Wednesday is Valentine’s Day. Every year around this time I try to open a Window on the World of love and romance. With that in mind, a few weeks ago I picked up a copy of a new book by Laura Doyle called The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion, and Peace with a Man [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001]. By the way, you should have seen the look on the clerk’s face when she realized what I was buying!
The Surrendered Wife was written because the author believes that there is something wrong with the average American marriage. In particular, she believes that wives ought to give up their struggle to gain power and control over their husbands. In a word, they ought to surrender. Doyle reached this conclusion by way of personal experience. She realized that much of the conflict in her marriage was caused by her desire to control her husband. Their relationship did not improve until she gave up that battle. “Stop trying to control everything,” she learned to say to herself. “Surrender.”
Some of the book’s practical suggestions for surrendering have been controversial. Put down the checkbook, wives are told, and leave it there. If you need money for daily expenses, ask your husband to give it to you… in cash. And when you’re in the car, let your husband find his own way, even if he doesn’t know how to get there. It’s more important for him to be in charge than to know where he is. But the main point is to stop trying to be in control. “A surrendered wife… relinquishes inappropriate control of her husband, respects her husband’s thinking, receives his gifts graciously, expresses what she wants without trying to control him, relies on him to handle household finances, and focuses on her own self-care and fulfillment.” As a result, she is “vulnerable where she used to be a nag, trusting where she used to be controlling, respectful where she used to be demeaning, grateful where she used to be dissatisfied, and has faith where she once had doubt [Doyle, pp. 19-20].
In some ways, The Surrendered Wife sounds something like the biblical pattern for marriage: Respect your husband. Don’t be critical. Don’t nag. If you say something rude, apologize. When he does something nice for you, say “Thank you.” This is common sense advice for any relationship. It is all part of what the Bible means when it tells us to be kind to one another.
The book is also right to recognize that men and women are different. As Doyle puts it, there should be “one skirt and one pair of pants.” And of course this is part of God’s intention for marriage, that husbands and wives should complement one another. After decades of efforts to claim that women are exactly the same as men, the pendulum seems to swinging back in the other direction. Vive la difference!
The problem is that husbands and wives both want to be in charge. Here the book’s analysis is essentially correct, or at least half correct. When a partnership becomes a power struggle it cannot thrive. You can read all about it in Genesis 3:16, where God announces the marriage penalty of sin: The woman desires to master the man, while the man seeks to dominate the woman. The Surrendered Wife does not talk about sin, in so many words, but it is basically right to encourage wives to give up control. (Obviously, this is easier to do when husbands set aside their desire to dominate and love their wives with caring sacrifice.)
What is strange, however, is the motivation for surrender, which ultimately is selfish. The point of the book is that surrendering is the best way to guarantee your own happiness. It is a something a woman does, not to obey God or to love her husband, but to get what she really wants out of life. In fact, it turns out that surrendering is not a way of giving up power, but actually a way of gaining it. When you stop trying to control what your husband does, you actually gain more control over your own life. Surrendering is just a more sophisticated and more effective way of getting what you want.
God’s design for marriage does not require surrender, but submission. The Bible says is “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:21). It is important to be clear what the difference is. In fact, it occurs to me that one of the reasons that the biblical ideal of submission is so unpopular in our day is that women think that it really does mean surrender. They assume that to submit is to be subservient, and therefore to give up one’s own identity.
To surrender is “to give oneself up into the power of another.” To submit, on the other hand, is to “yield to authority.” Submission is not about power and control, but about authority. In the case of marriage, it is about the spiritual authority that God has given to husbands in the home.
Submitting to authority does not mean that you shouldn’t let your husband know when he’s making a mistake. Quite the opposite. There are appropriate ways to let someone in authority know when he is making a mistake, and one of the ways that wives love their husbands is by showing them the error of their ways. Perhaps the best biblical example of this is Sarah, who is commended for her submission to Abraham (1 Pet. 3:5-6), but who also let him know when he was acting against God’s will for their family. In fact, God told Abraham to listen to his wife (Gen. 21:12). To submit is not to surrender, but to be a joyful, creative, intelligent, loving partner. Wives who submit in this way have God’s blessing, for they are conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who submitted to the will of his Father (see Matt. 26:42; 1 Cor. 11:3).
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