Submission: How Far is Too Far?

One of the comments on my submission post really caught my attention and spurred yet another round of interesting conversation between the Ogre and I. We can’t come up with an answer that satisfies either of us yet, so I thought I would ask my readers what you guys think.

40DaysOf was disturbed by my post because she saw it as being submission taken to an extreme, or rather, submission when the husband was not fulfilling his end of the bargain, we might say, by loving like Christ. It got me thinking about this whole idea of submission in a new light. After all, if we only submit to requests that we agree with or that we think are reasonable or right, aren’t we really just obeying ourselves and not our husbands?

Obviously, this can and probably is terribly abused. But how do we know when the idea of submission is being abused? Where’s the line? How far is too far?

The Ogre posed a great question. He said, “If a woman has a horrible husband who treats her terribly, is she wrong for continuing to obey him?” I’d never thought of that before. Assuming he’s not asking her to do immoral things, I don’t think she’s wrong for obeying. But I also don’t really think she’s wrong for not obeying.

So is that how we’re supposed to understand Ephesians 5? Is it a contract, so to speak? My gut reaction is to say no, but that road leads to a myriad of difficulties.

I’m blessed to have a husband who treats me wonderfully. Sometimes he makes decisions I don’t agree with (like the circumcision), but he never makes a decision until we’ve talked about it. He never discounts my feelings. If he has a reason to make a decision that I wouldn’t, it’s always a good one, and he always explains it. Sometimes I have to do things I don’t like to keep my promise of obedience, but I always know that it’s right. There’s always some grace that comes with obeying my husband.

Not all women are so lucky. What about a woman who’s being abused? I certainly wouldn’t tell her to stay and take the abuse. What about a woman who’s being emotionally abused? I don’t know. What about a woman whose husband doesn’t really abuse her, but just treats her like a doormat? Is she still expected to obey, knowing that he is most emphatically not loving her the way Christ loves His Church?

These things must be decided on a case-by-case basis, but ultimately I think that reason can only take us so far. We can justify much with reason, but still the choice will remain to all of us, even those who are in a bad marriage where obedience seems ludicrous: obey or don’t obey. I have no idea what the right answer is, but I do know that the idea of obeying my husband was something I vehemently opposed until I just started doing it. Grace accompanies sacrifices. I also don’t know that that can be applied in all situations, though. What do you guys think?

In other news, we’ll be flying to Texas today for the holidays. I would be indebted to you if you could take a minute and say a quick prayer for our safe travels. I will try to get a few posts up every week while we are gone, but it may be slower going than usual. Thanks guys!

A Portrait of Domestic Bliss
"She alone could mitigate his mortality"
A Better Barrier Method
Quick-and-Dirty Marriage Tip Monday
  • Mary Poppins NOT

    Many years ago, I wrote something on this exact topic. Your welcome to read it if you wish:

  • Melanie B

    I had a very long discussion of the topic of submission one time with a woman who was really struggling with the idea. It turned out, though she did not know it at the time, that her husband was a child abuser. My suspicion is that part of the reason she struggled with it is that even then she subconsciously felt something wrong with submitting to him. And rightly so. Given the data that later emerged, it was clear that there had never been a sacramental marriage even though they were both Catholic and she thought everything was fine at the time.(The other part of why she struggled, though, is that it is a very difficult command for anyone to follow. It means dying to self and living for the other. That is never easy.)But I do think that the command only really works when both partners are at least trying to fulfill their end of the commitment. So a woman whose husband is not loving her sacrificially can find herself in an abusive situation. Likewise, of course, a husband who loves his wife sacrificially while she does not submit to him may also find himself hen-pecked, verbally or even physically abused. That said, I do think there is some spiritual merit in obedience even when the one who is being obeyed is in the wrong. Certainly you see this in the writings of some religious like St Therese who vow obedience to a superior. Like you say, I don't necessarily think it is wrong to submit when he's in the wrong. There is certainly a virtue in stating your opinion and discussing the issue and then gracefully submitting when you can't persuade him to change his mind.But to what extent should a wife bow her will to her husband's even when she thinks he is wrong? I think a clear limit is when she perceives that serious harm will befall herself, their children, or even her husband himself. (i.e. clearly taking his keys away when he's drunk would be the loving thing to do, allowing him to drive is not at all the thing a loving wife would do.) Finally, I don't think the Catholic marriage should ever be lived in a vacuum. A marriage is never just two individuals, which I think is why although the couples are the ministers of the sacrament the marriage must be witnessed by a priest or deacon and two other witnesses from the community. A marriage exists as part of a greater Church community. One would presume that both spouses are seeking spiritual direction from a confessor who would be able to help a wife to discern when and whether her submission is harmful to her marriage. Likewise, she should be talking to God and seeking a course in prayer as well as turning to friends and mentors whose counsel she esteems. Therefore, if she is seeking counsel, I think there is still the spiritual virtue of submission but she would be submitting her will to a spiritual director. Thus she is not trying to be the captain of the ship all on her own but wisely seeking counsel in times of difficult discernment. And I really should note that a spiritual director should be chosen carefully because I am sure anyone will be able to find examples of priests and confessors who dole out bad advice.

  • Calah

    MaryPoppins-Thanks for leaving this. I'm visiting family right now so I haven't had time to click through to your link, but I will soon. I'm really interested to read it because this subject is very interesting. Melanie-agree, agree, agree, particularly the idea of not living a marriage in a void. Great point. And the idea of serious harm…also good, but also hard to judge. After all, harm can be insidious and only clearly seen years in the future. Interesting. Thanks for the comment.