My wife and I sometimes counsel other couples whose marriages are suffering. Inevitably, somewhere in the conversation, these words will appear.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Col. 3:18)
The word that gets translated as submit has a range of usages. It sometimes means something as strong as obey. In other places, it means something as soft as follow. This may be why most translators use the word submit to get the point across because it sits in the middle of the range of meanings. Notice how different this sentence sounds depending on which sense you use.
Wives obey your husbands…
Wives submit to your husbands…
Wives follow your husbands…
Wives respect your husbands…
By some, there is a temptation to soften Paul's words to avoid seeming like a male chauvinist. There is a temptation for others to strengthen Paul's words to get what they want out of their marriage.
As every couple does, my wife and I have a particular perspective on this verse. I want to describe how my wife fulfills these verses, and I'm in full agreement with how she handles submission.
The first thing to know is that she makes nine out of ten of the household decisions by herself. She has my full trust to do so. She runs the house, pays the bills, and handles most of the kids' daily tasks. This arrangement happened naturally because I'm as scattered brained as a lasagna eating lemur, and she was born with the innate ability to remember where everyone's shoes are. Our understanding of submission doesn't mean that she is continuously being scrutinized or examined. She has tremendous freedom to make decisions.
She knows what kinds of decisions we need to discuss. Significant issues are discussed, and we generally continue to talk about them until she and I are unanimous on what to do. This took us a few years to figure out. Inviting friends over for dinner was not a big deal to her, but it was to me. Spending a few hundred bucks on some gadget was not a big deal to me, but it was to her. We've both learned what types of decisions need to be unanimous, and it's made things run smoothly.
There are times when we have ended a discussion and still disagree. In those cases, most of the time, she will end up doing what she knows I want, even if it's not what she wants. She loves to put onions in dinners. If it's dinner, it should have onions. Onions give me unwelcome burps and indigestion. She tried, cutting them smaller, I complained. She tried pulverizing them. I complained. She tried grinding them. I complained. Eventually, she did comply with my wishes. I haven't had an onion dinner in years. It's glorious.
She doesn’t defer to my decisions because I insist, dictate, or enforce. Though, I did whine pretty profusely about the onions. She often gives me what I want because she loves peace and harmony. She loves unity more than she loves getting her way. She loves me more than onions, which is a good sign.
Some guys think their wives should OBEY them. My wife can’t obey me. She can’t obey me because I refuse to give orders. There is no way for her to obey if there is no command. However, she is submissive to the will and intent of her husband.
There have been a few times when she felt strongly that she ought to do something that she knew I didn't want her to do. Before the kids, she would sometimes go out of town to visit her cousins. I'd be invited, of course, but I wanted to stay home and watch movies. I also wanted her to stay home and keep me company and make the popcorn. Of course, I refused to ban her from going on a road trip, but I would sometimes be a bit bitter about it.
Even in those rare cases, when she was determined to do something I didn't want her to do, she reasonably and gently explained that she wished to move forward with her plan. Since I refused to command, order, and dictate, I usually have encouraged her to do what she thinks is right, even though I disagree. I managed to make my own lonely popcorn. In those situations, I considered her to be acting in submission. I never felt as if she was defying me, even when she did things I didn't want her to. That's because I am more interested in her acting per her own conscience than pleasing me. Don't get me wrong, I'm interested in her pleasing me, but I know it's more critical for her to do what her conscience leads her to do. This reveals something about what we believe about submission.
We do not see submission as a synonym for obedience in these verses. One reason for this is because when Paul explains that children and bondservants need to obey, he uses a different word. So, whatever submission is, it’s not the same thing as childlike or slavish obedience. It’s something less than absolute obedience. Some guys read submission in the verse and assume that means she has to do whatever I say.
Let me give you an example of how submission and obedience are different. In the 1850s, there was a law called the fugitive slave act. It was intended to force citizens to help capture runaway slaves. Runaway slaves were in danger of being maimed or even beaten to death. If a citizen refused to obey the law or aided a runaway slave, they were fined $1000 and put in jail for six months.
Now imagine that you or I were in that situation. I couldn’t follow an immoral law like that, even though, the Bible says everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. Thus, the only solution would be to disobey the law and peaceably and willingly submit myself to the prescribed consequences. In this case, I can be peaceably submissive while respectfully disobeying the law.
There are times when a wife finds herself in a similar situation. If a husband orders his wife to do something illegal or immoral, the wife should respectfully disobey such an order. She can remain submissive by accepting whatever relational fallout might ensue. There are simply times when she must go against her husband's wishes. If her husband is the type to command, dictate, or order, she may have to disobey him. However, Paul instructs that whatever she does, it should be done in a submissive way.
Now it’s time to give a word of warning to the husbands. Let’s look at the verse once more.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Col. 3:18)
Husbands, let me ask you a question. Who is that line addressed to? It’s addressed to Wives. This is an essential thing to remember. This line is not addressed to you if you're a husband. Do you open mail addressed to other people? Intentionally opening or intercepting someone else's mail is a felony crime. You need to treat this line like mail addressed to someone else.
I know quite a few guys who come to this line and lose their minds. Here’s what they think it says.
Husbands, force your wives to submit to you. (Confusion 3:18 NST)
Notice that verse comes from Confusion 3:18 NST (No Sense Translation). The actual verse, wives submit to your own husbands, is like mail addressed to wives only (not husbands). Husbands that try to use this verse to force their wives to submit are on thin ice. It would be highly inappropriate for you to rifle through your neighbor's mail, pull out all the bills and then break into their house and try to force them to pay their water, electric, and gas bill. Should they pay their bills? Well yeah, but it's not your job to force them to. In fact, it will ruin whatever friendship you had and probably get you arrested.
How do I know a husband shouldn’t try to force his wife to obey this verse? It's simple. Some Christian men are married to unbelieving women. Paul wrote Colossians as instructions to believers. So certain wives are outside the intended readership for this verse. These verses, while valuable to all, are not intended to be forced upon others. They are addressed to those believers who want to be growing disciples.
The verse is intended for a wife who is a believer. It is not intended to be used by a husband to force his wife into submission. Let the verse instruct the one to whom it is addressed.
You husbands are probably feeling left out, right. Doesn’t Paul have something to say to the believing husband? He sure does. Let’s take a look.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. (Col. 3:19)
My wife wants something different than I want. Generally speaking, I want to be respected and honored. Generally speaking, she wants my affection and love. I think this verse shows that Paul, an unmarried man, was inspired by the Holy Spirit. He recognized that the husband and the wife have different needs and desires. Even though your spouse needs something different from you, fulfilling their needs is the key to Godly marriage.
If you are a believer and a husband, Paul gives two simple instructions. He says we are to love and not be bitter towards our wives. Now that he is addressing husbands notice what he leaves out. He doesn't instruct husbands to enforce submission; he inspires us to give our wives the very things they need.
I'm so pleased with my marriage. I get what I want all the time, and my wife does too. I achieve this in a counterintuitive way. I get what I want by giving her what she wants. When there is tension, which happens sometimes, it's almost always because I've neglected to give her what she needs: love and affection.
I have never once commanded her to do something. I make requests but don't demand things from her. She has complete freedom to behave in a way that I dislike, though here's what's so amazing. The more I show her love and affection, the more she seems bent on making me happy by showing me respect and submission.
For her, a few warm words and a lingering hug outweigh a truckload of respect. She likes to be respected, but she loves to be loved. She wants meaningful words, assuring compliments, and palpable affection. These things aren't natural for me. I'm like a camel in the desert; I can go months without compliments, hugs, and affection, as long as I'm getting a little respect. She's like a bird with the wind in her wings; she needs love to stay aloft.
Notice the second thing Paul instructs of husbands is to avoid becoming bitter. Bitterness is a marriage killer. Whether it ends the marriage or not, bitterness ruins marriages. Both men and women are in danger of becoming bitter, but men seem to be at a greater risk.
Bitterness usually comes from unresolved conflict. It's easy for husbands, when there is tension, to allow bitterness to grow, because otherwise, we would have to… you know… talk about it. Since it's common for husbands to resist talking about how an interaction makes them feel, it's common for those unresolved feelings to ferment, fester, and putrefy. If you're finding it hard to give your wife love, it's probably because you've allowed yourself to become bitter.
Now let’s offer a quick word of warning to Christian wives. It seems that many wives think this verse says:
Wives, force your husbands to love you more by nagging them about all of their mistakes. Don't worry; it won't make them bitter. (Confusion 3:19 NST)
Just like I told the Christian husbands, don’t read your neighbor’s mail. This instruction is addressed to Husbands.
You can’t force your husband to love you more, but you can invite him to. How? By sticking to your own instructions. Generally speaking, the more respect, honor, and submission you give your husband, the easier it will be for him to give love and affection to you.
Husbands should not try to enforce submission upon their wives, and wives should not pressure their husbands to love them more. Each must look to their own instructions and do their best to live up to what they are instructed to do.
To both husbands and wives, Paul is giving the golden key to marriage. If your wife isn’t submitting in a way that you like, the answer isn’t to get tougher with her; it's to be more loving to her. If your husband isn’t giving you the love you want, the answer isn't to question, complain, or resist; it's to submit. This probably seems ridiculous to most husbands and wives, but it’s how Paul inspires us to operate in the marriage relationship.
Stop trying to get what you wish for, and start giving what your spouse wants. If you’re a wife, your husband needs your respect and submission to fulfill his role as the husband. If you’re a husband, your wife needs love and affection to fulfill her role as the wife.
You can't force them to give you what you want, and it's not your responsibility to try. You can make it as easy as possible to give you what you want, by delivering what they need. My buddy recently said that he tries to be worthy of submission by loving his wife as a husband.
Now comes the hard part. Some will ask: What if I do the best I can and still can't have the marriage I want? There are certainly plenty who have experienced this sad state of affairs. Sometimes, a wife is as respectful as she can be, but her husband never reciprocates with love. Sometimes a husband is as loving as possible, and his wife never stops resisting his leadership. It's certainly a possibility. For this reason, I want to jump a few verses ahead to show you what motivation Paul offers, even when we don't get what we want. At the end of his family matters section, Paul says this:
Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:23-24)
Most people get married because they think it will be rewarding. Every romantic comedy makes it seem as if marriage is life’s ultimate provider of goodness and satisfaction. Movie companies have made billions on those romantic storylines, and yet millions of people are dissatisfied with marriage every day. People get married because they think that marriage will provide the ultimate reward, and sometimes they find out it’s nothing but suffering.
Obviously, marriage can be rewarding, but it can also be a constant kick in the mouth. For those who find marriage painful, Paul offers this motivation: Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
Our marriage behavior should be performed as if it's God who is the recipient. I'm not just doing something my wife likes; I'm doing it so that it pleases the Lord. If I please the Lord, I get reward. The ultimate reward for my marriage behavior doesn't come from the marriage; it comes from God.
Once again, we see Paul's mindset method peeking through. He's showing us that even in our marriages, we need to have our minds set on things above. In our romantic interactions, we need to have our sights set on Christ and the eternal reward he offers for faithfulness.
Let's say your spouse does that thing which you hate. You've told them a thousand times; it drives you crazy. Your response to that pet peeve has eternal ramifications. If you get irritated and respond with sharp words, it's a wasted opportunity. If you can take a quick second to set your mind on Christ and what is with Him in heaven (reward), it can change the entire timbre of the interaction. Your marriage is a gold mine for eternal reward. Every well-done interaction in marriage means a little more reward in eternity.
This is another one of those simple but not easy statements. Married people must keep their minds set on things above to succeed in marriage. Make the Lord pleased by giving your spouse what he or she needs.