Submission and Responsibility in Amish Marriage

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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    13 Comments

    1. AGB

      The "S" Word.......

      Thank you for writing the articles, I’ve just gone back and read all three. Being a modern working woman I longingly crave to “just be home”. I’d never be bored!

      What a brave man to bring up the “S” word :0)

      Speaking from a strong-willed woman’s point of view who had grown up with an unhealthy view of Godly submission….. thankfully I’ve come to understand God’s view in a healthier light.

      Christ provided the best example of submission for us in submitting to God’s will by dying for us on the cross. Wow!
      Submission: “voluntary yielding to another”

      When trust is great, submission is easily applied. We always hear how the “wife is to submit to the husband” but so little of the time is Ephesians 5:26 included in the equation??? If a man dies to himself just as Christ did for the church it’s easy for a woman to submit. Hey…… he’s got her back, has her best interest in mind and she knows it. I’d much rather have the submission role (OK, OK, I admit it’s not always easy, I’m a work in progress) then to stand before God for the responsiblity of leading the household. Seriously, when a woman feels loved, honored, secure, respected… then submission naturally flows.

      Lets add the entirety of Colossians 3 and we’re all in a healthier place.

    2. Naomi Wilson

      Well said, AGB. Observing the christian headship order in a balanced way is both challenging and very rewarding for both men and women.

      And abuse swings both ways. Growing up in a liberal setting, I have known far more women who were psychologically or verbally abusive of their husbands, than husbands who abused their wives.

    3. Jim Cates

      The "S" Word

      Thanks for your comments. Abuse has become an “elastic” term these days, so as a psychologist/therapist sometimes it is difficult to determine where frustrations and arguments stop and abuse starts. Suffice to say, the Amish have obviously not cornered the market on abusive behavior, nor are they the only Christians who strive to treat their spouses with respect and fail. Whether we strive for equality or submissiveness in a relationship, it’s a tough journey over the years to stay consistently respectful of each others, and I admire every couple who is capable of doing so.

      1. Hosanna

        They don’t even let women get married unless both fathers approve of the union. It’s nuts. https://growingupamishmichigan.blogspot.com/2022/08/how-do-amish-and-plain-girls-get.html

    4. Barb Zimmerman

      Wives Submit to Husbands

      Jim, up to the point where you said, “For me, I choose to respect the Amish belief that women submit to men,” I thought the article was very well outlined. However, that statement moves it from the topic of wives submitting to husbands, to Amish women submitting to all Amish men. Could you elaborate on that?

      Do Amish believe that Amish women should be submissive to all Amish men, or only to their husbands?

      Also, what about the Amish women who choose not to marry? Are they expected to be submissive to their fathers and all other Amish men?

    5. Jim Cates

      Wives Submit to Husbands Response...

      Barb,

      It’s an excellent question. And like many excellent questions, you’re pushing at the limits of my expertise, so I’m going to invite others (particularly those who are Amish) to join the discussion here. What I would say – based on my observation – is that there is a social hierarchy among the Amish. Senior bishops, bishops, ministers, deacons, laymen, women, etc. How rigidly that hierarchy is recognized depends on a) the setting (formal meeting? church? family gathering?) b) settlement, c) Amish affiliation, and d) personal preference. So I suspect (although I don’t know) that the answer(s) to your question will vary depending on which Amish you ask.

      What’s that? I ducked your question? You bet I did! I want to live to write another post! (No, seriously, that’s the limits of my knowledge on the question. Please! Others! Respond!)

    6. Don Curtis

      Submission

      Well, I was way out of my expertise so I asked my son, Mark. I didn’t read the whole post to him. It was way too long. But, basically, he said that in an Amish marriage they try to follow the examples and admonitions for a husband/wife relationship that the Bible provides. Of course, not all marriages work out as they should. Just like all Christian lives don’t work out like they should. The Christian example is: Christ is the head of the Church. The husband is the head of the family. The wife should be submissive to her husband as the husband should be submissive to Christ and His Church. Being submissive doesn’t mean being a slave. Mark says that in a Christ-like Christian home, the wife has an equal voice with husband and should be consulted on all important decisions and most minor ones, too. However, the final decision and responsibility for that decision rests with the husband/father. A single woman, or man for that matter, should be submissive to his/her parents for as long as they are under the parental roof. If a single woman is out on her own, working, living in her own home, she is not longer responsible to her father but she is responsible to the Church.

    7. Don Curtis

      Submission

      I almost forgot. I asked Mark about a wife being submissive to all men. Mark said that he doesn’t know exactly what is meant by that. If an Amish woman were to receive an admonition or comment from a man their response should always be: “You need to speak to my husband about this.” Amish women hardly ever have conversations with males without their husband being present. It just isn’t done unless the man is very well known, trusted, and accepted by the family.

    8. Alice Mary

      Scattered throughout this post and replies/comments is the word “respect.” I honestly think that if the Bible included that word when speaking of submission, there would be less controversy when learning how Amish women (or those of other religions) should “submit” to their husbands. I wish it said “respectfully submit” or simply “respect one another in all parts of marriage”, for BOTH sexes. This is what proves to me how it was and still is a “man’s” world. It was male scribes (some illiterate, as I understand) who copied early versions of the Bible, often adding or subtracting what they individually felt what was “wrong” or “right”. And on and on it went, and still goes. As long as “man” (mankind) has any hand in it, I can’t take literally (as “gospel” sorry, but I’m making a point) any religious writing, being a human being myself and knowing how words (spoken or written) are skewed by other humans, no matter whether they claim “Divine inspiration” or not.

      I digress, but “respect” should definitely be paired with “submission” in this case.

      1. Naomi Wilson

        Alice Mary, perhaps this is what you are looking for:

        “Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.” 1 Corinthians 7:3-4

        “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” Matthew 22:30

        “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

        Also consider that when scriptures say “man,” that usually includes both “man” and wo*man*.”

        To gain eternal life means to admit that your own, human reasoning falls short, and that God’s word is both perfect and also has been perfectly preserved, with some translations being closer to the original manuscripts than others. With the internet, anyone can look up the original Greek or Hebrew.

    9. Verity Pink

      Take Ephesians 5 in context of Proverbs 31

      One of the problems with biblical submission is that it is easy to assume that Paul was writing in the context of male/female relationships as we know them in the church and the world either of today, or of yester-year – but the Jewish faith actually accords a really high status to women (I think I’m right in saying that the husband is expected to read Proverbs 31 aloud each Sabbath – and also to satisfy his wife sexually as part of his Sabbath observance).
      I find it interesting that the passages on submission occur within epistles written to churches from a non-Jewish background, and find myself wondering whether the women in these 1st century churches may have gone overboard and/or experienced some anomie in their response to a faith with a very different view of women from that common to societies of the day. For me, it was quite mind-blowing to realise that the reason why the disciples were told that it was the man bearing the water-jar who would show them where to prepare the Lord’s Supper, was that carrying water was women’s work, so only a male follower of Jesus would do such a thing. I also wonder whether the situation that Paul was addressing when he forbade women to speak in church, might have been that of household conversions, where, since it was men who dealt with all of the “public” relationships and functions, you might have had a male convert arriving home and saying “Oh, by the way dear, I’ve changed our religion…!” OK, that’s maybe a bit exaggerated, but there could very easily have been a situation where the man of the house was committed to Christ, but his wife was some way behind him in awareness and commitment, and possibly not at all au fait with accepted behaviours in church settings – in which case her questions might have been quite disruptive.
      I’m not saying all of this to rule submission out of court, but to identify how rich and complex the NT ideas about the roles of women really are. Given that it was Jesus who added the idea of loving God with the mind to the command to love Him with heart, soul and strength, I believe that we need to make very sure that our biblical submission truly accords with the Holy Spirit’s application of the Word, both to those for whom it was originally written, and to our own lives today.
      And as regards Amish women… first of all, an Amish wife and mother very likely comes nearer capturing the full role of the woman in Proverbs 31 than many women today. Secondly, I believe that, when a group of people are genuinely striving to be obedient to Scripture, the Holy Spirit can be trusted with the outcomes. The reason why I think this is that I fairly recently joined a quite conservative Messianic group, with traditional views of the role of women, and the thing that paved the way for me to do so was a story in a novel based in an Amish setting. I had wondered whether it was right to give up any possibility of public preaching and teaching ministry by other women gifted in this area (I am personally much better at writing or ministering one on one), but came across an episode where the role of women story tellers at quilting frolics was described – apparently, within the community in question (which seemed to be quite faithfully described, despite the fictional genre), some women were identified as having a particular gift for telling stories at these events … stories which usually had a moral or testified to the value of some particular Scripture in the life of the teller, and which the women present would take home with them, and apply to their own lives, and to their child-rearing tasks. For all that the context wasn’t one of formal worship, it seemed to me that this was an instance of the Holy Spirit enabling women to use their gifts, whilst maintaining harmony within the accepted order of the church in question.

    10. Osiah Horst

      Submission

      Well said, Naomi Wilson!

      Without order marriage can be very difficult. Children need order. We all need to know what is expected. Following the Biblical pattern which of course is not popular today makes life easier. Of course we all fall short but we continue to try.

    11. Verity Pink

      Quick PS

      The information in my first paragraph came from Michele Guinness’s “A Little Kosher Seasoning” about her experience as a Jew completed in Christ.