First draft prepared in May 2019.
The articles on this particular website that are most read, most commented on, and that elicit the most questions are, by far, those that discuss the submission of a Christian wife to her husband. This article attempts to provide greater context by discussing two very important related matters: unconditional love and unconditional obedience.
Before we get into that topic here I'd like to be clear about who this article is written for.
This article is for Christians who recognise that marriage is supposed to be for life, who recognise that divorce is an abomination and that God "hates divorce", and who want to strive for excellence. It is written for men who want to be better at loving their wives, and for women who want to be better at submitting to their husbands. This article is not for dishonest people, quitters, cowards, nor for narcissists. It is unlikely to be useful for the intellectually lazy, nor for the kind of person who prefers to quibble over phrasing instead of trying understand meaning.
The background to this whole article are two statements made by the apostle Paul in a letter he wrote to some Christians living in the city of Ephesius:
Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her ...
Our topic doesn't begin with obedience or with love but with the word “unconditional”. What actually does that mean? Maybe it is easier to understand the word “conditional”, which has the opposite meaning. When something is “conditional” it is dependent on something else.
Let's have a simple example: A woman might say, “I will do your shopping for you, if you look-after my dog for a couple of hours.”
Let's break that down:
“I will do your shopping for you ...” is the promised act, and
“if you look-after my dog for a couple of hours.” is the condition.
The conditional promise will be performed only if the condition is fulfilled. With that in mind, I expect you can understand easily enough that an unconditional promise is simply a promise without a condition, for example:
“I will do your shopping for you.”
Notice the full stop! There is nothing after the promise; no conditions. Easy peasy so far huh?
This means we can now re-express our two statements like this:
The husband cannot say “I will love you if you are beautiful.” The wife cannot say “I will obey you if you treat me well.” These promises are conditional and therefore unacceptable for marriage. More interestingly, the husband cannot say “I will love you if you obey me.” and the wife cannot say “I will obey you if you love me.” Each promise is independent of the other promise, and each person's obligations are independent of the other person's obligations.
Moving swiftly along, let's now consider the four letter word: “love”. In the English language “love” is given many shades of meaning such as “I love my child” and I love “ice-cream” and this causes some confusion. Still, at least English has “love” and “like” whereas French has to make do with “aime” for both. Oooh la la! Meanwhile Greek has at least four words for love. These allow distinctions to be made between friendship love, familial love, erotic love and the choice of love. The first three of the Greek words refer to feelings of love but the last one is not a feeling at all, it is an act of the will; a deliberate choice about how to behave in any given situation.
Feelings are unreliable, they come and go according to what we eat or who we meet or the weather on the street. If we eat one kind of food we have one kind of feeling and if we eat a different kind of food we have a different feeling. Did you notice the word “if” in the previous sentence? Of course you did! So, if feelings of love have “ifs” then they are conditional, and if they are conditional then they cannot be the unconditional love that a husband is obliged to give his wife.
So what about that last kind of love, the one that is an act of the will? That kind of love is a choice made by the mind and as such it can come without ifs. Only wilful love can be unconditional so what does “wilful love” mean? How does a person love, wilfully? The clue we need is a definition of love that you might previously have seen because it (or something very like it) is very popular:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Try reading that again, slowly, and then imagine all the different situations of life that can occur and in which such love might need to be used ... and then add the word “unconditionally”. No ifs allowed at all. When I write of a husband being obliged to love his wife, that is the standard of love to which I refer.
Next, let us take that poetic definition of love (the one quoted just above), add unconditionality, and then re-write it as a list of instructions that a husband is to obey in the way he treats his wife. If we do that then the definition of the unconditional love that a husband must give to his wife, looks something like this:
So there you have a summary of the unconditional love that every husband is required to offer his wife, and that every wife is entitled to expect from her husband. Are you a husband? How does your conduct towards your wife compare to this standard?
Conceptually the wife's obligation to her husband is very straightforward: Always do what he tells you to do, and never do what he tells you not to do. Simple!
The scary and difficult part of unconditional obedience arises because no husband is perfect and even a good husband might sometimes give instructions that he ought not give. The common objection is usually expressed dramatically with a question such as “What if he tells her to kill somebody!?”
Let us put this objection into perspective. The relationship we are speaking of is that of marriage and if the husband and wife are giving serious consideration to their unconditional obligations to one another then they are a man and a woman who are aiming for a very high standard of conduct. Moreover, murder is pretty rare in the grand scheme of things; it is far more likely that a bad husband will instruct his wife to pinch stuff from the local shop, or selfishly tell her to shut-up while he is watching football. Thirdly, if the man was really the sort of man to command murder, or to steal from shops, why did the woman marry him? A woman should not marry carelessly and she should test a man's character before binding herself to him. More importantly the man who marries a woman thereby takes on the obligation of giving her unconditional love, and his obligation of love precludes him asking his wife to do something so obviously wicked. Once we have these things in mind the popular objection to unconditional obedience starts to look like a thoughtless emotional reaction ... just silly, childish and lame.
So, back to reality ... there are no perfect men, therefore there are no perfect husbands and consequently a husband will sometimes give instructions his wife thinks to be not constructive, or that are not loving, or just not pleasant. When that happens what should a wife do?
First, she should consider that maybe her husband is right and she is wrong. Many people are very quick to remember that husbands are not perfect, but they tend to forget that there are also no perfect wives. Husbands can and do make mistakes. Wives make mistakes too. So when a wife thinks her husband is wrong she should think carefully and humbly ask herself how confident she is that her differing opinion is correct and better than his.
Ok, so let's imagine that after a bit of humble introspection she still thinks her husband is wrong; what next? Next she should discuss it with him pleasantly. Maybe he has made an honest mistake. Maybe she knows something that he was unaware of. A good man will be pleased to have his error corrected and, in that case, a fresh plan can be made and fresh instructions given.
But what if they discuss the matter pleasantly and they still don't agree? What should she do then? Simple! She should obey. She should obey faithfully, peaceably, and diligently and apply her very best effort to doing as her husband has instructed. She should obey without preconditions, without “ifs”.
When she obeys the unwanted instruction, there are a few possible outcomes:
The worst possible outcome is that the husband was wrong and something bad happens as a result. Even in this outcome they have not quarrelled nor separated. Mistakes happen, and even a good instruction that they both agreed upon could have turned out badly. Even with a bad outcome, so long as they remain united and able to go forward together it is not a particularly bad result, is it?
What would have happened if the wife had refused to obey? In that case they would be stuck. Without co-operation they could not move forward. There would be quarrelling and disappointment and stress. She would feel unloved by him. He would feel disrespected by her. The relationship would begin to flounder and crumble. Eventually they might separate rather than stay stuck in the impasse. Disaster!
In a relationship of two people, equality in decision-making power leads to impasse and pain; its not a good idea at all. The popular “progressive” idea that a husband and wife should be a partnership of equals is simply unworkable and therefore it will nearly always cause a couple to either separate, or to struggle-on together in perpetual conflict while feeling miserable, joyless and unfulfilled.
Humans aren't good at doing things perfectly all the time. Even if you set your heart to being unconditionally obedient, you will sometimes fail. Even if your husband desires and intends to love you unconditionally, he will sometimes fail. Usually these failures won't be very significant inthe long-term. Every failure is an opportunity to forgive and re-bond. The possibility of failure shouldn't stop a husband and wife from aiming for the best. Your past failures shouldn't stop you from aiming for the best in the future.
A woman who is an excellent wife should aspire to serve an excellent husband. The man who gives his wife unconditional love is the kind of man who is worthy to receive his wife's unconditional obedience. The woman who gives her husband unconditional obedience is the kind of woman who deserves to be loved unconditionally.
In every age there is much talk of the feelings of love, but the fashionable chatter rejects the notions of obedience and unconditionality and knows little about the choice of love. What a pity that is, because it is unconditionality that takes wilful love and obedience and gives them the ability to form a virtuous spiral of improvement: When a husband loves his wife unconditionally he makes it easier for her to obey him unconditionally. When a wife obeys her husband unconditionally she makes it easier for him to love her unconditionally. Onwards and upwards together they can go. With unconditionality neither of them need fear rejection therefore they are both free to give themselves to one another generously and continuously, no matter the circumstances or the mood.