December 4, 2014

When Your Wife Struggles to Follow You

by Eric Davis

marriageEvery husband would agree with the Reformer, Martin Luther, that marriage is the school of character. There are not many daily crucibles like it in which God purifies and sanctifies in such needed, blessed ways.

One of those areas in particular for husbands is learning how to lead a wife biblically. Besides his own imperfections, husbands can struggle with how to lead a wife who struggles to embrace God’s good design of submission. Few things in marriage present a greater challenge than biblical submission. As such, it is one of the more common marital struggles.

sanctificationBut most wives in these situations do not embark on a journey with the goal of, “I do not want God’s kind of leadership.” I’ve found that just about every wife wants to be led. In fact, it’s not uncommon for unconverted wives to respond favorably to a converted husband’s biblical leadership. That makes sense because leading is about humility, serving, self-denial, and love.

Now, compassion and patience is needed from husbands in this area for a few reasons. First, God in Christ is so radically compassionate and patient with us husbands. Second, wives are born in Adam. A resistance to biblical submission is natural. Third, our leadership, as husbands, is not as good as Christ’s. Flaws exist. If we were our wives, it would be a battle for us to submit to us.

But some of us husbands find ourselves in the often humbling, deflating situation where our wives persist in struggling to follow our lead. It’s probably not a stretch to say that the majority of the time, the husband is not the innocent party here. There are exceptions. But for the most part, if his wife struggles to follow him, it behooves the husband to consider a few questions.

Here are seven questions a husband could ask himself if his wife struggles to follow him:

  1. Is my goal that she submits to me?

If so, I have the wrong goal as a husband. In everything we do, the goal of husband-ing is not the submission of my wife but the glorification of my Lord.

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

“Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9).

As a husband, I operate, not with the target of getting my wife to do this or that, but to be God’s kind of husband; a husband pleasing to Christ. The fruit of that may or may not be a wife that follows. In either case, the husband’s aim does not change: God’s glory from my calling as a husband.

  1. What do I mean, “She will not follow me”? Or, “She will not submit to me”?

Do we understand what biblical submission is? A wife’s hesitation to implement the Abrahamic address (i.e. calling her husband “lord,” 1 Pet 3:6) is not submission failure. If a wife does not do everything a husband asks, confronts her husband’s sin, or gives him feedback on his parenting, for example, she is not necessarily unsubmissive.

Martha Peace has written that submission is not: inequality, recognizing the husband as infallible, immobility (the wife is not a slave or doormat), inarticulate (submission does not mean silence or failure to speak), or intellectual stagnation (The Excellent Wife).

Instead, submission is rooted in God’s role for wives as a picture, in part, of the glorious relationship of the church as she submits to Jesus Christ. In light of his substitutionary atoning work for her, she gets to submit. So, since it is rooted in the gospel of Christ, biblical submission is intrinsically glorious and something of great dignity.

Additionally, submission is a way of life for all believers, a protection for wives, an attitude, an act of the will (not feeling), and a demonstration of one’s love and respect for the Lord (Martha Peace, The Excellent Wife).

  1. Am I promoting an atmosphere which is followable and conducive to submission?

leadershipChrist is the example here. His sacrificial love and servant leadership is something that is conducive to the church’s submission (Mark 10:42-45, Eph 5:25-27). That’s key for leadership in any realm, especially in marriage. Am I the kind of guy to whom it’s safe to submit? Would anyone want to follow me? If I were not me, would I want to follow and submit to me?

What is our leadership approach? Is it biblical and aiming to imitate something of Christ in his saving work for the church?

Also, husbands can glean something about our leadership by asking, “To whom does God consider it safe to submit, generally speaking?” Biblical elders is one example (Heb 13:17). This means that a guy with a measure of elder qualifications will be promoting an atmosphere conducive to others’ submission. So, as a husband pursues Christ, he can make the elder qualifications his character goal in order to help his wife in this area.

  1. Am I regularly praying for my wife?

If I am, what am I praying? How often? Am I only praying that she’ll submit to me?

We ought to be praying other things, for example, that she will love Christ, see Christ, desire to submit to and obey Christ, that she’ll love the word, and for the Spirit to transform her into the image of Christ.

Even more, am I pleading with God for my own holiness, and more so than I’m praying for her submission? Am I asking God to make me a husband to whom it is joyful to submit?

  1. Am I actively repenting of my own sin?

Before focusing exclusively and extensively on her struggles, we need to carefully, biblically, and prayerfully examine ourselves to see if there is a leadership log in our eye (Matt 7:3-5).

We might consider doing something like taking time to prayerfully write down 10-20 ways we can think of where we have failed to lead biblically in the home, had an ungodly attitude towards her, and ungodly actions. After we confess and ask God’s forgiveness, then we can do the same with our wife. This can be powerful for an unsubmissive or unregenerate wife.

Regular repentance in a man’s life is often the doorway into greater spheres of faithful and fruitful influence and leadership, especially in the home.

  1. Am I actively inviting and receiving my wife’s reproof?

This is important for effective leadership in general.

We might ask our wives something like, “Honey, in this and that area of life, it seems like you struggle to follow me. Is that accurate? And if so, why might that be? How can I grow to lead more like Christ?”

eat fastOne of my heroes of the faith, Alex Montoya, once said, “The secret to eating crow is to eat it quickly.” Many of us husbands need regular servings of crow to stay spiritually healthy. We can do that by inviting our wife’s reproof. Then listen. Take it. And change.

“He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding. The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom, and before honor comes humility” (Prov 15:31-33).

Notice a few things from this passage:

First, the path to wisdom is traveled by inviting and listening to reproof. Second, there is something which precedes the man being honored in that verse: humility. So, if a husband wants the honor of his wife’s submission, he ought to implement his own humility. Inviting, and sincerely receiving, her reproof is one way to do so.

  1. What kind of shepherding-care does she need?

Does she understand what biblical submission means? Is she regenerate? Has she been hurt by me, or others, in this area in the past? How might that be complicating things? Does she have access to sound scriptural teaching and discipleship in the area of dignified biblical womanhood? Husbands are responsible to lead their wives in the way of sitting under a sound ministry that will help them together in the exalted calling as husbands and wives.

As tough and humbling as it is sometimes, leading a wife is a great joy. God will powerfully transform us in many ways within his school of character, by his grace and for his glory. One of those ways will be through progressively becoming the type of person to whom submission is a joy.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Kevin

    Yes, but If you are more or less performing reasonably well in accordance to what this article says you should be doing, and your wife still doesn’t want to submit, then what?

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      You continue to love her, being patient and kind so that God can do the work in her heart, as she sees you reflect His grace.

    • Gabriel Powell

      See help (marriage counseling) from your pastor, or if he doesn’t help, a wise biblical counselor.

    • Eric Davis

      Kevin – Thanks for the question, friend. While I do not know the particulars of your situation, I do know personally that this area can be a great battle.

      Again, not knowing all the details makes it difficult to speak into it effectively. I would echo Jane, Gabriel, and Daryl below. And I would be sure that you are immersing yourself in a good, sound local church which has a biblical counseling ministry, trained counselors, as well as a view of discipleship that looks like genuinely and regularly getting into each other’s lives in order to grow in Christ. The local church is really that care center, God’s greenhouse, where you will experience the kind of shepherding we all need. Now, if your wife is resistant to doing so, then you, of course, still must. And if she is resistant to you doing so, then you will need to be in much prayer, and gently pleading with there that doing so will make you a better husband for her.

      You will need some humble, godly brothers to help you walk through this with joy; to encourage you and pray with/for you.

      Yours is probably a situation which involves a degree of trials, in God’s providence. But this is God’s way of showing his love for you, transforming you into the image of Christ, learning to humbly and patiently love as Christ loves you, and showing your wife a picture of Christ through your daily, humble, servant-leadership.

      If you want to discuss the situation further, let me know and we can get in touch. Praying for you, Kevin.

      • julie

        Eric, one more thing to add, maybe? As a Christian, are you submitting to Christ and to the earthly authorities over you?

        • Eric Davis

          Julie – I think that’s a great point. When we have a heart of humility/submission, it will be manifest in all areas of our lives (as you mentioned, to Christ and earthly authorities). Thanks!

    • e

      I think Jane nailed it. Notice that when Paul commanded wives to submit to husbands in Eph 5, he didn’t say “Submit to your husbands IF he loves you as Christ loved the church”. He simply said “submit”, and other passages say “without a word”.

      I say that by way of introduction to point out that in the same way, notice that when Paul commands husbands to love their wives, he didn’t say “love your wife as long as she submits as she’s supposed to.” In fact, the very comparison of love he gives would negate that aspect: “as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her”. Christ didn’t love the Church and give Himself for her because the Church always perfectly submits to Him; in fact, He loved the Church and gave Himself for Her in spite of the Church’s rebellious, totally depraved, unregenerate state. (I’m speaking in a personified way.)

      In the same way, a wife that won’t submit may be a candidate for many things: the Gospel, if she’s not a believer; admonition and/or church discipline if she is a believer; but one thing she’s not a candidate for is the absence of love demonstrated in the same way that Christ loved the church.

      I’m not insinuating that any of the above applies in your case, as far as “not loving” her, I’m simply using the example to further Jane’s point that really the only course of action, whatever the circumstance, is to continue doing your part.

    • Ed

      Dan Phillips wrote a very helpful article on this awhile back :

      • Eric Davis

        Thanks for posting that, Ed. I had not seen Dan’s article.

  • Jason

    Maybe it’s just my mathematic background but this paragraph:

    “Martha Peace has written that submission is not inequality, recognizing the husband as infallible, immobility (the wife is not a slave or doormat), inarticulate (submission does not mean silence or failure to speak), or intellectual stagnation (The Excellent Wife).”

    Follows a pattern of a word followed by an explaination in parathesis that lead me initially to believe that “The Excellent Wife” was an example of intellectual stagnation.

    I know my mind can be a scary place and you just got a glimpse.

    • Eric Davis

      Jason – Sorry about that! That was a blunder on my end.

  • Daryl Little


    Keep calm and carry on. It’s well worth noting that while Scripture tells wives to submit to their husbands, it never tells the husband to make sure she does.

    And never assume, in the face of her non-submission, that you are doing as “reasonably well” as you think you are.

  • Harry

    Very Good. Do you think this would apply where say – husband is saved and the wife isn’t. In fact the wife says, I married a different person – I don’t like the new converted husband. Thoughts?

    • Eric Davis

      Harry – That’s a great question. I would definitely say this applies to a situation with an unconverted wife. In that case, the husband has been given a great missionary opportunity to daily show the love of Christ in his saving work. What a great providence of God! And, as that husband fails Christ’s standard for loving his wife, he can still show something of the power of the gospel by asking her forgiveness.

      Now, she still may not be ok with him and his new faith. But the key will be for him to, for the glory of God, do what he can to show his wife that Christ being in his life is a beneficial thing for her also. How will he do that? By his godly, humble, servant-leadership, love, fathering (if they have kids), etc. There will likely be things which divide (e.g. going to church, certain sin issues they may have previously engaged in, etc). But even then, he can humbly explain to her that God is so good and that it is for their good that they not sin in that area.

      If even then she wants out, well, he cannot force her to stay, as Paul describes in 1 Cor 7:15. He ought to do what he can to please God and love her, but she may want out at some point. And if she leaves, then the husband has not sinned. That is a biblical divorce, as sad as it may be.

  • d

    “6. Am I actively inviting and receiving my wife’s reproof?”

    Don’t know that I’m buying this one, apart from also addressing this item:

    “6b. Is my wife regularly looking to me for spiritual guidance?”

    In 1 Cor 14:35, we read Paul commanding wives, “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.” I see very little admonition to wives in general to “ask their husbands” in matters of spiritual guidance. While this might be covered under Eric’s final point of “shepherding”, I think it deserves to stand on its own; necessitating that husbands be the primary source of spiritual guidance for which wives should actively be seeking requires a submission by the wife in humbling oneself to go and ask.

    I fear we jump too quickly to the inviting reproof part in our egalitarian quest (I know, we’re complementarians, and I believe that, but sometimes “complementarianism” sounds an awful lot like “egalitarianism” b/c of our deceitful hearts. I’m not saying this toward Eric or this post, just a general observation of things in general…?) and go right past the ask husband part without a second thought…

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      I may be wrong, but I had always understood that Paul’s admonition for wives to “ask their husbands” in matters of spiritual guidance came from the fact that women of that time and culture did not have available to them the spiritual or educational training that men did. Therefore husbands were in fact a wife’s primary source of spiritual guidance. I had not viewed that as a submission issue as much as a cultural one.

      The beautiful thing about our current culture and time is that both men and women have so many resources to help us grow in our faith and love for God. I have found that sharing what we learn with one another is one of the beautiful things about Christian marriage.

    • Eric Davis

      Hi d – Thanks for the comment. Agreed that we have to avoid letting an egalitarian quest influence the teaching of Scripture on this matter. I hope that I am not veering towards that error.

      When I encouraged husbands to invite reproof, my intention was to do so from the idea of: 1) Practicing a form of humility often promoted in Proverbs and 2) In light of #1, practice that humility w/ someone who is your “helper suitable,” and thus can serve as a great asset to your leadership by giving feedback. A husband would be wise to recruit her thorough knowledge of him, his character, and leadership to thereby improve it as he requests reproof.

      And doing so does not preclude the importance of a wife looking to her husband for spiritual guidance, in my opinion. In fact, it may promote it. But either way, her responsibility is to submit to him, not b/c of his performance, but b/c of the command to demonstrate something of the church’s relationship to Christ.

      • d

        Awesome, thanks!

  • Aaron W

    Super helpful and convicting. Thanks Eric. This is a keeper!

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Aaron. Great to hear from you.

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