Submitting to your husband in the 21st century
August 2, 2011 8:58 AM   Subscribe

What does the man being the head of the household mean for a Christian husband and wife?

How does this Biblically-based family dynamic actually play out in real life? I have some Southern Baptist friends who claim that this is the relationship they're going have with their families and spouse. The husband will be the head of the wife in the family, having the responsibility of guiding his family to a closer relationship with the Lord. This also means the husband would be in charge of disciplining the children and making the big decisions, listening to her wife for her feedback since it's his duty to take her thoughts into consideration. You can read about the Biblical basis for it here. It sounds a bit alarming at first glance, but I've been assured

Can anyone who has experienced this describe how it actually works? What's it like, from the "submissive" wife's perspective? Input from Christians with firsthand experience would be much appreciated.
posted by sunnychef88 to Human Relations (36 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
While wading into chatfilter land, the truth is, outside of non-mainstream sects, you won't see this written down explicitly, and many folks I know all have different approaches to this.

If you wander down the teaching, it won't be far until you come across two divergent ways of looking at this (which, on reading, are covered in your link)
Is Paul's writing at the social norms of the time or prescriptive ? How does it jibe with the creation story ? While the genesis account of women was to create a helpmate, the subservient part came only as a punishment for the fall of man. So the subservient isn't how God created/intended it to be.

Or the literal interpretation that women serve the man. (and ignore the rest).

Generally, I think the mainline denominations interpret the concept as being servants to one another. Submit to one another, serve one another. It is not a dictatorial relationship. Take the context of Paul's society, his other teachings and Christ's own words into account, not just a single verse or two in isolation and claim "I'm the man, therefore what I say, goes".
posted by k5.user at 9:15 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are lots and lots of stories from the former believer's perspective in the No Longer Quivering archives. The Quiverful movement is a specific subset of the "Biblically-based family" movement.
posted by muddgirl at 9:16 AM on August 2, 2011

You can find quite a bit online, pro and con, about the Christian Patriarchy movement. I recently fell down an internet rabbit hole starting from the No Longer Quivering blog/website for former members of the Quiverfull movement, which is strongly allied with Christian Patriarchy.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:18 AM on August 2, 2011

You're going to (or should) get a very wide range of responses here because this is like asking what it means to be a liberal or a conservative. People practice and hold beliefs that are mundane, extreme and everything in between. There are very whacky and (to me) upsetting examples of this familial practice, but I've always assumed that Michelle Duggar is a surrendered wife and she certainly appears to have dominion and about as much autonomy as you can have with 19 children.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:20 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know two couples who have purported to work this way. One of them has been divorced for a decade, the other is happily married with four children. The way it works/worked for them is that the husband takes care of the big picture stuff and the wife takes care of the details. So, like, the husband will decide "We need a new car," the wife will figure out what the best car for them is. The husband will decide "I want the kids to go to a religious school," the wife will decide which school to send them to.

Tellingly, in the divorced couple, the husband tried to manage EVERYTHING. In the still-married couple, the wife has absolute authority over the budget and the household spending, and is the final arbiter of whether or not the family can afford something. Now that her youngest child is starting school, she's completed the coursework and just taken the exam to become a certified financial planner, and plans to begin working outside the home on a part-time basis. She still maintains that her husband is the ultimate head of the family, but from my perspective, they function as two equal and mutually respectful individuals, but with different areas of responsibility within the family.

So, uh, I guess my answer would be that either it's a thin veneer of philosophy on top of a marriage of equals, or else it's a disaster.
posted by KathrynT at 9:22 AM on August 2, 2011 [17 favorites]

I remember being alarmed when my sister's friends in her campus ministry talked about this. I had a long talk with my sister, who was engaged at the time, about it, and she insisted that her marriage was going to work that way. My sister and brother-in-law have been married for over twenty years, and my impression is that her marriage never had that dynamic. Many of her friends are married to the people they were dating in college, and none of their marriages seem to be working that way. But, of course, I don't really know what's going on in their private lives.

Anyway, I'm sure that many marriages do work this way, but it's also easy to talk about how a marriage will or should work before you're faced with the reality of marriage!
posted by amarynth at 9:22 AM on August 2, 2011

Well, the Christian life in the home is meant to be habitual, so I can't say I'm a fan of making a big to-do about it the way people do in anti-habit churches like the Southern Baptist Convention. Most of these popular models others have mentioned in this thread come from some silly book and are pale shadows of what they should be. Anyway...

Partnerships run well when governed by consensus. In addition to that, knowing who breaks ties when an even number of partners (2) disagrees (husband vs wife.) St. Paul happens to have laid out a tie-breaking recommendation that Christians works for the Christians who try it. The catch is that the tie-breaker is always supposed to break the tie in the interest of the other partner.

So in practice I just try to act like a good manager. My job is to solve my wife's problems (among which are my shortcomings) so she can enjoy our relationship as much as possible. There's a verse that suggests that if one of her problems is a bullet speeding toward her, I'm obligated to jump in front of it, but I don't know how that would play out in a real situation. That's the only specific husband-wife delegation in the Bible I'm aware of, so again, while it might be fun to play "Dad wants a car, Mom researches it," I see it as just an inane fad with no teeth.
posted by michaelh at 9:26 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

My parents marriage of 35 years operates under this principal. 99% of the time, everything plays out as equals. They have both always worked, she is an accountant so she takes care of the money, they both cook, he does "handy" things. The only time it really comes into play is if there is a big decision and they disagree, he gets the final call.

I don't think this would work for me, I only remember being alarmed (and even all that aware of this aspect of their relationship once). I got into a tense discussion with my dad during that disagreement and the way he put it is "Someone's got to be the boss and make the final decision". I find that distasteful, but whatever, it works for them.
posted by stormygrey at 9:29 AM on August 2, 2011

My friend is the head of his church, and in their wedding vows, his wife-to-be said "you are in charge" or whatever that Biblical verse is that "everyone" uses.

I asked my friend how that works, and he said, quite simply, "My wife is really in charge, but I get the final decision on everything." I know them both really well, and the wife is my-way-or-no-way, so basically my friend just bows down to his wife but makes it seem like he is in charge to the outsiders. Remember, he runs a very successful church...
posted by TinWhistle at 9:29 AM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not a Christian, but I went to a baptist church growing up, and I have an idea of what it meant to the folks in my church, including my parents. In these sorts of families, the husbands make the decisions they want to make. Usually these are the "big" decisions, like whether or not the family needs a new car, or whether tonight is a good night to go out, etc. The details are left open. Wives don't (openly!) contradict their husbands once a decision has been made. This doesn't mean nothing is left to wives. They make plenty of decisions that their husbands just aren't interested in making.

Even for decisions that were ostensibly made by their husbands, often women in these marriages have ways of suggesting ideas, making it seem as if their idea was their husband's all along. A wife might want a new refrigerator, say. She'd wait until her husband was in a good mood; she'd put on something flattering; and maybe she'd talk about how a friend of hers got one and it made her friend's life so much better. The husband would ask his wife if they could use one. Then the wife would remark on what a good idea that would be. Finally the husband would "decide" to get a new refrigerator. That's for the big things. For the small things, it works much like any other marriage.

Note that mine was a church in the midwest of Canada, which is probably more liberal than, say, the southern United States.
posted by smorange at 9:35 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't have any firsthand experience to share (I was kind of interested in this at one time but as it turned out the man I was married to was not interested in being submitted to) but you might find the following books interesting if you have more than an idle interest:

Fascinating Womanhood

The Surrendered Wife

The Total Woman

Truthfully, these books are more about managing up than submitting, but I suppose a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do sometimes.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:35 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am going to chime back in to reiterate what TinWhistle said. My mom has the most pathetic "sad" face ever, my dad very rarely tries to curb her in any way. If he was going to"lay down the law" so to speak it would have to be something that he really considered important, something he considered essential, because she has perfected the passive aggressive mope. I remember his saying things like "let's all get up and clean the windows, change our sheets and make the beds so when Mom gets home she's happy".

As I said earlier, my dad sees it as "someone has to be the boss" If two disagreeing people vote, you never get anywhere. I can almost see that CEO aspect, but I think it should be each partner has the final call on what they are best at. My dad is stoic and rather aemotional and my mom is sensitive and exuberant, I think he just sees this aspect as a rational approach to ending conflict rather than a disrespectul or needing her to be subservient thing.
posted by stormygrey at 9:44 AM on August 2, 2011

While wading into chatfilter land, the truth is, outside of non-mainstream sects, you won't see this written down explicitly, and many folks I know all have different approaches to this.

Mainstream≠mainline. Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals are not mainline, but they're not outside the mainstream of American Christianity.

The influential book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is available online (Christianity Today's “Book of the Year” in 1992). The editors John Piper and Wayne Grudem are both Baptists, but of a reformed-stripe and not members of the mainline American Baptist or the evangelical Southern Baptist denominations. Timothy George, a Southern Baptist leader and divinity school dean, called it "...the most impressive and comprehensive statement of a conservative evangelical understanding of these issues to be published to date."

There's lots of content about the topic in Boundless magazine (run by Focus on the Family). Here's a couple: "Practical Submission" and "What If He Leads Wrong" (which references the book linked to above).
posted by Jahaza at 9:50 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

...the answer is: it plays out very, very normally and fairly close to the average social norms.

This is it.

"Submitting to your husband" is mainly a story to tell, not a program to follow. Except in the rare household, in which every act every day is viewed through a "biblical" lense.
posted by General Tonic at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2011

i would say that nearly everyone i knew growing up gave at the very least lip service to this idea. some lived it more than others. i agree with the "tiebreaker" explanation. that's how it worked in my family and that's my perception of how it worked for a lot of my aunts&uncles/friends' families.

i was raised mormon so there was a structure to it that doesn't exist in a lot of other denominations. the husband holds the priesthood (and eventually, so do his sons). as the priesthood holder, he is the head of the household. technically, if dad were to die and he had priesthood aged sons, they would become head of household. the wife's duty, spelled out, is to "raise the children to zion." how it shakes out is that mom is responsible for bringing up righteous children and the husband is responsible for the righteousness of the whole family. again, this usually ends up functioning as dad works on the big picture and mom handles the details.

this is not a bad system when everyone is respectful and kind. as you can imagine, it's the sort of thing that can be abused. i have seen my share of domineering men who use this as a cover for bad behavior. i have seen wives use this as an excuse to stay with a man who abuses her/their children.

as an aside - i'm a submissive wife in an atheist household. to us, it means that everyone has their role to play, everyone has their job. my husband is kind and respectful and has never pulled the "in charge" card just to be an ass. it works much like described above - he steers the direction, i make it all run (hopefully) smoothly. he works, i keep house. it's not something i would like to be required of me - mandated by a religion, but for us personally it works really well.
posted by nadawi at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

...the answer is: it plays out very, very normally and fairly close to the average social norms.

A friend in a non-extreme, non-fundamentalist, mixed Protestant-Catholic marriage of this sort explained to me as the husband being the CEO and the wife being the COO.
posted by jgirl at 10:08 AM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

In the 21st century? It seems like it's so much easier to handle things by telephone or online now that I can't imagine a man working outside of the home insisting upon doing every little thing himself unless he simply can't count on his wife to make reasonable decisions. I would think the Protestant version of this biblical model would only continue to exist in a "pure" sense--a clearly dominant male and clearly submissive female--where the marriage partners were of radically inequal capabilities to begin with. Or where the guy's a bastard.
posted by resurrexit at 10:14 AM on August 2, 2011

We're Catholics, so the recent, fundamentalist Protestant understanding of this biblical system isn't quite ours.

I work outside the home; she works as a homemaker, raising our one child. Just as she can't come to my work and tell me what to do, when I come to her workplace at the end of the day, to eat and sleep in her office, let's just say I'm not calling many shots. Even constructive criticism and I'm asking for it. . .
posted by resurrexit at 10:15 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't imagine a man working outside of the home insisting upon doing every little thing himself unless he simply can't count on his wife to make reasonable decisions.

basically every response that has direct experience with this family structure has said that this is absolutely not the way it works.
posted by nadawi at 10:19 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know, I'm saying I don't think that sort of lifestyle actually doesn't exist in practice except in that rare situation.
posted by resurrexit at 10:21 AM on August 2, 2011

Best answer: The way it works in my family is nothing like the Quiverfulls or any big prescriptive thing laid out in some book with a bunch of rules. The way it works for me is I was careful to choose a husband who I knew loved me and wanted the best for me and who I knew would be on the same team as me in terms of raising our kids, our way of living out our faith, and how to spend money. Like someone else said up there, 99.9% of the time, submission is just an attitude I take towards caring for my marriage, not something we "do." I absolutely consider myself a feminist who believes that women have the right and the honor of making decisions for themselves, being smart and educated, and voicing their opinions. I don't support the idea that submission in Christianity means a wife that dresses in sack dresses, is uneducated by choice, doesn't know the state of the family finances, is prohibited from being a breadwinner because it's considered usurping the husbands' role, or isn't allowed to voice her opinion in her marriage. I think Proverbs 31 is pretty clear on the kind of woman the Bible praises: She's smart, industrious, not lazy, cares for those who have need, isn't self-serving, and knows how to handle money and manage her affairs and the affairs of her family. This picture, to me, is not the picture that some types of Christians use as their model for a submissive, godly wife, and that's really a shame, because it's so respectful and so honoring to women. It decries so much of the popculture that describes women as so dumb that they can't help but get all their news and health information from Cosmopolitan, can't do math/science/rational thinking, and are carefully inspecting the minutiae of their lives for invisible flaws to despair over while the poor and needy around the world suffer. "Christianity" (5 bajillion denominations and differences lumped together) is often given such a bad rap for its portrayal of women as subservient to men and it's often our fault for letting our own interpretations of the Bible get in the way of the simple concepts like the ones in Proverbs 31 that show the God clearly doesn't expect women to be shrinking violets.

With that said as some context for what I'll say next, my husband and I approach our marriage as equals and though we've come up against some huge epic decisions so far in our 8 years, we've always discussed them and decided together. We have a mutual respect, and perhaps that does come from having a wife who was already very sure of herself before we got married - I had and have my own goals, ambitions, and interests before we were married, and anything that has changed in those realms I have changed out of love for my husband, just as he has made equally important changes for me. Submission comes into play for me in that my attitude towards him is that I know he's acting in prayerful and loving care for me, wanting what's best for me and my family, and if we came up with a big decision that we were unsure about which direction to take, I'd be happy to let him shoulder the burden of being the final decider. I think that's more of the Biblical direction of the concept of submission - it's not really about who has the final say and it's definitely not about a woman's obedience to a man, but speaks more toward attitudes that it's the husband's privilege to shoulder the consequences of shared decisions and that the wife has the privilege of letting her husband carry that burden when need be and supporting him in the process. Obedience is an action (one that was not in my marriage vows), but submission is an attitude (one that was in my vows).
posted by takoukla at 10:25 AM on August 2, 2011 [13 favorites]

The man is the head, the woman is the neck, and she turns the head which ever way she ways.

In all seriousness, this phrase is often misunderstood. The man is not "in charge" and his wife is not: his property, his child, or secondary in any way. His role as "head" means he's responsible for the family, but not in anyway more powerful. In the traditional sense, he's required to provide the externalities of life (financial support, protection, etc) while the wife is usual more responsible for the internal needs of the family (nurturing of children, problem solving, etc).

What it boils down to is that the man is the first to be blamed for any failure in the family. It is his fault if his wife doesn't have the support necessary to do her job. It is his responsibility to ensure that he removes obstacles in the way of success. He has no mandate to make decisions or dictate to his wife, but he does have a responsibility to achieve consensus.

If you think of "head" as akin to the "head" of the UN or other organization of equals, you'll probably be a bit closer to understanding it.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:58 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a Catholic whose also-Catholic wife runs a busy home while I am at work...

The future tense in this statement is telling: I have some Southern Baptist friends who claim that this is the relationship they're going have with their families and spouse. If I take that "going" to mean that they aren't yet married, then you can quietly set aside their boasts until they're actualy, you know, married.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:34 AM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am Catholic and a big believer in the Ephesians 5 passage that all of this comes from. How this plays out in eveyrday life depends on how one reads and interprets the passage in context.

People tend to skip over verse 21 ("submitting yourselves to each other") on the way to verse 23 ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands...")

And then they stop there, not bothering to ponder verse 25 ("Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it") and what it really means to be the "head" of your wife.

I am a big believer in headship. I am the head of my family. And I strive to do that as Christ loves the Church. He sacrificed himself and I must be prepared to do the same. When you figure what that means on a daily basis by looking at Christ's example, "headship" turns out not to be all that attractive. It means washing a lot of feet and embracing suffering in little and big ways for the well-being of those you love. Not that my wife doesn't do this plenty. It just means that I must be first. My initiative sets the tone for my family.

Headship means I kill the critter, clean up the bodily fluids, and make all the awkward phone calls. Headship means I am the first to swallow my pride. The first to extend an olive branch when we are both being assholes. Mine is the responsibility to drive the unairconditioned car. To do whichever simultaneous and mandatory chore that my wife does not want to do. My headship means that I am the example of Christ's love to my wife and kids. I was a lot of feet. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

As my husband, that's my mission in life -- to serve my wife and my family. My wife submits to that mission. In other words she is duty bound to let me serve her. Anybody who thinks "headship" means "dominance" is either not reading the passage right or is manipulating it to meet some ego-driven agenda.
posted by cross_impact at 11:37 AM on August 2, 2011 [38 favorites]

One of the great things about the NLQ stories is that a lot of them feature families where the husband wasn't a very good CEO (or the wife wasn't a very good COO). Biblical-family success stories seem to hinge around people that would be setting up that kind of structure anyway.
posted by muddgirl at 11:53 AM on August 2, 2011

You might be interested in this article at Slate, about Michele Bachmann.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:30 PM on August 2, 2011

Well, I have this sort of relationship. First of all, the marriage relationship per the Bible is supposed to be a picture of Christ and his Church (which even the Bible says is a mystery so don't worry if you are scratching your head just a bit.)

The husband is required to love his wife and treat her the way Christ treats the Church, not being harsh with her, and taking care of her and seeing that she reaches her potential. The wife is required to respect her husband and follow his lead. As far as leadership goes it's not exactly what we think of when we think of worldly leadership. He is not supposed to boss her around. He is supposed to take responsibility for the wellbeing of the family and basically the buck stops with him-and he is definitely supposed to listen to input from his wife. She is NOT supposed to be a doormat. He is supposed to serve her, serve the family, and put their interests above his own, and he will be giving an account of himself on judgement day.

Meanwhile, as the wife, I am supposed to LET him lead.

Having said all that, unfortunately there are some very negative portrayals of headship and submission out there. When it's done right it's a very cool thing, and I have seen lots of awesome examples of it being done right in my church. When it's NOT being done right I would hope fellow believers would step in and do some influencing in the right direction.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:34 PM on August 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

A bit of Mormon perspective: We have it as a matter of doctrine that husbands and fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness. What does it mean to preside? Usually it means you keep the discussion fair and on topic, and set the tone of what is done. In the common law of meetings, the presiding officer usually doesn't vote, which I think is a wise, humble concession. We also have it as a matter of doctrine that husband and wife are equal and full partners, and that nothing should be more important to them than their marriage—which surely means it should take priority over any self-importance or self-deprecation.

My next-to-last bishop had this to say about it: "When we got married, my wife and I agreed that she would make the small decisions for the family, and I would make the big ones. And in two decades we've never faced a big decision."

cross_impact has done a stellar job covering everything I can think of about a correct contextual understanding of the scriptural basis, so on that score I'll just stand back and applaud.

And a slight derail:

technically, if dad were to die and he had priesthood aged sons, they would become head of household

Nope. "Where there is no father in the home, the mother presides over the family." Priesthood offices are offices in the Church. Parenthood is an office of the home.

posted by eritain at 3:35 PM on August 2, 2011

And of course, it sometimes gets into some guy's heads that all woman should submit to all men- but not so!
posted by titanium_geek at 4:47 PM on August 2, 2011

My cousin married a fundamentalist christian, converted herself (she was raised a Jew) said "obey" at her wedding and it looks like the man is cutting her off from our side of the family. Another cousin went to visit her from out of state---the date was set well in advance--when they got there, after about 15 minutes the husband said "church!" (It was a weeknight) and the visitors had to leave. At my father's 80th birthday party he was there without my cousin (who was the one raised in the family) "because she had to be at their daughter's horse show".
posted by brujita at 5:02 PM on August 2, 2011

There's a verse that suggests that if one of her problems is a bullet speeding toward her, I'm obligated to jump in front of it, but I don't know how that would play out in a real situation.

Surely this isn't a description of a biblical verse, especially given when the bible was written.
posted by yellowcandy at 5:22 PM on August 2, 2011

ah, i stand corrected - but i will say that in my congregations, that is the way it was always taught. such is the way with the mormon church - doctrine is a fluid concept.
posted by nadawi at 5:35 PM on August 2, 2011

@yellowcandy Technically a bullet can also be a rock from a sling, but yes I was using a pretty loose translation by saying that. The verse is "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" which is a reference to Christ's sacrificial death to obtain eternal life. Taking a bullet for someone is a sacrificial death, although it only buys time on earth. Sorry for chatfilter.
posted by michaelh at 7:01 PM on August 2, 2011

What it means for a friend of mine who is married to someone who believes in the weak form of this (his parents are nutters, he's not so bad) and has largely accepted it herself is mainly that he gets to pick the church and she has to go most Sundays.

It also meant we didn't see much of her for the first year until they really figured out their roles with respect to each other, but that's pretty common in any marriage, it just seemed to take a little longer for everything to shake out.
posted by wierdo at 12:41 AM on August 3, 2011

Grew up Southern Baptist (nonreligious now), with a deacon dad and church-committee-chairing mom. As you can see here, different couples interpret this contentious concept in different ways.

My own observation was that too often, the way it plays out is the man makes the decisions and the woman does the legwork. With my parents it was different-- it was pretty amusing to hear my mom (who herself subscribes to the "man as head of his family" doctrine) telling my dad when he became a deacon, "If you think I'm going to do all your work for you, like the other deacons' wives do for them, you're in for a surprise."

Where the idea tended to play out in our daily lives was as a "trump card" kind of function. Mom wants a new washing machine, Dad says he doesn't think we need one, and that's that. If we asked why, we were told by Mom that it was because Dad was the head of our family.

We were fortunate, though, that my dad never played the trump card that I can remember. He never explicitly asserted his God-given right (as it were), and the vast majority of the time he had the good sense to listen to Mom (she being much sharper than he in most matters) and so any "submission" was essentially a courtesy on her part. I suppose one could argue that since the deck was technically rigged in Dad's favor, Mom's bargaining power was inherently compromised, but let's just say that 99 percent of the time, Dad's "mandate" coincided with Mom's wishes.

So, concerns about doing something an ancient cobbled-together text tells you to do aside, I never thought it was a big problem for most people we knew. It seemed to come down to people's personal inclinations outside of their religious beliefs. An asshole guy who wanted his own way would find the doctrine extremely convenient, while guys like my dad found it unnecessary to exercise their "right."
posted by Rykey at 1:51 PM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Moderate-to-liberal evangelical couple here. Very good marriage. We interpret this command as, basically, a command to stop being so selfish. That is, when I am faced with a choice, I should ask myself, "Which option is in my spouse's best interest?" And my husband should do likewise. Obviously, we are both selfish people and we're not very good at it... but when it works, it works pretty well.
posted by hishtafel at 4:24 PM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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