The submissive wife: part 1

Put the word “submit” beside the word “woman” and you immediately have a lot of problems. Nearly every person reading those words—regardless of whether they’re male or female—will have a mixed bag of gut reactions.

For me, those words trigger confusion, pain, anger and a lot of fear.

That fear took me by surprise this week. I’ve wrestled with this topic on and off for some time, but never dug deep. Instead, I suppressed my fears and kept moving on. Until now.

I’m getting married in a couple of months and I’m faced with how certain passages in Scripture could impact me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly excited to begin building a partnership with a man I deeply love and trust. But I’ve also always assumed it would be exactly that: a partnership.

So, how do I reconcile that assumption with verses that seem to say otherwise?

I know that God is good and that since he loves the humans he created—both men and women—his intent for women must be equally as good as his plans for men. There are countless passages talking about God hating partiality, for example, Romans 2:11.

That said, God also uses covenants he created, such as marriage, to symbolize and point us to his relationship with us. Everything, from the Church as a whole, to communion, to marriage, has deep spiritual significance. So, knowing and believing that God is good and does not show partiality means that I need to trust him enough to not just dismiss what he says because I find it offensive or hard to swallow.

That’s why I’m writing this right now. I know I’m jumping way ahead of where I’m supposed to be in this Bible series. I’ll go back and pick up where I left off after this. But for now, I think God is prompting me to begin unpacking the unhealthy baggage I have surrounding marriage and my role as a wife.

So, here I’m going to try and deal with the topic as a whole, taking a birds-eye-view of Scripture. I’m sure I will have more to say when I get to these individual passages in the proper order, but I want to start with the big picture.

I know that many people will have different views on this. Please bear with me if anything I say triggers hurt in you. I’m honestly trying to work out the truth myself. I care more about knowing what God intended than I do about being personally right about this. So, if you care to have a discussion with me after reading this, I’m completely open to that!

Also, please note that all this talk about marriage in the next few posts does not mean I’m elevating marriage above being single. These posts are geared towards understanding the good plan that God has for marriage. However, I am quick to affirm that God in his faithfulness has built many, many parallels to his relationship with us into how we follow him. They are by no means something that only those who are married can hope to experience. I want to explore this topic further in another post, but for now please accept this disclaimer that I am in no way trying to exalt marriage over singleness.

Let’s go back to the beginning

Adam and Eve were not only the first married couple in history, they were also the very first man and woman (Genesis 1:26-27). These two humans were both created in God’s image; they were blessed and given a joint command to multiply and rule over and care for animals and plants (Genesis 1:28-30). Then, the creation story pauses to zoom in more closely on the actual process of creating humans.

It’s fascinating to explore the Hebrew words used in this context. The word adam can be used to refer to a generic human being, not necessarily a male or female. It is closely related to adamah which means ground or clay. The first human is not actually specified as being male (the Hebrew word for male is ish) until after the account of God creating a woman from that first human. Then, the male human is identified clearly as ish and the female human as ishshah.

While it cannot be clearly stated that the first human was actually a genderless being, it is important to note that when God took part of that human and created a woman, adamah was forever changed, now being identified as ish. Man and woman were both made from the same “stuff” of earth. When they became separate beings their identities as man and woman were revealed.

Fascinatingly, that separation of one human becoming two doesn’t last for long. Almost immediately, it is stated that the man and woman became “one flesh” as husband and wife (Genesis 2:24). In a sense, they became one person all over again, except now they had two bodies instead of one.

What does “one flesh” even mean?

The term comes from the Hebrew words l’basar echad which has to do with union on a sexual level (basar) and oneness on a spiritual/emotional level (echad). The term echad is also used to explain the kind of oneness and unity we are to have with Christ and the Church (1 Corinthians 6:17).

I’ll come back to the definition of one flesh in a later post because I think it’s crucial to our understanding of how both God and Jesus define marriage.

For now, we can move on to the rest of the Old Testament. Not a lot is said explicitly on the roles within marriage. From a morality standpoint, we know that a key commitment within Christian marriage is the promise to be faithful to your spouse (Exodus 20:14).

While there are a lot of confusing, harsh references to women in the Old Testament, the few passages that deal directly with marriage or the role of a spouse are actually quite empowering and beautiful.

For example, the often-quoted “wife of noble character” passage in Proverbs depicts a strong, smart, capable, business-savvy, well-respected woman with numerous virtues (Proverbs 31:10-31). While it’s undeniably a high standard, the description strikes me as one where the wife is thriving in her abilities and active in doing good work.

Then we have Song of Songs, which deals with sexuality within marriage and its parallel to the closeness and intimacy God longs to have with us. Here, a husband and wife express mutual, abandoned sexual appreciation for the other. The woman’s confidence and equal initiation of sex seem quite revolutionary, considering our understanding of how women were treated within marriage at the time. In one of the most empowering, powerful lines in the book, she refers to her body and sexuality, saying, “my own vineyard is mine to give,” (Song of Songs 8:12).

This post would be too long if I tried to deal with all the marriage passages in one go. In the next post, I’ll move on to the New Testament, keeping in mind the backdrop the Old Testament paints.


If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.

They shall become one flesh

Three ways we misread Song of Songs

Ilana ReimerComment