Karen Wouldn't Say "Obey"
Nearly twenty-nine years ago, a few months before we married, Karen let me know she’d edited out the portion of the vows where the bride promises to obey. You know, “for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and obey, till death us do part.”
I was surprised. Not that she wanted to amend the vows, but by the fact the word obey was only in the woman’s vows. Until that conversation, I’d assumed the vows mirrored each other.
I was naïve for three reasons: First, I was 20 years old and had spent little time thinking about wedding vows.
Second, I wasn’t a woman.
Third, I’d grown up in a home where my parents modeled greater love and equality.
When I realized “obey” was only in the woman’s vows, removing the word was easy and obvious. I agreed wholeheartedly.
While we may not have fully understood the power of our agreement at the time, we knew the foundation of our relationship would not be built on obedience. It would be built on trust and intimacy. There would be no hierarchy in our marriage. We were two becoming one. We desired to know union and intimacy. And so, our marriage would be built on greater love, mutual surrender, submitting one to another—equality.
I love the word obey. I wrote a whole book about radical obedience titled Untamed. Obedience, inside relational trust, is powerfully beautiful, but outside of mutual self-giving love, it can be a deceitful word, a religious obsession that enslaves us. When it comes to marriages, a hierarchal understanding of the word can really mess things up.
I have counseled many fractured marriages where husbands don’t feel respected, wives don’t feel loved, and closeness or intimacy hasn’t been experienced in years. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat dumbfounded as the husband, in an attempt to defend his controlling actions toward his wife, quotes Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands….”
And I’m heartbroken and a little angry when, on more than one occasion, the wife, sitting in tears next to her confused and controlling husband, has said, “I am trying to.”
I’ve had to stop myself from cuffing the fella on the back of the head as he uses the word submit like a gun to manipulate and control—to get what he wants. When submit is used to support hierarchy, it’s a dirty word.
I have seen this hierarchal lens used to compromise trust and undermine access to intimacy. And insecurity and distance are always the fruit of this transactional master-servant relationship.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her….” That’s Ephesians 5:25, and it’s the essential part of Paul’s instruction to married couples. Unfortunately, this verse is not quoted nearly as often as the “Wives submit to your husbands” verse that comes a few sentences earlier.
Jesus best explained what the word submit means when He said, “No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” 1 Then, Jesus revealed what submitting looks like by going to a cross and laying down His life for us. Jesus rejected the gun, the very idea of hierarchy and control.
Intimacy is impossible in a hierarchy; oneness can only be experienced through equality.
Jesus modeled the way to intimacy through self-giving, other-centered love. And Paul’s instruction to husbands and wives in Ephesians highlights that connection. The fact is, intimacy between a husband and wife is discovered in mutual submission—true equality, greater love.
You see, intimacy can’t be experienced in a relationship where one person exercises control over the other. Two becoming one—union—occurs between two trusting people who surrender, submitting one to another, laying down their lives for each other of their own accord.
There are two types of surrender, forced or voluntary. Greater Love never forces and always volunteers. It’s why we can always trust Him, and it’s how we discover union.
And it works the same way in a marriage.
If you want a transactional, “What am I still lacking?” relationship with your spouse, keep playing the master-servant control game. If you want trust, friendship, oneness, and an ever-growing intimacy, it’s only found in Greater Love.
I’ve shared that thought with both husbands and wives—but mostly while looking at the husband.
And I’ve shared that thought with many Christians as well—but mostly while looking at the leader.
Control is the antithesis of intimacy and oneness. A hierarchal understanding of submission is what’s wrong with this world.
By removing the word obey from our vows, Karen and I took the gun out of our marriage and created a safe place to discover union, intimacy, and an ever-deepening friendship—oneness through true equality.