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Picturing Submission in 21st Century Marriages

By Stephanie S. Smith

Last week I stood in a row of purple dresses in a sunny field, about to watch a radiant couple take their vows, when the officiating pastor dropped a bomb.  Seriously? I thought, You're really going to go there? We were in the middle of a beautiful autumn wedding, and he was going to stir everyone up by talking about submission.

A newlywed myself, my husband and I had decided not to focus on the biblical concepts of headship and submission at our wedding.  This was because we knew our guests would react to this differently, and we wanted our ceremony to be a demonstration of grace not of controversy. The last thing I wanted was for people to leave the sanctuary in a huff.

But as the pastor continued, I was amazed that his message was nevertheless one of grace.  A cord of three strands is not easily broken, he read from Ecclesiastes 4:12. Venturing into Ephesians 5, he charged the groom with the promise to lead his wife by lovingly sacrificing himself for her sake, just as Christ sacrificed Himself for His church.  To the beautiful bride, he encouraged an attitude of respect and humility, as she submits to his loving lead as an expression of honoring Christ.

As the musician quietly sang "Jesus, be the Center of our lives..." the couple braided three cords together, a tangible testimony of the unity they hope to have in Christ.  It was a beautiful moment.  Then the pastor explained that these cords can do two things depending on our perspective: they can weave two souls into one and hold the relationship together, or they can act as a restrictive line, an unwelcome knot keeping us from what we want.  If we choose to see marriage as bondage, we will struggle against the limitations God has graciously set to keep us from sin and harm.  But if we choose to see marriage as the Creator designed it, it will bring us closer together, sustain everything in its place, and teach us about the love of Christ.

Author Cindy Easley echoes this idea, seeing marriage as an immense privilege, "What an awesome responsibility! When Michael loves me as Christ loved the church and when I respond in submission to him, we are a divine picture for the entire world to see." [21] In Dancing with the One You Love: Living out Submission in the Real World, Cindy Easley bravely unwraps this loaded issue with the help of women of various life situations who have wrestled with it themselves. 

I 'm going to call this book what it is (in Cindy's own words), which is a complementarian message, the view that in marriage a husband and wife have equal worth but distinct functions or roles. That being said, depending on your personal convictions, you may not agree with everything in this book.  You may even be offended. But I don't think we read books to have our exact opinions affirmed, we read to be stretched, to expand our perspective, and that is the benefit of this book.

In Dancing with the One You Love, Cindy searches out the issue of submission from all angles, interviewing single mothers, women with abusive or alcoholic husbands, career/breadwinner women, and wives who care for a sick spouse.  Along the way Cindy also reveals some surprising personal details, like the fact that early in their marriage she was the breadwinner, working at a bank, which gave her the skills necessary to later take on their family's finances as her responsibility.  Cindy and Michael learned to arrange home responsibilities according to their talents and interests, which is why Cindy often mows the lawn and Michael takes on some of the domestic duties traditionally attributed to the wife.  Through the process of writing her book, Cindy says, "I found that the head/helper relationship is not a carbon copy in each home.  Like a private dance, each couple fleshed out their complementarian roles to fit their personal situation." [35]

Wary of stereotypes, especially stereotype of the submissive woman as a mute doormat, Cindy shifts the perception from submission as a rigid prescription to submission as a posture of the heart.  Ephesians 5:22 says that wives are to "submit to your husbands as to the Lord," making submission a social decision, yes, but ultimately a spiritual one.  Cindy writes, "Humility seems to be an important character trait in God's economy," and humility toward our husbands is ultimately an act of worship we can offer up to God. [22]  And because submission is an attitude of the heart, Cindy emphasizes, it must be voluntary.  Resentful submission neither pleases God nor serves our husbands, as it only breeds bitterness.  Rather, "the motivation behind biblical submission is for us wives to follow our husbands in a way that will honor Christ." [114]

After dismantling negative stereotypes, Cindy moves on to the redeeming the definition of submission.  She refrains from assigning a categorical definition, but the language she uses to describe it is always marked by two things: a willing attitude, as I already described, and a respectful attitude.  I applaud this shift in focus because for many women including myself, respect is more reachable in terms of practical living than submission.  Submission seems confusing and complicated, but at the end of the day I can tell you with certainty whether or not I have respected my husband. 

This idea of submission as respect also appeals to me as being holistic, because I believe the tradition that headship and submission are only exercised when the husband is awarded "the final say" is short-sighted.  This implies that the husband's duty is not an ongoing, supporting and sustaining role, but that his leadership in the home is contained in rare occasions of conflict.  This view regards male headship as a default, a last resort, instead of active leadership.  Likewise, it implies that the wife's answer to the high calling of submission is isolated to instances of marital disagreement.  I think this is a fragmented understanding of the marriage relationship, but Cindy's emphasis on respect provides a working definition of submission that can be applied daily, both in harmony and discord.

Like the cord of three strands, much can be learned by our reaction to God's design for marriage. Depending on our perspective, we can struggle to accept God's loving limitations or we can allow ourselves to be hemmed in by His love.  Whether the idea of submission appeals to you or appalls you, Dancing with the One You Love offers a panorama, a view from various angles, for you to confront your own perspective of how to honor God in your marriage.


Cindy Easley was born in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology and Social Rehabilitation. Cindy is a nationally known speaker with the Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference. Cindy and her husband Michael, former president of the Moody Bible Institute and teaching pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Nashville, TN have three daughters and one son.