Before we get into the practical side of dating relationships, we should continue looking into the Bible at what the final outcome of dating relationships (ie marriage) should look like from the heart. Let’s move onto the topic of submission, as it’s the one that’s still widely misunderstood by non-Christians. If you haven’t been paying to all the marriage debates that have been going on in the last year or so, let me bring you up to scratch with why secular society looks badly at the word “submission”. Society seems to synonymously replace “submission” with “domination”, so that a wife submitting to her husband means “letting the husband do whatever he wants, without any regard to what she wants or doesn’t want”. And alarm bells start going off because this seems to suggest that the husband has the option of abusing his wife (in a world where domestic violence happens somewhat frequently), and so for Christians, we seem to be allowing husbands to abuse their wives, because they are “commanded” to submit to their husbands. And of course there is this notion that the wife is now inferior to her husband, and Christian marriage doesn’t seem to have gender equality.
The secular view of the word “submission” in the context of marriage is a very uninformed one, and one should try to build the “Christian” definition for the word “submission” by seeing how it is used in the Bible:
“22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24)
These are typically the verses that most people will stumble across in terms of how submission is meant to fit into marriage. We get paralleling images of the wife submitting to her husband, and the church (Christians) submitting to Jesus. In looking at how Christians are called to “submit” to Christ, we get this picture that Christ is the head of the church: He is “in charge” of Christians and the church needs to listen and follow Him. What we build from that image is that the husband is the head of the wife, and the one “in charge” of the family. And by matching the parallels, the wife is called to listen and follow her husband. But verse 22 combines the parallel (or rather verse 23 divides the picture with the two afore mentioned parallels) into an image that shows how the wife submits to her husband AND to the Lord. But then since all Christians are to submit to Jesus, we have that the wife submits to her husband, and the husband submits to the Lord – so we get a bigger picture of who is the head of whom.
But if we look at the verse before this passage, we see that the word “submit” extends to more than just in marriage (as was clearly evident in the way the church submits to Christ):
“21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
All Christians are in fact called to submit to one another. And we do find equality in this respect; both men and women have a share in the inheritance of eternal life, and because we are equal in the eyes of God (in terms of who is saved), we are called to live out this equality by submitting to one another. And this verse says that the motivation for submitting to one another is because we are all under Christ. Now in terms of how the passage flows, the main point the author is making is that Christians should submit to one another, then the author goes on to explain in verse 22-24 that one way we can submit to one another is in context of marriage , where the wife submits to her husband. And of course if you were paying attention you would have instantly picked up that there seems to be a contradiction. If Christians should submit to each other, where’s the verse that should say “husbands should submit to their wives”? Well the author goes on to further explain what husbands are to do in their marriage:
“25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)
The following verses after this section continues to build on the ideas expressed above, but we’ll deal with these few verses for the time being. Husbands are called to “submit” to their wives in the sense that they are to love their wives (verse 25), give up their lives for their wives (verse 25 – and it rhymes too), to make her holy (verse 26), cleanse her with the Word of God (verse 26), present her as holy (verse 27). I don’t know if anyone picked it up, but these verses alone seem to give husbands a much more difficult role to fulfil in their marriage. Wives are called to submit to their husbands, but husbands are called to do ALL these things for their wives, AND more. Now in regards to wives, we found this word “submit” and we decided to go through verses in the Bible to build a definition for that word. For the husbands, things are the other way around. In the above verses, we are given a definition of what their role involves, and the word I would like to use to encompass all these actions is the word “lead” – hence the title for this post.
If wives are called to submit to their husbands, then husbands are being called to lead their wives – so now we have two words that describe how husbands and wives are called to relate to each other. Leadership for husbands includes the stuff from the above verses, and even more:
“28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:28-32)
Again, we have paralleling images here that help us work out what it means for the husband to lead. The husband needs to love their wife as his own body, in the same way that Christ loves the church. And we have the perfect example of what that love looks like. Christ laid down His life for all of us; He made the ultimate sacrifice out of love for us. And husbands need to look to Jesus and model that same love to their wives. Husbands need to be willing to lay down their lives for their wives, and that’s the level of love they are expected to show. So in fact, husbands are not meant to be the abusive, controlling ones that the word “submit” would imply. They are told to do the opposite of that.
Putting it all together, we have the wife who is to “submit” to her husband, by listening and following him. And the husband is to “lead” his wife, by loving and laying down his life for her. When we’ve put these two acts together, submitting and leading, we then have a picture of what a Christian marriage is meant to look like, where clearly love is at the centre of everything, where neither partner is seen to be inferior to the other and neither is to be abused by the other. These two actions work very closely in harmony, so close that you can’t really have one without the other. How can a wife submit to her husband, if he is not willing to lead her? And how can a husband lead her wife, if she is not willing to submit to him? Though we can be tempted to think of whether there are other ways in which marriage can work, perhaps another way where the roles of man and woman were interchangeable or where both do the exact same things (so that there is no difference between man and woman). But why look for another way when we’ve been given one from God that works? And more so, this is the way that Jesus uses to relate to us. If we decided to adopt a different “structure” for marriage, who would be the perfect model for us to follow that structure? But we have Jesus who perfectly models how a Christian marriage should look like.
What Does it Mean to Lead?
For me as a guy, the act of leadership seems much harder to do than the act of submitting. There is a lot being asked when men are called to “lead” something. A familiar setting for leadership will probably be in Christian ministry, such as Sunday School, youth group, or young adults group. In these environments, the “leaders” have people placed under their care; they are now responsible for the people under their care and need to look after them. For leaders in general (males and females), leading requires serving and placing the needs of other people above your own. When something goes wrong with the people being cared for, the leader needs to be there to give help, in whatever way it needs to be administered. Leaders also have the responsibility to guide the people under their care in the right direction, namely teaching the Bible truthfully, and living their lives in a godly way to be an example to them. The leader needs to be on the lookout for dangers and fears that the people being cared for may not see or realise. A good illustration the Bible gives for us is the way a shepherd leads his sheep.
Nevertheless, with the way that the role of a Christian leader is described, there is a very huge responsibility that the leader is taking on; and because it isn’t easy, the person becoming a leader needs to have thought through whether they can fulfil the responsibilities required of a leader. And in dating and marriage, that same degree of responsibility is being demanded of the man who desires to be a husband. If the wife is being asked to submit to her husband, the husband better be someone worth submitting to. The man needs to be able to serve his wife; to give up his needs in favour of hers; to know how to help her live a godly life (Ephesians 5:27 about how the husband must present his wife to be holy and blameless); to take responsibility in most things, including things that the wife did not notice or think about. The list goes on, and though it really helps to sit down and keep thinking through the different things that “leading” means, it also works to say that the “simplest” model for leadership we have is Christ, and the way He leads the church. Men are to be like Christ.
In a dating context, the man’s goal is to practise being a leader in order to fulfil his role as a husband when the time for marriage comes. And a dating relationship should be used so that the man can continue to grow in godliness, to learn how to be responsible, and to learn how to serve his future “would be” spouse. We can deal with the actual practicalities of what sorts of skills a man should be required to be responsible in, in a later post; but the point for now is that a man should have a heart that’s ready to learn and take on these things if he desires to get into a dating relationship and wants to get married to a certain woman.
I should probably stress at this point that “love” is something you grow into, rather than fall into. Christians need not be “ready” for marriage when they start dating (though they can be), but they should at least have their hearts prepared to grow and learn what is required for marriage. And on that note, some of these preparations can be done outside of a dating context – godliness and responsibility are things that anyone can learn without having to date someone. In my example above, being a leader in Christian ministry teaches important leadership skills that can be adapted into a marriage context, and as such one can prepare for marriage without this “dating” milestone. Remember that since “dating” doesn’t exist in the Bible, people in those times were single and then they got married; they bypassed this middle “dating” step that our society has developed today. For Christians, we need to distance ourselves from this societal construct and reduce the dating period as much as possible, so as to remove the temptation to take dating in a direction that doesn’t lead to marriage. Remember that removing temptation means to reduce the chance for sin; and if you are aware of different chances to sin, why would you not want to remove them all? Greater risk definitely does not mean a greater reward; it means exactly what it should at face value: a greater risk of sinning means you’re bound to sin if you don’t avoid the risk. The goal is not to sin, so get rid of even the smallest temptations of sinning.
What Does it Mean to Submit?
In all fairness to women, submitting to a man is no easy task either. Submitting can be said to be placing yourself under the guidance and instruction of someone else. Letting someone else guide and instruct you raises questions and fears about whether they can do it or not. If they can, then your trust has been well placed. But if they can’t, there can be negative consequences that affect both the person leading and the person submitting. I would like to suggest the analogy of two people sitting in a car (a driver and a passenger) to illustrate submission. The driver is clearly the one in control of the car (and leading), and the passenger is the one who is submitting to the driver, allowing the driver to guide the car wherever he/she wants it to go. For driving in general, the fear of being a passenger is that the driver may be incompetent and crashes the car, possibly injuring themselves and the passenger (if nothing worse). And of course having that sort of fear as a passenger tempts you to compare your ability to drive against the ability of the actual driver. And logically, if you, the passenger, feel like you can driver better than the actual driver, would it not seem better for the passenger to swap roles with the driver?
But submission is the opposite of that. Even if the passenger thinks they are better than the driver, submission is when the passenger willingly allows the driver to continue being the driver. Submitting to God is similar because it is us willingly trusting in God and where He guides us in our lives even when we’re unsure of where that is. And in marriage, submission is allowing the husband to take the lead, to guide where the marriage to go even if the signs may not appear well in some circumstances. The difficult thing for women, I imagine, is in being able to place their trust in men to lead them and be responsible for doing things right. We are sinful humans and are prone to making mistakes; the man is likely to make a mistake at several points in guiding the relationship. Furthermore, it may be that the woman can do some things better than the man; not that this should be an issue, but submitting to a man means being satisfied with the results that are achieved with the man leading, even if things could be better.
To me, it seems this is more a call for the men to make sure that they are competent and responsible in relationships, in order to earn the trust and confidence of their female partners. For surely, if they show themselves to be capable leaders, then their partners should find it less difficult to submit to a man who can lead well. However, on the women’s side of things, this would be imply that a commitment to submit to a guy is an ongoing one – that she will continue to submit to her partner even if things may look bad in some situations. A woman needs to be able to submit to her partner both in good times and bad. Trust is an ongoing thing and cannot be given and taken back circumstantially – if you trust someone today, you’ll continue to trust them tomorrow without stopping and thinking whether you should continue to trust them or not. And so perhaps it’s not simply about the act of submitting, but rather the ongoing act of submitting.
In addition, submitting doesn’t necessarily have to seem like the passive act of letting the man have all the say and do whatever he wants. Going back to my analogy of the car before, the passenger has the ability to navigate and, if you will, “backseat drive”. The passenger can make suggestions about where to go, and can also give feedback as to how the driver is performing. The woman in the relationship should be doing this for her partner, providing input and feedback, and thus make contribution as to where the relationship should be going. Communication is key in any relationship, and this is one productive way in which a woman may communicate in her act of submission. However, it is ultimately the driver who is in control of where the car goes, and similarly it is still the man who ultimately decides where the relationship should go; and the submitting woman should be able to trust and accept what her partner decides to do or not do.
What Does Leading and Submitting Look Like Together?
For a man to lead, he needs his partner’s support and trust, and submission plays a big role in allowing him take ownership and responsibility. The man needs to know that he has his partner’s support; that if he asks her to do something and makes decisions on her behalf, then she will be happy to oblige. If you’ve ever worked in a team with people for whatever it may be (a game, or a group assignment), the team will not move if everyone wants to go in a different direction; all must move as a single unit in the same direction to make progress – that’s what team work is about. And for two people in a relationship, there needs to an agreement on what the direction is. If the man is to lead and make decisions, he needs his wife to be able to listen and agree.
For the woman to be able to submit, the guy needs to carefully train himself to lead and show that he can be responsible in deciding how the relationship should progress. Training in righteousness can be a difficult thing for men, and so they need the support of their wives to keep persevering in that. Even if the man isn’t perfect (and in fact, no-one is), the woman can still learn to submit to her partner as he struggles to get things right. She still needs to support the decisions he makes, even if she knows they won’t be perfect decisions, in the hope that with time, the man will get better at leading and be better equipped to be responsible.
When we combine leading and submitting together, we get the picture of a man providing direction to his wife (and children), leading them to Christ; and we get the picture of a woman lovingly supporting her husband in what he does and helping to build the strong foundations that support the family. The captain of a ship tells it where to go, but the ship won’t go anywhere without the supporting crew. If all were captains, who would keep the ship afloat? And if all were supporting crew, where would the ship go? As such, having the model of a man leading the family, and the woman submitting and supporting the family is the way in which a godly relationship can grow and glorify God. The roles should not be reversed simply because this is the way it is laid out, and how God wants things to work – God could have reversed the situation instead, or done something completely different, but He didn’t so we need to truth in Him and the plan he has laid out for marriage relationships.
Again, “love” is not something you fall into, it’s something you grow into. And hopefully the dating process is a time where couples can grow to love each other and learn what is required to fulfil their respective roles of leading and submitting. By rooting their love for each other in Christ, dating couples can support each other in the skills they need to develop, and help each other and give feedback for these areas. Whenever the man may fail in leadership, or whenever the woman may fail in submitting (and I imagine both these things will happen many times), the love of Christ should compel them to forgive each other of their mistakes, and to move forward and become more Christ-like. At the start of dating, the promise people make to each other isn’t to be perfect straight away, but that throughout their relationship they will continue to grow and aim to be more and more like Christ, even after they get married.
Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. (Psalm 119:1)
As Christians, let us strive to steer our relationships in God’s ways, not our own.