Why Submission Is Not a Dirty Word: Paul, Submission and the Married Life

Why Submission Is Not a Dirty Word: Paul, Submission and the Married Life

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This is the first in a four-part conversation about what it means, practically speaking, to live a life of holy submission in marriage. (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

When I visit with couples preparing for ministry, I focus much of our conversation around one verse in the Bible.  It comes from Paul’s word to the Ephesians concerning the relationship between husband and wife. The line in that letter that gets the most press is Ephesians 5:22. “Wives, submit to your husbands.”  Yet, the heading over the whole passage – and the banner over my marriage – is one verse up, in Ephesians 5:21. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  

A couple could spend a lifetime getting that one line right.  Mutual submission is not only a two-way street; it is a holy calling and a mighty force.  Paul has given us a one-line challenge that if lived out, virtually guarantees a rich and rewarding marriage.

In that spirit, Steve and I are privileged to share what we’ve learned in twenty-seven years of attempting – if not always succeeding – to live that one line.  We hope our story might encourage those beginning the journey.  – Carolyn M.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  – Ephesians 5:21

Carolyn: Submit… For us, it started when I heard my call to ministry. We were living in Augusta, and we looked right. We had the right house, family, jobs.  We were living as Christians after years away from Jesus and were involved in a great church and a solid Bible study.

Everything looked right, but something was missing.  Then one night in prayer, I experienced a call from God to leave everything that looked so right and serve him in vocational ministry.  It scared me to death.  Steve walked into the room a few minutes after I’d heard this and there I was with a deer-in-the-headlights look, mumbling, “I think God just called me into the ministry.” And then he said …

Steve:  “When do we go?”  You see, I was ready for one of us to hear something clearly from God.  For several years leading up to that moment, I had been in a kind of spiritual wilderness, struggling to find the direction in which God wanted me to go.

By then, I had been teaching high school for four years and feeling pretty miserable most of the time. It was so demoralizing to feel like I was working as hard as I possibly could but only doing, at best, a mediocre job.  I drove to work most days with a knot in the pit of my stomach, wondering how to escape, how to change, wondering if God was trying to tell me to do something else with my life.  Twice I had searched diligently for a new job but turned up nothing.

But one thing I did know – that Jesus loved us and had come so that we might have life and have it abundantly.

And here at last was Carolyn, sensing direction.  It was such a relief!  And I knew that she and I, as a married couple, were in God’s eyes a single body, “one flesh” as our Bible put it.  And without really being able to explain why, I sensed that if God had given one of us a green light – if he had a plan for one of us – we both had to work together to bring it about.

Please understand, there wasn’t anything noble or sacrificial on my part about supporting Carolyn through seminary.  I was miserable in my job and Carolyn’s call offered hope for me as well as her.

Carolyn said to me back then she believed God was sending her into seminary so I could discover his call for my life.  Of course, I didn’t believe that for a minute.  But we began to move together to obey this call of hers.

Soon we figured out that going to seminary would mean some pretty big, scary steps – including quitting both our jobs and moving to Kentucky.  To pay for the first year of school, we would have to sell our house.  We wondered how God would provide.

What a huge reservoir of blessings God had stored up!  He was already opening the floodgates.  When we put our house on the market on Tuesday and sold it on Wednesday, I began to wonder if Carolyn might be right about discovering my call.

Those days were the most exhilarating and adventurous of our lives.  Jesus had promised a more abundant life and he was delivering.  And sure enough, by the time Carolyn finished seminary three years later, God in his mercy had transformed my whole outlook on teaching.  In obeying Carolyn’s call into ministry, I found my calling, too.

But the question is, how does our amazing adventure square with the truth of the Scripture before us today?  Is our experience an example of its truth, or a contradiction of it?


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