Editor’s Note: In this first article of a three-part mini-series on the BCC Grace and Truth blog addressing counseling the husband of an insubmissive wife, Jim Newheiser discusses submission in light of biblical marriage roles and offers counsel on what can be done when a husband and wife have differing views on marriage roles. In other contributions to the series, Robert Jones provides five biblical principles that counselors should bring to help Christian husbands live in godly ways with an insubmissive wife, and Jonathan Holmes considers the husband’s expectations and what the husband should do when his expectation of submission is not fulfilled.
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
God Designed Marriage Roles from Creation
God created the woman to be a suitable helper for her husband (Gen. 2:18), who was to be her loving leader. This role distinction was established before the Fall. “For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake” (1 Cor. 11:9). Marriage, with its distinct roles, was designed by God to reflect His relationship with His people (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:25).
This Is Not a New Problem
While the rise of feminism in the past century has led to a widespread denial of gender roles, submission has been a struggle ever since the Fall, when the woman was told, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The “desire”1The same Hebrew word, translated desire, is used in Genesis 4:7 of the desire of sin to control Cain. of the woman refers to the sinful propensity wives will have to reject their role by trying to take over headship in the marriage relationship. “He will rule over you” refers to the tendency fallen men will have to sinfully dominate their wives rather than to exercise loving leadership.
Both of these sinful tendencies must be addressed when biblical marriage roles are not being fulfilled.
Husband, Do You Misunderstand Submission?
Many wives find it extremely difficult to submit to husbands who have an unbiblically proud and selfish view of headship and submission.2Some use the term “hyper-headship” to describe such men. Husbands, the fact that God has made you the leader in marriage does not mean that you are superior to your wife. She is your spiritual equal—a fellow heir of the grace of life (Gal. 3:29; 1 Pet. 3:7). While she is exhorted to submit to you, you are never authorized to subjugate her. Nor does her subordinate role in marriage mean that you are to exercise leadership unilaterally. A wise husband respects his wife and heeds the wisdom God has given to her (Prov. 31:10, 26). He uses his leadership, not selfishly, but to serve his wife as Jesus used His authority to wash His disciples’ feet (John 13:1ff). Such loving leadership makes submission much easier for his wife.
You Cannot Compel Your Wife to Follow You
There is an important difference between the way parents are called to deal with rebellious children and the way a husband interacts with a wife who refuses to follow his leadership. Parents are authorized by God to compel the obedience of their children through discipline (Prov. 13:24; 22:15). Husbands, however, cannot force their wives to obey.
For example, Tom wants his family to join Faithful Bible Church, but his wife, Sally, wants to attend First Seeker-Sensitive Fellowship. Tom can encourage Sally to join him at Faithful Bible Church. He can try to explain his reasons for seeking to lead his family in this direction. But he can’t make her submit to his leadership. Tom might say, “I am convinced that this is the church we should join, and I am asking you to follow me. But if you are unwilling, this is now between you and the Lord.” He should continue to treat her with grace and love.
What Can Be Done When a Couple Can’t Agree about Their Marriage Roles?
Can a Godly Older Woman Counsel the Wife?
A wife who is struggling to follow her husband’s leadership may find it easier to be taught about these issues by someone other than her husband. She is probably well aware of what he thinks.
Scripture teaches that older women should “encourage younger women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the Word of God will not be dishonored” (Titus 2:3-4). This passage shows that the issue of wives struggling with submission is not a new one. Younger Christian wives in the first century needed help from older women in their struggle to honor God in their marriage roles.
Can They Get Counsel Together?
If a couple can’t agree on how to carry out their marriage roles, it would be wise for them to seek biblical counsel together. It could be that both of them misunderstand submission or have blind spots regarding their own failure to honor God in the marriage. It is almost always best to have a godly couple, rather than just a man (even if he is a pastor), counsel them together so that the wife will sense that she has a female advocate in the counseling room (and she won’t be tempted to feel that she is being ganged up upon by two men).
Is Church Discipline Ever an Option?
There are rare situations in which counseling could lead to a process of church discipline. For example, a husband’s unbiblical view of his headship might become abusive, or a wife might be involved in destructive sinful patterns from which she will not repent, such as massively overspending and getting the family deeply into debt.3If a wife is overspending, we would want to first address not merely the behavior, but the heart issues behind her actions (Mark 7:21ff).
Conclusion: The Gospel Offers Hope
When we become Christians, God transforms us into new creatures who have been set free from slavery to sin and empowered to glorify and serve Him (2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 6:6).
The husband who has experienced Christ’s gracious love can strive to win his wife’s loving submission by loving her in a Christlike way. John writes, “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Just as Jesus sought us and loved us when we were rebellious sinners, a godly husband should lovingly do good for his wife, even if she doesn’t follow his leadership as she should. Just as God’s kindness led us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), the husband of an insubmissive wife should continue to treat her better than she deserves for Christ’s sake, hoping that God will use such gracious love to soften her heart.
In the same way, the mind of a Christian wife is renewed so that her attitude toward her role is not governed by worldly wisdom, but by God’s perfect Word (Rom. 12:1-2). She looks upon following and helping her husband as part of her service to Christ (Eph. 5:23-24).4Thankfully, my experience on this topic is through counseling others and not in my own marriage!
Questions for Reflection
- How can we help Christian women who were raised in a culture of feminism to understand their roles properly?
- How can we counsel men whose hyper-headship views do not accurately reflect the biblical teaching on marital roles?
- How can a husband seek to win a wife who doesn’t embrace her biblical role?