Just whose wife am I anyway?

In the first place, I wish I could take credit for coming to that critical question on my own, but really it was a slow train coming, and on the caboose was a friend who during her own womanly journey snagged this obscure little bit of Scripture: "If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home." (1 Cor. 14: 35) I admittedly have no intention of diving into the minefield of context on this one. I've honestly seldom been able to notice these words through the din of those that surround it, but my friend drew them out for me and gave me a timeless, culture-spanning use for them.
"I think one of the reasons...to learn from our own husbands at home (in a good marriage) is because that's the one person who loves us most and is most willing to protect us."
On came the lights. "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord." (Eph. 5:22, all emphasis mine.)

Now, let me put on the brakes for a moment, for the sake of anyone who may happen across these words who is either not a Christian, or else one not from a fundamentalist background, who will no doubt think this is nutty, turn-of-the-twentieth-century, backwoods talk, and clarify that I am speaking as a Christian person who has spent many years within the world of fundamentalism and is these days, for a number of reasons, taking a fresh look at what Christianity really does and does not require of its women. If you don't mind bearing with me, perhaps you can gain some understanding into our little world. As you are likely aware, our book of Scripture was written in a different time, in a different culture with different mores: a middle-eastern, tribal, patriarchal culture. As a result, it is important for us to understand what principles underlie the instructions given all those years ago, what they would have represented to the original recipients, and how to appropriately apply them in our own cultural context. For example, what is the first thing you think of when you see a woman with a head scarf: 'Oh look, there goes a married, chaste, devout woman?' Likely not. In fact, such a head covering represents something vastly different to westerners these days. Here and now, what used to be represented by a headscarf is conveyed by a wedding ring on a woman who is modestly attired - meaning: not in an ostentatious, or sexually provocative manner.

Now, when we come to the word "submit", if your knee jerks, it's okay. Mine does, too. I understand. That word has been so abused for so long that it's to be expected. And here is where we can begin to loop back around to my point. (Yes, I do have one.) Let me begin with a wildly popular verse that never did exist in the Bible: "Husbands, make your wives submit." That's right, I said that is NOT Scripture. Men are never given that command, or that responsibility. In fact, according to Jesus, no Christian with any degree of authority is to use it to lord over anyone.
"But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt. 20:25-28)
And the same, we are told, clearly applies in the husband/wife relationship: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." (see Eph. 5:25-29) And, just in case that is too heady a concept, husbands are further told to love their wives as much as their own bodies, which, I assure you, is a LOT. (Go ahead, take a minute to think about the devotion men have to their bodies....That's a whole lotta love! And a lot of nurturing and respect.) So, while the Christian man is living that love out on his wife, the wife is told, by the Scripture, to respect that man and submit to his care.

That man. Not some other man. Not some woman. Not some "Bible teacher" - man or woman.

When the lights came on, I realized that I've been taking my cues on what it means to be a "good" wife, a Christian wife, just about everywhere but from my husband. I've read books, and listened to sermons, lectures, and the advice of fellow Christians. I've taken it all in and, over the years, internalized it, along with all my other cultural idealizations of "the perfect wife".

A word about "complementarianism"

To the right is a diagram of complementary angles.

"The adjective complementary is from Latin complementum, associated with the verb complere, "to fill up". An acute angle is 'filled up' by its complement to form a right angle."

"Why are Complementary Colors Important in Color Theory?

When placed next to each other, complementary colors make each other appear brighter, more intense. The shadow of an object will also contain its complementary color, for example the shadow of a green apple will contain some red."

The dictionary defines the word "complementary" this way: 

1.  Forming or serving as a complement; completing.
2.  Supplying mutual needs or offsetting mutual lacks.

If we're truthful we have to admit that the Scripture gives precious little practical advice about being a "perfect wife". All it gives are a few over-arching principles. And suddenly this makes perfect sense to me. I am to be subject to my own husband, and to learn what it means to be his wife from him. After all, every man is different. Every woman is different. Every marriage is different. That's the way God intended it. We are not clones but uniquely gifted individuals. Not only that, but every culture is different and so is every age. The Scripture is meant to be versatile and timeless, valuable to every person in every era. In the old days, and I mean very old days, God created man and announced, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." (Gen. 2:18) And the man was delighted with her. She was just what he needed. She was his "help" - his support in weakness. Together they were one. That's were this idea of "complementarianism" we hear so much about these days comes from, and, based upon the definitions and illustrations above, I think that is a perfect description of what the marriage relationship is meant to be. But here's where I see that the idea has taken a wrong turn. Instead of treating each man and each wife as individuals complementing each others' own strengths and weaknesses, encouraging them to fill in and support each other as needed, whatever that may look like, many influential church leaders have chosen one single example from from the host of possible complementary relationship styles and set it up as a pre-fab model for all Christian men and women, expecting them all, no matter how different they may be, to conform to it. So, by way of example, instead of having a wide range of pairs of complementary angles, we are all required to be 60 and 30 degrees. Instead of a spectrum of colors, we are only allowed violet and yellow. Not only is that boring, it's wrong. God created the spectrum. We are all different. When we try to be what we are not, we cannot be what God created us to be. We spend all our energies trying to make ourselves into someone else's image, squeeze ourselves into someone else's ideal.

My husband is an intellectual and very creative man. As it happens, he would rather I write poems than clean the house. He'd prefer I paint canvasses than do laundry - really. My husband would like to cook meals once in a while. My husband would rather I sit and talk with him on the unmade bed than get up and make it. He would rather I giggle, dance, and cry than be the picture of cool, staid contentment. There are dozens of things just like this that would delight Paul which, until a couple of days ago, I would not do. Why? Because cooking, cleaning, organizing, and maintaining decorum were all the things "good wives" do, and they took up all my time. In this and so many other, deeper ways I would not submit to my husband. I would read articles for Christian wives and feel so wrong. When I would tell Paul how I felt, he'd say, in no uncertain terms, "I don't want that kind of wife! I married you!" Then I would secretly think, well, this person, this Bible teacher is so godly - perhaps Paul is wrong... and I'd go ahead and follow or fret over the advice anyway. That, my friends, is NOT submission.

So, whose wife am I anyway? Paul's wife, that's who. He's yellow-orange and he fell in love with  my blue-violet, because something in his soul told him that was just what was needed to complete him, to make him shine brighter and with more intensity. I agreed to be his wife because I felt the same way. So why am I not writing poems? Why am I not painting? Why am I not dancing, laughing, and letting Paul cook dinner? I'm done taking my cues on what kind of wife I should be from anyone but him. I'm determined to honor the unique man that he is. From here on out I submit myself to my own husband. When it comes to what it means to be a good wife to him, beyond the Scripture, no one but he has a right to inform me.  I will learn from him at home.

[You will find a follow-up to this post here.]


Lisa notes... said…
Nicely said, Laurie!
C.L. Dyck said…
Laurie, wow. I have tears in my eyes reading this. I fight the "good wife" thing every day, because it's the first thing I learned about Christianity when I came to it. I started in from a completely secular perspective and wanted so much to learn how to be a Christian.

"He's yellow-orange and he fell in love with with my blue-violet, because something in his soul told him that was just what was needed to complete him, to make him shine brighter and with more intensity. I agreed to be his wife because I felt the same way."

That is one of the most beautiful statements I've read in awhile.
Ancoti said…
A great post! I have often felt that this is a most misunderstood passage of Scripture, probably because in our sin nature we wish to be rebellious to concepts such as these. But a man and woman in a true relationship as God intended, both fulfilling their roles, will be blessed to have this happen.

I know I am incomplete without Lucille, she is truly my rib that completes me when I hold her close as I should and love her as this passage lays out.

I love deep thinking like this early in the morning!
LouAnneL said…
Laurie, I can NOT thank you enough for this article! My husband would shout a HEARTY AMEN if he was home with me right now. I can't tell you the number of times we've had this conversation, because he doesn't want a "stepford wife", he wants me for some odd reason. I kept not believing him because I'm definitely not the woman I read about in books on being a "godly wife." Thank you again.. I needed this so badly.
Kerri said…
This is a theme that has been running around in my head of late as well. I have spent about the last 20 years trying to be the "perfect, godly, jumper wearing, house keeping homeschooling wife." and I have never yet achieved it. I simply end up frustrated and feeling condemned. My husband has always encouraged me to paint and draw and I have always felt guilty if I took any time for it. I so regret all this time that I've spent trying to live up to other women's standards. When it came down to it, they never were real friends and as soon as I didn't measure up I lived in fear that they would "dump" me. Meanwhile, I've been better at figuring out what they thought best than my husband. Ugh. Well, I guess it's better to learn later than never...
Cecilia said…
yes. and we are not called to submit to any other man, so it is not that all women are subject to all men, but that as a wife we submit to and are protected by our one man. Thank God!
Laurie M. said…
Amen to that, Cecilia.

It's a subject for another post perhaps, but I'd add that the head of a husband is Christ, NOT his pastor and favorite Bible teachers. The trend in some circles toward hierarchical structures, or even just the natural tendency of some men (like many women) to submit to whatever their pastor or other influential figure in the church says can mean that a woman is, in submitting to her husband, in reality submitting to any number of men her husband has submitted himself to.
WhiteStone said…
Laurie, I like what you wrote here. I was reading on authoritarianism this morning and about some of those "authorities" and it made me shudder. It is so easy to fall under the spell of some "authority" and thing we are following Christ.

Christ our only Savior. And our husband our only husband. Amen!
Megan said…
Laurie, I'm completely new to your blog, but a friend passed along this post because she knew I'd love it. And I do! I just began a blog several weeks ago dedicated to discussing things like patriarchy, complementarianism and other related issues. It's been tough, but very fruitful. I found your explanation of what submission actually means in light of the creation account beautiful, and very encouraging to me. I so wish the church would teach and support this more. So keep up the good work!
Laurie M. said…
I'm glad you stopped by. I'll be sure to visit your new blog later this evening.
I'm not the likely person to have happened upon a topic like this. I've always pretty much accepted the status quo on these issues and didn't give it much thought, that is, until I began to realize my husband's idea of a Christian marriage was very different from mine. I was trying to drag him into a type of marriage that he wanted no part of, and did not believe was truly biblical at all. I was submitting my views to the teaching of others about how my marriage should be and not my husband, and then trying to drag him into their way of thinking. The day I realized this,admitted to my self that it really was so and that I didn't have to answer to the demands of the marriage advice gurus, books, or anyone else but Christ and my dear husband (who loves me and would die for me), I felt like the prison doors had been thrown open.

Again, thank you for stopping by!
Megan said…
Oh my goodness, Laurie, those could have been my exact words about a year ago. One evening I finally told my husband about my realization, and his excited reply continues to ring in my head: "Honey, it's about time!" Looking back over the years I'm now ashamed realizing how much I hindered his love for me his and growth in the Lord. Scary, since being a stumbling block is no minor thing.

So my husband doesn't care if I leave the dishes for tomorrow, but he does care tremendously if I don't read books to share with him or have writing and editing projects. And he doesn't want me to homeschool, but he does want to teach music to our girls himself. I hear so often that submission is doing what our husbands want us to do, even when we don't want to. But I'm finding the exact opposite! The freedom in truly submitting, in finding that what my loving husband wants is exactly what I want anyway, is indescribable.

Good to know more husbands and wives are preaching freedom for the captives!
Anonymous said…
Wow, this is the best I've seen on this topic. I have to pass this along, of course, I will include the link...
God bless,
Laurie M. said…
Thanks Jim. Your more than welcome to pass it on, of course.
BTW, I almost didn't recognize your new moniker. I'm going to have to head over to Wordpress and see what you've been up to.
Hillary said…
Megan wrote: The freedom in truly submitting, in finding that what my loving husband wants is exactly what I want anyway, is indescribable.

I find this absolutely on point with our relationship with God, as well. Beautifully stated.
Hillary said…
Laurie, I think this is one of my most favorite posts ever of yours. "He's yellow-orange and he fell in love with with my blue-violet..." I mean, come on...that is poetry. Great job. <3
Laurie M. said…
Thanks Hillary. This is one of my favorites too - because it represents an awakening of sorts for me, a release from bondage to the expectations and judgment of others, freedom to live a life of love instead of guilt and fear.
frogla said…
laurie! This is prolly the best that I've read about godly submission. I'm pasing this one around! Awesomeness!
Jessica Watsom said…
I'm a little late on reading this and adding my two cents, but I loved this post! You and I have talked about this topic before. I agree that many in Christian leadership circles are very busy working out the practical details, extra-biblical details I might add, of what it means to be complementarian. The result is dull and boring Sameness, and a legalistic view of how men and women should carry out their roles. Thanks for your input on this subject.
Laurie M. said…
Thanks for your two cents. They're worth a lot more than you think.
joannabug said…
This is so beautiful!
Laurie M. said…
I'm glad you stopped by. And thank you for the kind words.
Lewis said…
Great perspective, Laurie. You're describing the dynamic I've always craved in a marriage.
Jenny said…
Thanks for bringing up the point that the Bible does not say men are to make their wives submit. I remember a man, who believed that that's what was meant in Col. 3:18, suggesting that physical punishment was appropriate. I pointed out that the following verse, Col. 3:19, was very clear: Don't be harsh towards your wife!
qwertyqaz said…
I am not sure how I even found your page, and I know you don't know me, but what you have said here is truly something I can hear.

Thank you for taking the time to post this.


Fatima said…
This is beautifully written. I've been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be a Christian woman. This post has helped me dig deeper. Thank you so very much.
Laurie M. said…
Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. May you be blessed as you dig.

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