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By Bruce Atkinson, Ph.D.
Special to Virtueonline
July 18, 2020

Recently I read an article here about the abuse of wives by husbands who are English clergy ( https://virtueonline.org/church-england-accused-turning-blind-eye-priests-abuse-their-wives ). It brought to mind a common marital issue (with attendant misunderstandings) among Bible-believing Christians. Let me share with you this problem and its solution.

As a Christian counselor and psychologist who has been a marriage counselor for over 30 years (and has been married nearly 50), I have noticed some commonalities among many Christians who are struggling with their marriages. When I see a conservative Christian couple, it is common to hear a particular complaint by the husband: "If she would just do what I tell her, everything would be just fine!" He then will refer to a Scripture or two about how wives should submit to their husbands (Col 3:18, Eph 5:22). Rarely does the husband present a balanced view; that is, the husband will bring up what Paul tells wives to do but will not bring up what he told husbands to do (for example, to "love your wife as Christ loves the Church"), and so he avoids reflecting on the ramifications of what it means to love his wife. He also forgets or avoids bringing up Paul's command for both husbands and wives to "submit to each other" (Eph 5:21) and for husbands to not be harsh (Col 3:19).

Here are a few interrelated principles about this pesky issue of submission:

1. In general, God made men to be the leaders -- not dictators or overbearing rulers, but leaders who care more about their wives and children than about themselves. Christian men are unable to accomplish this impossible unselfish task without the Holy Spirit's guidance and empowerment. What this means is: until a husband fully submits to God, then he can be expected to fail in his job of leading and loving his family. If a husband has not submitted fully to God, then it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) for his wife to submit to him. First things first.

2. Leaders must lead -- that is, take the initial steps. In general, because men are to be the leaders in Christian families (and churches), the husband must make the first move toward improvement. Because the husband is the leader, God may not exert His power to change the woman's faults in the relationship until He changes the most grievous of the man's faults. For this to happen, the husband must admit his fallibility and faults (this is called repentance), be humble, and ask God to show him how to change. Positive change works best and quickest when it starts with the husband; this is the general rule.

3. In general, if a husband wants his wife to be more submissive, then he must first learn to love his wife to the extent that she actually feels loved and cherished by him. Paul teaches in 1st Corinthians 13 about love. What is the first thing that Paul tells us? "Love is....." ....that's right, love is patient. Until I learn to be patient with my wife and not be harsh, why would God teach my wife to be submissive to me?

"The husband's part. We picture the 'authoritative' husband as a domineering figure who makes all the decisions himself, issues commands and expects obedience, inhibits and suppresses his wife, and so prevents her from growing into a mature or fulfilled person. But this is not at all the kind of 'headship' which the apostle Paul describes, whose model is Jesus Christ. Certainly, 'headship' implies a degree of leadership and initiative, as when Christ came to woo and to win his bride. But more specifically it implies sacrifice, self-giving for the sake of the beloved, as when Christ gave himself for his bride. If 'headship' means 'power' in any sense, then it is power to care, not to crush, power to serve, not to dominate, power to facilitate self-fulfillment, not to frustrate or destroy it. And in all this the standard of the husband's love is to be the cross of Christ, on which he surrendered himself even to death in his selfless love for his bride." -- John R.W. Stott

4. Submission means more than we think, for He asks us to: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21) This submission is not just for wives, is it?

Moreover, the Apostles taught that we should: "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men..." (1 Peter 2:13) "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." (Romans 13:1) God will bless us if we do so.

Of course, there are a few exceptions, for example (to paraphrase John Stott), if they misuse their God-given authority and presume either to command what God forbids or to forbid what God commands, then we have to say 'no' to them in order to say 'yes' to Christ. As Peter put it, "we must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29).

Again I must emphasize, "Submit yourselves, then, to God" (James 4:7a ). This is the answer to all the most important questions. No one except our heavenly Father is exempt from submission. Submitting to God is always the best we can do for ourselves because God loves us more than we can know -- and when we fully submit to God's will for us, then we can receive forgiveness, healing, and transformation into the "image of Christ." Everyone wins.

"Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!" (Hebrews 12:9) But that does not mean that it is easy. The sinful mind of flesh hates to submit to anyone or anything: "the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so." (Romans 8:7)

So we must first make sure that we are forgiven and that sin has lost its previous power over us. To accomplish this: 1) we must repent of our sins, in prayer and when appropriate, in public, 2) we must believe that Jesus' suffering and death on the Cross paid the price for our forgiveness, 3) we must fully accept and receive God's forgiveness, and 4) we must expect God's transformation into what He wills us to be and to personally work toward it ourselves (Phil 2:12-13).

Summary of marital submission: A Christian psychologist's metaphor

The husband is like the president of the family. Someone must make the final decisions. The "buck stops here." He was elected (by God) for this purpose. He may not always be right and he may not be very bright, but he is always president.

The wife is like the vice president, the chief of staff, the secretary of state, and most of the other cabinet members all rolled into one. No president of any worth is going to ignore the opinions of his cabinet. It is what he has them for... because he cannot know everything. They are a team and must work together. They must communicate and listen respectfully.

If the husband constantly puts his wife down and ignores her feelings and views, he can expect less and less cooperation. In some cases, the cabinet will even sabotage the president's goals and efforts. And this is all because he is a stupid president who does not fully submit to the authority over him (Christ and the Word of God) and does not value what his partner brings to the table, does not show adequate consideration of her needs and feelings. Not listening to his cabinet can bring down any presidency. And we have plenty of evidence that, in frustration, the president can become abusive and/or unfaithful.

Dr. Bruce Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He also has an M.S. in research psychology from Illinois State U. and a B.A. from Beloit College. He is Moderator and a frequent contributor at VirtueOnline.org

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