What are the benefits and pitfalls of a marriage based on Biblical concepts of submission?

Jim Cates is back today with part 3 of his series on Amish women, with a look at submission in marriage.

If you missed them, you can also catch up with part 1 and 2 of Jim’s posts on Amish women.

Submission and Responsibility

Stanley Milgram was an unassuming man whose studies in psychology forever changed the field. He left us with a disquieting awareness of just what sheep we really are when authority beckons.

In the 1960s he completed a series of experiments in which he paired two participants. One was asked to administer lists of words, while the other was asked to recall the increasingly complex lists. In case of an error, the administrator was to give the person learning the list increasingly strong electric shocks as ordered by the experimenter.

A surprisingly large number of the participants were willing to give shocks that reached lethal levels, even though they expressed their discomfort in doing so. Although protesting, they responded to the demand of the experimenter that they continue.

What they did not know was that the experiment was rigged. There was no shock, and the participant “receiving” the shock was actually an actor who feigned pain and at times even begged the administrator to stop.

Milgram Experiment

Milgram’s studies resulted in a review of the use of deception in psychological research, and have never been replicated because of the distress caused to some of the participants who truly believed they were torturing others. (To see samples of the results of these experiments, search for “Stanley Milgram” on YouTube.)

However, the studies also remind us all too clearly of how easily we succumb to those who take charge. Indeed, Milgram later said “The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.”

The Amish believe in the need for wives to submit to their husbands. They follow the advice of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, who says “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church…” (Ephesians 5:22-23a). The woman’s role is thus to submit to the man in all things within the marriage relationship, and by extension, in all aspects of community life.

As a psychologist, let me say that I have seen numerous efforts to make romance work, both among clients and friends. I am willing to admit that my database may be skewed, but to date I have not observed the “perfect” arrangement for two people to join their lives in such a way that the relationship runs smoothly forevermore. Granted, some take a bumpier path than others, but that seems as much personality-based as the vehicle in which the couple decides to ride.

That said, the choice of a marriage based on submission, as the Amish believe, seems to have one major advantage and two potential hazards.

Couple Walking

A marriage in which one partner submits has the advantage of a unified authority. There is one individual who assumes responsibility for major decisions and guides the family. Particularly if the husband is willing to consider his wife’s needs and desires in planning, the submissive role serves a useful function in maintaining a balanced and supportive system in which both parties feel secure in their roles.

This sense of security is communicated to the children, who are then raised in a secure and loving environment. Tension and conflict will inevitably exist, but provided effective communication remains in place and each party accepts the marital role, even within the submissive paradigm an array of problem-solving and decision-making options exist.

One hazard occurs if the husband engages in abuse, emotional, verbal, or physical. Without equality in the relationship the wife can feel that she has little recourse in these situations but to remain passive or silent. If the abuse is sufficiently prolonged or severe, “submission” becomes “subjection,” a much different experience.

Rather than yielding to the authority of her husband as the head of the house, the woman now finds herself in a diminished role in which she is devalued and disempowered. This is the status of any woman who is abused, but for abuse to form a pattern, there normally has to be a prior form of submission in the relationship.

Of even greater concern is the potential to communicate to the children that a marital relationship functions in this way. Daughters can ultimately seek a “powerful” man to marry, failing to realize that the “power” they hope to find is not true strength but control.

Likewise, sons can model their own views of women after the manner in which their father treats their mother, and become abusive in relationships themselves. The strictures of a culture in which divorce is not permitted and separation difficult to achieve can make these situations even more temperamental to manage.

Home Porch View

The other hazard can occur if, as Milgram has noted, women assume a place of submission and fail to take responsibility.

“Submission” does not mean that women abdicate all opinions in regard to their own well-being or their families. They ultimately defer to their husbands in the decisions to be made, but remain advocates for themselves and their children when they believe their viewpoint has merit and needs to be expressed. Without this counterbalancing effect their necessary contribution to the family is greatly diminished.

“Submission” is also a nebulous term. I have observed Amish women who hold great authority within their sphere of influence, but carefully defer to their husbands in certain areas. I have observed other Amish women who have become so accustomed to subjection they struggle to maintain authority even with their own children.

For me, I choose to respect the Amish belief that women submit to men. However, in my interactions with Amish women, I see them as my equals. I understand that by doing so, the line drawn in the sand between us may grow a little deeper.

While I can respect their belief in submission, I cannot accept it in my life, and in my interactions with them. However, neither can I judge. As much as I would like to say that I would have been one of the few with courage in Milgram’s studies, I often fail to consider my own reasons for yielding to authority.


Jim Cates is author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.

Images: couple walking- 33200530@N04/flickr; front porch- ShipshewanaIndiana



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