FamilyLife Today® Podcast

What to Do When a Wife Won’t Submit

with C.J. Mahaney | May 31, 2011
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What do you do when a wife won’t submit? C.J. Mahaney talks frankly with men about the challenging issue of submission.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • What do you do when a wife won’t submit? C.J. Mahaney talks frankly with men about the challenging issue of submission.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

What do you do when a wife won’t submit?

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What to Do When a Wife Won’t Submit

With C.J. Mahaney
May 31, 2011
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Bob:  Is your relationship in your marriage characterized by grace and growth in godliness, or is it characterized by one or both of you trying to control the other one?  Here is Pastor C. J. Mahaney.

C.J.: A woman commits adultery and repents.  She and her husband re-build the marriage, painstakingly, patiently.  Eight months later, the man finds himself plagued with subtle suspiciousness.  The husband is grieved by his suspiciousness because he has no objective reasons for his suspicion. 

“I have forgiven her.  We have rebuilt our marriage.  We have never communicated better.  Why do I hold on to this mistrust?”  What finally emerges is that he is willing to forgive the past, but he is attempting to control the future.  His cravings could be stated this way, “I want to guarantee that betrayal never, ever happens again.” 

The very intensity of his cravings starts to poison the relationship.  It places him in the stance of continually evaluating and judging his wife rather than caring for and loving her. 

Bob:   This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, May 31st.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey; and I'm Bob Lepine.   Today, C. J. Mahaney helps us look at what leading well looks like in a marriage relationship.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today; thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition.  It was more than a decade ago now when we were in Dallas for an event that has become somewhat of a landmark event, I think.  About 1,000 pastors gathered for an event that we co-hosted with our friends at the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood called “Building Strong Families in Your Church.”  Over the course of a couple of days, these church leaders had a chance to hear from dozens of well-respected pastors and theologians talking about how we can strengthen families through local churches.

Dennis:  That is right.  One of the things we sought to do through that conference was go to the earthy, challenging issues that make up the local church.  That isn’t always picture-perfect marriages.  In fact, most marriages in the local church are in process. 

One of the issues we wanted to talk about was what a husband should do when his wife refuses to follow him.  Now, all of this, Bob, assumes that the husband is leading.  That is a major problem.  We could               easily have a message today:  “What to Do When Your Husband Doesn’t Lead”.  Well, that is not today’s message.  This is entitled, “What to Do When a Wife Won’t Submit.” 

Having been one who has not always led Barbara in a way that has made it easy for her to submit, I can tell you it is a lot easier to make Christian marriage work if a husband is allowing his wife process time when it comes to decisions.  It is much better if he brings her into the counsel of his own heart and makes her his

partner in life.  That way, he ensures that she will follow when he sets a course for their marriage. 

Bob: Now, this is something of a controversial topic in churches today.    Regular listeners to FamilyLife Today are going to recognize that we believe that the Bible teaches that a husband is called to lovingly lead his wife and that a wife is called to respectfully submit to her husband. 

As we gathered together with these pastors, we asked a fellow pastor, C. J. Mahaney, who was at that time the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where he served from more than a quarter of a century before moving on to become the head of Sovereign Grace Ministries and overseeing a group of churches. 

We asked him to address this topic because he shares the same biblical conviction that we do—that the husband has the responsibility to lovingly lead his wife and the wife has the responsibility to respond to her husband’s leadership.

Dennis:  C.J. is also an author.  He is a counselor.  He and his wife, Caroline, have three daughters and a son.  I think you’re going to hear not only a biblically-sound message but you’re also going to hear some practical application that I think will encourage you.  Let’s listen to C.J. Mahaney.

(Pre-recorded Message)

C.J.:  In my reading experience, most of the popular Christian books that are published today addressing the topic of marriage and married couples are woefully deficient theologically in general; and they assume or neglect the Gospel in particular.  The Gospel is the only essential message in all of history; yet, we allow thousands of professing Christians to live their entire lives without clearly understanding it and experiencing the joy of living in it.  We must not allow that. 

Don’t ever assume that those you have the privilege to care for and counsel have a sufficient understanding of or appreciation for the Gospel.  Don’t ever assume that.  Paul did not assume that regardless of whom he was addressing. 

Beginning with his letter to the Galatians and ending with his letter to Second Timothy, he never assumed that there was on the part of his readers, those he was addressing, a sufficient understanding and appreciation of the Gospel.  And we must—we must emulate his example.

First Corinthians, Chapter 2, please.  I’d like to draw your attention to a church that was being seduced by human wisdom—that was drifting from the centrality of the Gospel.  Actually, the primary theme, theologically, of 1 Corinthians is frighteningly relevant to the church today.  To this church, he writes, “For I resolve to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Paul intentionally—Paul strategically—Paul theologically focused on that which was central.  Paul is Gospel-centered.  Paul is cross-centered. 

The question this afternoon is, “Is it of first importance to me?  Is it of first importance to you?” 

An understanding of the Gospel is far from exhaustive.  It provides:  No. 1, an appreciation of grace; No. 2, the assurance of God’s love; and No. 3, particularly relevant to our topic, protection from legalism because I think this is a peculiar temptation and tendency related to a husband whose wife is not following him. 

Legalism involves seeking to achieve forgiveness from God, justification before God, and acceptance by God through my obedience to God.  Evidences of legalism are as follows:  You are more aware of your past sin than you are the finished work of the cross.  An individual who is more aware of his or her past sin than the finished work of the cross is evidencing legalism. 

Secondly, you think, believe, or feel that God is disappointed with you rather than delighting over you—an evidence of legalism.  No. 3, you assume that his acceptance is dependent upon your obedience.  No. 4, you consistently experience condemnation.  An individual characterized by condemnation, consistently paralyzed by condemnation, evidences legalism.  No. 5—again, this is not exhaustive, but I hope helpful—you lack joy. 

Everyone here is vulnerable to legalism, but I submit to you that a husband whose wife isn’t following him is particularly vulnerable to legalism and all of the above effects.  It is critical that he understands the difference between justification and sanctification.  It is critical. 

Justification is complete upon conversion.  It is immediate upon conversion.  The moment one trusts in the person and finished work of Christ, they are justified.  Sanctification is progressive.  There is nothing progressive about justification.  The moment you were converted, you were justified by the grace of God.  You will never be more justified than you were at that moment.  Nobody in history will ever be more justified than you are at this moment if you are trusting in the person and the finished work of Jesus Christ. 

That is different from sanctification.  Sanctification is progressive; obviously, throughout our lifetime.  We make no contribution to the grounds or basis of our justification, except as Luther writes, “...the sins God so graciously forgives.”  That is our only contribution to justification—the sins God so graciously forgives.  We make no contribution. 

That husband must maintain that distinction or else he will become self-righteous as he assumes God’s approval through his obedience, or he will be paralyzed through condemnation as he is preoccupied and overwhelmed with his sinfulness and their consequences.  

So, Point No. 1, don’t assume the Gospel.  Until he understands how the guilt of sin is resolved through the Gospel, he will never be able to overcome the power of sin which will occupy your attention obviously through this process.  So, No. 1, don’t assume the Gospel.

Number 2, develop the Doctrine of Sin and Sanctification.  Develop the Doctrine of Sin and Progressive Sanctification. We begin with the Doctrine of Sin.  Obviously, not as a Christian, nor was this individual addressing the church; but the following statement by

George Orwell, sadly, I think, has great relevance to us today.  He writes, “We have now sunk to such a depth that the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”  I think due to doctrinal ignorance, indifference, and the uncritical acceptance and popularity of the therapeutic movement by evangelicals, we have sadly sunk to such a depth that the restatement of the obvious is my duty here this afternoon. 

The obvious is this:  Our root problem, our most serious problem, is sin.  That is the irreducible heart of human problems.  J. C. Ryle writes, “Dim or indistinct views of sin are the origin of most of the errors, heresies, and false doctrines of the present day.”  I submit to you that dim or indistinct views of sin abound today. 

Again, in my reading experience of popular Christian literature today, you will read more references to one’s past, one’s parents, one’s pain, low self-esteem, than you will references to sin as biblically defined; but if you read your Bible, there isn’t a dim or indistinct view of sin in your Bible.  Mark Chapter 7, our Lord says, “What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean for from within, out of a man’s heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, (the list continues), envy, slander, arrogance, and folly.  All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.” 

Even at one moment when our Lord is commending the disciples, he doesn’t deviate from the Doctrine of Sin.  He says to the disciples, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, then how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.” 

Paul writes that it is a “trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”—Paul, chief of sinners.  If the husband isn’t convinced that he is the chief of sinners, he will probably be convinced that his wife is the chief of sinners.  They will make no progress relationally until he is convinced that he is the chief of sinners, and the Doctrine of Sin will serve him in this regard.  So, develop the Doctrines of Sin and Sanctification. 

No. 3, and I am not going to elaborate on this because it has been well taught by teachers who are more effective than I—define biblical leadership.  I want him to memorize, meditate, and apply Ephesians 5:25-33.  I do not want him meditating on verses 22, 23 and 24.  I want him meditating and applying 25 through 33. 

And in a word—as Paul describes love and the example of Christ’s love for the Church—in a word, this love is sacrifice. What I would seek to do in serving the husband is ask him what he can do for his wife each day, what he can do for his wife each week, that can be truly defined as sacrifice.  For in that way, he will be emulating the Savior’s love for the Church.  So I would emphasize that point alone.

No. 4, decide to forgive.  We need to prepare this husband for the inevitable; and the inevitable is that his wife is going to sin against him; and he is going to be tempted to retaliate.  I was reading a story of an airline pilot.  This was according to this pilot his favorite story.  It was about an elderly couple who were flying first class. 

They were sitting behind a businessman who was enormously frustrated with them.  They had been just ahead of him in line at the gate and again boarding the plane.  They moved slowly, but he was in a hurry.  When the meal was served, they delayed the businessman again by having to get some pills from the overhead storage, inadvertently dropping a battered duffle bag. 

“What’s the matter with you people?” he exploded loudly enough for the whole cabin to hear.  “I am amazed you ever get anywhere.  Why can’t you just stay home?”  To register his anger, the man sat down and reclined his seat back as hard as he could—so hard that the elderly husband’s tray of food spilled all over him and his wife.

The flight attendant apologized to the couple profusely.  “Is there anything we can do?” she asked.  The husband explained that it was their 50th wedding anniversary.  They were flying for the first time.  “Let me at least bring you a bottle of wine,” the flight attendant offered.  She did so.  When it was uncorked, the old husband stood up; and he proposed a toast.  He poured the bottle of wine over the head of the impatient businessman sitting in front of him. 

Now, the husband you are counseling, he is not allowed to do that to his wife!  Okay?  (laughter)  But aren’t you glad somebody does do that?  (laughter)  I derive a sinful joy from that story.  I am not endorsing that.  That was sinful activity, but it sure feels good to read about it!  (laughter) 

This will be the husband’s temptation.  We can impress upon him the importance of forgiveness and forgiving his wife because what Mathew 18 teaches is that those who have been forgiven the immeasurable should never be reluctant to forgive the trivial.  That is Matthew 18.  That is that passage related to forgiveness.  Scripture is clear.  Because we are the most forgiven people in the world, we should be the most forgiving people in the world. 

Finally, determine to glorify God.  This is where counseling must begin, particularly when a husband is experiencing the resistance or the rejection of his leadership by his wife.  His motive must be God-centered and God-glorifying, not wife-centered.

He must ultimately seek to please and glorify God, not convict or convert his wife.  Listen carefully.  I cannot guarantee that his wife ultimately will respond to his leadership; but I can help him to align his motive with God’s purpose.  I can help him to be God-centered.  I can help him to be God-glorifying, not man-centered or wife-centered. 

A restored relationship with his wife must not be his ultimate passion and priority.  If it is, he’s an idolater.  My counseling then cultivates idolatry in his life.  I must help him to discern his motive.  I must help him to align his motive with God’s will and the chief end of man which is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “The glory of God is a silver thread which must run through all of our actions.”  The practical benefits are three, and then I close.

He will be less vulnerable to intimidation by his wife and manipulation from his wife.  If his motive is to glorify God, he will be less vulnerable to intimidation and to manipulation.  What the Scriptures refer to as the fear of man.  No. 2, he will be protected from sinful reaction if and when she doesn’t respond appropriately to his care, to his service and to his leadership.  He can be satisfied with and secure in the knowledge that God is pleased with his motive and his obedience, regardless of his wife’s response and even experiencing his wife’s rejection of his care, his service, and his leadership. 

No. 3, if he determines to glorify God, he will be less likely to seek or demand from her what only God can provide.  He will be satisfied with and by God, and he will seek to simply serve his wife.

Bob: We have been listening today to a message C. J. Mahaney presented more than a decade ago at the “Building Strong Families in Your Church” event that FamilyLife hosted along with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in Dallas, Texas.  C. J. was speaking on how a husband can kindly and lovingly lead his wife, even when she is resistant to his leadership.

Dennis:  Bob, I love what C.J. did as he lifted our eyes away from the horizontal back to the vertical and who God is because it is God’s image that is at stake in our marriages.  Marriage is not just a physical institution.  It is intensely spiritual.  That is why our choices, and how we react, and how we respond to our mates is very, very important.

Bob:   I think he needs to see clearly what his assignment as a husband is.  It is one of the things that here at FamilyLife we have tried hard to provide men with helpful instruction and counsel in understanding their role as a husband. 

Robert Lewis has written a very helpful book called Rocking the Roles that clearly defines a husband’s responsibility and a wife’s responsibility in a marriage relationship.  I worked a number of years ago on a book called The Christian Husband and talked in that book what loving your wife looks like.  Let me just encourage our listeners.  Go to if you would like to order one of the resources we have talked about or look at some of the articles we have online to better understand this issue.

Again, our website:  Let me just say that while we believe that the Bible clearly indicates that a husband has a responsibility for leadership, that does not mean that husband has any license to be uncaring, unloving, dictatorial, or selfish in his leadership. 

His model for this is Jesus Christ.  I think sometimes there are men who read that they have a responsibility to lead and they take that as a license to be a dictator.  That is not what the Bible teaches at all.  We address that, again, in these books and articles that I have mentioned.

Go to for more information about a husband’s responsibilities in marriage.  I also encourage listeners to get a copy of your new book, Dennis, Stepping Up:  A Call to Courageous Manhood, because you talk about what courageous leadership ought to look like in a husband’s life, not just in a marriage relationship, but in every aspect of a man’s life.  It is a great book.  It is called Stepping Up:  A Call to Courageous Manhood.  You can find out more online at 

Today is the last day of the month of May.  As many of our listeners know, this month we have been asking listeners to consider helping us take advantage of a matching-gift opportunity that was presented to us back several weeks ago—some listeners came along and said, “We want to encourage FamilyLife Today listeners to help provide the ministry with funds that can get us through the summer months when donations tend to drop.”  They offered a matching gift of $750,000, the largest matching gift we have ever received outside of the month of December. 

We have been trying to get the word out.  Many of you have responded; and we want to say, “Thank you so much,” to those of you who have sent in a $20-, $50-, or $100-donation.  Some of you have sent in more than that.  We are so grateful, so encouraged by the response we have gotten.  Of course, today is the last day.  Whatever we wind up with at the end of today, that is how much of that matching gift we are going to be able to take advantage of. 

Let me encourage you, if you can do anything today to go online at or call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation, either online or over the phone.  We would appreciate it.  There is a thermometer on the website that we are updating regularly today so that folks can see how close we are getting to our $750,000 matching-gift goal.  We do hope to hear from you.  If there is anything you can do, and we do appreciate your financial support of this ministry.  We appreciate you very much. 

We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow when Ron Deal is going to join us.  We are going to talk particularly to step-fathers about some of the challenges step-dads face and about how a man can be a wise step-father.  I hope you can tune in for that. 

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey.  I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.


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