What Makes a Marriage Work by Elisabeth Elliot?
In her advice to her daughter, Valerie, Elisabeth Elliot places four things, which she believes, make a marriage work. They are:
1. Acceptance of divine order
2. Proper use of sex
3. Loyalty and pride
In order to interest the internet readers to read on, I propose reversing the order of presentation, starting with love.
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “Let me be a Woman,” published in 1976 and copyright renewed in 2004.
4. Love in Action [166-169]
We would talk about the fourth thing—Love. It is not fourth in priority. I have not arranged these in order of importance because, quite simply, I don’t know how. The ideal marriage, I think, cannot do without any one of them. There must be acceptance of the hierarchical order, there must be sex, there must be loyalty and pride, and there must be, in and through all, love.
You have fallen in love. You’ve had the experience nearly everyone dreams of, that the poets have written about, that happens to some “at first sight,” to others slowly, and to you, I think, after a very short acquaintance. I remember the first time it happened to me. I realized it had happened when I looked in the mirror, for I saw a different person there. “You love him,” I said to the face, and the face answered yes. You look at his face and everything in you says yes. You know, beyond any doubting, that this is the man you could gladly give yourself to. Your heart sings, the whole world sings, the look of things is transformed.
But that is not the love of which I want to speak now. The kind of love that makes a marriage work is far more than feelings. Feelings are the least dependable things in the world. To build a marriage on that would be to build a house on sand. When you promise, in the wedding ceremony, to love, you are not promising how you expect to feel. You are promising a course of action which begins on your wedding day and goes on as long as you both live.
Your feelings cannot help but be affected by riches and poverty, health and sickness, and all the other circumstances which make up a lifetime. Your feelings will come and go, rise and fall, but you make no vows about them. When you find yourself, like the unstable man in the Epistle of James, “driven with wind and tossed;” it is a great thing then to know that you have an anchor. You have made a promise before God to love. You promise to love, comfort, honor, and keep this man. You vow to take him as your wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish “according to God’s holy ordinance,” till death parts you.
Not one of us can fully face up to all the details of the possibilities at the time we make these staggering promises. We make them in faith. Faith that the God who ordained that a man and woman should cleave together for a lifetime is the God who alone can make such faithful cleaving possible. We are not given grace for imaginations. We are given the grace needed at the time when it is needed, “this day our daily bread.” And because you have given your word you have committed yourself once and for all. “This, by the grace of God, I will do.” Nothing that has ever been worth doing has been accomplished solely through feelings. It takes action. It takes putting one foot in front of the other, walking the path you have agreed together to walk.
The underlying principle of love is self-giving. It seems to me that this is inevitable for a woman who truly loves. You already know how deeply, how urgently you long to give yourself to your husband. It is the essence of femininity to give. Perhaps it is more difficult for a man to give himself, but both husband and wife must learn this. In the wife, this takes the form of submission. Paul never needed to command wives to love. Apparently he thought they would do that without his admonition. But he reminded them that their love was to take the form of submission. When in the course of daily life the love which they so naturally feel for their husbands is not sufficient for the wear and tear, the action then required is submission.
But Paul knew that a man’s love was of a different sort. His virile drive for domination, God-given and necessary in fulfilling his particular masculine responsibility to rule, renders it more difficult for him to lay down his life. So Paul imposed the heaviest burden on the man when he commanded him to love his wife as Christ loved the Church.
You wives must learn to adapt yourselves to your husbands, as you submit yourselves to the Lord, for the husband is the ‘head’ of the wife in the same way that Christ is the head of the Church and savior of his body. The willing subjection of the Church to Christ should be reproduced in the submission of wives to their husbands. But, remember, this means that the husband must give his wife the same sort of love that Christ gave to the Church, when he sacrificed himself for her. Christ gave himself to make her holy, having cleansed her through the baptism of his Word—to make her an altogether glorious Church in his eyes. She is to be free from spots, wrinkles or any other disfigurement–a Church holy and perfect.
Men ought to give their wives the love they naturally have for their own bodies. The love a man gives his wife is the extending of his love for himself to enfold her.
In practice what I have said amounts to this: let everyone of you who is a husband love his wife as he loves himself, and let the wife reverence her husband.
4.1 LOVE MEANS A CROSS [170-175]
WHEN you are not yet married, or when your marriage is over and you look back on those years with longing, it is without doubt quite possible to idealize it. But there is one thing which enters into all of life, one thing which will keep us from idealizing life’s best and will make bearable life’s worst, and that is the Cross. The Cross must enter into marriage. “Who loveth suffereth too.”
The Cross enters the moment you recognize a relationship as a gift. The One who gives it may withdraw it at any time, and, knowing this, you give thanks in the receiving. Desiring above all else to do the will of God, you offer back to Him this greatest of all earthly gifts as an oblation, lifted up in worship and praise, with faith that in the offering it will be transformed for the good of others.
This is what sacrifice means. This is why the Cross of Christ “towers o’er the wrecks of time.” Love is sacrificial. Sacrifice is a giving, an offering up, and the meaning of sacrifice in the Bible is the giving of life to another.
I believe you may together offer up, as a couple, your love to God for His transforming work. You may read with special meaning Paul’s word to the Romans,
With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all His demands, and moves toward the goal of true maturity.
Maturity starts with the willingness to give oneself. Childishness is characterized by self-centeredness. It is only the emotionally and spiritually mature who are able to lay down their lives for others, those who are “masters of themselves that they might be the servants of others.”
The specific ways in which the great principle of the Cross works in daily living are expressed most perfectly in the Love Chapter of the Bible, I Corinthians 13. Here we find proof of the stark and sacrificial rather than emotional character of love.
Christian love is action. It is the warp and woof of marriage, and because marriage itself is a life work, this love is worked out through all the days and years of marriage, growing as it is practiced, deepening as cares and responsibilities deepen, and turning, at the same time, those cares and responsibilities (and even the drudgeries) into deeper joy.
Paul said that it is not eloquence, it is not the gift of prophecy or knowledge or even knowing the very secrets of God, it is not absolute faith that matters ultimately. It is love. If I know your heart at all, I know that you are not tempted to think of yourself as possessing any of these lofty and enviable gifts. But you do love. Of that you are perfectly sure. Will it last? It will, if it is the kind of love of which Paul speaks.
This love of which I speak is slow to lose Patience—it looks for a way of being constructive. A girl wrote to me last year asking advice about her behavior toward her fiance. She was already wondering how to rebuke him. I gave her this verse. You can’t, of course, be constructive if you don’t perceive weakness. But when you recognize a place where a little construction or reinforcement is needed you can begin to build up, to encourage, to strengthen. Don’t lose patience. Building takes a long time and you have to put up with many delays and inconveniences and a lot of rubble in the process.
Love is not possessive. If God has given you to each other “to have and to hold” how can you not be possessive? By remembering first that it is a gift, and second, by remembering the limitations of the gift. God has given you to each other in a particular way for a particular time. He is still Master of each of you, and it is first of all to Him that you answer. There is a possessiveness which is greed, a clutching, clinging lust that overwhelms and overpowers. There is no faith in this kind, no thanksgiving, no reverence for the person made in the image of God. He is treated as an owned object to be disposed of at the will of the owner. There is fear of loss—he might get away or be taken away. Trust the God who gave him to you, believe Him to keep you both.
Love is not anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance. It doesn’t need to do either. You have already impressed him. You are enormously important to him. There is no question about that. Accept the fact and be at rest with him. Be meek, acknowledging that there are areas in his life where he can do without you.
Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. Courtesy has been defined as “a lot of petty sacrifices.” A husband forsaking his comfortable chair for a moment when his wife walks into the room, jumping out of the car in the rain to open the door for her, or pushing her chair in at the table shows by these gestures (which cost him a little) not that she is helpless and in need of physical assistance, but that he cares about her. She is pleased to be recognized in these special ways, and he is pleased because she is pleased. It’s a small price to pay for a warm feeling. It’s another little tug on the cords that bind them together.
Love is not touchy. Love is touched—that is, it is deeply sensitive to the feelings of another, sad when he is sad, hurt when he is hurt, glad when he is glad. But love is not touchy. Touchiness refers to the reaction to another’s treatment. When two people are living in love they operate on the assumption that love is at the bottom of whatever treatment they get. This eliminates a lot of potential hurts. It’s true that it’s always easier to hurt someone you love because everything you do and say matters so intensely to him. But to react in an injured way is touchiness. Love is not touchy. Love gives the benefit of the doubt. And even if the doubt persists, react in love. Don’t pay back evil for evil.
Love does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails. Refuse absolutely to compile a list of offenses which you can dump on your husband someday when he complains about something you’ve done. Love keeps a clean slate. This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s possible to forget every offense. “To forgive is human, to forget divine.” You may have to forgive him when he hurts you and then forgive him again and every single time you remember the offense even if it springs to mind four hundred and ninety times. You’ll find that forgiveness is not nearly so much of a full-time job as resentment.
Love knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.
These are the ground rules. This is how this thing called love really works—in a marriage, in the world.
In the intimacy of marriage you offer yourself, continually and gladly. When you give yourself to your husband you are actually giving him life. You are putting meaning into his life which was not there before and willy-nilly (this is one of the most astonishing and beautiful of the inescapable facts) you find meaning in your own life because of this sacrifice. Your husband, loving you as Christ loved the Church, that is, laying down his life for you, gives you life and puts meaning into his own. An inexorable spiritual principle is set in motion. It is not the laying down that occupies your thoughts, it is the joy. Christ, when He endured the Cross, knew the joy that was set before Him.
You can’t talk about the idea of equality and the idea of self-giving in the same breath. You can talk about partnership, but it is the partnership of the dance. If two people agree to dance together they agree to give and take, one to lead and one to follow. This is what a dance is. Insistence that both lead means there won’t be any dance. It is the woman’s delighted yielding to the man’s lead that gives him freedom. It is the man’s willingness to take the lead that gives her freedom. Acceptance of their respective positions frees them both and whirls them into joy.
If you can understand your womanhood, Valerie, in this light, you will know fullness of life. Hear the call of God to be a woman. Obey that call. Turn your energies to service. Whether your service is to be to a husband and through him and the family and home God gives you to serve the world, or whether you should remain, in the providence of God, single in order to serve the world without the solace of husband, home, and family, you will know fullness of life, fullness of liberty, and (I know whereof I speak) fullness of joy.
3. Loyalty and Pride [162-164]
A THIRD thing that makes a marriage work, in addition to the acceptance of hierarchical order and the proper use of sex, is loyalty. Loyalty is based on pride, the right sort of pride that recognizes intrinsic worth in the country or institution or place or person which is the object of loyalty.
We have seen women who are manifestly not loyal to their husbands. I do not mean that they are unfaithful, but that they are not proud to be their wives. Sometimes this is because they despise them. Sometimes it is old-fashioned jealousy. A friend complained to me that she was tired of being a nobody. She was only “Mick’s wife.” Mick was prominent in certain circles, a highly attractive man, very successful. Plenty of women would have considered it quite enough to go through life as Mick’s wife, but Liza wanted to be Liza. She was pretty, she was likable, she was thought of as a good match for Mick but it wasn’t enough to suit her. It seems to me that a woman ought to be willing to take this risk. When she takes her husband’s name she consents to be known as his wife. Nothing thrilled me more than to be identified with a particular man. I didn’t mind if people thought of me as his wife. I loved it. I never felt that my own personality was “submerged.” I was proud of his, and knew that a new personality, the personality of the marriage itself, is created when two people wed.
Pride involves identity. You must identify yourself with someone in order to be proud of him. We are proud of American achievements only because we are Americans. We are proud of the local football team and say “we” won.
In the doodles I’ve found on your desk and on the telephone pad I see your new name, written many times and with many flourishes. You can hardly wait to acquire this new identity. You have already begun to think of yourself as his and you want the world to know it.
This loyalty will bring you suffering. You have asked for specifics when I have talked to you about the suffering that love may entail. Here’s one of them. If you are proud of your man and loyal to him you will suffer when he is criticized. No man in a public position escapes criticism, and you must stand by him when it comes. You will know sometimes that the criticism is a just one and because you are loyal you will suffer the more. You will be, by your identification with this man, included in the criticism.
When he fails you cannot be proud of his failure, but you can be loyal. You can maintain that faith in the idea that God had when He made him, and you can comfort and support him, giving him the strength of your love and the incentive which your pride in him will always instill.
“For when all things were made, none was made better than this: to be a lone man’s companion, a sad man’s cordial, a chilly man’s fire. . .There is no herb like it under the canopy of heaven.”
2. Proper Use of Sex [156-161]
GOD did not limit the gift of sexuality to those who He foreknew would marry. But the gift of sexual intercourse He ordained exclusively for those who marry. This is unequivocal in Scripture. There are no exceptions. Intercourse without total commitment for life is demonic. This supreme intimacy was mysterious even to Paul, who wrote, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…. The two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” (No one who “hated women” could possibly have written that.)
No stronger language could have been found to denote the intimacy which exists between Christ and His Bride. Unquestionably it is because of these mysteries that physical union is reserved for husband and wife, two who have given themselves unconditionally to one another before God and the world. They enter into “knowledge” which no one else is permitted to enter. It is the inner sanctum of human knowledge. “And Abraham knew his wife.”
I’m not going to tell you where, how, or when to do it. I’m not going to tell you what to wear. I’m leery, as you know, of getting too technical. There was a man in one of my Greek classes when I was in college who, when we would be discussing at great length some particle or mood in a New Testament passage, would mutter, “If you get too technical you’re going to miss the blessing.” As with New Testament Greek, so with sex. Beware of the how-to-do-it books. There is danger in analysis. You can’t learn the meaning of a rose by pulling it to pieces. You can’t examine a burning coal by carrying it away from the fire. It dies in the process. There is something deadly about the relentless scientific probe into the mechanics of sexual activity–the lights, cameras, artificial organs and instruments, the note-taking observers and the horrifyingly detailed reports published for the world’s delectation—to say nothing of the volunteers who participate in the collective experiments, willingly exhibiting themselves for the cause of science and reducing this precious gift not merely to banality but to a bodily function as devoid of meaning for the human being as it is for an animal.
It’s all “perfectly natural,” we’re reminded, and it is therefore supposed to follow that mystery, silence, and privacy are entirely out of place. We’ve outgrown all that. We’re liberated. I very much fear that this liberation is not freedom but a new and demonic bondage. By throwing away, the very things which guarded its meaning, we have thrown away the thing itself. What was once priceless is now the cheapest commodity on the market.
George Steiner wrote, “Sexual relations are, or should be, one of the citadels of privacy, the night place where we must be allowed to gather the splintered, harried elements of our consciousness to some kind of inviolate order and response.
“The new pornographers subvert this last vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the rooftops, making them hollow. The images of our love-making, the stammerings we resort to in intimacy, come prepackaged…. Our dreams are marketed wholesale.”
You can buy textbooks, diagrams, and full-color photographs of sexual techniques. We are expected to be a nation of bedroom virtuosos.
Yesterday Jo and I went to Provincetown. We sat at an umbrella-shaded table by the sidewalk and watched the passing parade of dejected, disheveled, seminude humanity shuffling and sashaying and schlepping along the sidewalk in search of a good time. The nudity is not supposed to move us. We are asked to behold without shock, without even surprise, the nearly total exposure of every conceivable shape and size of physique. But I don’t want to look at nudity without emotion. I want it reserved to enhance, not exhibited to destroy, the depth of individual experience. I feel I am being robbed of the incalculably valuable treasures of delicacy, mystery, and sophistication. Modesty was a system of protection. But the alarms have all been disconnected. The house is wide open to plunder.
The distinction between intimacy and openness is rubbed out altogether. The craze for “sensitivity” and “sharing” has done its pernicious work. There is no longer a sense of occasion or appropriateness. What ought to be hidden is displayed. What ought to be whispered or covered in silence is shouted. What ought to be kept back for a chosen time, a chosen place, and a chosen individual is thrown out into the thoroughfare.
Sex is not the most important thing that makes a marriage work. But it is important. It has no authority of its own. It cannot lead to freedom. It must not control. It cannot finally fulfill. In love’s highest ecstasies the lover knows that this is not all there is. The closest closeness is not close enough. The “I-thou” that we thought was ultimate brings us ultimately to that other Thou. It is the will of God that leads to freedom. It is the will of God that finally fulfills. “The world and all its passionate desires will one day disappear, but the man who is following God’s will is part of the permanent and cannot die.”
But sex is a part of the will of God for husbands and wives. It is one way in which they glorify Him (think of it!). They are not to deny it to one another. Love your husband, love his body, love to be close. Read the beautiful Song of Solomon, a love poem included in the inspired Word of God (would we have thought a love poem belonged in the Bible?) which describes the beauties of the lover in the eyes of the beloved, and of the beloved in the eyes of the lover. They saw each other. His head, his hair, his eyes, his cheeks, his lips, his arms, his legs, his appearance, his speech are all cited with rapture. “My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.” This woman had eyes to see, a heart to love, and the ability to put it into words.
Perhaps all three of these things need (in some women more than in others) to be learned, but I believe they can be learned. A wife needs eyes to see the man, in all his aspects, which God has given her. She needs a heart trained by practice to love him. She needs to be able to express what she sees and how she loves. We are human beings, made of flesh and blood as well as of brains and emotions. The Word had to be made flesh before we could truly understand what God was like. A man prefaces his proposal of marriage with a declaration of love “In the beginning was the Word.” He says it in as many ways as he can think of—words, gestures, looks, gifts, flowers. But it is not until he marries the woman that the word finally becomes flesh, and his love is expressed most fully. But then the flesh must again become word. Both the woman and the man need to be told, and told again and again and again, that they are loved. “Behold, thou art fair, my love. There is no spot in thee.” Word, then flesh, then word, and so on through life.
The essence of sexual enjoyment for a woman is self-giving. Give yourself wholly, joyfully, hilariously. (Have we ever talked about the hilarity of sex? No one had prepared me for how rollicking it can be at times!) Neither husband nor wife should withhold this pleasure from the other except by mutual agreement for a limited time. His body belongs now to you, yours to him. Each has “power” over the other’s, each holding the other’s in holiness and honor under God. You will find that it is impossible to draw the line between giving pleasure and receiving pleasure. If you put the giving first, the receiving is inevitable.
There are times when you will find it impossible to give, and your husband, in love to you, does not demand. There are times when you will be ravenously hungry and he will want nothing so much as to go to bed and go at once to sleep. Your love, then, will want what he wants more than what you wanted yourself. This is another kind of giving.
You will want to bring forth, for your lover, your own treasures. They are not to be revealed ahead of time to him nor in retrospect to anyone else. These are your own gifts, unique and exceptional and not to be delivered over to the commonplace. Hold them sacred. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “My moments signed by God need not be appraised in the marketplace.”
It will not always be clear-cut and simple. In this matter, as in all others where your life is bound closely to your husband’s, you will sometimes be aware that you need help. Remember first that love itself—the “educated heart”—has a way of teaching you what to do. Worry is worse than useless, it’s destructive. Paul wrote, “Don’t worry over anything whatever, tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.” It’s God who thought up sex. “Every detail of your needs” includes sexual ones. You can talk to Him about them. You can’t shock or embarrass Him. “If any of you does not know how to meet any particular problem he has only to ask God, who gives generously to all men without making them feel foolish or guilty.”
1. Acceptance of Divine Order [110-113]
ONE thing that makes a marriage work is the acceptance of a divine order. Either there is an order or there is not, and if there is one which is violated disorder is the result—disorder on the deepest level of the personality. I believe there is an order, established in the creation of the world, and I believe that much of the confusion that characterizes our society is the result of the violation of God’s design. The blueprint has been lost. Everybody is guessing at how the building is supposed to look.
Yesterday the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the American-Russian rendezvous in space, was completed. What staggering complexities had to function and fit and work together perfectly for ten days in order to bring these capsules to union, then to separate them and set them down on their appointed targets in Russia and in the pathless Pacific at the appointed minutes. (There was a variation in the American capsule’s timing of twenty-four seconds in ten days.) But there had been a design. Everything was ordered and planned. Everything went according to that plan, and what pride and relief we all felt because it did.
What a relief it is to know that there is a divine design. This knowledge is the secret of serenity. Jesus is the perfect example of a human life lived in serenity and obedience to the Father’s will. He moved through the events of His life without fuss or hurry, He met men and women with grace.He was able to say, “I do always those things that please the Father”—and it must have been with no variations of even twenty-four seconds. At the end of His time with the disciples as He sat with them at supper, knowing what was about to take place, He demonstrated to them that the knowledge of His origin, and destiny gave Him power to do things which to them would have been unthinkable. “Jesus, knowing that He came from God and was going to God, rose from supper and took a towel. …” In the face of the betrayal that He knew was coming, in the face of His own death, He took the place of a slave and washed the disciples’ feet. He could do that because He knew who He was and whose He was. He could face also the events of the coming night and day. It was not weakness which enabled Him to become a slave. It was not resignation that took Him to Calvary. He had both accepted and willed the Father’s will.
You and I can be steadied, directed, and held by the knowledge of where we came from and where we are going. To know that the whole world moves in harmony at God’s bidding is wonderfully stabilizing.
The notion of hierarchy comes from the Bible. The words superior and inferior refer originally to position, not to intrinsic worth. A person sitting in the top of a stadium would be superior to—higher up than—a person on the front row. Cherubim and seraphim were superior to archangels, archangels to angels, and man was “made a little lower than the angels.” The earth and its creatures were formed prior to man, so man’s position in God’s scale is not necessarily determined by the chronology of creation, for that would give the animals a superior place. His position was assigned to him when he was commanded to subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. “Thou hast put all things under his feet,” wrote the psalmist.
The psalms are full of expressions of God’s authority and control, of measurement, limitation, direction. Psalm 104, for example, speaks of it: “Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never he shaken. The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place which Thou didst appoint for them. Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass…. Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. . . . When thou sendest forth thy spirit they are created.”
The book of job describes perfection of plan, measurement, boundary, and harmony: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The same chapter uses expressions such as “shut in the sea with doors,” “prescribed bounds,” “commanded the morning,” “caused the dawn to know its place,” “gates of death,” “gates of deep darkness,” “storehouses of the snow,” “the place where light is distributed,” “a way for the thunder bolt.” A place for everything and everything in its place. Job, a man overwhelmed by his own physical sufferings and material losses, is brought to a new and deep knowledge of who God is and a recognition that all is wholly under His command.
The stars have kept to their courses, the seas to their boundaries. The moon sets, the sun rises, the tides ebb and flow. Animals answer to their proper nature and green things grow and produce flower and fruit in their assigned seasons.
In startling contrast the letter of Jude refers to angels who “failed in their high duties and abandoned their proper sphere,” or, in another translation, “did not keep their own position,” and, as a result had to be “deprived by God of both light and liberty.”
Angels and men, so far as we know, are the only creatures who have been guilty of this refusal to keep their appointed places. “Even the stork in the heavens knows her time,” wrote Jeremiah, “and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming; but my people know not the ordinance of the Lord.”
1.1 AUTHORITY [128-130]
THERE is deep down in all of us a strong resistance to, ultimately amounting to hatred of, authority. We writhe under it. “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do. I’ll do what I please.” “Who does he think he is?”
But the world doesn’t run without authority. Somebody has to tell us what to do. The question is not who he thinks he is but whom does he represent. A soldier salutes the uniform, not the man, for whether the man is his superior in other ways or not, in the army he represents a certain level of authority. He has been given rank. His rank does not prove that he is taller or nicer or stronger or more intelligent than the man who salutes him. He has in some way, however, earned his rank.
Those who call themselves Christians are people who have accepted authority. They believed God’s estimate of them and received His remedy on the basis of the authority of the Bible. Jesus said, “All authority is given to me,” and when He called disciples He called them to do three things: deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow. It is impossible to do these things without recognizing authority. There is a story in the Gospel of Matthew about a centurion, whose servant was lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress. Jesus offered to go and heal him, but the centurion asked Him only to say the word and he was sure his servant would be healed. “For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” It was his own experience of authority that enabled him to understand the authority—that is, the power—of Jesus’ spoken word, and Jesus said He had not found such faith even in Israel. In response to the man’s faith, Jesus spoke the word and the servant was healed.
In order to exercise authority it is necessary to obey authority. The centurion declared that he was a man “under authority,” with soldiers under him. He respected the authority of Jesus and submitted himself to it in faith.
In order to be a disciple we must deny ourselves—this is to exercise authority over our own spirit. We must take up the cross— this is to submit to Christ’s authority. And we must follow—this is continued obedience. This is the road not to confinement, to bondage, to a stunted or arrested development, but to total personal freedom. It means not death but life, not a narrowly circumscribed life but “abundant” life. The gate is narrow but not the life. The gate opens out into largeness of life. There is, we know, also a broad way. We know where it leads—to destruction.
Acceptance of the divinely ordered hierarchy means acceptance of authority first of all, God’s authority and then those lesser authorities which He has ordained. A husband and wife are both under God, but their positions are not the same. A wife is to submit herself to her husband. The husband’s “rank” is given to him by God, as the angels’ and animals’ ranks are assigned, not chosen or earned. The mature man acknowledges that he did not earn or deserve his place by superior intelligence, virtue, strength, or amiability. The mature woman acknowledges that submission is the will of God for her, and obedience to this will is no more a sign of weakness in her than it was in the Son of Man when He said, “Lo, I come to do Thy will, 0 God.”
1.2 SUBORDINATION [131-136]
“I JUST can’t stand the idea of being a doormat,” Jo said when I tried to talk to her about the biblical principle of rule and submission. She’s about to get a divorce because she’s determined to find freedom, and her marriage, she says, was not fifty-fifty as she thinks it ought to be. She has been sold a bill of goods by those who have declared that submission of any kind is bondage. Yes, there have been great wrongs in society. Yes, I agree that men are not meant to oppress one another. Yes, it’s true that some men have treated women as doormats. No, a husband is not commanded to domineer nor a wife to be servile. There have been all sorts of human bondage which the Christian ought to be the first to deplore and correct. Jesus came to loose captives.
But submission to God-given authority is not captivity. If only I could have helped Jo to see this, but when I asked her what she thought should distinguish a Christian marriage from all others she said, “Equality.” Equality is, for one thing, a human impossibility in marriage. Who is in a position to apportion everything according to preference or competence? “If I like it, I do it,” Jo said, “and I should be the one to do it. If I don’t like it, Bill does it. If he doesn’t like it either, then we divide it in half.” Sounds all right at first. It’s certainly the way a lot of things get done in any household, I suppose, and I wouldn’t say it’s wrong. But is there a truly happy household where the members are doing only what they like and are never doing gladly what they don’t like? It is a naive view of human nature to assume that two equals can take turns leading and following, and can, because they are “mature,” do without rank. Common sense has told women in all societies in all ages that the care of the home was up to them. Men have been providers. There are surely circumstances in our complex modern society which call for modifications. I know many seminary students’ wives who have to work in order to pay their husbands’ tuition and the grocery bills. Obviously the husbands must do some of the housework and child care. This is a temporary expedient and most of them, husbands and wives, look forward to the day when things will be normal again.
If we have become so mature and open-minded and adaptable and liberated that the commands of Scripture directed to wives—“adapt,” “submit,” “subject”—lose their meaning, if the word head no longer carries any connotation of authority, and hierarchy has come to mean tyranny, we have been drowned in the flood of liberation ideology.
I said to Jo, and I say to you what Paul said to the Roman Christians, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within.” God wants us to be whole and secure and strong, and one of the ways to find that wholeness and security and strength is to submit ourselves to the authorities He has put over us. (The question of political authority, which the Bible also says we are to submit to, becomes an enormously complicated and painful one for some. In modern times Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie ten Boom and her family, and Richard Wurmbrand have had to struggle with this. It is not within the scope of these notes to discuss that question, but I mention it in case any would think that I tend to oversimplify and would use the same arguments to defend, for example, slavery.)
Submission for the Lord’s sake does not amount to servility. It does not lead to self-destruction, the stifling of gifts, personhood, intelligence and spirit. If obedience itself requires a suicide of the personality (as one writer claims) we would have to conclude that obedience to Christ demands this. But the promises He’s given us hardly point to self-destruction: “I will give you rest.” “My peace I give unto you.” “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” “Whosoever believeth in me shall have everlasting life.” “Whoso drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.” “Whoever loses his life for my sake will preserve it.” “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
God is not asking anybody to become a zero. What was the design of the Creator in everything that He made? He wanted it to be good, that is, perfect, precisely what He meant, free in its being the thing He intended it to be. When He commanded Adam to “subdue” and “have dominion over” the earth He was not commanding him to destroy its meaning or existence. He was, we may say, “orchestrating,” giving the lead to one, subduing another, to produce a full harmony for His glory.
It must be very difficult for people who have not been reared in disciplined homes to learn the relationship between authority and love, for authority to them will have been associated with elements outside the home, such as civil law. But we have a loving God who arranged things not only for our “best interests” (we’re not always eager to have what is “for our own good”) but for freedom and for joy. When He made Eve, it was because the Garden of Eden would have been a prison of loneliness for Adam without her. It was not good for him to be alone, and to release him from this prison and bring him freedom and joy He gave him a woman. Eve’s freedom and joy was to be in being Adam’s complement.
When Paul speaks of the subordination of women he bases his argument on the creative order. The woman was created from and for the man. It follows naturally that she had to be created after the man. Woman’s secondary chronological position does not necessarily (Richard Hooker and others notwithstanding) prove an inferior intelligence. But those who rule out the possibility of sexual differences in intellectual gifts are not taking all the data into account. There are some intriguing statistics that point to biological reasons for such differences. Men seem better equipped to deal with high-level abstractions. One demonstration of this is the fact that while there are at present eighty-two Grand Masters in chess, not one is a woman. Of the five hundred greatest chess players in history, not one has been a woman. But thousands of women, particularly in the Soviet Union, play chess.
I read about this in a book called The Inevitability of Patriarchy by Steven Goldberg. Goldberg goes to infinite pains to show that he is in no way suggesting that men are generally superior to women. They are different, and their differences are hormonally determined.
It is necessary to point out once again that there is no reason to believe that there are sexual differences in intelligence in all of its myriad aspects. To consider an ability to theorize as a greater demonstration of intelligence than perception or insight is loading the dice no less than is considering physical strength more important than longevity as a measure of good health.
For the Christian, Goldberg’s statistics are interesting. For the Christian who believes in a hierarchy of order, they are even more interesting, for while we believe that the traditional patriarchal order is not merely cultural and sociological but has its foundation in theology, it is interesting to discover that it has also a valid biological foundation.
There is a spiritual principle involved here. It is the will of God. From Genesis to Revelation we are shown in countless stories of God’s dealings with people that it is His will to make them free, to give them joy. Sometimes the process of freeing them is a painful one. It meant death for the Son of Man—His life for ours. He came not to condemn, not to imprison, not to enslave. He came to give life.
And it is the will of God that woman be subordinate to man in marriage. Marriage is used in the Old Testament to express the relation between God and His covenant people and in the New Testament between Christ and the Church. No effort to keep up with the times, to conform to modern social movements or personality cults authorizes us to invert this order. Tremendous heavenly truths are set forth in a wife’s subjection to her husband, and the use of this metaphor in the Bible cannot be accidental.
1.3 THE RESTRAINT OF POWER [137-139]
ONE of God’s purposes in arranging things as He has is the restrain of power. Both men and women are given special kinds of power, and each kind needs to be specially restrained. Husbands, who are to initiate, command, and dominate, are specifically commanded to love their wives. It is no ordinary kind of love that is meant here. They are to love them in two ways first, “as Christ loved the Church,” which means self-giving. No man who sets this as the first principle will initiate, command, and dominate in a self-aggrandizing way. His acceptance of the authority God has given him is his obedience to God. His acceptance of the way that authority is to be exercised will prove his love for the woman.
Second, he is to love his wife “as his own body,” which means he is to nourish and cherish her. This, too, is like Christ. The Church is His Body. Christ’s love for the Church is a nourishing and cherishing love, a love that takes responsibility for the care of her.
Did you ever think of the rules of courtesy and chivalry as being, in their essence, founded on this Christian principle? Your fiance, in his consciousness of greater physical strength and his obligation to care for you, opens doors for you, walks on the outside of the sidewalk, helps you with your coat, stands when you enter a room. You, allowing him to cherish you, accept these courtesies with graciousness, seeing in them far more than the purely social gesture which, in our own day, is frequently scorned as a foolish making of distinctions which ought not to be made between people.
As man’s power over woman is restrained by love, woman’s power over man is restrained by the command to submit. Any woman knows that she has ways of getting her own way. It is not physical strength that is most powerful. It is not the ability to deal with high-level abstractions. She may be as intelligent as or more intelligent than her husband, she may be more gifted than he is. Whether this is the case or not, she also has “wiles,” emotional power, and she has sexual power. These must be restrained. The kind of restraint God asks of her is submission.
John Calvin wrote,
God is the source of both sexes and hence both of them ought with humility to accept and maintain the condition which the Lord has assigned to them. Let the man exercise his authority with moderation…. Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection…. Otherwise both of them throw off the yoke of God who has not without good reason appointed this distinction of ranks.
Paul also reminded us that we are to submit to one another. Surely there are times when the Christian husband, in loving his wife as Christ loved the Church, submits to her wishes. It is impossible for love not to give, and that giving often means giving over one’s own preferences. The husband is not in such a case acknowledging his wife’s authority. He is laying down his life.