn’t)? Clinical psychologist, author, and speaker Dr. Juli Slattery discusses how women can walk with men as partners in marriage.
What Submission Is (and Isn’t)
Ann: Okay, I’m going to ask you a question that I’m afraid to hear the answer.
Dave: Good; I like these kinds of questions.
Ann: Do you think I’m submissive? [Laughter]
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Do you think I’m submissive? [Laughter] Do you think it’s easy for me to be submissive?
Dave: My pause tells you everything.
Ann: Oh, no!
Dave: I mean, in many ways, we have to define submissive—
Dave: —which we can, maybe, do today; but you are a strong, strong, leading woman.
Ann: So you are saying, “No”?
Dave: I mean, you have, obviously, submitted in many ways; and I hopefully, can say I’ve submitted to you in many ways; but yes, it’s not your first default. [Laughter]
Ann: The first time we went to a Weekend to Remember®—and we’ve been to several; and now, we’ve been speaking at the Weekend to Remember for several decades/over 30 years—
Dave: By the way, if you don’t know what a Weekend to Remember is, it is a FamilyLife marriage weekend,—
Dave: —which is powerful, from Friday [night] to Sunday. You can go; just go to FamilyLifeToday.com and sign up for one.
Ann: It really has changed marriages/thousands of marriages—
Dave: No question.
Ann: —for the better.
But the first time I sat in this—the women have a breakout session—and so I looked at the notes. I thought, “We’re going to talk about submission.” I was a brand-new Christian. I sat in the back; and I crossed my arms, thinking, “Oh, here we go! This is that Jesus stuff. Every wife is supposed to submit.” I remember thinking, “I am not going to do that, because my mom was a doormat; and I will not be a doormat.”
What I didn’t realize is that I had a very poor definition of submission. I had no idea what biblical submission was. So that was the first time I heard what biblical submission was; and I uncrossed my arms and I thought, “Oh, I had no idea that is what it is.”
So, you guys, this is a big day. We’re going to talk about: “What is submission in the Bible?” “What should it look like?” “How do we do it?”
Dave: We’ve got Dr. Juli Slattery with us. I’m not thinking this is your number-one topic you like talking about.
Juli: No; nope. There are a lot of things I talk about in ministry work—some of them are very controversial—but none of them more so than this one.
Ann: Juli, what I love about you is you are authentic; you are wise; you are really smart; you’ve done a lot of research; and you are theologically so sound. You love Jesus, and you want women to understand what our role is and the power we have in who God has called us to be. You do a really good job in your book, Finding the Hero in Your Husband, of addressing this, talking about what it is and what it isn’t.
Maybe, we should start out with: “Has that been easy for you?”
Juli: No; I think all of us come to this topic with a misunderstanding of what it means.
Ann: —and baggage.
Juli: Yes; I know so many Christian speakers, and writers, and authors, who are just ditching this whole concept now; because it’s so unpopular. We can point to so many ways that it has been misused and abused within the larger church culture and in marriages; so they are like, “This is not a good teaching;—
Juli: —“so let’s ignore it,” or “Let’s find a way to talk ourselves out of it. Maybe, that was a cultural thing.”
But as I studied the Scriptures, I have become convinced that this is not something we should just chuck. It’s something we need to grapple with because a Christian marriage is, first and foremost, a form of revelation.
Ann: What does that mean?
Juli: It means that God created marriage to reveal something about His nature; it reveals the nature of how God loves us/His covenant love. So when we take that seriously, we can’t just say, “You know what? This is just culturally not cool to talk about; it doesn’t seem to fit anymore.” We have to say, “If God created marriage to be this form of revelation, we have to be very careful about muting that revelation in any way.”
There is a sense to which we are ministering to one another/teaching each other about the nature of God’s love, not just to us, but to a watching world. Like that word, “covenant,” most people don’t even know what that means anymore—they hear it—and it’s like, “What is that?” Because in our modern day, we think of marriage as any other relationship—it’s like a contract—“As long as you are making me happy, I’m in; but as soon as it gets too frustrating or disappointing, I’m out.”
But God’s love for us is a covenant love: it’s based on character; it’s based on a promise; it’s based on His faithfulness; it’s a journey of intimate knowing. God created marriage to reflect all of these beautiful aspects of our relationship with Him. When we do marriage well, we are getting an echo of that—that we enjoy ourselves—but again, it’s also a testimony to the world to say: “That’s different. That is a different kind of love.”
Ann: So, Juli, that is beautiful; it’s a beautiful picture. Then you hear, “Wives, submit to your husbands.”
Dave: It’s Ephesians 5:22.
Juli: “Can we just take our marker and cross that out?”—some people are saying; yes.
Dave: No; most men are like, “That’s the only Bible verse I know.” [Laughter]
Juli: That’s really sad.
Dave: It is sad, but there are men who know that; but they don’t know: “What does that mean? What does that mean: ‘Wives, submit…’?” So help us out.
Juli: Yes; first of all, we have got to understand that God has given women, within marriage, a lot of power. I would say they actually have more power than men have.
Dave: Well, the men are saying, “What do you mean by more power?”
Juli: Yes; we see relationship much more nuanced than the average guy does; and because of that, we have this power to speak in a way that creates an atmosphere in the relationship that can be positive or negative. Every wife intuitively kind of knows when we are punishing our husbands, when we are manipulating them, we are controlling them—because we are not happy; we don’t feel safe; we’re not getting our way—so women have much more power than men in marriage to define the emotional climate.
Ann: I’ll give you an example. Each of our sons is married; they are married to amazing women. I think it has been one of the joys of my heart to see how much they love their wives; and I am like, “Oh, man! These guys are so in love with these amazing women.”
I’ve also watched these amazing women, with a look or a word/just a couple words, and I can see like, “Oh, man! That just devastated him.” I realize, “Oh, I used to hear that women have power; and now I am seeing it right in front of me.” I remember thinking, “I need to pray more for them, because they don’t understand the power they carry. They can make a hero out of him—
Ann: —“or they can make him feel like he’s nothing.”
Ann: There is a power there.
Juli: What we have to understand is, in this form of revelation of marriage, God is asking both the husband and wife to walk into their greatest fear:
- For a man, his greatest fear is failing. So when He charges a man: “Hey, I want you to initiate; I want you to lead; I want you to step into doing something that doesn’t feel comfortable, or you might not immediately succeed at—to being a father, being a husband, being a leader”—He is asking the man to take a great risk.
- He is asking the woman to step back a little bit—and not to control, not to manipulate—but to trust.
So within this form of revelation called marriage, we are both in this insecure place:
- The natural tendency is either for the man to lead without sensitivity; and he becomes out of control—
Juli: —yes; domineering
—and a woman doesn’t use her power at all; she just kind of buries it. We get into
abusive types of situations.
- Or the man because passive; and the woman, in one way or another, takes over. Then, we’ve kind of twisted the revelation of what it was supposed to be.
Ann: What about the woman, who says, “I want to be the one who is leading out there”? What would say to them?—like, “I’m better at it!”
Dave: I’m sitting beside that woman. [Laughter]
Juli: Yes; so I’ll ask you a question: “Did you really want to lead, or did you lead because you were afraid?”
Dave: Look how wise she is; she knows the answer.
Ann: Oh, that’s a good counseling question: “What would I be afraid of?”
Juli: You would be afraid that he’ll lead you wrong—that he is going to make a mistake—you see his weaknesses, and so you trust yourself more than you trust him.
Ann: Yes; and I think you know what is even more?—is not trusting the kids with him. I, maybe, could suffer under it—
Ann: —this isn’t you, honey; but I’m thinking of women—
Juli: Of course not. [Laughter]
Dave: Hypothetical; a friend.
Ann: —but when your kids—now, that’s when the momma bear rises up in women that think, “No, I will not let that happen; I will take charge.”
Juli: There are times to do that, but we do that so often when it is not necessary.
Juli: Let me give you an example. When our kids were little, Mike worked the 9-to-5 job; and I was working as a counselor a few nights a week. He would come home from work; we’d high-five. He would be with the boys, and I would go work. I will have, throughout the day, really limited screen time for the boys. I made like a healthy dinner for them to warm up.
Dave: I know where this is going. [Laughter]
Juli: Where’s it going? What happens?
Dave: He’s going to have screen time and not healthy food.
Juli: Right; so he would order pizza, and put the kids in their high chairs; and it was watch a Disney® movie.
Ann: Yes, every wife can relate to this illustration.
Juli: Yes; so I would come home at 10 o’clock at night, and give him a hug, and look around, and recognize that he didn’t eat the food I made. Then I would ask him, “What did you guys do?” He would tell me, and I would be so angry.
Juli: Instead of saying to him: “Man, you just worked a 9-to-5 job; you are exhausted. You’re home with babies and toddlers.”
Ann: “Thanks for staying home with them.”
Juli: Yes; and “You’re the fun dad; I get that. This is your bonding time”; I was like: “I am so mad at him. I worked so hard to do this all day, and then he just blows it.”
Those are the examples of how we, as women, have that momma bear rise up when it is completely unnecessary. What I had to learn is that I had to be more invested in what we were building, as a couple and as a family, than in the decision about whether they ate the chicken or the pizza.
Ann: That’s good.
Juli: It took a long time to learn that.
Ann: Me too.
Juli: I’m still learning.
Ann: Yes; but let’s get into/let’s talk about what submission is not.
Juli: Yes; so first of all, submission is not obedience. I think sometimes people interchange these two words; but they are actually two different Greek words that mean two different things:
- Obedience is this concept of: “You have authority over me. I’m going to do what you say, because you know better.”
- Whereas submission is: “I’m yielding my power—I could take over—but I’m choosing to yield it in a way that is for a higher goal, because I’ve got a bigger vision of what we’re headed toward.”
The difference, I think, is in an illustration. Let’s say a father tells his eight-year-old kid, “We’re going to go rob a bank. Here is what I need you to do: point the gun; demand the money.” If they go to court, the kid is going to get leniency—probably nothing—because the father was abusing the authority, and the kid was being obedient.
Now, if a husband does that to his wife, then the woman is completely accountable for her actions. There is no such thing as obeying your husband. It’s choosing how I am going to use my power: “Am I going to use it to take over?” or “Am I going to use it to yield for a higher good, which sometimes I’m going to put my foot down and say, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’” So that is one thing that submission is not.
The second thing—we’ve already kind of fleshed this out a little bit—but it’s not the absence of power: it’s not being a doormat; it’s not being weak. When we see Jesus being submissive, when He was here on earth, He was not weak at all. He actually had great self-restraint, and great power, and great wisdom; but He could see that higher thing that meant: “I am not going to do what I want in the moment; there is a vision of something greater here.”
I think those are some of the things that we need to say: “This is not what we’re talking about when we look at the concept of submission.”
Ann: So it is not following our husbands into anything that would be not biblical—
Ann: —or wise. It’s not abuse—
Ann: —of any kind.
Dave: The question is: “What is it?” There is part of me that thinks, “If you’re a woman, trying to be submissive to a man who is not good,”—it’s easy to think of a man with goodwill—
Juli: Yes, yes.
Dave: —“but if your husband is not being a good man or a good husband, how do you use this submission? What does that look like?”
Juli: Well, first, we need to understand that submission is under the authority of God. It’s not so much that I am submitting to my husband, but I am submitting to the authority of God. He is the higher authority in all of this. So it’s recognizing that, if my husband is doing things or asking me to participate in things that are against the heart of God, then I’m going to obey God rather than submit to my husband. Actually, it is the loving thing to do—to draw a boundary, to put your foot down, to create a crisis—submission actually requires far more strength than taking over does.
If we look at 1 Peter, Chapter 3—and we can unpack this a little bit—but one of the things that Peter says, when he is talking about wives being submissive, and he talks about having a quiet spirit, notice he doesn’t talk about having a quiet mouth but a quiet spirit. He says, “Be like Sarah, who submitted to her husband and did not give way to fear.”
Now, I mentioned earlier that marriage calls both a man and a woman to step up into their greatest fear. Anytime we don’t submit, it’s because we give way to fear:
- When the weak woman doesn’t submit, and she just becomes a doormat, that’s not submission. She is giving way to her fear of: “If I speak up, he’ll get mad. I don’t know how to speak up. I don’t know where to draw the boundary.”
- The dominate woman also gives way to fear; because she is saying, “I can’t trust God here; I can’t trust Him to work.”
Ann: That’s super wise; you know? I never thought of that before how it gives into fear.
Juli: Yes; and when we look at Sarah, even though she is an example, she was not a quiet woman. So when Peter is using that example, sometimes, we get in our mind that the submissive woman is the one who never says anything. Submission is not about whether or not your mouth is moving; it’s about the posture of your heart.
Dave: The amazing thing, as you go back to 1 Peter 3, is that, when a wife responds that way, I mean, one of the results is that you will win your husband.
Dave: You’ll win husbands that do not believe. You’ll win them over, without words, by the behavior of their wives. That behavior is powerful—
Juli: It is.
Dave: —in your man’s life. It’s a way that submission actually is a powerful tool of the Lord to win the soul of your man; right?
Juli: It is so much more powerful than taking control. Again, I’m not saying that there is not a time for a godly submissive woman to draw very clear boundaries—
Juli: —and to say, “Absolutely not! I’m not doing this,”—there are times when separation are necessary, and calling in third parties, and not participating in something that is wrong—that’s all part of this—but I think we’ve lost that concept, because it’s been portrayed as the husband is the strong one; the woman is the weak one. We’re in essence saying, “No, the wife is the really powerful one; and if you are not careful, you will misuse your power.”
Ann: In your book, Finding the Hero in Your Husband, you give some examples of what this looks like. Talk about those.
Juli: I use some examples of women, who are genuinely saying, “How does this play out in my marriage?” Let’s say, for example, you’ve got a husband, who changes jobs every year; he keeps wanting to move. The wife is like: “I am tired of this. It’s not good for you; it’s not good for us. It’s not good for our kids.” What does she do in that situation?
I think the traditional way of seeing this would be she says nothing; she just encourages him and goes along with it. The bossy way of doing it would be: “I’m not moving again!”
Ann: — or “You can move; we’re staying here.”
Juli: That’s right. The submissive way—the strong way of handling this—is really to say, “God, there is something in the heart of my husband that is not satisfied. What is it? It is not the job that’s the problem. It’s not our moving that is the problem. It’s that something in my husband is not content. Is it a fear of failure? Is it an inability to respect authority at work?”
The loving wife in that situation would say, “We’ve had nine jobs in ten years, and this will be the fifth time you have moved our family. That’s not okay; something is wrong here.
Ann: “Something is deeper.”
Juli: “Before we take a new job that takes us out of state or causes disruption in our life, we need to go through some counseling and really figure out: ‘What is underneath all of this?’ If that is where God is going to lead us—is to move again—then I will be on board with that; but not until we go deeper with what is really happening here.”
Ann: That doesn’t sound very submissive, Juli.
Juli: It absolutely is.
Ann: You are saying that is being submissive.
Juli: It is.
Ann: It is being wise too.
Juli: But you notice the tone of my voice; you notice the words that I spoke. It wasn’t out of anger. There is a time to deal with your anger before the Lord—to pour it out before Him—that may be you, yourself, talking to a mentor or a counselor, working through things like this first so that I can go with the spirit of wisdom and strength that says, “I love you too much. I care about our family too much to continue down a road that really isn’t helpful for any of us.”
Dave: So what’s that wife going to do if her husband responds with: “You know what? I don’t have a problem. There is no deep-rooted thing here. I’ve got a better job opportunity, and we’re moving again”?
Juli: Yes; I would say, “Honey, I disagree. We’ve been through this, and let’s look at the history of where we were a year ago and before that. I don’t think this job is going to meet the needs that you think it is. Even if you are not willing to go to counseling, I need to go; because I feel like I’m just along for the ride on this. I’m a partner in this too.”
Ann: Dave, how would you respond to that if I came to you with that tone/with that heart?
Dave: Yes; if you said it the way Juli said it—and you probably would because—
Ann: After years of being married, now, I would.
Dave: In a sense, I’m sitting here, thinking, “I’m listening to two wise women, who have learned probably through mistakes—
Dave: —“over decades.” So yes, you are saying it in a way that a younger wife should listen and go, “Oh, that’s how I say it!” because you really are training wives to do it.
As a husband, I would be like, “Hmm?” I mean, there is a part of me that wants to say, “I’m good; I don’t even want to sit down with a counselor or get third-party help”; but if I heard it that way—and it’s so interesting—it doesn’t sound submissive; it sounds powerful—but it’s submission. It’s beautiful how you phrased that; I would be like, “That’s a wise thing. Before I make a decision, let’s do that.”
That would be a great way to move that marriage. One of the words you used, Juli—that a man loves is: “I’m your partner; we’re partners in this,”—
Dave: —that’s equality.
Dave: Yet, partners have submission—there has to be in a team, in a company, in a church, in a marriage—so it’s a beautiful way to do it. I would say to a wife: “You were just given wisdom that applies, not just to a job change, but anything that you are feeling in your marriage. Juli just led you to do it.” I would say: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were some conversations tonight in bedrooms or in kitchens that were phrased a little bit like that? That could change a marriage.”
Bob: The Bible is so clear that men and women share equal value, and worth, and dignity; and nothing about the biblical call to submission should negate that sense of value, and worth, and dignity. Women are daughters of the King, and husbands would be wise to remember that as we interact with our wives.
But as we’ve heard from Juli Slattery today, there are wise ways for a wife to submit; and then there are unhelpful ways for a wife to be submissive to her husband. Juli has written a book called Finding the Hero in Your Husband: Embracing Your Power in Marriage. It’s a great book for wives to help you understand the significant role you play in helping your husband be the man God is calling him to be. It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. I would encourage you, as a wife, read this book. Maybe, read it with other wives; go through it together in a group study. I think you will find it very helpful, and I think it can have a significant impact in your marriage.
Again, the book is called Finding the Hero in Your Husband. You can request your copy from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com or order by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website here is FamilyLifeToday.com. The number to call: 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
By the way, Juli Slattery recently sat down with Ron Deal, who leads FamilyLife Blended®. The two of them have put together a five-part video series that is all about marital oneness/about intimacy in marriage. It’s called The Nearly Complete Guide to Better Married Sex. Again, this is an online course; there are five sessions. There are instructional videos, audio components, articles, projects for you to do together. The goal is to help you, as a husband and wife, experience all God has for you in this area of marital oneness and intimacy.
You can find out more about The Nearly Complete Guide to Better Married Sex when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; there is a link there. All the information you need is available. I’d encourage you to check this out. Keep in mind Valentine’s Day is coming up; maybe, this is something you guys can do together to help prepare for Valentine’s Day.
And we hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us on Monday when we’re going to hear about God’s design for moms to experience joy, and fulfillment, and life in being a mom; but first, you’ve got to learn what rules to get rid of. Maggie Combs will be here to help with that. I hope you can be here as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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