How Misunderstanding “Submission” Can Kill Your Marriage

Sheila at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum is one of my favorite marriage bloggers out there, and today’s post illustrates why. What starts as a post about legalism turns into something very different toward the end. Make sure you read it all. 

Is your view of marriage focused on relationship and intimacy, or rules and legalism?

This week we’re talking about the dangers of legalism. I shared my story of a summer missions trip with a legalistic organization, and yesterday for Top 10 Tuesday we looked at the 10 signs your church or Christian community may be legalistic.

Now, every Wednesday we always talk marriage, and so today I want to turn that discussion towards marriage and ask, “how do we know if we’re following a legalistic view of marriage?”

First, a few basic things. Something can be called legalistic when it judges success based on obedience to rules, rather than cultivating authentic wholeness. When outward appearance is stressed more than inward qualities, then the relationship is legalistic.

Let’s take a different example to show what I mean. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at whether your parenting practices border on legalistic or not. As I talked about recently in my post on whether we have to teach kids they’re sinners, if your main motivation is getting kids to obey you, rather than on teaching kids to learn what’s right on their own, then you may be veering into legalism. One approach focuses on making sure kids outwardly obey; the other approach focuses on raising kids who will have the discernment to choose what is right. It’s training the heart versus training the behaviour.

Can this translate into marriage?

I think it can. So let’s talk first principles for a second. God created marriage to be an intimate relationship where we share our bodies and souls with each other. We share a purpose. One of my favourite marriage verses doesn’t look like a marriage verse, but I pray it for my kids and their marriages all the time:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)

Isn’t that beautiful? And we also feel connected and loved!

The goal of marriage is to feel like you’re one.

You want to feel like you are truly intimate and connected, and with that connection, you want to glorify and serve God together. And as Gary Thomas said so well in his book Sacred Marriage, marriage is the vehicle that God uses to help us grow more like Him. We learn to be less selfish and more giving. Marriage refines us so that we learn to give, and in so doing, we grow in oneness.

That would be considered the “inward” condition that we want to achieve.

Now let’s work backwards for a minute.

If the goal is intimate oneness where we reflect Jesus and serve Him together, what is necessary to achieve that?

  • First, we need to be fully known and understood. You can’t feel like you’re one with someone who doesn’t know you. Thus, you both must be able to share your thoughts, feelings, and dreams freely.
  • Second, we need to feel loved.
  • Third, we need to be connecting regularly, emotionally, sexually and spiritually. We are three-fold beings, so to feel like we’re one involves cultivating all aspects of our relationship.
  • Fourth, when there are things that may hinder oneness, like conflicts, or hurts, these must be dealt with effectively so that we feel in unity once again. They can’t merely be swept under the rug. We must MAKE peace, not just KEEP peace, because, as I explained in detail in Thought 6 of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, you can’t have oneness if you’re focusing on being a peacekeeper. You have to deal with problems.
  • Fifth, we need to serve one another. Both spouses must feel supported, because we both need each other. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

All right. That’s what oneness looks like.

So how can this oneness go off track? 

If one person’s needs are deemed to be more important than another person’s needs, then oneness is impossible to achieve.

That’s it in a nutshell. You can’t have oneness if one person is doing all of the giving, and another all of the receiving. If the relationship is out of balance, then you can’t share your real needs, so you can’t be fully known. That also means you can’t truly make peace. All you can do is shove things under the rug and try to keep peace.

Every time we put things under the rug and refuse to deal with an issue, we are focusing on outward appearances at the expense of inward truth.

Do you understand that? When we are focused on keeping the marriage looking as if it is healthy, rather than taking the steps to actually make the marriage happy, then we are focusing on the outward.

Read Next on Thriving Marriages  5 Tips for Building Trust in a Marriage

Some of you may have had alarm bells go off already in reading that. Then here’s the next part. Focusing on the outward does not, in and of itself, make a marriage legalistic. However:

If what you believe about marriage results in you sweeping things under the rug rather than dealing with them, then you are likely following a legalistic view of marriage.

I’ve written a ton on submission on this blog, and I actually think I may take some of the most important posts and rerun them for a whole week later this month because it’s worth revisiting. And I wrote a lot about submission in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage.

What I have seen in many Christian circles, though, is that the definition of submission that is taught is that the husband makes the decisions, and the wife follows. Here’s where things get especially tricky. If you believe that what God wants most is that the husband makes the decisions, then the biggest goal for marriage stops being oneness and starts being a particular way to live out the marriage partnership.

Then we may add more rules to it, too: He has to look after the finances while she stays at home with the kids. He has to work full time while she is at home full time. She has to do all the cooking and childcare; he has to mow the grass. It’s less about who has what interests or giftings and more about doing things in one particular way. Suddenly instead of trying to ask, “how can we best achieve oneness?”, we’re asking, “How can our marriage look like everyone’s telling us it should look like?”

So let me ask you this question: What is the goal of your marriage?

If the answer to that question focuses on roles, like “becoming the woman my husband needs” or “encouraging his leadership” or even “living out God’s model for marriage”, then you’re being legalistic. You’re focusing on the outward rules as goals, rather than the inward reality. You’re mixing up means with ends.

When we make them our goals, too often we sabotage oneness.

If your goal is to “become the wife your husband needs”, for instance, then you may sweep your own needs under the rug, and prevent him from really knowing who you are. That doesn’t build oneness.

If your goal is to submit to his leadership, you may stop praying together and wrestling to find God’s will, and you may start to equate following your husband’s will with following God’s will. That’s not going to bring proper oneness, either.

If your goals in marriage are to live out proper roles, then instead of learning how to resolve conflict and make peace and love one another as you need, you may focus on what marriage is supposed to look like. Then you’ll grow emotionally distant, even as you may look like the model couple in your church.

Let me leave you today with this prayer from Romans 15:5-6:

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, 6so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In marriage, may we be of the same mind with one another–having the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-11).  May we be of one accord, because we have achieved real oneness. And may we use that oneness to then, with one voice, glorify our Lord and Saviour.

That’s what real marriage should look like. You serve each other, you love and respect each other, you look out for each other–so that you can have real oneness serving God. Please, don’t accept a cheap substitute that may look shiny, but that isn’t real.