What it means that a wife should obey her husband

I wrote to Laura Wood:

A question for you: what do you think of Kate Middleton’s announcement that she will follow the example of Princess Diana and not pronounce the traditional words in the wedding ceremony that she will “obey” her husband? Realistically speaking, in what sense is it still valid that a woman should obey her husband?

Laura Wood replies:

How can a man be king when he can’t even secure the obedience of his wife?

Wifely obedience comes directly from the New Testament, was an ideal in Western society for thousands of years, and is grounded in human nature.

By promising to obey, a woman is basically asking a man to take care of her. Obviously there is no legal enforcement of wifely obedience. Nor has it traditionally been taken to mean that a wife surrenders her will to her husband’s control. The vow to obey is a statement of trust.

Practically, it means the husband’s major preferences come first. As the provider, a man would be more like a slave in his own family if he couldn’t have the final say when there is any question as to how money will be spent. By promising to obey, the wife upholds paternal authority, which is important in raising children.

Once women have lost some of their economic independence, or the illusion of economic independence, the idea of obedience will make more sense to people again. It doesn’t make sense right now because people are still hoping that this experimental disaster is somehow going to turn around and work out.

In the meantime, it makes Kate Middleton seem small-minded—and who would want to walk in Diana’s footsteps when it comes to matrimony? Why wouldn’t a woman vow to obey someone she loves? By refusing, she’s essentially saying she doesn’t trust him. And by his agreeing, he is as much as saying he is not worthy of trust. Not much of a monarch.

Archbishop Rowan Williams’s alleged statement that a vow to obey could be used to justify domestic violence, as if every man is a potential wife-beater, makes no sense given that a man traditionally vows to love and honor his wife. The Archbishop’s report, which tars marriages of the past as oppressive, is essentially an anti-Christian political document. The statement that women had no standing in law before 1926 is simply false.

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Rick Darby writes:

I consider myself a traditionalist, but some traditions make no sense, and expecting a bride to pledge to “obey” her husband is not only obsolete but ethically wrong.

What evidence do you have that wifely obedience is “grounded in human nature”? Even if it were, that wouldn’t be the end of the discussion. Human nature includes all kinds of dysfunctional or selfish drives that have to be subdued or channeled through individual growth and civilization.

You say, “By promising to obey, a woman is basically asking a man to take care of her.” There is no logical equivalence between obedience and being taken care of. Surely it is possible to take care of someone without demanding unqualified obedience. Care should not be purchased at the price of submission. Nor do I agree that it is right to treat a woman like a child who must be taken care of in general, unless she is very ill or for some reason helpless. Of course, a good husband supports his wife in emotional, protective, and financial ways, just as a good wife supports her husband in ways that derive from her strengths.

“The vow to obey is a statement of trust.” So my wife can’t trust me unless she pledges to obey me? You and she should have a chat. By the way, she is thoroughly immersed in the New Testament, studied it in seminary, and is fairly fluent in the Koine Greek it was written in.

You are, however, right about Archbishop Williams’s absurd statement.

Laura Wood replies:
I suppose Mr. Darby would say it is “ethically wrong” for a bride or groom to vow to love or honor the other. After all, no human being is entirely lovable. Why should one pledge to love someone when in fact there will likely be some things he or she does that are not good or right or lovable? The same thing is true with the pledge to honor.

These pledges are exactly what I said they are: statements of trust, not blanket vows to submit or honor without consideration for circumstances.

As to why a wife should pledge to obey a man, and not the other way around, no serious joint project involving two or more people is ever without conflict. In some highly companionate marriages, conflict is indeed easily resolved, and there are no disputes about serious issues such as how much money should be spent on a house or daily living; how children should be disciplined; how much should be spent to educate children; what habits and customs the family will observe; how much time will be spent with relatives, etc. Mr. Darby expects all marriages to be highly companionate and he is blithely unconcerned about those that are not. Let others sink or swim. His is the liberal assumption that practical reality can be overlooked for the sake of principle.

As I said, in the traditional family, where the man is the breadwinner, it is crucial that a man be free to make important judgments about the direction of his work, judgments that his wife may be unable to make because she is not him, and does not fill his shoes at work. A man, for instance, may wish to leave a job he considers unbearable. He must expect that his wife will honor his decisions and obey them if she would prefer otherwise. The pledge to obey is rooted partly in this economic reality and the necessary dependence of the wife during child-rearing.

Similarly, women sometimes abhor strict discipline for children, discipline that is necessary for their welfare. In any event, it is important that someone have final say when there is irreconcilable conflict between a husband and wife about children.

If Mr. Darby’s wife is a New Testament scholar then she is familiar with Paul’s words on the subject: specifically, “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (5:22).

There has never been a time in Western society when the family was in good health and the authority of the man as father and husband was not recognized. The vow to obey has never, in the majority of marriages, resulted in the wife as mere servant. With no-fault divorce, we’ve seen the consequences of the total denial of a man’s authority in marriage. Many women who have had decent marriages have left their husbands, so many that there has been an epidemic of frivolous divorce. A man has no authority to prevent this rebellion—and that is what it is. Even where men do not possess real authority, women rebel against them.

Hierarchy in marriage is not inimical to companionship and love. In fact, it is conducive to it. Many women prefer men who will confidently lead them. That preference is rooted in nature.

Forta Leza writes

I agree it means that the man is the leader of the family and the girl he is marrying agrees to accept this role. There is an idea floating around in Western culture that it’s somehow demeaning or wrong to submit to another person’s authority. But this is plainly ridiculous. For example, if there is a downed power line and the police close off the street, there is nothing shameful or inappropriate in obeying their order to take a different route. In short, there is nothing wrong with submitting to proper authorities. The same is true in a healthy family. The children must submit to their parents and the wife must submit to her husband. The husband should not abuse his role as leader and he must make sacrifices for the health and safety of his wife and children. Even to the point of giving up his life if it will save the lives of his wife and children.

Alissa writes::

A wife obeying her husband is not obsolete and neither is it ethically wrong. Obedience is merely obsolete in the context of liberal or libertarian morality. Wifely obedience is a command given by God himself and wives must submit to their husbands as the husbands love their wives. Wives refusing to obey their husbands, living in open rebellion, and not being subdued is catastrophic with the consequences often plain in sight. I myself have said to my father how I greatly disagreed with some of his decisions yet in all he never wavered when I screamed at him and wanted my way when I was a child. My father opposed and attacked my rebellion and it has made me a better young woman. A man constantly catering to the needs of his wife and never obeying what God commands will reap what he has sown.

Women tend to hold contradictory feelings where they want freedom yet they want to be subdued (that’s often how I feel), and really a man should put his foot down and lead. When I get married (I’m starting to look for a husband) the first thing I will say during the courtship is how I want him to continue pushing his way even when I go crazy screaming like a baboon and please to mostly ignore my crying/whining because sooner or later I will go back to normal. And just like my mother (full time housewife) I won’t choose a full-career path. I will either be a housewife or a part-time working girl (I’m studying nursing and philosophy). Traditional conservatism is not about a perfect era or time but about truth, goodness and beauty. It is about returning to the essence of who we are, as Laura Wood has written. We can see what worked in the past and what didn’t work (learning from it) while living for the future and constructing civilization. Wifely obedience to her husband is sometimes similar to human obedience to God. We humans tend to have a love/hate relationship with God and that is often how wives operate with their husbands as well. Do you have to be a “wife-beater” or a nihilistic Roissy fan? A MRA? No. Both men and women are sinful in their nature. Nevertheless men as husbands should rule over their wives and lead while also loving them. Women should respect and obey their husbands unless of course their husbands do something which violates the will of God. Also besides religious and moral reasons there is the sexual and physical reasons. I don’t tend to like men who wear pink and I tend to go gaga over masculine good-looking men.

Laura Wood writes:

A woman I know, married for more than 20 years, filed for divorce last week. Her husband has done nothing to deserve her departure, but I am not surprised. I have seen this happen so many times that I am incapable of being surprised when a friend or relative calls with the news that a woman we know is leaving her husband.

Something this woman (the one who is getting divorced) said keeps coming back to me, because it speaks to the very complicated reality that women do indeed wish to submit to their husbands even though they will vehemently deny it and even though they form huge organizations and political movements that vehemently deny it.

“I’m tired,” she said, “of being his mother.”

April 26

Howard Sutherland writes:

Ouch! But certainly a cautionary tale for all of us husbands out here in internet-land to ponder!

LA replies:

“Ouch” is such an indeterminate expression. What are you saying “ouch” to?

Howard Sutherland replies:

The divorcing woman’s comment that she was tired of being her husband’s mother. Pretty devastating comment, I thought.

Please forgive my Delphic opacity!

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 25, 2011 09:36 AM | Send

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